Thursday, February 20, 2014

Presidential Rhetoric, Part VII: Andrew Jackson

Welcome to Part Seven of our series on the rhetoric of American presidential inaugural addresses. Please feel free to look at the previous entries in the series:
  1. Worthy of Marble?
  2. John Adams
  3. Thomas Jefferson
  4. James Madison
  5. James Monroe
  6. John Quincy Adams
We continue with our present look at the rhetoric of Andrew Jackson's inaugural address. Let us see if any of the blood and guts of Old Hickory are to be found in his first speech as president.

The text of the speech, via

Given it's brevity, it's best to make neither introductory nor concluding but rather summary remarks about Jackson's speech. We'll also dispense with the customary line-by-lie analysis. First, Jackson's is by far the shortest inaugural so far, weighing in at only 1,100 words or so. Second, it's plain and free of tropes, figures, and flourishes which adorned previous speeches. Jackson is his most poetical when waxing about the military, but generally he's quite sober. Third, the speech is not structured rhetorically, with formal sections devoted to refutation, summary, and so forth. Instead, it is structured as a list with little regard for the delicate task of transitioning from topic to topic. Fourth, Jackson does not offer examples or stop to paint pictures. He's not trying to persuade. In fact, and most important of all...

Fifth, Jackson's not really trying to persuade at all, and instead he's simply listing his policies. He's not trying to win over his enemies by making his plans seem ideal or reasonable and he's not trying to paint a picture of a grand, unified America to compensate for the inevitable sour feelings which follow an election. Jackson is laying down his agenda, not making any attempt at any of the classic modes of persuasion: 

A. of the personal character of the speaker
B. putting the audience in a particular frame of mind
C. proof or apparent proof of the words themselves.
Jackson at times qualifies statements, stating that the debt is a threat to liberty or the economy should favor goods essential to national independence, but does not actually argue the points. 

We can state then that while the speech is political, it is so in a restricted sense because it doesn't advise, deliberate on, or urge so much as declare. Likewise it doesn't fit into Aristotle's epideictic mold at all since it doesn't bother to praise. Overall, we can conclude of it what we did of President Obama's Inaugural:

Aristotle at the opening of the Rhetoric identified the craft as that which utilizes the best of the available means of persuasion. The author of this speech would not seem to have availed himself of the potential means.
Still, there's a workmanlike clarity to the agenda as well as a noteworthy, if not praiseworthy, candor in its frank indifference to persuasion. Jackson is always crystal clear, if not memorable or persuasive. It's a plain, speech, if indistinct.

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