Saturday, November 15, 2008

Barack Obama and Abraham Lincoln

February 12, 2009, will be the bicentennial of the birth of Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin on February 12, 1809. Only a few weeks before this date, Barack Obama will be inaugurated President of the United States. There is some powerful symbolism in this coincidence. But there's more here than just a coincidence of events. The intellectual and historical connections between Obama, Lincoln, and Darwin bring up many of the themes that I have pursued on this blog. I have been thinking about this while teaching my graduate seminar on Lincoln this semester.

Obama declared his candidacy for the presidency on February 10, 2007, two days before Lincoln's birthday. Speaking in Springfield, Illinois, before the Old State Capitol, Obama repeatedly referred to Lincoln and his ideas, while also echoing words from his best speeches--particularly, the House Divided speech, the Gettysburg Address, and the Second Inaugural. Just as Lincoln united the forces against slavery to fight for a more perfect Union based on the shared values of equality of opportunity under law, Obama declared that he would lead a similar battle to restore and perfect those values. Using phrases from Lincoln, Obama concluded: "Together, starting today, let us finish the work that needs to be done, and usher in a new birth of freedom on this Earth."

The influence of Lincoln on Obama is both practical and intellectual. An example of the practical influence is how Obama's planning for his Cabinet follows the lead of Lincoln. In winning the Republican presidential nomination, Lincoln had to defeat some powerful rivals--particularly, William Seward, Salmon Chase, and Edward Bates. When he was elected, Lincoln appointed them to his Cabinet, because he wanted to bring his opponents together so that he could benefit from their talents and sharpen his judgment in response to their critical advice. Doris Kearns Goodwin wrote about this in her great book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. Obama has said this is one of his favorite books on Lincoln. He talked with Goodwin during his campaign. And now he is following Lincoln's example by planning to bring his rivals into his administration. Lincoln appointed Seward as his Secretary of State. Now, there are reports that Obama has asked Hillary Clinton to consider becoming his Secretary of State.

The intellectual influence of Lincoln on Obama is evident in his book The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream. In the opening of the Prologue, Obama echoes the language of Lincoln's First Inaugural and Gettysburg Address in stating the primary theme that runs through the whole book and all of Obama's rhetoric--"the simple idea that we have a stake in one another, and that what binds us together is greater than what drives us apart, and that if enough people believe in the truth of that proposition and act on it, then we might not solve every problem, but we can get something meaningful done" (2).

To explain "what binds us together," Obama follows Lincoln in appealing to the self-evident truths of the Declaration of Independence as expressing our "shared values" or "the substance of our common creed." These truths concern the primacy of individual freedom and equality of opportunity as rooted in "eighteenth-century liberal and republican thought." But these individualistic values are combined with communal values, because any healthy society requires a balance of individuality and community. Moreover, as the Declaration of Independence indicates, we need to consent to government to secure our individual rights (52-56). Both liberals and conservatives in the United States agree to these shared values, although they disagree sometimes in how exactly they want to balance individual rights and social solidarity (57-63). Although Obama puts himself on the side of the liberals, he repeatedly indicates that the conservatives have some good points that liberals need to understand, and he argues that he will stress the common values that allow liberals and conservatives to engage in persuasive argumentation.

Obama's stress on persuasion manifests the "deliberative democracy" that he sees established by the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. The Declaration states the common values that all citizens share. The Constitution provides a framework in which citizens can deliberate about how to put those common values into practice.

For a politics based on deliberation and persuasion, Obama sees the value of Lincoln's "mastery of language and law," and obviously, Obama's own career has turned on his skills in language and law (122-23).

According to Obama, the "deliberative democracy" established by the Constitution assumes a "rejection of absolute truth." "After all, if there was one impulse shared by all the Founders, it was a rejection of all forms of absolute authority, whether the king, the theocrat, the general, the oligarch, the dictator, the majority, or anyone else who claims to make choices for us" (93).

But Obama also recognizes that sometimes the "absolutists" are correct, as when the opponents of slavery declared that slavery was absolutely wrong. Like Lincoln, Obama reads the Constitution in the light of the Declaration of Independence, and thus he sees the Constitution as implicitly anti-slavery. This is clear at the beginning of his "More Perfect Union" speech of March 18, 2008: "the answer to the slavery question was already embedded within our Constitution--a Constitution that had at its very core the ideal of equal citizenship under the law."

