Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Presidential Rhetoric IV: James Madison

Welcome to Part IV 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
  3. Thomas Jefferson
We continue with our present look at the rhetoric of James Madison's inaugural address, delivered Saturday, March 4, 1809. As with Adams and Jefferson, the Fourth President's education in and knowledge of the Classics is well known. Let us see what traces remain in his own writing.

UNWILLING to depart from examples of the most revered authority, I avail myself of the occasion now presented to express the profound impression made on me by the call of my country to the station to the duties of which I am about to pledge myself by the most solemn of sanctions. So distinguished a mark of confidence, proceeding from the deliberate and tranquil suffrage of a free and virtuous nation, would under any circumstances have commanded my gratitude and devotion, as well as filled me with an awful sense of the trust to be assumed. Under the various circumstances which give peculiar solemnity to the existing period, I feel that both the honor and the responsibility allotted to me are inexpressibly enhanced.

With "unwilling" Madison begins on a personal note of humility and continues in a participial/adjectival preface to speak of "revered authority," presenting himself as having inherited and as continuing a sacred tradition. This clause also delays his entry, further diminishing him and continuing the thread of humility. Madison pulls this thread farther, "avail"-ing himself of the inaugural's occasion, and to express what but the impact on him of the call to duty. Madison also continues the thread of holiness with "solemn of sanctions." We have grown accustomed to using sanction as a synonym for penalize , but the meaning here is clearly that of sanctifying, that is, sacred and authoritative approval. Sanction here has also a twofold force, the first denoting a divinely-observed oath. The second is set and picked up by the second sentence, praising the virtuous people. Thus with sanction Madison also expresses the  present election to the presidency, his, as the manifestation of a sacred and natural, that is, God-given, individual sovereignty of the people. Finishing this thought, in saying that his election has left a "distinguished mark of confidence," he expresses con-fidence in both divine law and the sovereignty of free, good men. Virtuous ought not be overlooked here.

Madison then contrasts the previous confidence with his own humility in the face of the "trust to be assumed." In the final introductory sentence he amplifies the aforementioned by ending with "inexpressibly enhanced." The rhythm here is quite clear: beginning each sentence with a prefatory/participial phrase and using the  main clause as the consequent. The themes are equally clear: he begins with humility, moves to confidence, returns to humility, and unites the two with the pair of "honor and responsibility," which he augments with the final words "inexpressibly enhanced." A unified, balanced, and climactic opening.

The present situation of the world is indeed without a parallel, and that of our own country full of difficulties. The pressure of these, too, is the more severely felt because they have fallen upon us at a moment when the national prosperity being at a height not before attained, the contrast resulting from the change has been rendered the more striking. Under the benign influence of our republican institutions, and the maintenance of peace with all nations whilst so many of them were engaged in bloody and wasteful wars, the fruits of a just policy were enjoyed in an unrivaled growth of our faculties and resources. Proofs of this were seen in the improvements of agriculture, in the successful enterprises of commerce, in the progress of manufacturers and useful arts, in the increase of the public revenue and the use made of it in reducing the public debt, and in the valuable works and establishments everywhere multiplying over the face of our land.

Madison continues, appropriately, where he left off in the previous paragraph, the exceptional present situation. Yet he reasons that the present difficulties of the nation seem great only due to its recently stupendous successes, a most effective reasoning by which to diminish the dangers and emphasize the positive. Madison continues to reason that the success owes to 1) the republican nature of the American institutions, 2) the maintenance of peace, and 3) just policy. The logic here is crystal clear:

 With republican institutions and peace with nations
 the fruits of good policy were enjoyed
 in [the form of] growth

Note also how Madison uses the passive voice here, "were enjoyed," subtly suggesting how everyone enjoyed the fruits of the policy, even those who didn't support it. This is the only reference to the other party and only hint of political acrimony in the speech.

Madison continues then to list the successes of the previous administration, praising Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans as well as emphasizing his connection to them. Too, here, he uses the passive voice with, "were seen." This has the twofold effect of 1) presuming the successes were seen by everyone, 2) suggesting the world was watching and approving of the successful, growing republic.

As with the previous paragraph, Madison concludes with an amplifying idea, this time, that of, "multiplying."

