Serving as America’s forty-fourth president, Barack Obama has the singular honor of celebrating the bicenennial birthday of America’s greatest president. Obama’s bicentennial celebration of Lincoln fits into a motif of Lincolnian reference. Obama has frequently invoked Lincoln. Indeed, he has ostentatiously imitated him, taking Lincoln’s route to Washington prior to the inauguration and swearing the oath of office on Lincoln’s Bible.
But what does Obama think of Lincoln? The question is surprisingly difficult to answer.
On Thursday Obama gave remarks on Lincoln’s bicentennial in the Capitol rotunda. Michael Ruane and David Betancourt covered the event in the Washington Post. Obama struck an uncharacateristically humble note at the opening of his remarks, confessing that he “cannot claim to know as much about his life and works as many of those who are also speaking today.”
This note of humility was quickly transformed into a personal tribute expressing a “special gratitude to this singular figure who in so many ways made my own story possible.” The medieval scholastics characterized themselves as dwarves standing on the shoulders of giants; they could see more and farther than they, not through any virtue of their own, but rather “because they were carried high and raised up by their giant size.” Obama omits any such self-assessment in his tribute to Lincoln, but one wonders: Does Obama think Lincoln great because he made Obama possible?
Obama’s brief bicentennial remarks lack any reference to Lincoln’s thought or works. Obama refers to Lincoln’s approval during the Civil War of continued work on the Capitol dome. At the heart of his remarks Obama asserts:
The American people needed to be reminded, he believed, that even in a time of war, the work would go on; that even when the nation itself was in doubt, its future was being secured; and that on that distant day, when the guns fell silent, a national capitol would stand, with a statue of freedom at its peak, as a symbol of unity in a land still mending its divisions.
It is this sense of unity, this ability to plan for a shared future even at a moment our nation was torn apart, that I reflect on today.
So Obama credits Lincoln with the ability to plan for a collective future. How does this distinguish Lincoln from any leader (democratic or not) with a plan (sound or not)? Well, Obama explains, even in the midst of war Lincoln was a merciful man. But what idea of America drove Lincoln? Nothing in Obama’s remarks provides the hint of an answer.
Crediting Lincoln with “the ability to plan for a shared future” leaves Lincoln at best an incredibly indistinct figure. Seeking to sum up, Obama pretends to touch on “what Lincoln never forgot, not even in the midst of civil war[.]” And what might that be? According to Obama, Lincoln believed “that despite all that divided us – north and south, black and white – we were, at heart, one nation and one people, sharing a bond as Americans that could not break.”
Obama to the contrary notwithstanding, Lincoln certainly knew that the Union could be broken and that while some Americans believed that all men were created equal, other Americans rather vigorously disagreed. They thought, for example, that blacks were inferior by nature. Without arguing the point, however, one wonders precisely what bond Obama is talking about.
In 2005 Time called on Obama to reflect on Lincoln. In his 2005 column Obama described “what I see in Linconl’s eyes.” Obama wrote:
In Lincoln’s rise from poverty, his ultimate mastery of language and law, his capacity to overcome personal loss and remain determined in the face of repeated defeat–in all this, he reminded me not just of my own struggles. He also reminded me of a larger, fundamental element of American life–the enduring belief that we can constantly remake ourselves to fit our larger dreams.
In other words, Obama finds in Lincoln no fixed idea that explains his understanding or his acts. Lincoln is simply the avatar of a progressive future that is unbounded by the limits of any fixed idea:
A connected idea attracts us to Lincoln: as we remake ourselves, we remake our surroundings. He didn’t just talk or write or theorize. He split rail, fired rifles, tried cases and pushed for new bridges and roads and waterways. In his sheer energy, Lincoln captures a hunger in us to build and to innovate. It’s a quality that can get us in trouble; we may be blind at times to the costs of progress. And yet, when I travel to other parts of the world, I remember that it is precisely such energy that sets us apart, a sense that there are no limits to the heights our nation might reach.
Obama can honor Lincoln to the extent that Lincoln points to a progressive future that gives rise to the possibility of Barack Obama. In himself, Lincoln is a limited and flawed figure:
[A]s I look at his picture, it is the man and not the icon that speaks to me. I cannot swallow whole the view of Lincoln as the Great Emancipator. As a law professor and civil rights lawyer and as an African American, I am fully aware of his limited views on race. Anyone who actually reads the Emancipation Proclamation knows it was more a military document than a clarion call for justice. Scholars tell us too that Lincoln wasn’t immune from political considerations and that his temperament could be indecisive and morose.
Obama seems to have absorbed the critique of Lincoln as a racist and the Emancipation Proclamation as merely utilitarian or meaningless. Anyone familiar with the work of the late Columbia historian Richard Hofstadter can hazard an educated guess about the source of Obama’s opinions.
Here we see that the problem with Obama’s Lincoln, as with that of so many students today, is not what Obama doesn’t know about him; it’s what he “knows,” or thinks he knows, about him.
Harry Jaffa demolishes Hofstadter’s essential critique of Lincoln in a few paragraphs of Crisis of the House Divided. Obama seems unfamiliar with the propsition that, in Lincon’s (correct) view, the limits of the Emancipation Proclamation were set by the Constitution of the United States. Professor Thomas Krannawitter rightly asked, “what more would Obama have advised Lincoln to do?”
Moreover, Obama’s attribution of retrograde racial views to Lincoln is a commonplace among the left that likewise fails upon close scrutiny (which Jaffa also provides). The testimony of Frederick Douglass on this score is powerful as well: “In his company I was never in any way reminded of my humble origin, or of my unpopular color.”
In his “More perfect Union” speech last year, Obama essayed the history of race in America. In Obama’s telling, Lincoln dropped out of the story:
[W]ords on a parchment would not be enough to deliver slaves from bondage, or provide men and women of every color and creed their full rights and obligations as citizens of the United States. What would be needed were Americans in successive generations who were willing to do their part – through protests and struggle, on the streets and in the courts, through a civil war and civil disobedience and always at great risk – to narrow that gap between the promise of our ideals and the reality of their time.
Lincoln had disappeared. Only the residue of faith in a glorious future somehow remained: “[W]hat we know — what we have seen – is that America can change. That is true genius of this nation. What we have already achieved gives us hope – the audacity to hope – for what we can and must achieve tomorrow.”
Obama’s race speech not only dropped Lincoln from the story, it dropped the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration of course stood at the center of Lincoln’s thought. Lincoln took his bearings by the Declaration’s recognition of “an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times.” Lincoln celebrated the Declaration for “embalm[ing]” the truth there so that “in all coming days, it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling-block to the very harbingers of re-appearing tyranny and oppression.”
Obama’s omission of the Declaration was no accident. Professor Krannawitter explains:
Obama, following FDR, rejects the Declaration’s principle of equal, individual rights. This explains why in a 2001 radio interview Mr. Obama lamented that the modern Supreme Court had not yet displaced individual rights with a Constitutional defense of group rights and schemes of redistribution of wealth and property. This is exactly how Mr. Obama thinks the Constitution should be understood.
On the occasion of the Lincoln bicentennial, Obama left Lincoln in the shadows. In part, this is because Obama knows so little of him. In part, this is because Lincoln’s thought is alien to Obama’s own thinking. Professor Krannawitter concludes: “There is no greater student and therefore no greater teacher of American politics than Lincoln. If Obama wants to borrow from Lincoln’s legacy, he should first learn from Lincoln.”