Thursday, August 25, 2011

Presidential Rhetoric III: Thomas Jefferson

Welcome to Part III of our series on the rhetoric of American presidential inaugural addresses. Feel free to take a peek at the previous entries in the series:
  1. Worthy of Marble?
  2. John Adams
As with the the previous speeches we will not be addressing the truthfulness of the assertions but rather we will consider primarily two questions: what is it trying to persuade us of and how does it do so. We will also, as before, look at some rhetorical criteria as set forth by Aristotle. For clarity I have chosen to annotate certain sections.

[Called upon to undertake the duties of the first executive office of our country,] I avail myself of the presence of that portion of my fellow-citizens which is here assembled to express my grateful thanks for the favor with which they have been pleased to look toward me, to declare a sincere consciousness that the task is above my talents, and [to declare] that I approach it with those anxious and awful presentiments which the greatness of the charge and the weakness of my powers so justly inspire. A rising nation, spread over a wide and fruitful land, traversing all the seas with the rich productions of their industry, engaged in commerce with nations who feel power and forget right, advancing rapidly to destinies beyond the reach of mortal eye—when I contemplate these transcendent objects, and see the honor, the happiness, and the hopes of this beloved country committed to the issue, and the auspices of this day, I shrink from the contemplation, and humble myself before the magnitude of the undertaking. Utterly, indeed, should I despair did not the presence of many whom I here see remind me that in the other high authorities provided by our Constitution I shall find resources of wisdom, of virtue, and of zeal on which to rely under all difficulties. To you, then, 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 all embarked amidst the conflicting elements of a troubled world.

Jefferson's structure defers mention of himself to the middle of the sentence and begins by stating that the people have asked him to take up duties in the government. He continues by acknowledging with great care the American people, both those present and those elsewhere by saying "that portion of my fellow-citizens." Jefferson thanks them for their favor and states that he is humbled before the task. His use of the phrase "above my talents" compliments the opening "undertakes," both images of the president below the task. Clearly Jefferson is doing everything he can to convey humility. Even his structure does this, for example he says, "I avail myself. . . to express, to declare, that I approach" Clearly the "that I approach" utilizes some understood infinitive (for example, "to acknowledge") parallel to "to express" and "to declare" but he omits it to the effect of a mild anacoluthon, that is, a breaking off of the structure to suggest that he is being carried away by the moment. Jefferson continues to describe the awesomeness of the task before him, describing them not just as "anxious and awful presentiments" but "those anxious and awful presentiments, which the greatness of the charge and the weakness of my powers so justly inspire." The phrase, "which the greatness of the charge" suggests that anyone ought to be humbled by this office and the word "those" amplifies the sentiments by suggesting that the presentiments are somehow familiar to the men who have been president and endemic to the office. "Those" implies, "those same presidential." Jefferson continues to humble himself by expressing, parallel to the previous thought, that his own weakness is the cause of some of his apprehension. The logic of this naturally elevates the status of his predecessors. The phrase, "so justly inspires" emphasizes both points, that his apprehensions are cause by 1) the natural greatness of the office and 2) his own weakness.

Jefferson continues to paint a picture of the America of that day with a long antistrophe in which he does not use the same exact word, but the same type of word, in this case, a verb. In this description America is: rising, spread, traversing, engaged, and advancing. The sense is that America is active, growing, and healthy. The sentence concludes not with the simple end of a list but with an amplification of the sense that America is doing so well and moving so fast that it will reach "destinies beyond the reach of mortal eye." Jefferson then breaks off the syntax with a much firmer anacoluthon than before. This sentence is clearly meant to be read with greater and greater excitement at each verb until at the hyphen the speaker is overcome and pauses, only to come down to earth and, regain his senses (hence the use of "contemplate") and continue on. The use of "transcendent" implies not only the sense of the extraordinary but of divine ordinance, a sense he continues with "auspices," which subtly refers to the occasion of the inauguration itself, i.e. Jefferson's election by Americans under the law of the constitution. In between, though, Jefferson suggests it is the commitment of the people themselves that has created all of this prosperity by saying that "the honor, the happiness, and the hopes of this beloved country" are committed to the issue. Yet Jefferson does not want to "contemplate," a word he repeats, because thinking of the task it too great a strain. With another image of supplication, Jefferson says he "shrinks" and "before the magnitude" of the undertaking.

