In about two months time, our nation’s president-elect will take the oath of office and deliver his first inaugural address – the good Lord willing and the creek don’t rise! Since our theme today is Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, I thought Mr. Obama and we ourselves might benefit from a bit of advice taken from former Presidents whose words are still fondly remembered and quoted today. They will teach us lessons in humility, in courage and love of country.
Who better to begin with than the father of our country, George Washington! In his first inaugural address, given on April 30, 1789, in the City of New York, President Washington expressed great humility of spirit by acknowledging the absolute necessity of God’s blessings for the continued liberty and happiness of the people of the United States. Listen to these words from a pre-Darwinian age:
It would be peculiarly improper to omit in this first official act my fervent supplications to that Almighty Being who rules over the universe, who presides in the council of nations, and whose providential aids can supply every human defect…No people can be bound to acknowledge and adore the Invisible Hand which conducts the affairs of men more than those of the United States. Every step by which they have advanced to the character of an independent nation seems to have been distinguished by some token of providential agency.
Washington knew well that God has shown the strength of his arm, He has scattered the proud in their conceit; he has cast down the mighty from their thrones and has lifted up the lowly.
Humility does not imply weakness! In fact, I believe it is a prerequisite for our second lesson of courage. Our seventh President, a Democrat, Andrew Jackson of Tennessee was swept into his second term on a promise to demolish the central bank of his day. The bankers had spent over 3 million dollars in an unsuccessful effort to defeat him. Listen carefully to the reasons for his veto of the Bank’s Charter: It is to be regretted that the rich and powerful too often bend the acts of government to their selfish purposes. Distinctions in society will always exist under every just government. Equality of talents, of education, or of wealth cannot be produced by human institutions…There are no necessary evils in government. Its evils exist only in its abuses. If it would confine itself to equal protection…it would be an unqualified blessing. In the act before me there seems to be a wide and unnecessary departure from these just principles.
It takes courage to confront powerful money interests and act on the truth that the borrower is slave to the lender. Jackson remembered this biblical wisdom echoed by Shakespeare his play Hamlet, “my son, neither a borrower nor a lender be” as he indeed demolished the central bank and completely paid off the national debt. Oh, that history, in this case at least, would repeat itself today!
Surely it is love of country that binds all other civic virtues together. On a frigid winter’s day, January 20, 1961, John Fitzgerald Kennedy took the oath of office as the 35th President of the United States. At age 43, he was the youngest man and first Roman Catholic ever elected. From his speech on that day we learned about love of country.
In your hands, my fellow citizens, more than mine, will rest the final success or failure of our course. Since this country was founded, each generation of Americans has been summoned to give testimony to its national loyalty. The graves of young Americans who answered the call to service surround the globe. In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger. I do not shrink from this responsibility – I welcome it. I do not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation. The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it – and the glow from that fire can truly light the world. And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.
And so I ask you, my fellow Toastmasters, with these eloquent words ringing in our ears, what better teachers could be found for our President-elect than Washington, Jackson and Kennedy? Lessons in humility, courage and love of country learned well will serve to guide our constitutional republic into paths of prosperity and peace for years to come.