Saturday, July 12, 2014

Presidential Rhetoric VIII: Martin Van Buren

Welcome to Part Eight 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
  7. Andrew Jackson
See Also: Presidential Rhetoric: Grading the Graders

We continue with our present look at the rhetoric of Martin Van Buren's inaugural address. Will there be any stylistic curiosities in this speech from the New York-born, Dutch-speaking president?

The text of the speech, via

1. Fellow-Citizens: The practice of all my predecessors imposes on me an obligation I cheerfully fulfill—to accompany the first and solemn act of my public trust with an avowal of the principles that will guide me in performing it and an expression of my feelings on assuming a charge so responsible and vast. In imitating their example I tread in the footsteps of illustrious men, whose superiors it is our happiness to believe are not found on the executive calendar of any country. Among them we recognize the earliest and firmest pillars of the Republic— [1] those by whom our national independence was first declared, [2him who above all others contributed to establish it on the field of battle, [3] and those whose expanded intellect and patriotism constructed, improved, and perfected the inestimable institutions under which we live. If [A] such men in the position I now occupy felt themselves overwhelmed by a sense of gratitude for this the highest of all marks of their country's confidence, [B] and by a consciousness of their inability adequately to discharge the duties of an office so difficult and exalted, [C] how much more must these considerations affect one who can rely on no such claims for favor or forbearance! Unlike all who have preceded me, the Revolution that gave us existence as one people was achieved at the period of my birth; and whilst I contemplate with grateful reverence that memorable event, I feel that I belong to a later age and that I may not expect my countrymen to weigh my actions with the same kind and partial hand.

While the opening sentence begins with the now traditional sentiments of modesty and following in the footsteps of great predecessors, two words stand out: cheerfully and happiness. This is the first time any degree of cheer or joviality has made its way into any inaugural address, and while these words don't constitute frivolity, they do mark a uniquely festive sense of gratitude for having inherited such a great nation from such great men. Van Buren's use of the word calendar is also worth a note, for on the one hand it can simply mean register, but also it can mean guide or example, and even by metonymy it can refer to the history of the presidency. The firm image pillars of the Republic is no throwaway, though, but itself becomes the foundation for the rest of the paragraph. Van Buren breaks the Founders into three groups of those who 1) declared independence, 2) fought for it, and 3) those who firmed and expanded it. This is a novel and engaging way of reiterating the feats of the Founders, and note with him who the indirect reference to the now nearly deified Washington.

The next sentence is a gradatio of increasing tension from phrases A-C, but it reads simply as a condition: If A and B, then C. Van Burn ends with a most surprising turn, an invocation to the people to regard him not as one of the Founders but to regard him as one of them and to judge him not with the gentleness with which they treated their forefathers, but impartially. A most uncommon sentiment, in and out of politics.

Finally, note the simple, lucid flow of ideas in connected pairs of conditions:
  1. I follow in the footsteps of great men
  2. who fall into three categories.
  3. If they were nervous about the duty, great as they were,
  4. how much must I be?
  5. Also unlike my predecessors, America was a nation when I was born, 
  6. so judge me as one of you and not one of the Founders.
This is a solid opening, full and formal but not orotund, and tightly organized.

2. So sensibly, fellow-citizens, do these circumstances press themselves upon me that I should not dare to enter upon my path of duty did I not look for the generous aid of those who will be associated with me in the various and coordinate branches of the Government; did I not repose with unwavering reliance on the patriotism, the intelligence, and the kindness of a people who never yet deserted a public servant honestly laboring their cause; and, above all, did I not permit myself humbly to hope for the sustaining support of an ever-watchful and beneficent Providence.

Again we see Van Buren reiterating a now classic, or cliche, statement, but with vivifying variation. Here Van Buren utilizes the subjunctive mood to paint a hypothetical situation: I should not undertake to become president did I not do X, Y, and Z. Van Buren then builds from that hypothetical with a tripartite anaphora of did I not. These two devices support the usual sentiment of seeking guidance from the people, a group which he neatly picks up from the conclusion of the previous paragraph. Also note a clever rhetorical twist: when Van Buren says how the people never deserted a public servant honestly laboring for their cause, he implies all at once that:
  1. the previous presidents were good
  2. the people were good to support good presidents
  3. those whom the people disliked were negligent
  4. he himself will honestly labor in their cause,
  5. and since he'll honestly labor, they'll support him
Very clever, and a smooth transitional paragraph.

