President Bush's Second Inaugural Address is the most fascinating one since Lincoln's. It projects grand ambitions for the nation, domestic and foreign. Its greatness as a speech comes from its Lincolnian themes, not its Wilsonian ones, which commentators have been emphasizing. Its ambition involves the world and American politics, and the relationship between the two. In foreign policy its ambition was quite plain, calling for the overthrow of tyrannies and the establishment of democracies. Domestically, it responds to FDR's 1944 State of the Union Address, which called for a second, economic Bill of Rights and still serves as the touchstone of contemporary liberalism.
The "force of human freedom" working its way through history, a history with "a visible direction set by liberty and the author of liberty," is the theme that dominates the second inaugural. Self-government rests on the principle that "no one is fit to be a master, and no one deserves to be a slave." This truth applies to all nations, especially our own. Now the "imperative of self-government" is "the urgent requirement of our nation's security and the calling of our time." "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, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world." Tyranny would be put "in the course of ultimate extinction," to use Lincolnian language about slavery.
The first page and a half of Bush's speech are as universal as the opening of Declaration of Independence, addressing the peoples of the earth. He quotes Lincoln (who was then addressing Bostonians): "Those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves; and, under [the rule of—Bush insertion] a just God, cannot long retain it" (letter to Henry Pierce, April 6, 1859). Yet there is an abstract quality (possibly Kantian?) about the beginning as well: No mention of specific nations or causes, not even Iraq, other than our own. Instead, it articulates universal principles.
After this prelude Bush notes his change of focus: "Today, I also speak anew to my fellow citizens." Echoing his opening lines about "a day of fire," he calls on Americans to light "a fire in the minds of men." The youngest citizens should note "duty and allegiance in the determined faces of our soldiers." "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."
Then comes the most problematic—and ambitious—part of the speech, translating our world commitments to the "essential work at home." Here he sees a "broader vision of liberty" behind Lincoln's Homestead Act and FDR's Social Security Act and GI Bill of Rights. That vision leads to "reforming great institutions [e.g., Social Security] to serve the needs of our time." Moreover, "by making every citizen an agent of his or her own destiny, we will give our fellow Americans greater freedom from want and fear and make our society more prosperous and just and equal." Is Bush captured by FDR ("freedom from want and fear" and the use of "equal," hinting at the legitimacy of redistribution) or do his means, the focus on individual rights, subvert FDR by appealing beyond him to the Jeffersonian-Lincolnian understanding of the Declaration?
Is this an extension of FDR's "second bill of rights," one assuring security, which he proposed because the Founders' political rights "proved inadequate to assure us equality in the pursuit of happiness"? FDR asserts, "We have come to the clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. 'Necessitous men are not free men.'" Sixty years ago FDR concluded, in his January 11, 1944 address to Congress, "unless there is security here at home there cannot be lasting peace in the world."
Bush's speech should be read as a reply to FDR and an attempted reversal of the process he started domestically, while affirming its international presence but bypassing the United Nations FDR supported. Bush would maintain America as a force in the world and use that commitment to bring more freedom to America.
Bush appears to be aiming at a grand political realignment here, one that questions the very basis of the Progressivism that undermined American constitutionalism. What does such a realignment involve?
As America's preeminent Lincoln scholar Harry V. Jaffa has argued (see Equality and Liberty), the American political landscape has been transformed by three critical elections that have produced realignments: the elections of Jefferson in 1800, Lincoln in 1860, and Franklin Roosevelt in 1932. Further, Jaffa maintains, each of these realignments has been based on reinterpretations of the meaning of the Declaration of Independence. For Jefferson, his election meant the Declaration's vindication of limited government. For Lincoln, the Declaration's principle of equality truly would apply to all men and self-government would be legitimated. FDR (aided by Woodrow Wilson) transformed the earlier understanding of equality by making the Declaration an instrument of class warfare and a means of overthrowing limited government.
Bush's challenge is to overthrow the FDR legacy. It appears he knows what he's doing. In his New Yorker profile of Bush advisor Karl Rove, Nicholas Lemann concludes that "Rove's Republican-majority America would be not just pre-Great Society, and not just pre-New Deal, but pre-Progressive eraâ€¦. Rove's intellectual hero is James Madison."
Bush also understands the domestic culture war. And while starting with another anti-modern liberal notion, that of self-government, he appears to concede too much to multiculturalism:
"In America's ideal of freedom, the public interest depends on private character—on integrity and tolerance toward others and the rule of conscience in our own lives. Self-government relies, in the end, on the governing of the self.
"That edifice of character is built in families, supported by communities with standards, and sustained in our national life by the truths of Sinai, the Sermon on the Mount, the words of the Koran and the varied faiths of our peopleâ€¦." Does America's attempt to free the world of tyranny require the recognition of Islam in our national celebrations? Will this world-mission of democratization wind up flattening our souls? But Bush did stress the "words" of the Koran, not the practices it fosters: A fine point but possibly a distinction that makes a difference.
Bush's sole reference to abortion was so subtle it doubtless escaped the notice of many, because, again, he was focusing on principles: "Americans, at our best, value the life we see in one another and must always remember that even the unwanted have worth."
In his concluding paragraphs the President underlines the freedom of the individual and the spiritedness it brings forth. Note his examples, each recalling the principle of equal natural rights:
'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.'
The President continues: "History has an ebb and flow of justice, but history also has a visible direction set by liberty and the author of liberty"—might we paraphrase "by the laws of Nature and of Nature's God"? He concludes with explicit reference to the Declaration:
'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 throughout 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."
President Bush has set the stage for what may be a remarkable second term. How it actually plays out is far more difficult to predict. After all, his success depends greatly on the ability of his enemies. Having set his goals so high, Bush should remember FDR's admonition in the State of the Union Address he is answering:
'One of the great American industrialists of our day—a man who has rendered yeoman service to his country in this crisis—recently emphasized the grave dangers of "rightist reaction" in this Nation. All clear-thinking businessmen share his concern. Indeed, if such reaction should develop—if history were to repeat itself and we were to return to the so-called "normalcy" of the 1920's—then it is certain that even though we shall have conquered our enemies on the battlefields abroad, we shall have yielded to the spirit of Fascism here at home.'
In the midst of WW II FDR was calling his conservative Republican opponents Nazis. If President Bush wants realignment he will have to pay his Democratic opponents back in kind, as he sets about creating freedom abroad and restoring it at home. Such are the means by which the truths of the Declaration of Independence will be revived. I eagerly await his State of the Union Address.