Obama admits that the debate over slavery challenges his denial of absolutism. "I am robbed even of the certainty of uncertainty--for sometimes absolute truths may well be absolute" (97). And yet he worries about the destructive consequences of moral fanaticism.

"I'm left with Lincoln," Obama concludes, "who like no man before or since understood both the deliberative function of our democracy and the limits of such deliberation" (97). The limits were reached when Lincoln saw that with the failure to resolve the dispute over slavery through persuasion, the dispute would have to be settled by force of arms. Here we see the dilemma in balancing pragmatism and absolutism. "The blood of slaves reminds us that our pragmatism can sometimes be moral cowardice. Lincoln, and those buried at Gettysburg, remind us that we should pursue our own absolute truths only if we acknowledge that there may be a terrible price to pay" (98).

Lincoln's opposition to slavery is understood by Obama as part of Lincoln's support of a capitalist economic system based on "free labor." But even as he promoted free-market capitalism, Lincoln also saw the need for energetic government in securing the conditions for successful capitalism. Obama points to Lincoln's support for governmental sponsorship of infrastructure projects like the transcontinental railroad, the opening of public land for settlement through the Homestead Act, and the system of land grant colleges supported by the Morrill Act. According to Obama, this shows that Lincoln understood "that the resources and power of the national government can facilitate, rather than supplant, a vibrant free market" (152). Here, then, Obama sees Lincoln as supporting a prudent middle ground between the free markets favored by conservatives and the governmental regulation favored by liberals. The general principle here is taken from Lincoln's "Fragment on Government," which Obama states as a "simple maxim"--"that we will do collectively, through our government, only those things that we cannot do as well or at all individually and privately" (159).

Like Lincoln, Obama has been criticized by his political opponents for not showing proper devotion to a biblical religious faith. When Lincoln ran as a Whig in 1846 for a seat in the U.S. Congress, his Democratic opponent was Peter Cartwright, a circuit-riding Methodist preacher. Cartwright accused Lincoln of being an "infidel" or atheist. Lincoln was forced to respond by admitting that he had never been a member of any Christian church, and that in his youth he had argued for some deistic ideas contrary to Christian orthodoxy. But he insisted that he had never openly denied the truth of Scripture. Lincoln observed: "I do not think I could myself, be brought to support a man for office, whom I knew to be an open enemy of, and scoffer at, religion. Leaving the higher matter of eternal consequences, between him and his Maker, I still do not think any man has the right thus to insult the feelings, and injure the morals, of the community in which he may live."

Obama faced a similar situation when he ran for the U.S. Senate in 2004, and his Republican opponent was Alan Keyes. (In this year's presidential election, Keyes ran as the candidate of "America's Independent Party.") Applying his literal reading of the Bible as the revealed moral law of God, Keyes argued that "Christ would not vote for Barack Obama, because Barack Obama has voted to behave in a way that is inconceivable for Christ to have behaved." Obama admits that "his readings of Scripture put me on the defensive," and that he was bothered by Keyes' accusation "that I remained steeped in doubt, that my faith was adulterated, that I was not a true Christian."

In responding to such arguments coming from the religious right--particularly, in the opposition to homosexuality and abortion rights--Obama argues that a literal reading of the Bible is not a good moral guide for politics, because democratic politics requires rational persuasion and moral compromise rather than religious faith and moral absolutism. In support of this, Obama surveys some of the teachings of the Bible that would not be acceptable in American society today (209-224).

But at the same time, Obama also criticizes many of his fellow progressives for scorning religious belief. After all, American politics and morality has long depended on the values and language of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Obama believes that secularists make a big mistake by trying to drive religious language from the public sphere, because this would drive out the language of Lincoln's Second Inaugural and Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech.

And yet even as Obama reminds liberal progressives about the importance of religious belief in inspiring moral and political reform--as in the civil rights movement--he also stresses that morality does not require religious belief. "Organized religion doesn't have a monopoly on virtue, and one need not be religious to make moral claims or appeal to a common good" (214).

Obama admits that he is uncertain about many religious claims--including the immortality of the soul and divine rewards and punishments in an afterlife. When his daughter Sasha told him, "I don't want to die, Daddy," he had no good response except to say, "You've got a long, long way before you have to worry about that." He admits that "I wasn't sure what happens when we die, any more that I was sure of where the soul resides or what existed before the Big Bang" (226).