It is a precious reflection that the transition from this prosperous condition of our country to the scene which has for some time been distressing us is not chargeable on any unwarrantable views, nor, as I trust, on any involuntary errors in the public councils. Indulging no passions which trespass on the rights or the repose of other nations, it has been the true glory of the United States to cultivate peace by observing justice, and to entitle themselves to the respect of the nations at war by fulfilling their neutral obligations with the most scrupulous impartiality. If there be candor in the world, the truth of these assertions will not be questioned; posterity at least will do justice to them.

Now Madison moves on to the unhappy business of describing the present woes of the nation and to soften the blow he chooses, "precious reflection," a phrase which connotes a simple, innocent reflection rather than that of an educational lecture. We feel as if Madison has asked us to stop and reflect for a moment and see how things truly are, rather than that he is about to teach us about the situation. He passes over the distressing news with the gloss of "scene" and hastens to blame neither policy (unwarrantable views) or administration (errors in the councils.)

Madison then uses another prefatory participial phrase, here to introduce an idea, dispassionate neutrality, which is meant to hover over the subsequent arguments, which are:
  • linking the effect of the nation's previous period of peace to the cause of observing justice, logically presuming that America pursued peace and that the resulting peace was the result of American action.
  • linking the respect accorded the states by foreign powers to their impartiality, presuming both respect and impartiality
Madison concludes by appealing to justice that the aforementioned assumptions not be questioned. 

This unexceptionable course could not avail against the injustice and violence of the belligerent powers. In their rage against each other, or impelled by more direct motives, principles of retaliation have been introduced equally contrary to universal reason and acknowledged law. How long their arbitrary edicts will be continued in spite of the demonstrations that not even a pretext for them has been given by the United States, and of the fair and liberal attempt to induce a revocation of them, can not be anticipated. Assuring myself that under every vicissitude the determined spirit and united councils of the nation will be safeguards to its honor and its essential interests, I repair to the post assigned me with no other discouragement than what springs from my own inadequacy to its high duties. If I do not sink under the weight of this deep conviction it is because I find some support in a consciousness of the purposes and a confidence in the principles which I bring with me into this arduous service.

Madison finally lays blame at no American party, cause, or entity, but the warring foreign powers, suggesting that no course of action so pure in motive and just in execution as that of the states united could win against such [foreign] violence and injustice. He moves on to amplify this point, noting the illogic of the belligerent attempts (they are "arbitrary" and without "pretext") and the prudent justice of the states' response (which is "fair and liberal.") 

Finally, Madison unites the aforementioned ideas in another now-typical tripartite sentence:
A. Assuring myself that under every vicissitude the determined spirit and united councils of the nation will be safeguards to its honor and its essential interests, B. I repair to the post assigned me C. with no other discouragement than what springs from my own inadequacy to its high duties.
Clause A. again praises the justice of American assemblies. Clause B. is brilliantly economical. The word assigned:
  1. points to the justice and goodness of Americans in their sovereignty having elected him
  2. points to the justice of the republic in the existence of this office
  3. connects A. to B. with the idea of the American people and B. to C. with the idea of his office
Also, the word repair retains its dual meanings of to go to and to fix. Lastly, Madison places himself in the middle of the sentence, between the people (Clause A.) and the office (Clause C.), mirroring the election.

Madison concludes this passage with another typical amplifying coda, but this time the conclusion also contains a profound implication. 
If I do not sink under the weight of this deep conviction it is because I find some support in a consciousness of the purposes and a confidence in the principles which I bring with me into this arduous service.
Surely Madison does not mean his own consciousness of his own ideas, but rather a broad, public consciousness of his ideas. Madison is naturally saying, then, that he takes his elections to be a manifestation of popular support not of "his" principles, as if they are his possessions or esoteric ideas,
but the principles he "brings," as carrying the sacred fire. As in the opening paragraph, Madison 1) casts himself as the heir and bearer of sacred principles, and 2) praises the sovereign act of election as itself sacred. 

This is in effect a peroration to the speech, although Madison goes on now to list these principles. I do not print this list but you can read it here [link]. We resume after.

