‘When Times Change, So Must We’: The Uses of History in Obama’s Second Inaugural Address

‘When Times Change, So Must We’: The Uses of History in Obama’s Second Inaugural Address

Obama’s Second Inaugural Address has been well-received, especially among pundits who hope the president’s final term will usher in a more assertive brand of liberalism than we witnessed over the course of his first four years in the White House. But with the House of Representatives in Republican hands and nervy Democrats looking over their shoulder to midterm elections – when the party controlling the Oval Office usually loses seats – he will need all the assistance he can get to make headway. In Washington on Monday, he found an ally in the nation’s history, offering a carefully-crafted reading of the U.S. past to justify his future course.

The President began with an obligatory nod to the longevity of the Constitution, yet though much of the rest of the speech addressed how citizens today should stand in relation to the organic law of 1787, he quickly tied the nation’s ‘exceptional’ course to the preamble to the Declaration of Independence: that ‘Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness’ are inalienable rights. Contrasts between the ‘democratic promise’ of the Declaration of 1776 and the conservative retreat evident in the document drawn up eleven years later are not unfamiliar, and Obama is no doubt aware that nineteenth-century abolitionists, and Abraham Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address, appealed to the principles of July 4 over the letter of a proslavery Constitution.

Sadly for those who might have enjoyed the spectacle, Obama was never likely to follow the lead of the antislavery activist William Lloyd Garrison, and publicly burn the Constitution as ‘a covenant with death’. 1 But he subtly distanced himself from the ‘originalist’ stance of the Tea Party and conservative jurists, who insist politicians and judges must divine the intent of the Founding Fathers in framing and interpreting legislation. For Obama, the Constitution is a living document, malleable to the needs of the moment, and always subordinate to the democratic spirit of 1776. ‘When times change, so must we’, he contended, as ‘fidelity to our founding principles requires new responses to new challenges.’ ‘Truths may be self-evident’ but ‘they have never been self-executing.’ The responsibility lies with a vigilant people to ‘keep safe our founding creed’. Note here how the United States is defined by the values of July 4, and not the Federal compact of 1787.

This enables Obama to frame American history as the realisation of the democratic promise of the Declaration of Independence, but the tale he tells in the Inaugural is not a story of gradual progress, but rather one made through contradiction and conflict. 2 Echoing Lincoln, the president reminds us that the nation ‘half slave and half free’ could not endure, and the republic forged ‘anew’ in the fires of the Civil War (1861-5) was made with the blood of slaves and soldiers. 3 Later, the president ties women’s fight for the vote (citing the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848) to the black freedom struggles of the 1950s and 1960s, and the battle for gay rights today. A little like an earlier Illinois lawyer who occupied the White House, then, he invokes the sacrifice of the dead to inspire the living, insisting in a providential cant that equality ‘is the star that guides us still’, and that the nation cannot be partial in dispensing the blessings of liberty. Yet while alluding to the violent struggles that have made American democracy he tries to win his audience over with a rhetoric of consensus: the plural personal pronoun ‘we’ appears by my count, over sixty times (‘I’, in comparison, is used on fewer than half a dozen occasions), and Obama implies that even in periods of ferocious division, like the aftermath of the Civil War, the people ‘vowed to move forward together.’ They did nothing of the sort, of course, but the point is to acknowledge the twisted path to liberty while portraying a nation united by a common adherence to its founding creed.

In privileging the principles of the Declaration of Independence above the intent of the Founding Fathers, the Second Inaugural offers a riposte to constitutional ‘originalists’, and may indicate the president is more willing than before to push for measures like gun control. Such a shift is sure to be welcomed by those on the American left, though critics of drone strikes and Guantanamo Bay will wish he was a little more diligent in paying attention to the clauses of the Constitution which restrain arbitrary power. Meanwhile, despite a robust defence of liberalism from the Progressive Era to the Great Society and a clever line insinuating concentrations of wealth rather than political authority pose the greater threat to liberty – ‘The patriots of 1776 did not fight to replace the tyranny of a king with the privileges of a few’ – the fear Obama is a Caesar-like figure ready to bring down the republic is still popular on the fringes of the American right. Yesterday, the conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia wore a curious-looking hat, which, according to some sources, was modelled on one owned by St. Thomas More, the Lord Chancellor to Henry VIII who lost his head for his principled opposition to a royal power grab. If Obama was using history to justify his present and future course, Scalia may have been doing the same by analogy.

Notes:

  1. Though if he did, it would probably look something like this.
  2. Contrast this to the position of many Tea Party activists. For them, meddling can only lead the Union to decline from the pristine, Edenic state created by the Founders.
  3. Here, he follows what David Blight has called the ‘emancipationist’ reading of the Civil War as a moral battle over slavery, though there are ‘reconciliationist’ themes – which stress the ‘romance of reunion’ – in the speech too.
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