But he insists that he is absolutely sure about "the Golden Rule, the need to battle cruelty in all its forms, the value of love and charity, humanity and grace" (224).

It should also be said that not only is Obama sure about these principles, he is also sure about himself--that he is the man to transform America just as Lincoln transformed America. In other words, he shows the same intense ambition that Lincoln showed. Actually, Obama is remarkably honest about his Lincolnian ambition and about his fear of the absolute humiliation that comes from losing an election (104-108). Like Lincoln, Obama has been criticized for the messianic character of his ambition--the kind of "towering ambition" that Lincoln warned about in his Lyceum Speech.

As I have indicated in previous posts, Lincoln had much in common with Charles Darwin--and not just their being born on the same day. This includes the idea of evolution, which Lincoln adopted from his reading of Robert Chambers' book The Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation.

Obama agrees. He separates religion and science and indicates that science rightly supports the idea of evolution rather than creationism or intelligent design, because these ideas depend on faith rather than reason. Obama recognizes, however, that this puts him in disagreement with those many Americans who accept biblical creationism (92, 198, 201, 203, 219).

The November 17th issue of The New Yorker has a beautiful cover picture of the Lincoln Memorial at night. The picture is surely intended to remind the readers of Obama's Audacity of Hope of the closing pages of that book.

At the end of the book, Obama admits that sometimes he worries that his political activity is "an exercise in vanity, useful to one one." When he falls into such a mood, he takes a run around the Mall in Washington, and occasionally he will run up to the Lincoln Memorial.

"At night, the great shrine is lit but often empty. Standing between marble columns, I read the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural Address. I look out over the Reflecting Pool, imagining the crowd stilled by Dr. King's mighty cadence, and then beyond that, to the floodlit obelisk and shining Capitol dome."

"And in that place, I think about America and those who built it. This nation's founders, who somehow rose above petty ambitions and narrow calculations to imagine a nation unfurling across a continent. And those like Lincoln and King, who ultimately laid down their lives in the service of perfecting an imperfect union. And all the faceless, nameless men and women, slaves and soldiers and tailors and butchers, constructing lives for themselves and their children and grandchildren, brick by brick, rail by rail, calloused hand by calloused hand, to fill in the landscape of our collective dreams."

"It is that process I wish to be part of."

"My heart is filled with love for this country."

This is moving language. But isn't it also disturbing in the way Obama offers himself as the one leader of the country? Previously, I have written a post on how presential greatness subverts republican government.


Paul Allen said...

LArry, This is an interesting read and a great summary of several Obama profiles that appeared before the election. IF there were one thing I would add - it would be to accent Obama's apparent awareness of the dangers of ego. This extends to his intellectual appreciation of what ego and the lust for power consist of being - an instance of the tendency to sin. This he picked up from the theologian Niebuhr, as I wrote about a few months ago in the Toronto Star here:

Paul Allen

Patricia said...

Great article. I added a link to it from my post.

Anonymous said...

Professor Arnhart:

Is there not a tension between his (at times) Lincolnian rhetoric and his actual political record? To take one scenario that will certainly test his understanding of and devotion to natural rights and constitutionalism: would you not be surprised if Obama nominates justices who are anything but progressives with a Wilsonian/historicist understanding of constitutional interpretation? - CF

Tony Bartl said...

You've got to be kidding.

xlbrl said...

So great an insult could not have been laid upon Lincoln by his enemies.
Lincoln knew a very great mixed race man, and Stephen Douglas would despise Barack Obama. Lincoln would only tremble for his country.

Anonymous said...

Since you've written on Aristotle's Rhetoric you might be interested in this piece in the Guardian on Obama and classical rhetoric:

To me the rhetoric often rings hollow- the tiresome overuse of "change" and "hope". But he does have that rhetorical skill and it sometimes works.

Anonymous said...

My guess is that Mr. xlbrl means to refer to Frederick Douglass, not Stephan Douglas.

Anonymous said...

How odd for Obama to read Lincoln and yet be in favor of the decision in Dred Scott.

Larry Arnhart said...

Athenian Stranger,

No, Obama is not in favor of the decision in Dred Scott.

He is clear in endorsing Lincoln's argument that the principles of equal liberty in the Declaration of Independence provide the moral principles behind the Constitution, and thus the extension of equal rights in American history is the fulfillment of the original promise of the Declaration and the Constitution.

That why he began his victory speech by invoking the "dreams of our founders."