“In the first term, the main thing is they’re starting out, starting anew,” Ritchie said. “They want everybody to follow after them. . . .
The second time around, they’ve reached the top of the mountain.”
He also noted how few presidents get a second term. And White said that most second inaugural addresses are forgotten.
A few seek to settle scores.
“During the course of this administration . . . the artillery of the press has been leveled against us, charged with whatsoever its licentiousness could devise or dare,” Jefferson wrote. “These abuses of an institution so important to freedom and science are deeply to be regretted.”
Ritchie, the Senate historian, said Jefferson had suffered nasty personal attacks in the newspapers and “was probably sensitive to that.”
A harried Grant wrote that he couldn’t wait to be released from the duties of high office, which he felt he had performed honorably. But he was grateful to voters for the “vindication” that came with his reelection.
“Notwithstanding this . . . I have been the subject of abuse and slander scarcely ever equaled in political history,” he said, “which today I feel that I can afford to disregard in view of your verdict.”
Grant gets more credit from historians these days, Ritchie said. “He did stand for civil rights,” he said. “He did station troops . . . to protect the freedman in the South. It’s after his presidency that the federal government gives up on Reconstruction, and you enter this century of segregation. . . . Grant stayed true to the causes of the Civil War.”
A rhetorical masterpiece
It is that war and Lincoln’s meditation on it that make his second inaugural address so magnificent.
His meticulous arrangement of the speech, infused with powerful biblical references, gives it the weight of prophecy, according to Douglas L. Wilson, who wrote a book about Lincoln’s speeches in 2006. But it was also crafted by a superb orator for maximum impact. (Lincoln’s cut-and-paste job and his somewhat eccentric punctuation can be seen as stage directions to himself.)
“He spoke very slowly,” said White, author of the book about the address. “Remember that he’s speaking outside. There’s no amplification. He’s aware of all the distractions and noises. So what do you do if you want to be heard? You speak slowly.”
And in composing speeches, White said, “he would often speak the words out loud before he wrote them on a paper. Lincoln had a remarkable sense of the sound of words.”
Lincoln spoke after more then three years of ferocious conflict that had claimed hundreds of thousands of lives, and in six weeks would claim his. Everyone knew that slavery was the cause of the war, he said. But he wondered why God had brought down so great a tragedy on the country for so long.