3. To the confidence and consolation derived from these sources it would be ungrateful not to add those which spring from our present fortunate condition. Though not altogether exempt from embarrassments that disturb our tranquillity at home and threaten it abroad, yet in all the attributes of a great, happy, and flourishing people we stand without a parallel in the world. Abroad we enjoy the respect and, with scarcely an exception, the friendship of every nation; at home, while our Government quietly but efficiently performs the sole legitimate end of political institutions—in doing the greatest good to the greatest number—we present an aggregate of human prosperity surely not elsewhere to be found.

Van Buren again makes a smooth transition from the previous paragraph, here by jumping forward in time by means of the notion that it would be ungrateful not to thank the present sources of good fortunate once we had expressed gratitude for the former. Here he avoids formula by leading with the negative before stating the positive. His use of embarrassments will seem unusual if we do not bear in mind its less common meaning impediments. We see yet another of his common adjective trios, as well. We stand without parallel is an inclusive, personal, and active alternative to the usual statements about America and Americans. Also, the simple we is surprisingly effective when we look at the tradition of the speeches. Van Buren then makes a bold declaration, defining the "sole legitimate end of political institutions" as the "greatest good to the greatest number," a paraphrase of either Bentham or Francis Hutcheson. This is not only a surprisingly direct philosophical, moral, and political dictum, but a clever argument:
  1. If doing the greatest good to the greatest number is the goal
  2. and most of the people are prospering
  3. then the government must be justified.
These topics, the good of the people and the legitimacy of the government, will serve as another smooth transition to the next paragraph.

4. How imperious, then, is the obligation imposed upon every citizen, in his own sphere of action, whether limited or extended, to exert himself in perpetuating a condition of things so singularly happy! All the lessons of history and experience must be lost upon us if we are content to trust alone to the peculiar advantages we happen to possess. Position and climate and the bounteous resources that nature has scattered with so liberal a hand—even the diffused intelligence and elevated character of our people—will avail us nothing if we fail sacredly to uphold those political institutions that were wisely and deliberately formed with reference to every circumstance that could preserve or might endanger the blessings we enjoy. || The thoughtful framers of our Constitution legislated for our country as they found it. Looking upon it with the eyes of statesmen and patriots, they saw all the sources of rapid and wonderful prosperity; but they saw also that various habits, opinions, and institutions peculiar to the various portions of so vast a region were deeply fixed. Distinct sovereignties were in actual existence, whose cordial union was essential to the welfare and happiness of all. Between many of them there was, at least to some extent, a real diversity of interests, liable to be exaggerated through sinister designs; they differed in size, in population, in wealth, and in actual and prospective resources and power; they varied in the character of their industry and staple productions, and [in some] existed domestic institutions which, unwisely disturbed, might endanger the harmony of the whole. Most carefully were all these circumstances weighed, and the foundations of the new Government laid upon principles of reciprocal concession and equitable compromise. The jealousies which the smaller States might entertain of the power of the rest were allayed by a rule of representation confessedly unequal at the time, and designed forever to remain so. A natural fear that the broad scope of general legislation might bear upon and unwisely control particular interests was counteracted by limits strictly drawn around the action of the Federal authority, and to the people and the States was left unimpaired their sovereign power over the innumerable subjects embraced in the internal government of a just republic, excepting such only as necessarily appertain to the concerns of the whole confederacy or its intercourse as a united community with the other nations of the world.

The opening here is brilliant. Van Buren describes the obligation of the citizen to prosper as imperious. Surely he simply means the less common definition of urgent, but the word carries the inescapable sense of dictatorial, a word usually used of tyrants and despotic governments. Here, though, Van Buren in describing the citizen's duty to make himself prosper as imperious reasons that, the nation being a republic, not only sovereignty but also duty reside with the citizen. The flip-side of this argument is that such duty does not lie in aggregate, though it may be measured in aggregate as above, or in government simply qua government. In fact, Van Buren goes on to argue that the people must "sacredly uphold" the political institutions which were "wisely and deliberately formed," a reasoning which takes as fact the prudence of the system and leaves any room for error only on the part of those implementing the system.

