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The peaceful transfer of power
American greatness has been fueled and sustained by qualities of character that are timeless and sorely needed during these days of national crisis. There should be no mistake about this being a moment of crisis or blindness about its cause, or who specifically is responsible.
The three greatest American presidents — Washington, Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt — collectively created America, saved the Union, ended slavery, and saved the world from tyranny. Each man’s greatest achievements and service were fueled by their exceptional character and dedication to virtue.
Washington was a man of exceptional humility, who repeatedly walked away from power to set in motion a new epoch of history. He was an example of the restraint necessary to sustain a republic. His actions awed the world, as well as the people of our young nation. When he passed he was eulogized as first in war, first in peace and first in the hearts of his countrymen.
Lincoln demonstrated iron strength, indomitability, fortitude and magnanimity. His second inaugural is the greatest speech in America’s secular canon. Its words are transcendent.
He makes clear that the cause of war was the moral catastrophe of slavery. His determination is absolute.
Fondly do we hope ~ fervently do we pray ~ that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword as was said three thousand years ago so still it must be said 'the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.'
So is his grace and magnanimity:
With malice toward none with charity for all with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right let us strive on to finish the work we are in to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan ~ to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
Franklin Roosevelt had the gift of faith, and because of it, he possessed a bottomless wellspring of optimism. Because of it, he was fearless — and made his nation so. His last inaugural address was the shortest in history. It stood at 544 words, but remains remarkable nonetheless as a declaration of moral purpose around a national purpose. FDR was a man without doubt by the end. His faith was in us, and it was not misplaced then or now. Here is what he said:
Mr. Chief Justice, Mr. Vice President, my friends, you will understand and, I believe, agree with my wish that the form of this inauguration be simple and its words brief.
We Americans of today, together with our allies, are passing through a period of supreme test. It is a test of our courage--of our resolve--of our wisdom--our essential democracy.
If we meet that test--successfully and honorably--we shall perform a service of historic importance which men and women and children will honor throughout all time.
As I stand here today, having taken the solemn oath of office in the presence of my fellow countrymen--in the presence of our God-- I know that it is America's purpose that we shall not fail.
In the days and in the years that are to come we shall work for a just and honorable peace, a durable peace, as today we work and fight for total victory in war.
We can and we will achieve such a peace.
We shall strive for perfection. We shall not achieve it immediately--but we still shall strive. We may make mistakes--but they must never be mistakes which result from faintness of heart or abandonment of moral principle.
I remember that my old schoolmaster, Dr. Peabody, said, in days that seemed to us then to be secure and untroubled: "Things in life will not always run smoothly. Sometimes we will be rising toward the heights--then all will seem to reverse itself and start downward. The great fact to remember is that the trend of civilization itself is forever upward; that a line drawn through the middle of the peaks and the valleys of the centuries always has an upward trend."
Our Constitution of 1787 was not a perfect instrument; it is not perfect yet. But it provided a firm base upon which all manner of men, of all races and colors and creeds, could build our solid structure of democracy.
And so today, in this year of war, 1945, we have learned lessons-- at a fearful cost--and we shall profit by them.
We have learned that we cannot live alone, at peace; that our own well-being is dependent on the well-being of other nations far away. We have learned that we must live as men, not as ostriches, nor as dogs in the manger.
We have learned to be citizens of the world, members of the human community.
We have learned the simple truth, as Emerson said, that "The only way to have a friend is to be one." We can gain no lasting peace if we approach it with suspicion and mistrust or with fear.
We can gain it only if we proceed with the understanding, the confidence, and the courage which flow from conviction.
The Almighty God has blessed our land in many ways. He has given our people stout hearts and strong arms with which to strike mighty blows for freedom and truth. He has given to our country a faith which has become the hope of all peoples in an anguished world.
So we pray to Him now for the vision to see our way clearly--to see the way that leads to a better life for ourselves and for all our fellow men--to the achievement of His will to peace on earth.
Eighty-two days later he was dead.
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Harry Truman had been vice president for just 82 days when he was received by Eleanor Roosevelt in her study in the White House on April 12, 1945. He had been playing poker in Speaker Sam Rayburn’s hideaway when a call came summoning him back to the White House.
