[Although I’m writing this in early January, the current plan is for Donald Trump to be inaugurated on Friday, January 20th as the 45th President of the United States. While I’d like nothing more than to think not at all of this impending event, that’s not the AmericanStudier way—so for this special post I wanted to use two salient prior inaugurations to consider this one. I’d love your thoughts, fears, hopes, or fervent prayers in comments, please!]
1) 1865: I’ve written before about how uncertain, and how vital, the 1864 presidental election was. Abraham Lincoln’s victory in that election would seem to make his subsequent Second Inaugural Address, delivered on March 4th, 1865, far less significant in contrast. Yet even if we leave aside the speech’s aesthetic power (it’s usually put on par with the Gettysburg Address as a measure of Lincoln’s rhetorical gifts), I would argue that it nonetheless comprises a vital historical moment all its own. The speech is largely remembered for the magnanimous phrases and attitudes of its concluding paragraph, particularly the opening clauses, “With malice toward none, with charity for all.” But I would stress that those attitudes follow the long prior paragraph, in which Lincoln engages at length with slavery, “the cause of the war” and such a historic horror that, he argues, if the war were to continue for hundreds more years, “still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’’ It seems to me that we could use a lot more communal spirit derived from engagement with, rather than ignorance of, dark historical realities here in January 2017.
2) 2009: Barack Obama has been compared to (or contrasted with) Abraham Lincoln unceasingly over the last 8 years, and I’m not trying to continue the tradition. Nor am I suggesting that the national situation in January 2009 was as dark or challenging as those faced by Lincoln, although I’d say it’s on the list of the most difficult moments faced by a President-elect (as, to be sure, is our current one). Instead, I’m highlighting Obama’s first Inaugural Address on its own terms, both as a response to such a challenging moment and (especially) for its uses of history both personal (“why a man whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served in a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath”) and national (“In the year of America's birth, in the coldest of months, a small band of patriots huddled by dying campfires on the shores of an icy river”) in service of its potent vision of America’s identity and future. I’d be lying if I said I believed Donald Trump could summon up either of those forms of historical argument successfully to help reframe our own troubled moment and uncertain future—but I’m trying to remain an optimist.
3) 2017: So here we are. Not yet in a second Civil War or next Great Recession, but in a moment that feels fraught with such horrific possibilities. Inaugurating a president who is neither Lincoln nor Obama, but who will nonetheless be at least as central to what happens next as they were. I’ve written elsewhere about what we public scholars and Americans can do in such a moment, and am not trying to minimize those roles in any way. But Donald Trump will have a role to play as well, and no amount of either wishful thinking nor of resistance will change that fact. Will that role be as destructive as I fear? Is it possible that Trump can offer or become something different from the worst version of ourselves he has represented throughout this campaign? The inauguration will be only one moment in any case, but I want to have some small hope that it might begin to reflect such alternatives, linked to the best versions of our history and identity that we can find in these prior inaugural moments. As with much, time will tell, and we AmericanStudiers will be vigilant.
Next series starts Monday,
PS. What do you think?
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