The task is so great that he is utterly humbled and would despair, if not for the "high authorities" provided by the constitution. Jefferson is referring to the other authorities of the government, particularly the legislature. We must pause here and note that Jefferson is depicting his emotions as they are at the moment. He is saying that he would despair now except for the fact that the people of the legislature he just saw has reminded him that he has them to look to for guidance. It is as if Jefferson gets so worked up and nervous about the undertaking in the preceding sentences that he "shrinks before the undertaking," looks at the people, and being reminded of them and their goodness, regains his confidence. Only these performative touches can explain the syntax.

Jefferson then directly addresses the legislature acknowledging their "sovereign" authority and even asking for their guidance and support. This is an extraordinary gesture of humility and deference to the democratic will. Jefferson looks to their "guidance and support" (a cadentially euphonious phrase, demonstrating Jefferson's attention to the aural features of the speech) to guide the nation. He concludes with the ancient metaphor of the ship of state, stating that he and the legislature guide the ship in which all Americans sit amidst a troubled world. This image subtly implies the unity of Americans, the sovereignty of Americans, and the good of Americans (by implying that it is the world which is troubled.)

During the contest of opinion through which we have passed the animation of discussions and of exertions has sometimes worn an aspect which might impose on strangers unused to think freely and to speak and to write what they think; but this being now decided by the voice of the nation, announced according to the rules of the Constitution, all will, of course, arrange themselves under the will of the law, and unite in common efforts for the common good. All, too, will bear in mind this sacred principle, that 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 would be oppression. 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. And let us reflect that, having banished from our land that religious intolerance under which mankind so long bled and suffered, we have yet gained little if we countenance a political intolerance as despotic, as wicked, and capable of as bitter and bloody persecutions.

Jefferson now addresses the heated and tumultuous election of 1800 between himself and John Adams. He describe the "animation" and "exertions" of the election not as the work of bad men or conspiracies, but rather the normal workings of a society in which men are free to think and act. People used to oppression ("strangers unused to think freely and to speak and to write what they think") are inclined to see it as terrible or dangerous but it is not, Jefferson implies. It is as if he says, "This is what a free election looks like." After the election, though, which was won by one individual according to the rules of the constitution, everyone will abide by the victory and the law and unite in common effort. Jefferson now begins to talk of the nature of democracy. Although by nature the majority must prevail, they must be reasonable. Although the majority rules, the minority never lose their equal rights and the law must protect them. To do otherwise is to oppress. Jefferson has addressed the legal aspect of democracy and goes on to address the social aspect, suggesting that the people ought simply, to get along in "harmony and affection." (With the "good old nature and good old humor" as his predecessor, who did not stick around for the ceremony, might have said.) Jefferson then boldly states that America would have gained nothing if it had traded in religious intolerance for equally "bloody persecutions" of political intolerance.

During the throes and convulsions of the ancient world, during the agonizing spasms of infuriated man, seeking through blood and slaughter his long-lost liberty, it was not wonderful that the agitation of the billows should reach even this distant and peaceful shore; that this should be more felt and feared by some and less by others, and should divide opinions as to measures of safety. But every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists. If there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this Union or to change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it. I know, indeed, that some honest men fear that a republican government can not be strong, that this Government is not strong enough; but would the honest patriot, in the full tide of successful experiment, abandon a government which has so far kept us free and firm on the theoretic and visionary fear that this Government, the world's best hope, may by possibility want energy to preserve itself? I trust not. I believe this, on the contrary, the strongest Government on earth. I believe it the only one where every man, at the call of the law, would fly to the standard of the law, and would meet invasions of the public order as his own personal concern. Sometimes it is said that man can not be trusted with the government of himself. Can he, then, be trusted with the government of others? Or have we found angels in the forms of kings to govern him? Let history answer this question.

