Politically Thinking: Will eloquence lead to more equality?

The most enduring inaugural addresses in American history — Thomas Jefferson, Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy — have all been first inaugurals that marked a change in the political direction of the nation. Only Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural, delivered in March 1865, just a few weeks before the end of the Civil War and the re-elected president’s own assassination, is counted among the great speeches in American history.
In his second inaugural address this past Monday, President Obama demonstrated that he is a master at using the power of words to connect enduring themes in the American political tradition to the challenges the nation faces today. Much of Obama’s second inaugural address was a set of variations on a theme. He used the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence, the preamble of the Constitution, and references to Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech to spark reflections on the meaning of liberty and equality in 21st-century America. As Obama spoke, I could not help thinking of the words and spirit of Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. — men honored just a few blocks away from where the president was addressing the nation and the world.
To me, the best part of Obama’s speech was toward the end, where the president said that “We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths — that all of us are created equal — is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth.
“It is now our generation’s task to carry on what those pioneers began. For our journey is not complete until our wives, our mothers, and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts. Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law — for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well. Our journey is not complete until no citizen is forced to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote. Our journey is not complete until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity; until bright young students and engineers are enlisted in our workforce rather than expelled from our country. Our journey is not complete until all our children, from the streets of Detroit to the hills of Appalachia to the quiet lanes of Newtown, know that they are cared for, and cherished, and always safe from harm.
“That is our generation’s task — to make these words, these rights, these values — of Life, and Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness — real for every American.”
Barack Obama’s challenge over the next four years will be to use the rhetorical skills he has demonstrated on so many occasions, along with the leadership and political skills he has yet fully to develop, to move the nation toward realization of the goal he articulated so eloquently in his speech — greater equality for all Americans — women and men, gays and straights, immigrants and natives, young and old, of whatever race — and in so doing to come closer to perfecting the truths declared by Jefferson in 1776.
Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.

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