President Obama's Second Inaugural Echoes Jefferson's First

On January 21, 2013, Barack Obama was sworn in a second time as president of the United States. On the steps of the U.S. Capitol, Obama delivered an inaugural address of 2,109 words. He spoke for 18 minutes. He was heard by almost a million people on the Capitol Mall, and by tens of millions of people around the world.

On March 4, 1801, Thomas Jefferson delivered his first inaugural address in the unfinished senate chamber of the unfinished capitol of the United States. His speech was 1,729 words. It is regarded as one of the four or five greatest inaugural addresses in American history. He spoke so inaudibly that virtually none of the thousand or so people in the senate chamber could hear what he had to say.

There was no parade. There were no balls. Jefferson walked back to the boarding house in which he was staying, took his chair at the foot of the table where other guests were dining just as they did every other day, and ate a light meal. He was essentially a vegetarian.

Obama's speech had echoes of Jefferson's first inaugural, of Lincoln's second, of Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech, and of John F. Kennedy's inaugural. But it also reflected the general cast of Jefferson's thinking in a number of ways.

At the beginning of the speech, President Obama made reference to the Constitution of the United States, but quickly turned to America's most aspirational document, the Declaration of Independence. He said:

What makes us exceptional—what makes us American—is our allegiance to an idea articulated in a declaration made more than two centuries ago: "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."

The President then made a perfectly Jeffersonian point. These fundamental principles were not established for all time in 1776. They must be renewed and reinvigorated by every generation. Jefferson believed in permanent revolution—that each generation needed to rethink its dreams and purposes, reshape its social contract, and renew the quest for an ideal republic. Obama said:

Today we continue a never ending journey to bridge the meaning of those words with the realities of our time. For history tells us that while these truths may be self-evident, they've never been self-executing. That while freedom is a gift from God, it must be secured by his people here on earth.

"Secured" was an inspired choice of words, because it applies Jefferson's doctrine but it also echoes the preamble to the Constitution: "We the People of the United States, in Order to . . . secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America."

Later in the speech, President Obama perfectly articulated Jefferson's distrust of government, without forgetting that we live in a time when more government is necessary and inevitable, given our global position, the size of America, the nature of our technologies, etc.:

Through it all, we have never relinquished our skepticism of central authority, nor have we succumbed to the fiction that all society's ills can be cured through government alone. Our celebration of initiative and enterprise, our insistence on hard work and personal responsibility, these are constants in our character.

The phrase, "skepticism of central authority," is quintessential Jefferson. There is a world of difference between such skepticism and the naïve libertarianism of some elements of American political fundamentalism today.

Then President Obama struck the Jeffersonian theme of dynamism again: "But we have always understood that when times change, so must we; that fidelity to our founding principles requires new responses to new challenges."

This echoes Jefferson's famous letter to Samuel Kerchival, June 2, 1816, in which Jefferson wrote:

Some men look at constitutions with sanctimonious reverence, and deem them like the arc of the covenant, too sacred to be touched. They ascribe to the men of the preceding age a wisdom more than human, and suppose what they did to be beyond amendment. I knew that age well; I belonged to it, and labored with it. It deserved well of its country. It was very like the present, but without the experience of the present; and forty years of experience in government is worth a century of book-reading; and this they would say themselves, were they to rise from the dead. I am certainly not an advocate for frequent and untried changes in laws and constitutions. I think moderate imperfections had better be borne with; because, when once known, we accommodate ourselves to them, and find practical means of correcting their ill effects. But I know also, that laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind.

Obama made it clear that a naïve and fundamentalist hearkening back to the Founding Fathers is both wrong-headed and pointless. Certain of the founding principles continue to be essential to American life in the twenty first century, but each of those principles must be applied to conditions that the Founding Fathers could not anticipate, and might not have appreciated if they could have envisioned them. Those who decry "judicial activism" fail to understand that principles hammered out for a three mile-per-hour world in which a high tech weapon was a musket that took 25 seconds to reload cannot be dragged from 1787 to 2013 without careful adjustment, reflection, and translation. As Obama rightly said,

For the American people can no more meet the demands of today's world by acting alone than American soldiers could have met the forces of fascism or communism with muskets and militias.

Like Jefferson, President Obama declared that the path to the future is public education, training, science, and enlightenment, not a diminution of those things because they are regarded as expensive, elitist, or unnecessary. Obama's strong commitment to the reign of science—his unapologetic declaration that we must trust the great majority of scientists when they warn us that global climate change is one of the most significant threats to civilization in our time—echoes Jefferson's view that putting politics or self-interest ahead of the dictates of hard science is succumbing to a "reign of witches."

Like Jefferson, President Obama called upon us to reserve war as the last melancholy response to global tensions, but to give our best energies to engagement, the arts of diplomacy, and a steadfast preference for peace. He managed to make this argument without seeming unnecessarily idealistic or naïve.

We will show the courage to try and resolve our differences with other nations peacefully –- not because we are naïve about the dangers we face, but because engagement can more durably lift suspicion and fear.

President Obama is more committed to the welfare state than Jefferson could possibly have been, more committed to racial equality and justice, to equality and opportunity for women. Jefferson was a man of his time. He gave no attention in any of his public addresses to the rights of African-Americans or women, though in his second inaugural address he devoted a long passage to the plight of American Indians who were being displaced and debased by the encroachment of white frontier communities.

Finally, President Obama echoed two of the finest passages in Jefferson's first inaugural address, his believe that once an election is over it is essential that we find ways to heal the political wounds, seek reconciliation and harmony, and agree to work together according to the central principle of American life, majority rule. Jefferson famously wrote,

every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists. 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. 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.

In precisely the same vein, President Obama said,

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. Being true to our founding documents does not require us to agree on every contour of life. It does not mean we all define liberty in exactly the same way or follow the same precise path to happiness. Progress does not compel us to settle centuries-long debates about the role of government for all time, but it does require us to act in our time.

In short, like Lincoln before him, President Obama found inspiration in the Declaration of Independence and in the progressive doctrines of the Third President of the United States Thomas Jefferson. Though there is a strong echo of JFK at the end of the speech, and a thoughtful paean to Martin Luther King, on whose national holiday the inauguration took place this year, the main lines of thought in Obama's second inaugural are Jeffersonian. Jefferson was the first president to realize that a new president must sing the song of America, must return to the essential principles of natural law and re-articulate them for a new time and a new generation of Americans. He understands too that every successful president must see how broadly it is possible to apply (and stretch) Jefferson's immortal trinity: the purpose of America is to secure life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all of our citizens, not, as Jefferson put it in his last letter in 1826, "for a favored few, booted and spurred, ready to ride them [their brethren] legitimately by the grace of God."

No inaugural address of modern times has so completely embodied Jefferson's principles and Jefferson's cast of thought.

It was a great moment for the Sage of Monticello. He is profoundly relevant 231 years after he wrote those words. He would be surprised that he is still relevant, but he would not be even slightly surprised that the ideas in the Declaration of Independence are still central to our national purpose. They are, after all, principles of natural law.