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October's Presidential Speech Discussion

October 28, 2016

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

As usual, I reaped the biggest benefit from organizing and leading the Quarterly Discussion program. In light of the upcoming election, I devoted October's discussion to presidential speeches. It was not surprising to hear discord, but the places that it arose did surprise me. All participants stated clear, direct, thoughtful comments that just happened to disagree in certain things. As a result, I learned two very important lessons from this discussion.

First, for this discussion, I did not choose any blatantly controversial speeches. I chose the usuals: the Washingtons and Jeffersons and Lincolns. And even within these foundational speeches of our society, our group found debate. The Presidents ask that each individual identify with the national spirit. In order to maintain one nation, we must feel a part of it, feel pride in it. However, one participant claimed that Washington's idea of unity was misguided. This participant claimed that in his “Farewell Address,” President Washington should have dedicated the part of his speech regarding unity to honest opinion and generosity instead. In other words, President Washington should have called for generosity of spirit instead of unity of spirit. While Washington does ask for generosity in other sections, he clearly finds that unity is vital in creating a single country. He writes, “[I]t is of infinite moment that you should properly estimate the immense value of your national Union to your collective and individual happiness.... Citizens by birth or choice, of a common country, that country has a right to concentrate your affections.” Therefore, I found the participant's comment profoundly insightful. What if Washington had asked that the United States be united in the spirit of generosity, asking that we listen to those who disagree with us and vice versa?

And second, I learned that persuasive speech bent upon the idea of unity, will often arrive at exactly the opposite. The idea of a unified public is so controversial, so difficult to understand and always changing, that when a President attempts to label American ideals, they are met with naysayers who do not wish to be a part of such a group. Rhetoric that deals with unity, then, often unites or divides, but rarely finds a middle ground. This is something that Lincoln addresses in his “Second Inaugural Address” when he states, “[L]et us judge not lest we be judged. The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully." Lincoln defers ultimate judgement to God, in whom he trusts to make the right decision. This attempt to unify a broken people, is bound to fail in some respects. But ultimately, was this the right speech at the right time? By deferring to God, does Lincoln make too passive a stance? Does Lincoln place the power in God's hands simply because this is the most efficient way forward, even though it is an indefensible argument?

Reading these speeches reminds me just how precious balance is. Each of us left this conversation having understood another's opinion, but perhaps all still agreeing to disagree. I find that we are the better for it. And perhaps, therein lies our unity, not in arguing to agreement, but agreeing to understand, acknowledge and listen to another point of view. When we discuss with respect, I always learn something invaluable. It is my way of learning.

I do regret that we could not touch upon the idea of changing times. A number of the speeches note that it is 'a special time', or a 'time of change' and that the country is entering a 'new era'. This is discussed by Lyndon B. Johnson during the racial strife. This is also discussed by Franklin D. Roosevelt as he contemplates the implications of global war. President Woodrow Wilson claims that “We are at the beginning of an age in which it will be insisted that the same standards of conduct and of responsibility for wrong done shall be observed among nations and their governments that are observed among individual citizens of a civilized state.” I am fascinated by the idea that governments must address rights in terms of individuals, in terms of global economies and in terms of a single “self” such as a government must be. I also want to understand the play of past and future within the single moment caught in these speeches. I will have to follow up on these ideas in the future. Until then, I feel that we found an interesting agreement in disagreeing, and I feel a growing awareness and understanding of unity. My gratitude to all of the participants. Thank you!

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