Harry, the president is dead.
Is there anything I can do for you?
Eleanor Roosevelt, a giant of the 20th century, replied:
No, Mr. President. Is there anything I can do for you? You are the one in trouble now.
Truman, a decorated combat veteran of the First World War, recalled his emotions this way, telling reporters the following day:
I felt like the moon, the stars and all the planets had fallen on me.
Why did he feel that way? What burden was thrust upon him?
It was the burden imposed by the most solemn oath that exists in American public life. Thirty-five words long, it is specifically proscribed in the US Constitution, and was taken for the first time on March 4, 1789, by George Washington. When Truman raised his hand, he was the 32nd person in American history to swear it. When he did, he became president of the United States of America. His styling was simple and unadorned. “Mr. President” is what we call the person who swears that oath. Here it is:
I do solemnly swear to faithfully execute the office of President of the United States and to the best of my ability preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.
When it is sworn, executive power is either renewed or transferred. For 223 years, including through civil war, world war, assassination, economic depression and presidential resignation, it was peacefully transferred.
The first time it was peacefully transferred occurred in 1797. John Adams was fully aware that the unprecedented event was regarded with amazement. He recognized the significance of the moment and spoke about the “great uncertainty” that had followed the revolution and the establishment of the republic. The achievement was fresh, new, extraordinary and filled with promise and peril. This is how Adams described the achievement that would utterly transform world history and human civilization:
But this is very certain, that to a benevolent human mind there can be no spectacle presented by any nation more pleasing, more noble, majestic, or august, than an assembly like that which has so often been seen in this and the other Chamber of Congress, of a Government in which the Executive authority, as well as that of all the branches of the Legislature, are exercised by citizens selected at regular periods by their neighbors to make and execute laws for the general good. Can anything essential, anything more than mere ornament and decoration, be added to this by robes and diamonds? Can authority be more amiable and respectable when it descends from accidents or institutions established in remote antiquity than when it springs fresh from the hearts and judgments of an honest and enlightened people? For it is the people only that are represented. It is their power and majesty that is reflected, and only for their good, in every legitimate government, under whatever form it may appear. The existence of such a government as ours for any length of time is a full proof of a general dissemination of knowledge and virtue throughout the whole body of the people. And what object or consideration more pleasing than this can be presented to the human mind? If national pride is ever justifiable or excusable it is when it springs, not from power or riches, grandeur or glory, but from conviction of national innocence, information, and benevolence.
In the midst of these pleasing ideas we should be unfaithful to ourselves if we should ever lose sight of the danger to our liberties if anything partial or extraneous should infect the purity of our free, fair, virtuous, and independent elections. If an election is to be determined by a majority of a single vote, and that can be procured by a party through artifice or corruption, the Government may be the choice of a party for its own ends, not of the nation for the national good. If that solitary suffrage can be obtained by foreign nations by flattery or menaces, by fraud or violence, by terror, intrigue, or venality, the Government may not be the choice of the American people, but of foreign nations. It may be foreign nations who govern us, and not we, the people, who govern ourselves; and candid men will acknowledge that in such cases choice would have little advantage to boast of over lot or chance.
The peaceful transfer of power is at the core of the American system of government and way of life. Its endurance was mistakenly interpreted by most of the country as permanence. It is not an inherited right. It marks renewal and recommitment to the core of the American revolution and the ideals that animate America. When power is transferred in America, it is a powerful and profound moment.
It is important to understand the desecration and chaos Trump and his mob have wrought with their attack against America. They have normalized conspiracy. They have made the truth and lie equal in a public square contaminated by the toxic sewage of division, propaganda and misinformation. They have assaulted the essence of America through a conspiracy to seize power that was bestowed by the American people on Joe Biden. The treachery is historic, unprecedented and ongoing. The days ahead will test America’s spirit, resolve and democracy.
Below are the moments when power was transferred. Listen to select words of the inaugural speeches of America’s Democratic and Republican presidents. Do you see the continuity and the majesty of what Trump and his filthy accomplices desecrated?
Dwight Eisenhower, 1953
John F. Kennedy, 1963
Jimmy Carter, 1976
Ronald Reagan, 1980
Bill Clinton, 2000