Saturday, November 29, 2008

Obama and Lincoln

There is nothing remarkable in American politicians invoking the words and deeds of Abraham Lincoln as rhetorical support. But as I indicated in my earlier post on Barack Obama's Lincolnian rhetoric, it is remarkable to notice that Obama apparently really has thought about the deeper meaning of his Lincolnian rhetoric. Obama really does understand Lincoln's rhetorical appeal to the moral principles of the Declaration of Independence and the legal principles of the Constitution as the core beliefs of American politics. Also like Lincoln, Obama sees the principles of equal liberty as setting a standard of perfection that can be constantly approximated over the course of American history.

The Civil War was a test of whether a nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to equality could long endure. The final test would require a new birth of freedom. Supported by the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution, the early period of the Reconstruction of the South showed a movement towards biracial equality based on an equality of citizenship--including the equal right to vote. But then the formation of white racist paramilitary groups like the Ku Klux Klan challenged this move to biracial equality. And once Northern politicians and citizens lost their patience in using federal power to secure a republican form of government for the Southern states, Reconstruction failed, and racial segregation in the South brought about a re-enslavement of black Americans in the South. The renewal of the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s brought about a Second Reconstruction that finally carried out Lincoln's promise of a new birth of freedom and equality.

Regardless of whether one agrees with Obama's policy positions--I don't--one can see that his election shows the fulfillment of America's founding principles of equal liberty and thus a fulfillment of Lincoln's vision of republican government. Obama indicated this in the first sentence of his victory speech in Grant Park in Chicago: "If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible; who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time; who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer."

It is noteworthy that people from opposite sides of the ideological divide--the political Left as well as the political Right--are denigrating Obama's Lincolnian rhetoric. For example, Stanley Katz speaks as an "aging liberal": "I was one of the thousands of protesters in Grant Park during the Democratic convention in 1968, so you can imagine my feelings watching the victory event in Chicago last night. I thought the only false note in President-elect Obama's very moving remarks was his opening reference to fulfilling the 'dreams of the Founders.' He knows, of course, that a person like him was the furthest thing from the minds and dreams of the Founders. But no matter."

A leftist like Katz cannot imagine how any liberal could disagree with the position of Stephen Douglas and Roger Taney (in the Dred Scott decision) that the Founders were racists who wrote the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution to perpetuate their racism. He cannot imagine that Obama would really agree with Lincoln's argument that the Founders meant what they said about equal liberty for all human beings, although they saw a prudential necessity to compromise temporarily with slavery in the South.

Similarly, speaking from the conservative side,Charles Kesler has written an article on Obama for the Claremont Review of Books that tries to explain away Obama's adoption of Lincoln's arguments. According to Kesler, Obama is not really serious about his Lincoln references, because he rejects Lincoln's ideas in that "he regards both the Declaration and the Constitution as racist documents originally."

Kesler admits, however, that Obama doesn't actually say this. In fact, Obama often writes of the Constitution as containing an "ideal of equal citizenship" that "promised its people liberty, and justice, and a union that could be and should be perfected over time."

Kesler asserts that such comments are contradicted by one comment in Obama's Adacity of Hope where he wrote that "that spirit of liberty didn't extend, in the minds of the Founders, to the slaves who worked their fields, made their beds, and nursed their children" (95). Kesler doesn't acknowledge, however, that Obama goes on in this passage of his book to speak about his struggle to decide whether the Founders were hypocrites who betrayed "the grand ideals set forth by the Declaration of Independence," or whether the constitutional compromise with slavery was a necessary requirement for the formation of the Union that would eventually lead to slavery's extinction. Nor does Kesler acknowledge that Obama finally concludes in favor of Lincoln's position in recognizing the "absolute truth" that slavery is wrong and in undertaking a Civil War to vindicate that "absolute truth."

There is a kind of historical "progressivism" in this Lincoln/Obama rhetoric, because history is understood as the progressive unfolding of the principles of equal liberty in the founding documents--particularly, the Declaration and the Constitution. But this is not a radically relativistic progressivism, because the original principles are understood as simply true.

The danger, however, is that the messianic ambition of people like Lincoln and Obama can become a Caesaristic form of leadership that destroys the principles of checks and balances and limited powers necessary for republican government.

Charlotte Higgins of The Guardian has written a good article on Obama's rhetoric as showing him to be "the new Cicero."


Tony Bartl said...

Dr. Arnhart,
You do great injustice to Lincoln by asserting a parallel between his rhetoric and the progressivism of Obama. Sure, Obama is not a radical relativist. Should that be such a surprise? Is progressivism simply relativism? Of course not. But neither is it bounded by clear principles. Does Obama's progressivism stop with his own election? Have we finally accomplished Lincoln's supposed "goal", allowing our president-elect to cease his struggles and settle down to calmly administer the trust he has been given? Or is there a new horizon that needs to be conquered?
Lincoln was no progressive. He was conservative. He looked back, not forward, back to the principles of the Founding, principles rooted in human nature. That all human beings have an unalienable right to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.
To be sure, a Lincolnian could not take a Garrisonian or even Douglassonian position of radical opposition to a moral evil of his day with no easy solution, ignoring the political realities before him. But such a man would certainly never stand before Planned Parenthood and commit to signing FOCA as his first act as president, nor would he champion that travesty Roe v. Wade and commit to appointing the type of "living constitution", activist justices that would fight to uphold it.
Not even Stephen Douglas would do that. Such a "Lincolnian" would be one who would champion Dred Scott and The Kansas-Nebraska Act and commit to signing an even "better" Fugitive Slave Act than the one passed in 1850.
So Obama appeals to Lincoln ... just like all of his progressive forebears have done.

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