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Nation Building, One Address at a Time

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By Heather Michon
Tuesday, January 20, 2009; Page A25

The pressure is on Barack Obama today to deliver a speech for the ages, an oration worthy of being memorized by schoolchildren and carved into monuments.

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If anyone can do it, he can. But the odds are long.

There have been 55 inaugural addresses since George Washington stood in Federal Hall in New York on April 30, 1789, and remarked that "among the vicissitudes incident to life no event could have filled me with greater anxieties than that of which the notification was transmitted by your order." We remember snippets from, maybe, six addresses.

It's too bad, really. It may well be that inaugural addresses are, by nature, ephemeral -- spoken and forgotten. Yet a read through all these forgotten words is a trip through the evolution of the United States as an idea, one presidential administration at a time.

The earliest presidents -- the Revolutionary War generation -- fretted over our still-fragile democracy. "What other form of government, indeed, can so well deserve our esteem and love?" John Adams asked in 1797. Just four years later, in 1801, Thomas Jefferson said: "I know, indeed, that some honest men fear that a republican government can not be strong, that this government is not strong enough; but would the honest patriot, in the full tide of successful experiment, abandon a government which has so far kept us free and firm on the theoretic and visionary fear that this government, the world's best hope, may by possibility want energy to preserve itself?"

The following generations spoke of a promise fulfilled. "Administered by some of the most eminent men who contributed to its formation, through a most eventful period in the annals of the world, and through all the vicissitudes of peace and war incidental to the condition of associated man, it has not disappointed the hopes and aspirations of those illustrious benefactors of their age and nation," John Quincy Adams said in 1825.

They could even gloat a little. "Fifty years ago its rapid failure was boldly predicted," Martin Van Buren said in 1837. "Latent and uncontrollable causes of dissolution were supposed to exist, even by the wise and good, and not only did unfriendly or speculative theorists anticipate for us the fate of past republics, but the fears of many an honest patriot overbalanced his sanguine hopes. Look back on these forebodings, not hastily but reluctantly made, and see how, in every instance, they have completely failed."

Over time, our success came to be seen as a given, even a God-given eventuality. "My fellow citizens, no people on earth have more cause to be thankful than ours, and this is said reverently, in no spirit of boastfulness in our own strength, but with gratitude to the Giver of Good who has blessed us with the conditions which have enabled us to achieve so large a measure of well-being and of happiness," Theodore Roosevelt began his 1905 address.

Through years of descent into civil war and emergence from it, our rise to the status of a global power, our tumble into economic devastation and ascent to postwar supremacy, and into our modern era of bubble-and-burst, there has been one constant: No matter what his party, ideology or era, the incoming president sees the America of which we all dream.

When times are good, we are prospering because of our hard work and strength of character; when times are bad, those qualities will lead us to eventually triumph. "On each national day of inauguration since 1789, the people have renewed their sense of dedication to the United States," Franklin Roosevelt said in his third inaugural address, on Jan. 20, 1941.

Maybe that is why these addresses are so quickly forgotten. They renew and reaffirm. They don't break new ground. They are meant to reinforce our almost spiritual belief, forged over two centuries, that we can be touched "by the better angels of our nature," as Abraham Lincoln said in 1861, and be the strong, kind, noble, unprejudiced people our presidents all know we can be.

So, rather than expect Barack Obama's speech to be something so moving that tectonic plates shift with the power of his words, perhaps we should look at the speech as what it is: a moment to look back, to bow to those who came before us . . . and then to look forward and renew our dedication to that ideal America. Then, to get to work on it.

Heather Michon is a writer and blogger in Charlottesville. Her Web site is HeatherMichon.com.


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