George W. Bush delivered his second inaugural address on January 20, 2005. Ten days later, on January 30, with great bravery and panache, the Iraqi people voted and dipped their fingers in purple ink to taunt their foes with the fact that they had done so–more than eight million voters out of a total adult population of just over 14 million. Those ten days shook the world.
Barely four weeks after those amazing ten days, we can now look back and see how much has changed. Morale in Iraq has utterly changed; the Iraqis are now in charge of their own country and they know it, and they are acting with confidence and wisdom. The minority party of Sunnis who did not vote are now sorry they did not. Morale in Afghanistan has shot up. After the horrific and public assassination of a former prime minister, all of Lebanon arose–Muslims and Christians together–to camp out in the streets demanding their sovereignty back from Syria and the return of their own democracy. In Egypt there are signs of a newly opened presidential election later in 2005. All Syria is a-tremble, and Iran may tip away from government by ayatollahs by year’s end. As one Arab leader put it, We have heard our own Berlin wall begin to tremble and come down. A new era has begun. All these signs may be misleading, but they point upwards.
Barely 40 days after the second inaugural of President Bush, then, we are in a position to judge far better the power of what he said than we were on that exciting but cold and rainy January day. As he spoke, the evidence on which his hopes were based was very slim.
George W. Bush’s second inaugural was the 55th such address in our nation’s history. Without doubt, the most exquisitely composed of all is Lincoln’s. But it may turn out that Bush’s initiates greater world-historical consequences. The canvas on which President Bush called for a new birth of freedom is vast; the ambition is bolder; its scale is worldwide.
Here, however, we set aside long-term speculations and focus our attention more narrowly on Bush’s text. Only now, with the dust beginning to settle, is it possible to read the speech dispassionately, to tease out the underlying logic that guides its rhetoric.
The successful Iraqi election that followed the inaugural by ten days gave its airy abstractions a measure of concrete solidity. There has opened up, as well, a little space for evaluating how the speech was at first received. Some commentators were frightened by the address. The entire project struck them as misbegotten. How many impossible commitments lay buried in it? How many costs? How many hidden and unanticipated future hypocrisies, when Bush’s promises may prove impossible to keep?
Other commentators such as Republican presidential speechwriters Peggy Noonan, David Frum, and Peter Robinson, were quite skeptical about the address both as rhetorical performance and as intellectual construct. So also was the grandfather of modern conservative thought, William F. Buckley Jr. Many complaints, in matters of substance, eerily echoed the critics of Lincoln’s second inaugural: Bush’s text was too pious, too grandiose, incompletely thought through, insufficiently grounded in political reality.
For instance, the New York Herald, which had the largest circulation of any American newspaper of the day, called Lincoln’s address “a little speech of ‘glittering generalities’ used only to fill in the program.” The staunchly Republican New York Timescomplained that Lincoln “makes no boasts of what he has done, or promises of what he will do. He does not reexpound the principles of the war; does not redeclare the worth of the Union; does not reproclaim that absolute submission to the Constitution is the only peace.” In Lincoln’s home state, the editors of the Chicago Times expressed their surprise “that even Mr. Lincoln could produce a paper so slip shod, so loose-jointed, so puerile, not alone in literary construction, but in its ideas, its sentiments, its grasp.”
It is also worthwhile to take a brief note of where Bush situated himself on the spectrum of traditional American political rhetoric. For one thing, he successfully maneuvered himself into the rhetorical ground held by Democrats since Franklin D. Roosevelt. After all, it was a Democrat who looked forward “to a world founded upon four essential freedoms,” and a Democrat who pledged to “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and success of liberty.”
Not only did Bush adopt the best of the Democrats’ traditional rhetoric, he also reconnected Republicans today with the party’s founding ideals. Not since Ronald Reagan’s first inaugural has a Republican spoken so eloquently about what Lincoln–the only president Bush mentioned by name–called the “new birth of freedom.” The party that fathered the Homestead Act and the Land Grant College Act has rededicated itself to the proposition that government can and should promote personal ownership as a means to securing individual freedom–an “ownership society.” The party that fought to emancipate slaves has reaffirmed its conviction that the right to liberty knows neither race nor boundary.
Analyzing the Speech
As for the speech itself, Bush’s address consists of 29 carefully structured paragraphs. The first 20 paragraphs set forth six main propositions about global liberty, followed by a long chain of foreseeable objections. The final nine paragraphs shed light on the distinctive characteristics of the American idea of liberty, and connect self-government as a set of political institutions to self-government in personal life.
