I read Donald Trump’s inaugural address with care. Here’s what he could have learned had he read Thomas Jefferson’s first inaugural address.
Thomas Jefferson was one of the most talented men in American history. He was, after Abraham Lincoln, our greatest writer among presidents. He was a polymath who knew seven languages, read incessantly, invented labor-saving devices and what he called gimcracks, conducted serious scientific experiments, helped to create American paleontology and archaeology, and made the Library of Congress a universal repository of human knowledge. He was America’s Da Vinci. And he wrote the Declaration of Independence. Donald Trump is a successful businessman. He did not write the books issued under his name. All of his life he has been surrounded by allegations of sharp business practices, fraud, self-promotion. He has bankrupted his businesses repeatedly, and left investors, partners, and Trump university students holding the bag.
There is not a single word in Trump’s inaugural address about how humbling it is to be selected as the principal representative of the American people.
Three times in his inaugural address, Thomas Jefferson informed the American people that he was not sure he was equal to the grave responsibilities of the presidency. He declared “a sincere consciousness that the task is above my talents.” He said, “I humble myself before the magnitude of the undertaking.” He compared himself unfavorably to the first president George Washington. And Jefferson said, “I shall often go wrong through defect of judgment.”
And, said Jefferson, with extraordinary insight, “it will rarely fall to the lot of imperfect man to retire from this station with the reputation and the favor which bring him into it.”
It is possible that Jefferson was emphasizing his sense of diffidence more than he actually felt it, but I believe he was essentially telling the American people how he felt in being made first among equals in a nation of six million people that included such worthies as James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, Abigail Adams, Mercy Otis Warren, Patrick Henry, James Monroe, and the late George Washington. He was also reminding us all of the sense of respect and even awe that any president-elect should bring to the highest elective office in the United States.
Donald Trump did not make even a half-hearted statement of those humble sentiments. He is not a humble man. So far as we can tell, he has no doubts about his capacities.
Trump promised, “I will never ever let you down.” Jefferson admitted that he could not possibly satisfy those who disliked him or his policies, but he would do what he could to conciliate them, and he admitted—with some firmness—that he knew he would sometimes let the American people down, even those who were his ardent supporters.
All by Himself
Acknowledge the primacy of the legislative branch. Donald Trump told us some ways in which he intends to make America great again, and he paid a number of populist tributes to the People, but he never told us how he intends to accomplish his goals and through whom. Someone from Jupiter reading his inaugural address might conclude that he intended to do all this by himself—with the support of the American people—but without any help from the other two branches of the national government. That is the very definition of one-man rule. In fact, President Trump went out of his way to condemn what he calls the Washington establishment. Jefferson said, “To you 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 embarked.” Trump blamed established politicians (in other words, members of Congress) and the Washington insiders—bureaucrats, lobbyists, journalists—what he called “a small group in our nation’s capital,” of prospering at the expense of the American people, protecting its own perks and power without any desire to serve the rest of us who do not live in the District of Columbia, and of triumphing (strange word) while the rest of us suffered. He even accused the Washington establishment of celebrating while factories closed and families struggled all across America.
Such pronouncements are not just populism. They are irresponsible, irrational, and just not true. The Washington establishment may not have been sufficiently responsive to the needs and demands of the American people, but the portrait President Trump painted will make it harder to govern rather than easier. It woefully misreads the Constitution of the United States. It shows no understanding of how difficult it is for 535 members of Congress to craft legislation for a third of a billion people in places so mutually distinct as Hawaii and Mississippi, Montana and New York. By denying any virtue, good will, earnestness, or good sense to the Washington establishment, which he portrayed as a parasite on the body of the American people—worse, a gang of parasites bent on enriching themselves and living in sybaritic comfort while deliberately destroying the American dream—Trump may have pleased the radical wing of his populist base, but he showed a lack of professional balance and decorum that exhibits a fundamental contempt for the American system. He spoke like a strongman of a lesser regime. He spoke like someone who would be Mussolini if he could get away with it.
Philosophy of Governance
Explain your philosophy of governance. Jefferson not only laid out what he took to be a consensus view of American government—“a wise and frugal government that shall restrain men from injuring one another, but leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement”—but he went on to outline his own philosophy of governing, in other words his own playbook for serving as the third president of the United States: majority rule, a preference for state rather than federal solutions to public problems, a deep commitment to free speech, freedom of religion, payment of the national debt sooner rather than later, a firm preference for a people’s militia over a permanent army and navy. Etc.