Van Buren moves on to summarize nothing less than the system of checks and balances which the Founders designed to create harmony among the states. Foremost, though, we must note that Van Buren speaks here in the present tense, essentially borrowing the authority, prudence, and success with which the nation was founded to assert the justice of the system as it stands in the present. He's careful not to deny that there were conflicting interests, and even obliquely mentions slavery as a "domestic institution" which "unwisely disturbed" would "endanger the harmony of the whole," obliquely reiterating the old admission that while the practice was bad, little could be done about it without foregoing national unity and therefore the fruits of such unity. This is a preparation for his address about slavery in Paragraph 13.

Slowly Van Buren allays the fears of two constituencies, saying that small states have recourse by proportionate representation and that all states should not fear the federal government because of the "limits strictly drawn around the action of the Federal authority" and that besides issues which affect the whole nation or its dealings with other nations, the states were left their "sovereign power... unimpaired."

The tone here is at once didactic and reassuring: Van Buren is reminding everyone that the American system was designed by men whom everyone acknowledges to be great, and that procedures are already in place to address certain concerns. He's careful clearly to delineate states' rights and federal authority.

5. This provident forecast has been verified by time. [1a] Half a century, teeming with extraordinary events, and elsewhere producing astonishing results, has passed along, [1b] but on our institutions it has left no injurious mark. [2a] From a small community we have risen to a people powerful in numbers and in strength; [2b] but with our increase has gone hand in hand the progress of just principles. [3a] The privileges, civil and religious, of the humblest individual are still sacredly protected at home, [3b] and while the valor and fortitude of our people have removed far from us the slightest apprehension of foreign power, [3c] they have not yet induced us in a single instance to forget what is right. [4a] Our commerce has been extended to the remotest nations; [4b] the value and even nature of our productions have been greatly changed; [4c] a wide difference has arisen in the relative wealth and resources of every portion of our country; [4d] yet the spirit of mutual regard and of faithful adherence to existing compacts has continued to prevail in our councils and never long been absent from our conduct. [5] We have learned by experience a fruitful lesson—that an implicit and undeviating adherence to the principles on which we set out can carry us prosperously onward through all the conflicts of circumstances and vicissitudes inseparable from the lapse of years.

The escalation of periodic length is the unifying and energizing devices of this paragraph which is a simple list of America's achievements. Van Buren moves from sentences of two periods, to one of three, to one of four, and finally concludes with a firm resolution in one clear, simple sentence. Each sentence is also structured clearly:
  1. On the one hand A, on the other hand B
  2. On the one hand A, on the other hand B
  3. A, and while B, not C
  4. A, B, and C, yet not D
  5. Single statement of fact
This paragraph is a good demonstration of a simple, clear style and the potential for using a single organizational tool, here periodic length, to structure a paragraph and give it shape, variety, and rhythm, while using another tool, here contrasting phrases, for small scale intra-sentence structure.

6. A. The success that has thus attended our great experiment is in itself a sufficient cause for gratitude, on account of the happiness it has actually conferred and the example it has unanswerably given. B. But to me, my fellow-citizens, looking forward to the far-distant future with ardent prayers and confiding hopes, this retrospect presents a ground for still deeper delight. [1. Present] It impresses on my mind a firm belief that the perpetuity of our institutions depends upon ourselves; that if we maintain the principles on which they were established they are destined to confer their benefits on countless generations yet to come, and that [2. Future] America will present to every friend of mankind the cheering proof that a popular government, wisely formed, is wanting in no element of endurance or strength. [3. Past] Fifty years ago its rapid failure was boldly predicted. Latent and uncontrollable causes of dissolution were supposed to exist even by the wise and good, and not only did unfriendly or speculative theorists anticipate for us the fate of past republics, but the fears of many an honest patriot overbalanced his sanguine hopes. [4. Present] Look back on these forebodings, not hastily but reluctantly made, and see how in every instance they have completely failed.

In this paragraph Van Buren makes specific what he has only implied in previous paragraphs: the perpetuity of the institutions depends on individual duty. He begins with a staple of rhetoric and argumentation, a priamel, or a device consisting of one or more foils to the proper subject. Here, Van Buren argues that while looking back makes one grateful, looking forward presents the greater delight. More precisely: looking forward makes looking backward even more delightful. Structuring this temporal shift in a priamel is a smooth transition which marks the beginning of a new section of the speech.

