Thursday, July 03, 2008

A knowing tribute to Lincoln

Obama is understood to have a bit of a fascination with that prior state legislator from Illinois, Lincoln. Allusions and the occasional fleeting impersonation are peppered through Obama's speeches and stagings. Perhaps that's why, while reading through Obama's June 30 speech on patriotism, I was struck by a little cold-eyed, split-second qualification to a paragraph's paean to Lincoln. Here it is:
Abraham Lincoln did not simply win a war or hold the Union together. In his unwillingness to demonize those against whom he fought; in his refusal to succumb to either the hatred or self-righteousness that war can unleash; in his ultimate insistence that in the aftermath of war the nation would no longer remain half slave and half free; and his trust in the better angels of our nature - he displayed the wisdom and courage that sets a standard for patriotism (my emphasis).
Lincoln's ultimate insistence was long in coming. At the outset of his term, he insisted he was not out to take away anyone's slaves; he famously said that if he could preserve the union by preserving slavery, he would do it; he took the nation through two years of war before issuing the Emancipation Proclamation. To me, that adjectival toss-in suggests that nuance is reflex to Obama.

In that nuance I hear Frederick Douglass, who took Lincoln's full measure, catalogued all his betrayals (from one point of view) of black people, and somehow, in his Oration in Memory of Abraham Lincoln , folded a clear-eyed and pained recitation of those betrayals into one of the most moving orations ever spoken in tribute to a fellow human being:
Viewed from the genuine abolition ground, Mr. Lincoln seemed tardy, cold, dull, and indifferent; but measuring him by the sentiment of his country, a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult, he was swift, zealous, radical, and determined.
As a way to celebrate the 4th, no one could do better than read this speech of Douglass's, delivered at the unveiling of The Freedman's Monument in memory of Lincoln in Washington, D. C. in April 1876. His pain in acknowledging that Lincoln "was preeminently the white man's Pesident, entirely devoted to the welfare of white men" is palpable, but it's only prelude to his appreciation of the man's transcendence of his own prejudices and smaller concerns. Douglass eulogizes Lincoln in words as purged of anger as those of Lincoln himself, in his second inaugural address:
Though high in position, the humblest could approach him and feel at home in his presence. Though deep, he was transparent; though strong, he was gentle; though decided and pronounce in his convictions, he was tolerant towards those who differed from him, and patient under reproaches. Even those who only knew him through his public utterance obtained a tolerably clear idea of his character and personality. The image of the man went out with his words, and those who read them knew him.
To give way for a moment to Obama's own conceit: is it too much to hope that we can look back some day and say something similar about him?

1 comment:

  1. Well-said and illuminating. Thanks much. You do us a great service by bringing to light this all-too-easily overlooked piece of history. As the eloquent scholar, Manning Marable, has written, "To find a common future together we must reconstruct our common past."
    (from his book, "The Great Wells of Democracy" as quoted in "Love Cemetery" China Galland)

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