The six main propositions set forth by Bush begin, logically (but not in his order of presentation), with his own reprise of this text:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.
Bush understands the Declaration this way:
From the day of our Founding, we have proclaimed that every man and woman on this earth has rights, and dignity, and matchless value, because they bear the image of the Maker of heaven and earth. Across the generations we have proclaimed the imperative of self-government, because no one is fit to be a master, and no one deserves to be a slave.
Bush here once again alludes to Lincoln, who invoked the Golden Rule when he wrote
As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy. Whatever differs from this, to the extent of the difference, is no democracy.
In this delicate way, Bush points out how dangerous and disruptive the Declaration of Independence really was. The Declaration by itself did not declare war on slavery. Yet the principle it established had the eventual extinction of slavery as its unmistakable implication. Jefferson himself once wrote that he shuddered when he contemplated the future trampling forth of justice.
And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep forever: that … a revolution of the wheel of fortune, an exchange of situation, is among possible events: that it may become probable by supernatural interference! The Almighty has no attribute which can take side with us in this contest.
The second proposition Bush affirms is actually more original in the annals of presidential inaugurations. He has urged those who seek background on his views to read Natan Sharansky’s The Case for Democracy. Sharansky came to see the connection between the fear tyranny needs to instill and the abuses of human rights that follow. Sharansky’s conclusion is that peoples must choose between living under democracy and living under fear. Here is how the president puts his second proposition:
For as long as whole regions of the world simmer in resentment and tyranny – prone to ideologies that feed hatred and excuse murder – violence will gather, and multiply in destructive power, and cross the most defended borders, and raise a mortal threat.
This second proposition holds that tyranny by its nature breeds resentment, hatred, and violence. Bush and Sharansky here tap a rich vein of classical political philosophy, affirmed and elaborated since the days of Plato and Aristotle. Put simply: The character of a regime inevitably informs the character of its citizens. A ruthless regime will create ruthless subjects. Those who rule without the consent of the governed, whose will is unconstrained by justice or accountability, whose ambitions are unchecked by law or decency, demonstrate to their subjects that power is achieved by becoming an agent of intimidation and violence. In a world in which nations can no longer be sealed off from one another, the evil that tyrannical regimes inflict on their subjects becomes a threat even to faraway nations.
Bush’s third proposition is as follows:
There is only one force in history that can break the reign of hatred and resentment … and that is the force of human freedom.
Why is this? Because freedom today (as the president later explained) brings with it opportunities and incentives to act creatively on one’s own behalf.
The fourth proposition enunciated by the President follows swiftly upon the third:
We are led, by events and common sense, to one conclusion: The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands. The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world.
Reality shows that it is not enough for most regimes to become democratic while the Middle East remains mired in tyranny. Is it an accident that the most turbulent and violent region on earth is the least democratic?
Then, quite starkly, comes the fifth proposition:
America’s vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one.
This set of propositions announced a new synthesis between the two ancient antitheses of American foreign policy, realism and idealism. You cannot be realistic nowadays if you do not attend to the danger that comes to us from terrorism bred and abetted by tyranny. Think, in other words, of the support for Wahabbism by Saudi Arabia. Think of Iran’s support for a multitude of murderous terrorist organizations. And do not avert your eyes from the teaching of hatred fomented by Egypt. It is no realism to pretend that these do not exist, or to minimize their mortal danger.
After restating the American creed, as recounted in the first proposition above, the president recounts a history in which the sixth proposition is embedded:
Advancing these ideals is the mission that created our Nation. It is the honorable achievement of our fathers. Now it is the urgent requirement of our nation’s security, and the calling of our time.
The remainder of the speech explains to the world beyond America’s borders what these six propositions mean in terms of the new American policy announced. Only in paragraphs toward the end does the presdient turn from the world at large, and at last address “my fellow citizens.”
“The ultimate aim” of the new foreign policy of the United States, he said, “is ending tyranny in our world.” This objective must seem as utopian, frightening, and unsettling to established ways of seeing things today, as did the Declaration’s self-evident truths some eleven score and eight years ago.
