Thursday, January 22, 2009

The radical patriot quoted by President Obama in his many-layered inaugural address


I have to admit I was somewhat underwhelmed at first by President Obama's direct but understated inaugural address. That's because I'm a child of the Soundbite Age and didn't realize at first that Obama took this rare opportunity, speaking at a gathering that itself spoke more eloquently than anything he could say, to deliver a thoughtful speech that was written less for soundbite potential than for repeated listening and even careful reading. It was a speech designed to grow on you.

Something the talking heads on TV did not do. They had time to Google the closing quote, but apparently didn't, or they would not have reported the words as George Washington's. It took awhile for the true author of the quote to be properly identified, in part spurred by the progressive blogosphere.
At a moment when the outcome of our revolution was most in doubt, the father of our nation ordered these words be read to the people:

"Let it be told to the future world that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive, that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet it."
These were the words of Thomas Paine, of course -- the author of Common Sense, the famous radical pamphleteer of the American Revolution, and later, the French (one reason he went overseas after the war was that many did not appreciate his opposition to slavery). The text that Washington ordered read to help raise morale was the first of the series of pamphlets Paine called The American Crisis.

In a wired world, The American Crisis has probably been read more times in the last 24 hours than in all its history. The entire text is an eloquent account of how dire the situation seemed in December of 1776, and how much courage and leadership it took to keep the Revolution going in its darkest hour, to fight for freedom another day. It's fascinating reading.

The opening words are some of the most famous in American history.
THESE are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.
These words took on new meaning during the Iraq war, and it's hard to see the indirect allusion as accidental.

Later in The American Crisis, Paine writes about the colonial Tories, the conservatives of their time. He writes that "servile, slavish, self-interested fear is the foundation of Toryism" -- tough words for tough times.
I have been tender in raising the cry against these men, and used numberless arguments to show them their danger, but it will not do to sacrifice a world either to their folly or their baseness. The period is now arrived, in which either they or we must change our sentiments, or one or both must fall.
I love what Barack Obama did with Paine. Not only did the quote provide an eloquent close to the inaugural address, but like a pebble dropped in water, the impact of citing Paine's words from The American Crisis spread in ripples. Like so many parts of the speech, it embedded additional layers of nuance. The more you look, the more you see.

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5 comments:

Holden Richards said...

Great entry....

Ann Marie Simard said...

Indeed all of it, superb quote excerpts...

katie krueger said...

I liked the speech, and immediately after, I thought how much I'd like to read it. Reading is how these things grow on me...

jjmadison said...

how eloquent. thank you!

Dr Bud Diablo, Sunshine Patriot said...

Unfortunately, when we deliver an oration on a festive occasion, we are not looking for reviews such as "repays careful study" or "solid, thoughtful speechification." We are looking to energize and galvanize the crowd. Obama's vaunted "eloquence" was not in evidence, although I will grant him "articulate." It was also a bad idea to incorporate quotes that made his own remarks seem pedestrian by contrast. Nice delivery, though. Overall grade: C+.