A president’s inaugural address sets the tone for the incoming administration and signals the direction in which he plans to lead (alas, "he" so far). Joe Biden should look to Thomas Jefferson’s and Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural speeches for inspiration because they sound the notes we need to hear today.
The 2020 election has some similarities to those of 1800 and 1860. All were contentious. All punctuated a deep level of division in the country. And all occurred on the precipice of new eras.
After losing to John Adams in 1796, Jefferson defeated Adams four years later. It became the first time in American history that a sitting president was ousted from office, inviting serious questions about how the transfer of power would occur. Recognizing the auspiciousness of this occasion, Jefferson opted not to gloat in his inaugural address but instead aimed to strike a chord of unity.
"We have called by different names brethren of the same principle," he declared. "We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists." In other words, despite the flare of tempers and the partisan rancor that fueled political hatred, Americans should recognize and embrace their common patriotism to move forward. This speech ushered in the so-called "Era of Good Feelings" that saw three consecutive two-term presidents, forging domestic tranquility that lasted largely until the Civil War.
Sixty years later, Lincoln spoke similarly. "We are not enemies, but friends ... Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory ... will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature."
The level of meanness and acrimony in the 2020 election was of an epic scale, and for all the insults Biden endured, he might be excused for adopting a partisan tone. But he shouldn’t. He should continue his themes of national unity and decency, and the best way to signal his intentions would be to bring Americans together so we can heal as one people.
Not since the Civil War has such a message been so badly needed. We have been torn apart in just about every way possible, and the worsening pandemic that continues to engulf us only fans the flames of discord. But here is where Biden can find even more wisdom in Jefferson’s speech. Aside from reconstituting Americans around common ideals, Jefferson also articulated a great national purpose that served to mobilize national interest in ways that kept the peace.
More specifically, Jefferson spoke of "a chosen country, with room enough for our descendants to the thousandth and thousandth generation ... with [such] blessings, what more is necessary to make us a happy and a prosperous people?" In other words, Americans can "close the circle of [their] felicities" by pursuing what we today call manifest destiny.
Jefferson’s conception of happiness of course did not account for countless people and perspectives, but the spirit of what he rhetorically aims to do is worth noting: he seeks to persuade the voting class of his day to look past differences in favor of broader aims. Here is where Biden can pick up the torch.
Whether that great national purpose is restoring national decency, or redefining the American character, or pursuing a new spirit of service and community, or beating COVID-19, Biden has the opportunity to lead from the moment he takes office. Calling for unity around a new American mission, and promoting national healing, is the right start.
Scott D. Reich, of Port Washington, is an author and historian who teaches the course on Communication and the Presidency at the University of Pennsylvania’s Institute for Public Service. He is the author of "The Power of Citizenship: Why John F. Kennedy Matters to a New Generation."