Few Americans would doubt that Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address -- delivered on a cloudy and muddy day in early March 1865 -- is the gold standard insofar as second inaugural addresses are concerned. It is, indeed, the one speech re-elected presidents should strive to emulate -- especially those facing difficult and divisive times.
Although the United States was still coping with a bloody Civil War in the days before he delivered his famous remarks (even though the conflict was practically over), Lincoln sought reconciliation between both sides by bringing meaning to the unprecedented carnage and bloodshed -- namely, the total and complete abolition of American slavery. His famous peroration -- calling for reunification and, above all, forgiveness -- is unsurpassed by any American president, past or present:
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.
President Obama will reportedly deliver a speech this afternoon that seeks to unify the country and bring hope to every American weary of partisanship and division. I hope that he does -- because if anything -- presidential inaugurations remind us that while our own party may have lost the previous election, there’s still much to be thankful for. As President John F. Kennedy said in his own Inaugural Address in 1961, “We observe today not a victory of party, but a celebration of freedom.”
We can lament the re-election of the current president -- as many of us do -- while simultaneously taking pride in the fact he was re-elected by a free and sovereign people. After all, celebrating our democratic institutions is what today is all about.