Let us reflect on this point a little. Slavery is best understood as a legal arrangement, wherein the state secures by force the “right” of some to own as property other human beings. With the fall of Rome and the rise of Christianity, chattel slavery would die out in Europe, only to be tragically revived to meet the labor-intensive ambitions of European colonialists in the New World. Unlike slavery, meanwhile, tyranny had persisted on the European continent virtually unchallenged since ancient times. Just the same, the Declaration of 1776 laid down the argument that both tyranny and slavery are ultimately illegitimate: Both entailed absolute rule without the consent of the governed. Its central axiom–that every human individual shares an equal measure of basic natural rights–is as radical in its implications for tyranny as for slavery. While it is true that slavery has all but disappeared as a public institution (although one should not overlook its awful resurgence in certain regimes), and also true that some 80 democracies have blossomed across the globe since 1980, some 60 or more tyrannies remain, and in these violence, hatred, and terrorism are still being incubated.
For that reason, President Bush calls for a more activist cast to American foreign policy on all levels, one that our own non-governmental institutions could benefit from studying:
So it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture.
This is an ambitious project, but not an impossible one. Its necessity is born of new technological and political realities. We now live in a world in which one man can pack his carry-on luggage with the instrument of death for many thousands. Realism demands that we scrutinize any regime that would conspire with such men. It is a matter of survival. That is realism.
Bush has added two qualifications to this view, however. Liberty is not to be spread primarily by force, nor by the imposition of American mores or methods.
This is not primarily the task of arms…And when the soul of a nation finally speaks, the institutions that arise may reflect customs and traditions very different from our own. America will not impose our own style of government on the unwilling…
These are substantial, weighty qualifications.
The president also insists that this newly declared goal of actual policy will not be accomplished for many generations–maybe not until the next century, or the one after that. Yet even though America’s power is not infinite, there are always forward steps we can be taking:
The great objective of ending tyranny is the concentrated work of generations. The difficulty of the task is not an excuse for avoiding it. America’s influence is not unlimited, but fortunately for the oppressed America’s influence is considerable…
He follows this with five separate declarations of purpose for five separate overseas audiences–which, for the sake of brevity, we must omit. It is to be hoped that Bush’s words will be as electric among the peoples of the Muslim world as Reagan’s were among the peoples of Eastern Europe. For if that were to happen, then Bush’s second inaugural would, like Reagan at the Berlin Wall, gain greater worldwide importance than even Lincoln’s.
Bush asks his fellow citizens to continue in patience to bear the burdens imposed upon our generation. He recalls that our efforts have in “lit a fire as well–a fire in the minds of men” in Afghanistan, Ukraine, the Palestinian territories, and Iraq. This phrase seems to echo George Washington, who observed that “the preservation of the sacred fire of liberty, and the destiny of the Republican model of Government, are justly considered as deeply, perhaps as finally staked, on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people.”
The president accordingly invites the nation’s “youngest citizens” to behold the nobility of service:
You have seen that life is fragile, and evil is real, and courage triumphs. Make the choice to serve in a cause larger than your wants, larger than yourself–and in your days you will add not just to the wealth of our country, but to its character.
The seal of the United States shows the pyramid of liberty still and always incomplete. “Liberty and justice for all” are tasks of which it can never be said, “Stop now, we have enough liberty, enough justice.” In this spirit, Bush marks the transition from addressing the wider world to finishing the unfinished business at home.
America has need of idealism and courage, because we have essential work at home-the unfinished work of American freedom. In a world moving toward liberty, we are determined to show the meaning and promise of liberty.
Next, the president distinguishes the American conception of liberty from the libertinism celebrated by the French Revolution.
In America’s ideal of freedom, the public interest depends on private character-on integrity, and tolerance toward others, and rule of conscience in our own lives. Self-government relies, in the end, on the governing of the self.
Here, too, in a peculiarly American fashion, Bush has depicted education in character and virtue as arising, not from the state, but primarily from family, standard-imposing communities, and religious traditions rooted in “the truths of Sinai, the Sermon on the Mount, the words of the Koran, and the varied faiths of our people.” For Bush, statecraft involves encouraging the mediating institutions of soulcraft to do their own proper work. It is a theme he returned to when he invited his audience to raise their eyes to the “viewpoint of centuries.” From that higher perspective:
[T]he questions that come to us are narrowed and few. Did our generation advance the cause of freedom? And did our character bring credit to that cause?
Once again, the president links the res publica with personal self-control, forging into one both meanings of “self-government,” as do Washington’s Farewell Address and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.
He also shows how the American ideal is different from libertine ideals of freedom, which are rooted in selfishness, self-expression, and unfettered individualism:
In America’s ideal of freedom, the exercise of rights is ennobled by service, and mercy, and a heart for the weak. Liberty for all does not mean independence from one another. Our nation relies on men and women who look after a neighbor and surround the lost with love.