Jefferson paints a historical picture in which the wars and violence of the ancient world and throughout history (the duration is emphasized by the light anaphora of "during") were all caused by man seeking his "long-lost liberty." It is unfortunate, he continues, that such agitation should have reached America. Jefferson then ties this love of liberty to the strife of the recent election, suggesting it was love of liberty, not faction or hatred or anything else, that some (i.e. he and the republicans) fought for. Jefferson continues with a maxim, "Every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle." That is, we may disagree about policy, but we all are "brethren of the same principle."A most elegant turn of phrase. He continues with the most direct, "We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists." That is, we all desire a strong republican government, though we disagree about some specifics. Even if someone does not wish this most basic premise, Jefferson says, let us Republicans and Federalists leave this man in peace as a testament to the fact that the wrong can be tolerated when reason is free to combat it. Here Jefferson has woven republicanism, democracy, and federalism, and thus the political factions of the day, together by the notions of peace and of freedom of thought. The implication is of course if we can leave in peace someone who wishes to dissolve the union, then surely all who do not wish such dissolution can get along, that is, if men are free to think.

He continues by saying that "honest" men lack faith in the government and its strength, honoring those who disagree with him. Yet he essentially asks these men, in apostrophe, "In the full bloom of our successes, why would you trade this in for a theoretical government?" The question obviously expects the answer of "no." Jefferson continues with the simple device of two short phrases with which he separates the preceding idea of the government's weakness and puts forth his own of the government's strength: "I trust not. I believe this." With a light anaphora he continues and describes why the government is so strong.  It is strong because men care about the concerns of the government as their own concerns. He expresses this with the short pair of parallel clauses and antistrophe (repetition of the same word or phrase at the end of successive clauses): every man, at the call of the law, would fly to the standard of the law.

Jefferson concludes this excellent passage with another truism, one which became famous: if man cannot govern himself, how can he govern others? The statement is of course sensible in the abstract but in the context of Jefferson's speech it reinforces the idea that the quality of a republican government rests on the quality of the men of the country. Jefferson adds on, though, "Or have we found angels in the forms of kings to govern him?" This addition addresses the potential answer of "no" to Jefferson's previous question of whether men can govern themselves. To people who believe they cannot, Jefferson says, in effect, "And why would a king be any better then? Are they better by nature?" The implication of course is "no."

Let us, then, with courage and confidence pursue our own Federal and Republican principles, our attachment to union and representative government. Kindly separated by nature and a wide ocean from the exterminating havoc of one quarter of the globe; too high-minded to endure the degradations of the others; possessing a chosen country, with room enough for our descendants to the thousandth and thousandth generation; entertaining a due sense of our equal right to the use of our own faculties, to the acquisitions of our own industry, to honor and confidence from our fellow-citizens, resulting not from birth, but from our actions and their sense of them; enlightened by a benign religion, professed, indeed, and practiced in various forms, yet all of them inculcating honesty, truth, temperance, gratitude, and the love of man; acknowledging and adoring an overruling Providence, which by all its dispensations proves that it delights in the happiness of man here and his greater happiness hereafter—with all these blessings, what more is necessary to make us a happy and a prosperous people? Still one thing more, fellow-citizens—a wise and frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government, and this is necessary to close the circle of our felicities.

Since kings are no better and we can govern ourselves, let us pursue our principies of federalism and republicanism alongside our principles of union and representative government. Jefferson continues with another "verbal anaphora" larger than the one from the opening. Here Jefferson outlines the nation's blessings: 1) distance from foreign wars, 2) refusal to accept the degradations of fellow men, 2) a large and fruitful country, 3) rights to the fruits of our labor, 4) honor not from "high birth" but goodness, 5) a religion of truth which, though admitting different forms, inculcates in all of them "honesty, truth, temperance, gratitude, and the love of man," 6) the blessings of God. What more we need than all of this? One thing, Jefferson says. This is a highly dramatic moment since the list built to "Providence." What else could be necessary?
. . . a wise and frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned.
Such is the "close of the circle of our felicities," a most grand metaphor and beautiful turn of phrase, clearly meant to signify the beginning and end of an age.

