Monday Muse v.1 n.14
January 10, 2000

My Dearest Gentlefolk,

Brevity being the better part of insight (a point I am frequently guilty of contradicting), I present this week's Muse in an abbreviated format. I will not offer a substantial dose of commentary this week, but instead let the words speak or fail to speak by their own force upon the mind. In this case, I draw your attention to the sophistry of political speech. Indeed, I have in mind a peculiar institution known as the Inaugural Address, presented every four years by the President of the United States of America upon his swearing (or affirming) to the oath of office.

We are accustomed to the strained locution of contemporary political discourse, and in our dazed confusion often mistake familiarity for comprehension. But the strain of years' past may finally confront our eyes as plain error.

Consider the second inaugural address of James Madison, delivered on Thursday, March 4, 1813:

About to add the solemnity of an oath to the obligations imposed by a second call to the station in which my country heretofore placed me, I find in the presence of this respectable assembly an opportunity of publicly repeating my profound sense of so distinguished a confidence and of the responsibility united with it. The impressions on me are strengthened by such an evidence that my faithful endeavors to discharge my arduous duties have been favorably estimated, and by a consideration of the momentous period at which the trust has been renewed. From the weight and magnitude now belonging to it I should be compelled to shrink if I had less reliance on the support of an enlightened and generous people, and felt less deeply a conviction that the war with a powerful nation, which forms so prominent a feature in our situation, is stamped with that justice which invites the smiled of Heaven on the means of conducting it to a successful termination.

May we not cherish this sentiment without presumption when we reflect on the characters by which this war is distinguished?

It was not declared on the part of the United States until it had been long made on them, in reality though not in name; until arguments and postulations had been exhausted; until a positive declaration had been received that the wrongs provoking it would not be discontinued; nor until this last appeal could no longer be delayed without breaking down the spirit of the nation, destroying all confidence in itself and in its political institutions, and either perpetuating a state of disgraceful suffering or regaining by more costly sacrifices and more severe struggles our lost rank and respect among independent powers.

On the issue of the war are staked our national sovereignty on the high seas and the security of an important class of citizens, whose occupations give the proper value to those of every other class. Not to contend for such a stake is to surrender our equality with other powers on the element common to all and to violate the sacred title which every member of the society has to its protection. I need not call into view the unlawfulness of the practice by which our mariners are forced at the will of every cruising officer from their own vessels into foreign ones, nor paint the outrages inseparable from it. The proofs are in the records of each successive Administration of our Government, and the cruel sufferings of that portion of the American people have found their way to every bosom not dead to the sympathies of human nature. ...

Inaugural Addresses of the Presidents of the United States, from George Washington 1789 to George Bush 1989, pp.29-30 (Bicentennial Edition 1989).

A war had begun, with the Congress declaring our purpose to end the British practice of "recruiting" American sailors on the high seas. There was surely much more at play in the War of 1812. Madison simply echoed the political sentiment of his time when he reduced the dispute to one over the legal status of ships and sailors in international waters. Indeed, one of the most enduring results of the war was the creation of the legal concept of "international waters". Still, rather than dwell on substance, I call your attention to how long it takes Madison to say the following:

We have gone to war with England. The war was provoked by outrageous conduct. This conduct consisted of kidnaping our sailors and forcing them to work on English vessels, to the detriment of American commerce. We responded in the novel fashion of making formal demands to the English government. When these demands were not met, and once again in novel fashion, our Congress declared war. The war is just and we shall win it.

Astonishingly, almost everything else Madison says borders on nonsense. The words call to mind a great republic, and surely point to something beautiful, sacred and fragile. There is a certain imagery associated with his manner of speech. Still, his component stipulations and inferences do not withstand sustained scrutiny. The images quickly fade and become strangely unfamiliar. I strain to make sense of his meaning, not because he speaks poorly, but because he clothes his meaning in so much linguistic couture. Other than the obvious references to the prosecution of war with England, Madison is not really talking about anything. It is as though we are witness to the clothing's new emperor.

Any good wordsmith will do as Madison has done here. Impress us with how much he has to say about so little, by saying very little for a very long time. Beethoven demonstrates a similar effect in his music (though, I dare say, by a more enduring and profound articulation). Where else can you find so substantial a universe of sound composed of so small a collection of motives? But while Beethoven's elaboration and development of simple musical elements supplies a sort of timelessness to his compositions, Madison's verbal flourishes have worn thin with age.

I suspect the same will prove true of the political sophistry uttered today. Sophistry of this sort is not necessarily bad. Rather, when done well, it is firmly embedded to its time, touching the fabric of public discourse -- sending across the public mind a tremor of recognition -- but never really penetrating or altering the wealth of human understanding. It is the speech of affect rather than effect. It is the speech of Now.

I wonder: Is it truly speech at all?

David Robert Foss

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Message Author Date
Muse v.1 n.14 David Robert Foss 01/10/2000
Response 1 Steve R. 01/11/2000
Response 2 David Robert Foss 01/11/2000

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