Van Buren uses this temporal transition to begin a development of his point that the burden of America's success rests on individuals, arguing that if we maintain now [1. Present] , then the future will be bright [2. Future], and the fears of the past [3. Past] will seem foolish [4. Present]. The organization here is not insubstantial: Van Buren is using various tenses to structure his argument that American success rests on individuals preserving virtue. This modulation of  tenses:
  1. Energizes the speech with variety.
  2. Forces the reader closely to follow the lead of the speaker.
  3. Gives a unique sense of time and space to each section of the argument.
The paragraph concludes with an imperative, look back, which itself fulfills the three effects above, but it also emphasizes a sense of:
  1. present by forcing a retrospective. 
  2. superiority by looking back at misguided fears of brilliant and good men.
  3. optimism and relief that such fears did not come to place. 
Van Buren ends with failed, whose negative connotation serves as a pivot to the next paragraph.

7. An imperfect experience during the struggles of the Revolution was supposed to warrant the belief that the people would not bear the taxation requisite to discharge an immense public debt already incurred and to pay the necessary expenses of the Government. The cost of two wars has been paid, not only without a murmur, but with unequaled alacrity. No one is now left to doubt that every burden will be cheerfully borne that may be necessary to sustain our civil institutions or guard our honor or welfare. Indeed, all experience has shown that the willingness of the people to contribute to these ends in cases of emergency has uniformly outrun the confidence of their representatives.

A simple example of the previous line of argument, that the naysayers were wrong. Van Buren's point that the fear that people won't pay taxes to fund the government is foolish because the people have paid cleverly sidesteps the fact that such payment had been acrimonious. As is often the case in these inaugurals, Van Buren too lays fault at the feet of others and not the people, here blaming the representatives themselves for their insufficient faith in the people.

8. In the early stages of the new Government, when all felt the imposing influence as they recognized the unequaled services of the first President, it was a common sentiment that the great weight of his character could alone bind the discordant materials of our Government together and save us from the violence of contending factions. Since his death nearly forty years are gone. A. Party exasperation has been often carried to its highest point; B. the virtue and fortitude of the people have sometimes been greatly tried; C. yet our system, purified and enhanced in value by all it has encountered, still preserves its spirit of free and fearless discussion, blended with unimpaired fraternal feeling.

Another paragraph serving as an example for Paragraph #6. Here too Van Buren varies his tenses, working his way forward from past tenses before ending with the present. He continues to refrain from calling Washington by name, of course magnifying his stature, but uses a long periodic length to amplify the sense of fear that only the great Washington could hold the nation together. The following trick is brilliantly simple, though: the statement which discusses the great importance of Washington is very long and the statement that his death was long ago is very short. This simple shift drives home the point that this great concern has been settled for a long time.

Van Buren follows up with another familiar statement–A and B, but not C–yet this time varies the style by removing the conjunctions. This is a small touch which heightens our senses and forces us to pay just a bit more attention as we realize what's missing. He concludes with a nice rounded style of parallel phrases, of which the second is just slightly longer, creating a sense of breadth at the end of the paragraph: free and fearless discussion and unimpaired fraternal feeling.

9. A. The capacity of the people for self-government, B. and their willingnessfrom a high sense of duty and without those exhibitions of coercive power so generally employed in other countries, to submit to all needful restraints and exactions of municipal law, C. have also been favorably exemplified in the history of the American States. Occasionally, it is true, the ardor of public sentiment, outrunning the regular progress of the judicial tribunals or seeking to reach cases not denounced as criminal by the existing law, has displayed itself in a manner calculated to give pain to the friends of free government and to encourage the hopes of those who wish for its overthrow. These occurrences, however, have been far less frequent in our country than in any other of equal population on the globe, and with the diffusion of intelligence it may well be hoped that they will constantly diminish in frequency and violence. The generous patriotism and sound common sense of the great mass of our fellow-citizens will assuredly in time produce this result; 1. for as every assumption of illegal power 1a. not only wounds the majesty of the law, 1b. but furnishes a pretext for abridging the liberties of the people, 2. the latter have the most direct and permanent interest in preserving the landmarks of social order and maintaining on all occasions the inviolability of those constitutional and legal provisions which they themselves have made.

