A Sacred Effort

Some say President Obama’s inaugural speech fell short of expectations. But history may reveal that it shifted expectations for us all.


“Say it plain, that many have died for this day. Sing the names of the dead who brought us here, who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges, picked the cotton and the lettuce, built brick by brick the glittering edifices they would then keep clean and work inside of.”

—Elizabeth Alexander, “Praise Song for the Day

African Americans comprised nearly half of the audience at Lincoln’s second inaugural address. As Lincoln spoke to the crowd, he made the astonishing suggestion that perhaps God had willed that the Civil War would continue, “until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s 250 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.” It was the day that Lincoln became the black man’s president.

Frederick Douglass reported “a leaden stillness” among the white half of Lincoln’s audience. But a reporter for the Times of London noted an enthusiastic call-and-response reaction from the black folks listening to Lincoln’s speech. The suggestion that God was taking a white eye at long last in return for the suffering of black slaves all these years was one of the most radical ideas ever voiced in the history of the American presidency, before or since.

Frederick Douglass, alone among all of those blacks who had been in Lincoln’s audience, found himself trying to fight his way past two guards barring his entry to the White House reception following the ceremony. Lincoln, spying Douglass, waved the guards away and demanded that Douglass give him his frank reaction, saying that no one’s opinion mattered more to him than his. Douglass, deeply moved by the speech and by Lincoln’s comments about him, responded, “Mr. Lincoln, that was a sacred effort.”

When Barack Obama pointed out Lincoln’s 703-word speech carved on the wall of the Lincoln Memorial to his daughters last week, and Michelle explained to the girls Lincoln’s fight for greater equality, 10-year-old Malia responded by asking, “Yeah, how are we doing on that?” Malia then told her father that his own speech, “better be good.”

So, how did our new president do with his 2,419-word address? While I felt that it had been beautifully delivered, some commentators felt that it lacked Obama’s usual rhetorical eloquence. Yet we tend to forget that Lincoln’s most famous speeches—Gettysburg and the second inaugural—read much better than they sounded. This may be Barack Obama’s first experience with this.

I don’t know quite what I was expecting, but my initial reaction to the president’s address was a certain puzzlement at my own reaction, because I found it less moving as a rhetorical statement than I had expected. And I believe the audience sitting around me on the grounds of the Capitol did as well, judging from our collective eagerness to reward him in loud voice and with great passion, with as many applause lines as we could.

I should have known that the new president had different intentions for this speech—its shape, its delivery, its effect—than, let’s say, his astonishing Iowa victory speech (which moved me to jump out of bed, covered in goose flesh) or his equally memorable “race” speech in Philadelphia.