A Lesson From Lincoln For Obama

Dan Boylan
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Wednesday - March 04, 2009
| Del.icio.us

These past few weeks I’ve been slogging my way through a new biography of Abraham Lincoln: Ronald C. White’s A. Lincoln: A Biography.

It’s not my first. I’ve read poet Carl Sandburg’s Depression-era, multi-volume celebratory and factually flawed treatment of our 16th president. I’ve read single volumes by Benjamin Thomas (the most lyrical of the lot), by Lord Charnwood, by Stephan Oates and by David Herbert Donald (the definitive one-volume work thus far). This list goes on. Believe me, I’ve read far too much about Lincoln - more than anyone, other than Lincoln scholars, need read.

Why? Why do I and so many other Americans continue to read Lincoln ad nauseum? Why do scholars and journalists and poets continue to write about him? Why do new, young presidents like Barack Obama take lessons from him?


Simply put, Lincoln resonates - in his life and in his words. A child of poverty whose formal education consisted of nine months in dirt-floored frontier schools, Lincoln’s rise to state legislator, self-educated lawyer, congressman and first Republican president of the United States embodies America’s belief in the ability of one man to rise from rags to riches.

But more important, he brought to the presidency as keen an intellect as that of Thomas Jefferson’s and prose style unmatched by even the Sage of Monticello.

In his study of Lincoln, White emphasizes just these qualities of the man. Throughout his mature years, Lincoln consigned his thoughts to various scraps of paper. Then he would file them away: in desk drawers, in pockets, or in the band of his famous stovepipe hat. White analyzes these, and he provides an exegesis of each of Lincoln’s famous speeches - the carefully worked-out addresses that gained Lincoln fame in Illinois and across the nation in the run-up to the Civil War. Such analyses grow tiresome, but they also demonstrate Lincoln’s extraordinary mental agility and limitless rhetorical skills.

They remind the reader too of Lincoln’s currency.

“Lincoln’s single goal was to save the Union,” White writes.

But less than a year after taking office, Lincoln had begun to think expanding the war’s purposes to the emancipation of the slaves. As a war measure, the Illinois lawyer had also in that first year suspended habeas corpus - to the chagrin of defenders of civil liberties throughout the north.

In his annual message to Congress at the end of the second year of a Civil War that was going badly for the North, Lincoln explained this extraordinary act by arguing that the “dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew.”

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt could have used the same words in his Inaugural Address in 1933 as the United States entered the third year of the Great Depression. And last Tuesday President Obama could have recited Lincoln in his first speech to the whole Congress.

The United States faces plunging stock prices, failing banks, rising unemployment, and growing numbers of bankruptcies and foreclosures. “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, we must think anew.”

Yet old dogmas seem to have dominated most of Obama’s first few weeks in office. Republicans picked and parried at his stimulus package, labeling it dreaded pork instead (including John McCain’s remarks the day after the speech in which he disparaged the inclusion of $2 million for astronomy in Hawaii).

They spoke with anguish over the debt it would incur to future generations - without acknowledging that since Ronald Reagan took office in 1980, the national debt has grown from $937 billion to $11 trillion.

All but $1.6 trillion of that debt accumulation took place during the watch of Republican presidents Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush.

Still, last week “the dogmas of the quiet (and not-so-quiet) past,” however hypocritical, seem adequate to all too many congressional Republicans.

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