This section of the speech in which he states and then demonstrates the virtues of the people mirrors the beginning in which he stated and demonstrated the success of the American system.

Van Buren begins starkly with the subject, "the capacity of the people for self-government," this time not so obviously transitioned to from the previous paragraph. The transition, though, is the stark juxtaposition of the ideas he wishes to associate: 1) free and fearless discussion and unimpaired fraternal feeling and 2) the capacity for self-government.

The opening sentence, though, is yet another of tripartite construction, this one not a conditional but rather a simple statement. Van Buren's tone here is that of the historian or political scientist, conceding that while there has been discord, there has been much less than in other countries. He is effusive in praise for the people:
  1. capacity for self-government
  2. a high sense of un-coerced duty
  3. willingness to submit to the law
  4. generous patriotism
  5. sound common sense
Balancing the notion of the people submitting to legitimate authority, Van Buren counters with the classical denunciation of tyranny: it wounds the very notion of law and it begets further tyranny. He then concludes with the classical defense of democratic-republicanism: the people will desire to preserve law and order because it is the law and order which they have made. Van Buren structures this again with a tripartite arrangement, this time varying it by expanding the first section with correlatives. 

10. A. In a supposed unfitness of our institutions for those hostile emergencies which no country can always avoid their friends found a fruitful source of apprehension, their enemies of hope. [1] While they foresaw less promptness of action than in governments differently formed, [2] they overlooked the far more important consideration [3] that with us war could never be the result of individual or irresponsible will, [4] but must be a measure of redress for injuries sustained, [4a] voluntarily resorted to by those who were to bear the necessary sacrifice, [4b] who would consequently feel an individual interest in the contest, and [4c] whose energy would be commensurate with the difficulties to be encountered. B. Actual events have proved their error; the last war, far from impairing, gave new confidence to our Government, and amid recent apprehensions of a similar conflict we saw that the energies of our country would not be wanting in ample season to vindicate its rights. We may not possess, as we should not desire to possess, the extended and ever-ready military organization of other nations; we may occasionally suffer in the outset for the want of it; but among ourselves all doubt upon this great point has ceased, while a salutary experience will prevent a contrary opinion from inviting aggression from abroad.

In another clever and effective variation, Van Buren leads with the prepositional phrase and defers the subject (their friends) to the middle and then as amplification further describes them with an invidious closing appositional phrase, (enemies of hope.) These subjects surely received accent in the delivery, emphasizing further the contrast between the optimistic and the naysayers. Again, we also have a simple introductory sentence preceding a more elaborately constructed explication. This time the argument is one large, highly-subordinated sentence.

[1] While they foresaw less promptness of action than in governments differently formed, 
[2] they overlooked the far more important consideration 
--[3] that with us war could never be the result of individual or irresponsible will, 
---[4] but must be a measure of redress for injuries sustained, 
----[4a] voluntarily resorted to 
-----[4b] by those who were to bear the necessary sacrifice, 
------[4c] who would consequently feel an individual interest in the contest, and 
------[4d] whose energy would be commensurate with the difficulties to be encountered. 

Notice how the focus moves from the naysayers to the patriots as the action moves from what was expected to what should have been expected.

[1] What the naysayers thought 
[2] that they overlooked something
--[3] what they overlooked
---[4] the true nature of what was overlooked
----[4a] a description of what was overlooked 
-----[4b] who did the action of 4a
------[4c] another description of the agent 
------[4d] another description of the agent 

The next sentence summarizes historically what he has just stated in aphorism and hypothetical. Van Buren ends with a credo for non-interventionism: we ought not have a standing army, and while this lack may hinder us occasionally, the lack of it makes us less likely to court foreign aggression over mere contrary opinions. This final sentence seems loosely constructed, but taking pauses at the semicolons, where we ought to have conjunctions, and final while, the meaning is perfectly clear.

11. Certain danger was foretold from the extension of our territory, the multiplication of States, and the increase of population. Our system was supposed to be adapted only to boundaries comparatively narrow. These have been widened beyond conjecture; the members of our Confederacy are already doubled, and the numbers of our people are incredibly augmented. The alleged causes of danger have long surpassed anticipation, but none of the consequences have followed. The power and influence of the Republic have arisen to a height obvious to all mankind; respect for its authority was not more apparent at its ancient than it is at its present limits; new and inexhaustible sources of general prosperity have been opened; the effects of distance have been averted by the inventive genius of our people, developed and fostered by the spirit of our institutions; and the enlarged variety and amount of interests, productions, and pursuits have strengthened the chain of mutual dependence and formed a circle of mutual benefits too apparent ever to be overlooked.