About to enter, fellow-citizens, on the exercise of duties which comprehend everything dear and valuable to you, it is proper you should understand what I deem the essential principles of our Government, and consequently those which ought to shape its Administration. I will compress them within the narrowest compass they will bear, stating the general principle, but not all its limitations. 1) Equal and exact justice to all men, of whatever state or persuasion, religious or political; 2)peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none; 3) the support of the State governments in all their rights, as the most competent administrations for our domestic concerns and the surest bulwarks against antirepublican tendencies; 4) the preservation of the General Government in its whole constitutional vigor, as the sheet anchor of our peace at home and safety abroad; 5) a jealous care of the right of election by the people—a mild and safe corrective of abuses which are lopped by the sword of revolution where peaceable remedies are unprovided; 6) absolute acquiescence in the decisions of the majority, the vital principle of republics, from which is no appeal but to force, the vital principle and immediate parent of despotism; 7a well disciplined militia, our best reliance in peace and for the first moments of war, till regulars may relieve them; 7) the supremacy of the civil over the military authority; 9) economy in the public expense, that labor may be lightly burthened; 10) the honest payment of our debts and sacred preservation of the public faith; 11) encouragement of agriculture, and of commerce as its handmaid; 12) the diffusion of information and arraignment of all abuses at the bar of the public reason; 13) freedom of religion; 14) freedom of the press, 15) and freedom of person under the protection of the habeas corpus, and 16) trial by juries impartially selected. These principles form the bright constellation which has gone before us and guided our steps through an age of revolution and reformation. The wisdom of our sages and blood of our heroes have been devoted to their attainment. They should be the creed of our political faith, the text of civic instruction, the touchstone by which to try the services of those we trust; and should we wander from them in moments of error or of alarm, let us hasten to retrace our steps and to regain the road which alone leads to peace, liberty, and safety.

Jefferson, having just mentioned the essential characteristic of good government necessary for a "happy and prosperous" people, and about to take charge of the executive branch of that government, tells the people "it is proper" that we understand his principals of government. Jefferson then articulates fifteen highly specific principles. He then describes them poetically as, "the bright constellation" which has guided us through revolution and reformation. Jefferson then uses a shifting tense to suggest a course of action. These principles guided us in the past, they have been sought (and continue to be sought in the present) by our sages and heroes, and they should be the creed of our political faith in the future. Jefferson adds to this credo the very human element of error, noting that should we stray, since this is the only way to "peace, liberty, and safety" that we simply ought to return to the path.

I repair, then, fellow-citizens, to the post you have assigned me. With experience enough in subordinate offices to have seen the difficulties of this the greatest of all, I have learnt to expect that 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. Without pretensions to that high confidence you reposed in our first and greatest revolutionary character, whose preeminent services had entitled him to the first place in his country's love and destined for him the fairest page in the volume of faithful history, I ask so much confidence only as may give firmness and effect to the legal administration of your affairs. I shall often go wrong through defect of judgment. When right, I shall often be thought wrong by those whose positions will not command a view of the whole ground. I ask your indulgence for my own errors, which will never be intentional, and your support against the errors of others, who may condemn what they would not if seen in all its parts. The approbation implied by your suffrage is a great consolation to me for the past, and my future solicitude will be to retain the good opinion of those who have bestowed it in advance, to conciliate that of others by doing them all the good in my power, and to be instrumental to the happiness and freedom of all.

Jefferson begins his conclusion by returning to a tone of humility presaged by the previous sentence and the image of "straying from the path." Jefferson's experience has not, he tells us, rendered him fit for the job. Rather it has taught him that no one, no matter how perfect his reputation when taking the job, will leave office with the same favor. He says, "I don't ask the confidence you had in Washington because he deserved such, but only the confidence needed to administer your affairs. When I am right, some of you will still disagree. When I err, pardon me." Jefferson thanks the people for holding a good opinion of him in advance of doing the job and hopes to earn their esteem by being "instrumental to the happiness and freedom of all."

