Thursday, April 06, 2006

Evil as Defined by American Presidents

What is Evil? The Concise Oxord Dictionary records that it is, "morally bad; wicked or harmful or tending to especially intentionally or characteristically." The full Oxford English Dictionary has over a dozen definitions for the word.

It should not be surprising then that American Presidents have used the word evil in various ways. Different presidents have used the word evil to advance their agendas in both foreign and domestic policy.

A search of one site (USA Presidents) returns over 114 hits mostly from State of the Union and Inaugural Addresses! And that does not include references to evil in less official speeches. Here is a sampling of a few of the uses of the word evil by presidents.

Foreign Policy

Presidents Reagan and George W. Bush have both received a fair amount of negative coverage for their portrayal of America's enemies as evil.

Reagan spoke in his evil empire speech of the Soviet Union, "At the same time we see totalitarian forces in the world who seek subversion and conflict around the globe to further their barbarous assault on the human spirit. What, then, is our course? Must civilization perish in a hail of fiery atoms? Must freedom wither in a quiet, deadening accommodation with totalitarian evil?"

George W. Bush invoked the same spirit when he spoke of Iran, Iraq, and North Korea in the 2002 State of the Union Address. "States like these, and their terrorist allies, constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world."

However, Reagan and George W. Bush are the not the first American Presidents to refer to American opponents as evil. There are other examples of presidents referring to evil adversaries in their speeches.

For example, in the First Inaugural Address of Dwight D. Eisenhower, the President noted, "The world and we have passed the midway point of a century of continuing challenge. We sense with all our faculties that forces of good and evil are massed and armed and opposed as rarely before in history. " He was of course referring to global communism.

FDR noted in his Ninth State of the Union of the Axis Powers of World War Two, "We are fighting today for security, for progress, and for peace, not only for ourselves but for all men, not only for one generation but for all generations. We are fighting to cleanse the world of ancient evils, ancient ills. "

Domestic Policy

Not all references to evil though have come from the labeling of foreign foes. And it starts right with the first president. George Washington feared the disruption of commerce with Europe as an evil that "our fisheries and the transportation of our own produce offer us abundant means for guarding ourselves against."

President Pierce argued that the northern states were committing evil by harassing the southern states on the issue of slavery. In the 1856 Annual Message he noted, "Ardently attached to liberty in the abstract, they do not stop to consider practically how the objects they would attain can be accomplished, nor to reflect that, even if the evil were as great as they deem it, they have no remedy to apply, and that it can be only aggravated by their violence and unconstitutional action." Not surprisingly, President Lincoln just a few years later would equate slavery itself with evil.

President Andrew Johnson railed against the Union reconstruction effort in the south as "evil." He noted in the 1867 State of the Union, "I am aware it is assumed that this system of government for the Southern States is not to be perpetual. It is true this military government is to be only provisional, but it is through this temporary evil that a greater evil is to be made perpetual. If the guaranties of the Constitution can be broken provisionally to serve a temporary purpose, and in a part only of the country, we can destroy them everywhere and for all time. "

President Benjamin Harrison argued that ignoring laws was evil. He said in his 1889 Inaugural Address,"The evil example of permitting individuals, corporations, or communities to nullify the laws because they cross some selfish or local interest or prejudices is full of danger, not only to the nation at large, but much more to those who use this pernicious expedient to escape their just obligations or to obtain an unjust advantage over others."

President McKinley labeled the gold standard as evil. He noted in his 1897 State of the Union,"The evil of the present system is found in the great cost to the Government of maintaining the parity of our different forms of money, that is, keeping all of them at par with gold. We surely cannot be longer heedless of the burden this imposes upon the people, even under fairly prosperous conditions, while the past four years have demonstrated that it is not only an expensive charge upon the Government, but a dangerous menace to the National credit. "

There are many more references to evil by the presidents. This is just a small sampling. But I think it is an interesting look at how evil, and by definition then, good are seen through the eyes of a president. This, of course, invites the audience to think that agreeing with the president is a good act while disagreeing may help the cause of evil. Clearly, this has been true in many cases. However, at other times, the use of the word may be questionable.

If you have a favorite (or infamous) use of the word evil by a president, feel free to post a comment and include it.

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