This paragraph is parallel to the previous and begins likewise with the topic of the expected dangers. This is a long list of positive outcomes which were not expected, a list which seems more numerous on account of the asyndeton and the similar lengths of the clauses.

12. In justly balancing the powers of the Federal and State authorities difficulties nearly insurmountable arose at the outset and subsequent collisions were deemed inevitable. Amid these it was scarcely believed possible that a scheme of government so complex in construction could remain uninjured. From time to time embarrassments have certainly occurred; but how just is the confidence of future safety imparted by the knowledge that each in succession has been happily removed! Overlooking partial and temporary evils as inseparable from the practical operation of all human institutions, and looking only to the general result, every patriot has reason to be satisfied. While the Federal Government has successfully performed its appropriate functions in relation to foreign affairs and concerns evidently national, that of every State has remarkably improved in protecting and developing local interests and individual welfare; and if the vibrations of authority have occasionally tended too much toward one or the other, it is unquestionably certain that the ultimate operation of the entire system has been to strengthen all the existing institutions and to elevate our whole country in prosperity and renown.

Van Buren continues the theme of success and for that theme the author continues his simple declarative style of short statements of fact. This is effective by the simple volume it adds to the weight of the previous paragraph, but it could be trimmed.

13. The last, perhaps the greatest, of the prominent sources of discord and disaster supposed to lurk in our political condition was the institution of domestic slavery. Our forefathers were deeply impressed with the delicacy of this subject, and they treated it with a forbearance so evidently wise that in spite of every sinister foreboding it never until the present period disturbed the tranquillity of our common country. Such a result is sufficient evidence of the justice and the patriot ism of their course; it is evidence not to be mistaken that an adherence to it can prevent all embarrassment from this as well as from every other anticipated cause of difficulty or danger. Have not recent events made it obvious to the slightest reflection that the least deviation from this spirit of forbearance is injurious to every interest, that of humanity included? Amidst the violence of excited passions this generous and fraternal feeling has been sometimes disregarded; and standing as I now do before my countrymen, in this high place of honor and of trust, I can not refrain from anxiously invoking my fellow-citizens never to be deaf to its dictates. Perceiving before my election the deep interest this subject was beginning to excite, I believed it a solemn duty fully to make known my sentiments in regard to it, and now, when every motive for misrepresentation has passed away, I trust that they will be candidly weighed and understood. At least they will be my standard of conduct in the path before me. I then declared that if the desire of those of my countrymen who were favorable to my election was gratified "I must go into the Presidential chair the inflexible and uncompromising opponent of every attempt on the part of Congress to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia against the wishes of the slaveholding States, and also with a determination equally decided to resist the slightest interference with it in the States where it exists." I submitted also to my fellow-citizens, with fullness and frankness, the reasons which led me to this determination. The result authorizes me to believe that they have been approved and are confided in by a majority of the people of the United States, including those whom they most immediately affect. It now only remains to add that no bill conflicting with these views can ever receive my constitutional sanction. These opinions have been adopted in the firm belief that they are in accordance with the spirit that actuated the venerated fathers of the Republic, and that succeeding experience has proved them to be humane, patriotic, expedient, honorable, and just. If the agitation of this subject was intended to reach the stability of our institutions, enough has occurred to show that it has signally failed, and that in this as in every other instance the apprehensions of the timid and the hopes of the wicked for the destruction of our Government are again destined to be disappointed. Here and there, indeed, scenes of dangerous excitement have occurred, terrifying instances of local violence have been witnessed, and a reckless disregard of the consequences of their conduct has exposed individuals to popular indignation; but neither masses of the people nor sections of the country have been swerved from their devotion to the bond of union and the principles it has made sacred. It will be ever thus. Such attempts at dangerous agitation may periodically return, but with each the object will be better understood. That predominating affection for our political system which prevails throughout our territorial limits, that calm and enlightened judgment which ultimately governs our people as one vast body, will always be at hand to resist and control every effort, foreign or domestic, which aims or would lead to overthrow our institutions.