It is my good fortune, moreover, to have the path in which I am to tread lighted by examples of illustrious services successfully rendered in the most trying difficulties by those who have marched before me. Of those of my immediate predecessor it might least become me here to speak. I may, however, be pardoned for not suppressing the sympathy with which my heart is full in the rich reward he enjoys in the benedictions of a beloved country, gratefully bestowed or exalted talents | zealously devoted through a long career to the advancement of its highest interest and happiness.

Madison begins to wrap up the speech for real now with praise of his predecessors. The rhythm here is somber and deferential: three pairs, the second two amplifying the first, followed by a phrase grand and serious with respect both to diction and rhythm:

Pair A: illustrious services
Pair B: successfully rendered
Pair C: trying difficulties

Conclusion: those who have | marched be- | -fore me
Rhythm: -uu | - - | - x

Madison continues with a pretended omission (praeteritio) in which he mentions how he ought not to discuss the excellence of his predecessor, which he then of course proceeds to do in an effusion of adjective-enriched praise. Note again the themes of sanctifying with "benediction" and the advancement of the nation.

But the source to which I look or the aids which alone can supply my deficiencies is in the well-tried intelligence and virtue of my fellow-citizens, and in the counsels of those representing them in the other departments associated in the care of the national interests. In these my confidence will under every difficulty be best placed, next to that which we have all been encouraged to feel in the guardianship and guidance of that Almighty Being whose power regulates the destiny of nations, whose blessings have been so conspicuously dispensed to this rising Republic, and to whom we are bound to address our devout gratitude for the past, as well as our fervent supplications and best hopes for the future.

He picks up on the theme of the popular support for Jefferson by elevating the instructive will and virtue of the people even beyond that of his illustrious predecessor. The statement is in fact easy to miss: 
In these my confidence will under every difficulty be best placed, next to that which we have all been encouraged to feel in the guardianship and guidance of that Almighty Being
Let us note which clauses are parallel before proceeding:

In these my confidence will under every difficulty be best placed, 
--{next to that which we have all been encouraged to feel in the guardianship and guidance of that Almighty Being 
-----[whose power regulates the destiny of nations, 
-----[whose blessings have been so conspicuously dispensed to this rising Republic, 
-----[and to whom we are bound to address our devout gratitude for the past, 
--{as well as our fervent supplications and best hopes for the future.

Madison then is placing his confidence in:
  1. the counsels and departments
  2. "that which we have all been encouraged to feel," and
  3. supplications and hopes
One must ask what it is that "we have all been encouraged to feel" under God. With the themes of progress and sanctification the answer is surely "approbation." The implication is that the destinies and blessings of nations are divinely controlled, thus the recent American success must be a sign of approval. Madison chooses to conclude, then, not with a directly confessed confidence in divine will, but a confidence in God's approval witnessed by the success of America. This argument allows Madison to intertwine all of the elements of his speech: the virtue of Americans, their just sovereignty, their good political bodies and fruitful policies, and their prudent leaders. It is then also a fusion of natural and divine law.

I. Madison's speech avoids any deliberation and falls clearly into the category of epideictic oratory, praising:
  1. Jefferson
  2. Jefferson's administration
  3. the American people
  4. congress and its policies
  5. the republican system of the nation
Also appropriate for an epideictic speech, it is concerned with the present condition of the nation, whose imperfect state Madison lays at the hands of foreign belligerents.

II. Noting the three main categories of persuasion,
  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,
again, this speech clearly falls into a category three. Madison spends most of his effort arguing for the excellence of America and Jefferson's administration and the foreign causes of their current ills. Praising one's predecessor might seem boilerplate, but rhetorically to praise a man is akin to urging a course of action (Aristotle 1367b), and thus Madison is proposing a Jeffersonian path. He does not, however, argue by way of strict propositions and formal proofs, but rather by facts taken on trust and their implications. (1417b)

III. There is a minimum of rhetorical flash, with few devices and tricks. The vocabulary is clear and simple, but not bland. Always it is precise.

In conclusion, this speech is short and sweet. As an American inaugural address, it is quite successful. First, it is minimally antagonistic toward the opposing party. Second, it unambiguously praises the nation and its people. Finally, it presents the speaker and a course of action.

Madison skillfully presents himself as the humble executor of a just republic of good men, following in illustrious footprints, and planning to maintain a successful policy. Crystal clear.

No comments:

Post a Comment