In other words, Jefferson not only explained what he took to be the national consensus about how much government the American people wanted and how it should operate, but he outlined his own theory of presidential power.
Donald Trump provided no clues of any sort about how he intends to preside over the United States and by what processes and procedures. He merely told us what he intends to get done: rebuild America; force our international partners to pay their own way; protect our borders; utterly destroy Islamic terrorism. But he gave us no indication of just how he intends to do all of that. He promised to give America back to the people—a Jacksonian pledge, arguably even a Jeffersonian one—but how exactly does he plan to do that? He talked as if America were a giant corporation of which he is now the CEO, but he will soon learn that that is not how the American constitutional process works. It is not how a 21st century democracy works; and, most importantly, if the American people put up with such dictatorial actions, that will indicate that we have lost the spirit of America’s constitutional genius.
Finally, conciliate, unite, forgive, seek national reconciliation. In his first inaugural address, Jefferson famously said, “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.” Jefferson acknowledged that the election of 1800 had been vicious, bitterly partisan, and destabilizing, but he promised to do all that he could to reach out to his detractors and take their concerns seriously, and he famously warned his own majority that they must not lord it over their defeated brethren. “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 which would be oppression.”
There was no spirit of national reconciliation in the inaugural address of Donald Trump. There was only triumphalism. At the beginning of his speech he praised his predecessor and Michelle Obama, but only for “their gracious aid throughout this transition.”
In his address, Jefferson never said a single negative thing about the government of the United States, about the “establishment,” about his predecessors, about his political enemies, about opposition newspapers, or about sincere and angry critics. He gave one of the most inclusive and gracious inaugural addresses in American history.
Even his personal and ideological enemy Chief Justice John Marshall said afterwards that the speech was “well judged and conciliatory.”
Trump spoke again and again of the People of America, but at no point did he acknowledge that only 27% of the American people voted for him, that Hillary Clinton received several million more popular votes than he did, that about half of the country believes he is a disaster, little short of Beelzebub, and that no president since Lincoln has entered office under such a cloud of anger, bitterness, disapproval, and disbelief.
Had he been a Jeffersonian, Trump would have acknowledged the polarization of the country, the bitterness of the election, and the intensity of those who are having a difficult time accepting the fact that he is now the 45th President of the United States. Had he been a Jeffersonian, Trump would have reached out to all of those who distrust or dislike him and said that it is his intention to do what he can to win them over—to gain their trust and respect, and to remember that as a president with a little less than half the country on his side, he cannot possibly succeed without at least their grudging cooperation.
Instead, Trump spoke of the people as if it were a monolithic phalanx of 340 million individuals all of whom support him against the establishment and the elites, and all of whom are praying that he will give them back their country. By not acknowledging the fact of the opposition—and making some gesture of his desire to represent them too, to find a way to win their approval—Trump spoke about “the People” in a way that is merely demagogic and symbolic but without any fundamental truth or reality.
Don’t get me wrong. There were plenty of good things about Donald Trump’s inaugural address. To be a good president or candidate for the presidency, you must be able to sing what I call the Jefferson Music about America. Trump did so, admirably. He was profoundly Jeffersonian when he said the country belonged to the American people not its government, that government exists to serve the people and not the other way around, that he intends to give the country back to the people, and that the people will not be ignored and held in contempt any longer. He said, “This is your day. This is your celebration. And this, the United States of America, is your country.”
Trump spoke movingly of American optimism, the can-do spirit of the United States. He spoke of our universal desires for good schools, safe neighborhoods, and good jobs. And he spoke movingly of those trapped in bad schools, unsafe neighborhoods and dead-end jobs, if they have jobs at all.
These are great things. If we did not know so much about Trump, if we were just reading the inaugural address of January 20th, 2017, in the abstract—not knowing who delivered it, not having witnessed the circus and mayhem of the last two years—it might be possible to see the speech as the utterance of a populist democrat, even a social or political liberal. But Trump has been so profoundly Trumpish and over-the-top in every way that it is no longer possible to read his words without seeing his wild gestures, his grimaces, his clowning, his scowl, his self-love, his arrogance, his bombast, and his colossal self-assurance.
President Trump, I urge you to read Thomas Jefferson’s first inaugural address.
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The image in the cover artwork, "Opening Address of Inauguaration [sic] Ceremonies", c. 1898-1925, appears public domain via the New York Public Library Digital Collections.