Last in his list of struggles which America overcame, Van Buren tackles slavery, attributing the lack of discord surrounding the issue until now to the Founders' allegedly wise decision not legislatively to tackle it at the federal level, a position which Van Buren wholly and unequivocally endorses. The justification for Van Buren's position, following the path of the Founders, receives the weight of the previous twelve paragraphs in which he extolled the same virtue and prescription for every other issue. He has saved the most potentially divisive issue for last, and using the same reasoning for this contentious issue as he has all along for other issues, he makes it much easier to agree with his position. Likewise and with equal rhetorical effect, he asserts that the same negative outcomes which he stated would result from deviating from the Founders' path in previous cases will ensue if they deviate from them in this instance.

14. [1] What can be more gratifying than such a retrospect as this? [2] We look back on obstacles avoided and dangers overcome, on expectations more than realized and prosperity perfectly secured. [3] To the hopes of the hostile, the fears of the timid, and the doubts of the anxious actual experience has given the conclusive reply. [4] We have seen time gradually dispel every unfavorable foreboding and our Constitution surmount every adverse circumstance dreaded at the outset as beyond control. [5] Present excitement will at all times magnify present dangers, but true philosophy must teach us that none more threatening than the past can remain to be overcome; and we ought (for we have just reason) to entertain A. an abiding confidence in the stability of our institutions and B. an entire conviction that if administered in the true form, character, and spirit in which they were established C. they are abundantly adequate to preserve to us and our children the rich blessings already derived from them, to make our beloved land for a thousand generations that chosen spot where happiness springs from a perfect equality of political rights.

Van Buren now begins to wrap up his speech, returning to the idea with which he began, namely that a retrospective on American history is hopeful and exciting. The rhetorical question of #1 ties up his many examples and brings him back to his initial premises, which he reiterates in sentences #2-4. In sentence #5 he offers a maxim which serves to give philosophical weight, or the impression of philosophical weight, to his insistence that we ought to look to the past for models. With Sentence #5 Van Buren reiterates his speech as a conditional: if we believe that A and B are so, which Van Buren has argued, then we should believe C. Finally, notice how the lack of connectives between to preserve and to make, in conjunction with the length and vivid imagery of the final clause, create the effect of the speaker, audience, and nation being carried from the structure of the speech away into a bright future.

15. For myself, therefore, I desire to declare that the principle that will govern me in the high duty to which my country calls me is a strict adherence to the letter and spirit of the Constitution as it was designed by those who framed it. Looking back to it as a sacred instrument carefully and not easily framed; remembering that it was throughout a work of concession and compromise; viewing it as limited to national objects; regarding it as leaving to the people and the States all power not explicitly parted with, A. I shall endeavor to preserve, protect, and defend it by anxiously referring to its provision for direction in every action. To matters of domestic concernment which it has intrusted to the Federal Government and to such as relate to our intercourse with foreign nations I shall zealously devote myself; beyond those limits I shall never pass.

Van Buren now returns to his own duties and isn't content to reiterate his opening, but declares a specific constitutional philosophy: strictly adhering to the letter and spirit of the Constitution as it was designed by those who framed it. With three prefatory participial phrases Van Buren describes his philosophy before he officially vows to "preserve, protect, and defend it." Moreover, he promises never to pass "beyond those limits" which have been entrusted to the federal government.

16. To enter on this occasion into a further or more minute exposition of my views on the various questions of domestic policy would be as obtrusive as it is probably unexpected. Before the suffrages of my countrymen were conferred upon me I submitted to them, with great precision, my opinions on all the most prominent of these subjects. Those opinions I shall endeavor to carry out with my utmost ability.

Just a frank concession that he can't go into more detail. Certainly not rhetorically necessary.

17. Our course of foreign policy has been so uniform and intelligible as to constitute a rule of Executive conduct which leaves little to my discretion, unless, indeed, I were willing to run counter to the lights of experience and the known opinions of my constituents. We sedulously cultivate the friendship of all nations as the conditions most compatible with our welfare and the principles of our Government. We decline alliances as adverse to our peace. We desire commercial relations on equal terms, being ever willing to give a fair equivalent for advantages received. We endeavor to conduct our intercourse with openness and sincerity, promptly avowing our objects and seeking to establish that mutual frankness which is as beneficial in the dealings of nations as of men. We have no disposition and we disclaim all right to meddle in disputes, whether internal or foreign, that may molest other countries, regarding them in their actual state as social communities, and preserving a strict neutrality in all their controversies. Well knowing the tried valor of our people and our exhaustless resources, we neither anticipate nor fear any designed aggression; and in the consciousness of our own just conduct we feel a security that we shall never be called upon to exert our determination never to permit an invasion of our rights without punishment or redress.

