Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Misreading Lincoln

The thoughtful Garry Wills wrote in the New York Review of Books that Obama’s Tucson speech merits comparison with the stirring words of Abraham Lincoln, and many others have echoed this praise of healing words at a troubled time. I dissent.

That Obama struck a proper note and expressed decent sentiments in the memorial speech is beyond debate. His use of the platform to remind people of the need for civil discourse that is actually civil and not murderous was entirely appropriate and seems to have cooled the violent rhetoric of the teabagger wing for now as white people with grandchildren suddenly feel vulnerable to random political violence. We’ll see how long it lasts.

But Wills goes further: in his brief article called ‘Obama’s Finest Hour’, Wills argues Obama ‘had to rise above the acrimonious debate about what caused the gunman in Tucson to kill and injure so many people. He side-stepped that issue by celebrating the fallen and the wounded and those who rushed to their assistance’. In this way, says Wills, Obama assumes the mantle of Lincoln at Gettysburg who, rather than blame the South, stopped to praise the dead and urge others to learn from them.

Noble sentiments all, and I wish I could applaud them. However, we seem to be missing a highly salient point when looking to Obama as the great peacemaker soothing the nation’s wounds, a magnanimous leader worthy of comparison to Honest Abe: Lincoln had just spent two years commanding his armies to slaughter the enemy by the tens of thousands.

I do not find this to be a detail of history. Lincoln was not forced to go to war to save the union; he chose it. He faced considerable opposition, too, including violent draft riots here in New York City where the populace rose up against the idea of getting killed for things they cared nothing about, like the fate of black slaves. A more timid president would have sought a ‘middle ground’ to keep the peace and allowed the Confederacy to secede.

Instead, Lincoln declared war. He tolerated General McClellan’s cautious, defeatist approach for a while but eventually tapped Grant and Sherman to kill, burn and pillage their way to victory. Gettyburg came before the serious scorched earth campaigns like Sherman’s march to the sea through Georgia, but while Lincoln spoke movingly of the dead in Pennsylvania and did not recriminate the enemy there, he didn’t flinch from punishing the secessionist armies and ransacking their homes and lands. Lincoln wanted to forgive, but first came triumph in war.

Wills then compares Obama with Henry V at Agincourt whom Shakespeare allows the ‘king’s touch’ that people in medieval times believed to bring healing powers. It would be nice to also recall that Agincourt was a battleground of the Hundred Years’ War and that warfare in the XV century was not exactly a Kumbaya moment for either the winning or the losing side.

This really will not do. It is delusional to claim the mantle of peacemaker when enabling warmongers and to believe oneself noble while doing nothing to halt evil deeds.

To take the historical parallel further, try this bit of Obama-like rhetoric of reconciliation and tolerance from another figure of Lincoln’s times: ‘To the eye of local and sectional prejudice, [the people’s interests] always appear to be conflicting, . . . and the jealousies that will perpetually arise can be repressed only by the mutual forbearance which pervades the constitution’. That was president James Buchanan, who preceded Lincoln and set the stage by his steady concessions to the South for the near dissolution of the republic.

Buchanan said he felt a ‘strong repugnance’ over incorporating the slave territory of Texas into the Union. But he did it anyway convinced that the institution was dying out if the abolitionists would just stop stirring up trouble with their demands. (The ghost of Rahm Emanuel must have hovered nearby.) Despite his constant efforts to mollify the southerners, Buchanan’s presidency ended with the collapse of the union, which he then very even-handedly blamed on ‘intemperate interference of the Northern people with the question of slavery in the Southern States’.

Buchanan said the states had no right to secede but also that the Federal Government had no legal right to prevent them from doing so, a lovely formulation that allows one to have one’s moral cake and placidly serve it to guests with monogrammed tea napkins. I fear that Obama misreads history and is headed for a Buchanan-like place in it.

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