Suggested Readings: Presidents Day
February 15, 2016
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. – Abraham Lincoln, March 1865
For Presidents Day, I offer four speeches from four of our presidents.
The first two speeches came at vital moments in our country’s existence, when we needed the leadership of wise and brave men to ensure our survival.
In 1783, the Continental Army was facing a dangerous revolt. If our soldiers were to desert the battlefield, the war for independence would surely be lost. General George Washington, responding to an anonymous letter calling for action against the Continental Congress, gave a speech to his men. His words and actions prevented the revolt and most likely saved our bid for independence. You can read more about the event and his speech here.
In March of 1865, the Civil War was still raging. It was almost two years since President Lincoln had issued his Gettysburg Address, freeing the slaves. It was not certain that the North would succeed in overturning the rebellion of the South. At his second inaugural address, Lincoln gave a short, sincere speech, discussing the uncertainly and importance of completing the work of saving the union. You can read the speech here.
The next two speeches were equally important, but focused on envisioning the future of our country.
On January 20, 1961, President Kennedy used his inaugural address to define for the country our new role in the world, both as a world power and as citizens. He pledged support to allies, new and old, and promised to be a responsible power in world affairs. Kennedy also challenged us all with: “And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country. My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.” You can read his full address here.
President Reagan’s first inaugural address in 1981 gave us a different kind of definition. Reagan highlighted the weaknesses of uncontrolled government growth and corresponding swelling public debt. Reagan was not, as some critics have painted him, an enemy of government. In his own words, “… it is not my intention to do away with government. It is, rather, to make it work—work with us, not over us; to stand by our side, not ride on our back. Government can and must provide opportunity, not smother it; foster productivity, not stifle it.” (Many of his criticisms, sadly, still apply today.) You can read his full speech here.