Van Buren uses anaphora to connect a long list of simple statements of his foreign policy, which he again attributes to his predecessors.

18. In approaching, then, in the presence of my assembled countrymen, to make the solemn promise that yet remains, and to pledge myself that I will faithfully execute the office I am about to fill, I bring with me a settled purpose to maintain the institutions of my country, which I trust will atone for the errors I commit.

A reiteration of the purpose of the occasion, his purpose, and his advance request for pardon.

19. In receiving from the people the sacred trust twice confided to my illustrious predecessor, and which he has discharged so faithfully and so well, I know that I can not expect to perform the arduous task with equal ability and success. But 1. united as I have been in his counsels, 2. a daily witness of his exclusive and unsurpassed devotion to his country's welfare, 3. agreeing with him in sentiments which his countrymen have warmly supported, and 4. permitted to partake largely of his confidence, I may hope that somewhat of the same cheering approbation will be found to attend upon my path. For him I but express with my own the wishes of all, that he may yet long live to enjoy the brilliant evening of his well-spent life; and for myself, conscious of but one desire, faithfully to serve my country, I throw myself without fear on its justice and its kindness. Beyond that I only look to the gracious protection of the Divine Being whose strengthening support I humbly solicit, and whom I fervently pray to look down upon us all. May it be among the dispensations of His providence to bless our beloved country with honors and with length of days. May her ways be ways of pleasantness and all her paths be peace!

Finally, Van Buren pays tribute to his predecessor, Andrew Jackson. He uses the familiar structure of prefatory participial phrases (1-4) culminating in his main point. After throwing himself on the mercy of the people, he makes the traditional plea for divine blessing and peace and prosperity for the nation.

Considering Van Buren's reverence for his predecessor, this speech far outstrips Jackson's in every way. He does a fine job keep a speech lively which must now conform in many ways to those of his predecessors in both tone and content. Van Buren firmly hits the ceremonial note but likewise urges a specific course of action. His speech perhaps of all that we've seen so far best balances the two demands.

Van Buren relies not at all on his own character for persuasion, although he calls upon the gravitas of his predecessors to lend credence to his positions. More often though, he uses actual argumentation, that is, painting a logical course of action from examples, propositions and conditions. These arguments are clearly laid out, usually in a tripartite structure, and easy to follow. The parallel construction and balanced phrases keep the long periods lucid while the paragraphs are at once centered around an idea and closely linked by transitional elements. In fact, each paragraph can be easily summarized.

Full Structure:
  1. I serve and appeal to the American people
  2. who are just and prudent
  3. under a just government
  4. which is just by design
  5. as is verified by experience
  6. which should make us rejoice
  7. and ignore this fear which has not come to pass
  8. and ignore this fear which has not come to pass.
  9. The people are virtuous
  10. and those who predicted disaster were wrong
  11. for certain dangers were overcome
  12. and other dangers were overcome
  13. and slavery will be overcome if it is handled the same way.
  14. Restatement of initial principles.
  15. Constitutional philosophy and vow.
  16. Concession that he hasn't been comprehensive.
  17. Foreign policy.
  18. Reiteration of the occasion, his purpose, and his request for pardon.
  19. Conclusion
Most impressive, though, are three feats. First, this speech is varied throughout. Van Buren at each point found a different variation on his expression to prevent the speech from getting repetitive. Likewise the vocabulary is exact and varied, but not ornate or distracting. Second, this speech is light and lucid. He keeps a lot of information organized, flowing, and easy to take in. Third, Van Buren is specific in articulating a political philosophy. He doesn't simply defer to vagaries like "prudence" but defers concrete principles.

In conclusion, this is a fine speech which deftly manages being fresh and traditional, a consistent yet varied style, and being organized without being predictable. The result is a great example of a plain, organized, and clear style of English rhetoric.

No comments:

Post a Comment