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Don Woodard: A president’s first speech can resonate – or not

🕐 2 min read

Many years ago Speaker Jim Wright sent Wanda and me a volume containing all the inaugural addresses of the presidents, from George Washington’s “fervent supplication to the Almighty Being who rules over the universe” to John F. Kennedy’s beautiful, poignant and memorable “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” They are all fountains of history and wisdom, some masterpieces of scholarship, but none more so than the first inaugural of the 16th president, Abraham Lincoln, delivered March 4,186l, begging the South not to do it:

“In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow-countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. The Government will not assail you. You can have no conflict without being yourselves the aggressors. You have no oath registered in heaven to destroy the Government, while I shall have the most solemn one to “preserve, protect, and defend it.

“I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

Lincoln’s second address on March 4, 1865, after four years of Civil War with its ocean of blood, toil, sweat and tears:

“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.”

How will history rate President Donald Trump’s “America First” inaugural address? What memory peg will it hang on? How will it rank with Kennedy’s call for national sacrifice or Ronald Reagan’s vision of America as “the exemplar of freedom and a beacon of hope for those who do not now have freedom”? And how will it serve to bind up the nation’s wounds?

Don Woodard is a Fort Worth businessman and author of Black Diamonds! Black Gold! The Saga of Texas Pacific Coal and Oil Company.

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