Relying, then, on the patronage of your good will, I advance with obedience to the work, ready to retire from it whenever you become sensible how much better choice it is in your power to make. And may that Infinite Power which rules the destinies of the universe lead our councils to what is best, and give them a favorable issue for your peace and prosperity.

Of all the notes to end on, Jefferson reminds the people that they may replace him whenever they think someone better can do the job. Lastly, he asks for divine guidance.

Concluding Thoughts

The themes of this speech could not be any clearer. First, Jefferson is humbled before his election by the people and the duty of the office. Second, America is a nation of great laws and good men. Third, Jefferson has specific principles of government which will guide him and his administration. He is repeatedly deferential to the will of the people and thus congress. He makes great efforts to include all Americans in the speech and not only to acknowledge, but to reach out to, praise, and empathize with those who disagree with him or the government itself.

This is a most elegant speech. It makes sparing but effective use of poetical language and rhetorical devices. No part of speech predominates and Jefferson is not especially prone toward lists, pairs, or particular constructions. The style is direct and concise, relying mostly on the precise use of specific and effective words and the conveyance of particular ideas. As such this speech achieves a remarkable clarity of purpose.

The argumentation is neither highly complex nor in any way indirect. Let us again consider Aristotle's categories from his Rhetoric. From them we may say that the inaugural speech has two functions: for a president to outline his particular ideas and policy, and to celebrate America. This is in fact precisely and only what Jefferson's speech does. Jefferson praises the goodness of Americans, its fortunes, and its government, and then lays out his principles of governance. Aristotle also noted (Rhetoric I.ii) that three modes of persuasion exist: 1) of the personal character of the speaker, 2) putting the audience in a particular frame of mind, 3) proof or apparent proof of the words themselves. Which does this speech use?

Jefferson utilizes Mode #1 in the opening and concluding paragraphs in which he repeatedly humbles himself. Depending on one's expectations of the president and office, this may be more or less effective. Jefferson utilizes Mode #2 when he depicts the present state of the country in the first and fourth paragraphs. There Jefferson uses imagery and many verbs to depict a healthy and growing nation. The opening paragraph is the most figurative and rhetorical, relying on effects to persuade by conveying sense beyond the basic argument. Jefferson uses Mode #3 to persuade the listener throughout the speech. Even where a word is chosen for aural, visual, or structural effect its meaning is always relevant. Of actual arguments, sometimes he starts off with an axiom, for example, "though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable" and then lists the necessary consequential action. Sometimes he utilizes a most simple argument, e.g. "I believe this, on the contrary, the strongest Government on earth. I believe it the only one where every man, at the call of the law, would fly to the standard of the law, and would meet invasions of the public order as his own personal concern." This in fact simply means, "I believe the American government is strong because men care for it as if it were their own." Sometimes the argument is more subtle, for example:
If there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this Union or to change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.
This may be reformulated as: When reason is left free, even if there is disagreement, it is a sufficient bulwark against lack of reason. Thus what appears to be aphorism or assertion is actually able to be unpacked into an argument.

Jefferson says that the acrimonious election of 1800 was simply democracy in action, that republicanism and federalism are both compatible with liberty, and also other political ideas one may disagree with. For example, Jefferson writes, "We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists," Jefferson says, and
a wise and frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. 
Jefferson here is not just laying out plans but principles. One may disagree, but the ideas, their  compactness, simplicity, and even the assertiveness of their tones, comprise the persuasion. Also, by saying them alongside other ideas and arguments, he is implying they are compatible. Jefferson is saying that these things are so, and he is articulating these ideas so clearly that they seem self-evident. Such clarity is the essence of the speech and it is Jefferson's lucidity, his precise diction, straightforward arguments, and the specificity of the ideas which are the tools of persuasion. The style is neither florid nor spare, trendy or archaic, syntactically dense or thin, too long or too short, but beautifully balanced. This balance engenders a clarity that gives the ideas their potency and thus the speech its considerable persuasive power. It is a specific vision elegantly expressed.

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