President-elect Joe Biden has spent a better part of the last 16 months calling for unity and healing. Although some of his cabinet picks and early policy proposals have cast doubt on the authenticity of that objective, it remains a noble goal.
We do need unity right now. No, not the faux “unity” that comes from one half of the country either meekly surrendering its principles or by being effectively silenced by its opposition, but sincere unity — a reaffirmation of our founding principles; a recognition that violent extremists must be routinely condemned no matter their self-identified political affiliation; and a commitment to defending the U.S. Constitution.
Biden’s inaugural address won’t mean much in the long run if his calls for harmony and reconciliation aren’t followed by actions that prove his sincerity. Still, his first speech as the 46th president of the United States is a one-time chance for Biden to set the initial tone for the next four years.
If Biden and his transition team possess the wisdom, they’ll have revisited two particular inaugural addresses given in dire moments in America’s past. The words of Thomas Jefferson in 1801 and Abraham Lincoln in 1865 are invaluable to our present national crisis, and it would be prudent for the president-elect to ponder them and their calming influence on the nation.
‘One Heart and One Mind’
Jefferson gave his first inaugural on March 4, 1801, in the tense aftermath of a bitterly contested rematch of his 1796 loss to John Adams. At the time, many international observers — Great Britain chief among them — expected the young American republic to devolve into violence and dissolution. Instead, doubters were shocked when Jefferson succeeded Adams in the first peaceful transfer of power from one party to another in the nation’s history.
To great surprise, Jefferson didn’t seize the opportunity to proclaim a partisan political victory or seek vengeance on the Federalists who stymied him for years. Instead, he reminded the citizenry that political parties did not define them, exclaiming, “We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists.” Indeed, they were, first and foremost, Americans.
The first duty of government, as Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence, is to protect the people’s rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, natural rights that are fragile if not defended vigilantly. In the troubled time we live in — just as in 1801 and 1865 — politicians will be tempted to erode or curtail these rights instead of upholding them. Biden should enlist, as Jefferson promised, all the wise counsel and prudent advice he can get in this critical effort:
To you, then, gentlemen, who are charged with the sovereign functions of legislation, and to those associated with you, I look with encouragement for that guidance and support which may enable us to steer with safety the vessel in which we are all embarked amidst the conflicting elements of a troubled world.
As more than 77 million Americans voted for a candidate other than Biden, the president-elect must internalize and embrace Jefferson’s reminder that a democracy is only as virtuous as it provides the same rights and protections to all its citizens — regardless of whether they are in the majority:
All, too, will bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect, and to violate would be oppression.
‘Leave Them Otherwise Free’
As Jefferson articulated in his first inaugural, during the next administration, repairing our local, familial, and religious associations must be an essential part of calming the temperature of the nation. Furthermore, just as religious tolerance must be a bedrock of our society, political tolerance is equally important to domestic tranquility:
Let us, then, fellow-citizens, unite with one heart and one mind. Let us restore to social intercourse that harmony and affection without which liberty and even life itself are but dreary things. And let us reflect that, having banished from our land that religious intolerance under which mankind so long bled and suffered, we have yet gained little if we countenance a political intolerance as despotic, as wicked, and capable of as bitter and bloody persecutions.
Finally, Jefferson’s first speech as president contains one of the most eloquent and succinct “mission statements” for what government should do, and what it should leave alone. It’s a message as relevant today as it was 220 years ago:
A wise and frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government, and this is necessary to close the circle of our felicities.
After four years of Donald Trump everywhere, all the time, unavoidable, and all-encompassing, Biden should take the closing sentiment of Jefferson’s first inaugural to heart: Upon securing law, order, and due process for the American people, the state should leave its citizens alone. In an ideal outcome, Americans across the country would forget Biden was president until a major public address or if, heaven forbid, Biden must lead America during a major war.
‘A Just and Lasting Peace’
Sixty-one years after Jefferson was tasked with uniting Americans, Lincoln faced an even greater challenge. Lincoln gave his second inaugural on March 4, 1865, more than three years into a bloody civil war that had already cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of men.
His speech contains fewer than 700 words and likely would have taken just eight minutes to deliver. Like the even pithier Gettysburg Address, Lincoln once again proved he could convey grand ideas with poignant brevity. With a few carefully chosen words, Lincoln laid the foundation for the long, hard road back to peace.
As with Jefferson’s defeat of Adams and the Federalists, Lincoln didn’t use his inauguration to gloat in the coming demise of the Confederacy or to be overly jubilant in recent Union victories. Instead, the address took on the tone and effect of a sober yet soothing sermon rather than a typical political speech.
Early in the address, Lincoln recalls how few predicted the full, true, terrible nature of the Civil War. It’s a chastening passage for us to reflect on in the wake of the capitol Riots of Jan. 6, an event we now know could have been marred by far more bloodshed:
Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. … Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away.
It is the closing of Lincoln’s second inaugural, however, that we must reassert, and that Biden must strive to live up to above all. Given our current tribal, identity-based, grievance-driven politics, and our ongoing battle with COVID-19, Lincoln’s peroration must be the guiding light that shapes the hearts of the American people as well as those who have been elected to represent them:
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
One thing Americans can agree on right now is that the country is hurting, frightened, and wary of what the future holds. And yes, asking Biden to emulate American titans like Jefferson in Lincoln is, admittedly, a daunting request.
To be sure, even if Biden’s inaugural rises to even a modicum of the gravitas, dignity, and equipoise of two of our greatest Founders it won’t restore America’s promise overnight, nor be a guarantee that Biden will continue to operate in accordance with the Constitution.
Yet, if he learns from the examples set by Jefferson and Lincoln, he has a chance to remind the vast majority of Americans — those who are willing to listen and want their country to succeed — that we can live amongst our fellow citizens as brothers and peacefully air our ideological disagreements without shedding any more precious American blood.