The entire speech pitches toward a booming crescendo in the last three paragraphs. At the outset of this peroration, Bush was at pains to underscore the nation’s recent solidarity:
We felt the unity and fellowship of our nation when freedom came under attack, and our response came like a single hand over a single heart. And we can feel that same unity and pride whenever America acts for the good, and the victims of disaster are given hope, and the unjust encounter justice, and the captives are set free.
Note how the president points to a unity that was born of tragedy (the “day of fire”) and redirects it towards a unity born of hope. Lincoln, it must be noted, made the same rhetorical move, when his reflections on “this terrible war” gave way to a vision of a people ready “to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, and to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all peoples.” Yet President Bush offers a still more sweeping vision, a vision of humanity straining toward liberty and justice, moved by “the longing of the soul.”
It seems best to present the lyrical penultimate paragraph in verse form, the better to draw out its rhythms and its reasoning:
We go forward with complete confidence in the eventual triumph of freedom.
Not because history runs on the wheels of inevitability; it is human choices that move events.
Not because we consider ourselves a chosen nation; God moves and chooses as He wills.
We have confidence because freedom is the permanent hope of mankind,
the hunger in dark places,
the longing of the soul.
When our Founders declared a new order of the ages;
when soldiers died in wave upon wave for a union based on liberty;
when citizens marched in peaceful outrage under the banner “Freedom Now”–
They were acting on an ancient hope that is meant to be fulfilled.
History has an ebb and flow of justice, but history also has a visible direction,
set by liberty
and the Author of liberty.
The similarities to Lincoln’s second inaugural are once again profound. Both speeches acknowledge divine sovereignty while underscoring human responsibility. For Lincoln, “the Almighty has His own purposes”; for Bush, “God moves and chooses as He wills.” In neither instance can we humans claim to see with the eyes of God; human vanity tempts us to look “for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding.” Yet this fact relieves us of neither moral agency nor moral obligation. “It is human choices that move events,” as the President put it, towards “an ancient hope that is meant to be fulfilled.” “Let us strive on,” concurs Lincoln, “with firmness in the right as God gives us to see right.” Lincoln and Bush alike affirm a transcendent order of justice, a standard beyond mere human attainment–the “permanent hope of mankind”–towards which we strive.
Finally, both Lincoln and Bush close their speeches by looking to a hopeful future. For Lincoln, this future was to be one of reconciliation and peace. For Bush, it is the hope that a new dawn of liberty might soon break–that a world beaten down by tyranny might at last find “the eventual triumph of freedom.”
When the Declaration of Independence was first read in public and the Liberty Bell was sounded in celebration, a witness said: “It rang as if it meant something.” In our time, it means something still. America in this young century proclaims liberty through all the world, and to all the inhabitants thereof. Renewed in our strength–tested, but not weary–we are ready for the greatest achievements in the history of freedom.
May God bless you, and may He watch over the United States of America.
The Liberty Bell was cast to honor the first article of the Pennsylvania Charter, that on religious liberty. Its inscription comes from Leviticus 25:10: “Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.” Significantly, the president supplanted the word “land” with “world.” Americans have long proclaimed that their notions of justice, equality, and liberty spring from the laws of nature and of nature’s God. They do not claim such rights as American rights, but as natural rights, belonging to all persons in all places at all times.
In sum, Bush’s second inaugural is a bold and brave advance for the American proposition, planting it on new ground and giving it planetary scope. How all the implications of this will be worked out is not altogether clear, any more than it was clear in 1776 how the infant United States, divided at its birth by the geography of slavery, could free itself from the evil of human bondage. Much rested upon the continuing assistance of Providence through the whirlwind and the storms to come.
Why would we today expect the rest of this century to be different? The president’s final prayer for the continued blessings of Providence upon our nation is altogether apt, as it was in virtually every single one of the 54 inaugurations that preceded it.
–Michael Novak is the winner of the 1994 Templeton Prize for progress in religion and the George Frederick Jewett Scholar in Religion, Philosophy, and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute. Novak’s own website is www.michaelnovak.net.
Just after the election, the editors of the Tennessee Law Review requested an essay on President Bush’s upcoming Second Inaugural in the spirit of Professor Jerry Phillips’s much-admired essay on Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural. It is published here with the permission of the Tennessee Law Review.