Ph.D. Octopus

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Obama’s (Revealing) Misunderstanding of Abraham Lincoln

with 3 comments

By Wiz

I know I’m a bit late to the game here, but I wanted to respond for a second to Obama’s recent lecture about the virtues of compromise and bipartisanship that he gave to some college students. A number of good commentators have already jumped on the philosophy behind his remarks. Needless to say, I agree with what they say. Politicians certainly need to balance principles with compromise, but they shouldn’t make a fetish out of selling out their stated beliefs.

But Obama invoked Abraham Lincoln’s stance on the Emancipation Proclamation as evidence that sometimes you have to compromise.

Abraham Lincoln. Here’s a guy who didn’t believe in slavery, but his first priority was keeping the union. I’ve got a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation in my office, and if you read through it, most of the document is those states and areas where emancipation doesn’t apply because those folks are allied with the union so they can keep their slaves.

Here’s a wartime President making a compromise around the greatest moral issue that the country ever faced, because he understood that his job was to win the war and maintain the union. Can you imagine how the Huffington Post would have reported on that? It would have been blistering. “Lincoln Sells Out Slaves.” There would be protests, and we’re going to run a third party guy.

This is bad history, and in a revealing way.

First, of course, Lincoln received plenty of complaints from the left. As Joan Walsh pointed out, a number of abolitionist newspapers criticized Lincoln for inadequacy of the Proclamation. Second, there was a third party candidate: John Fremont, who was supported by a number of abolitionists, Wendell Phillips most prominent among them. Had it not been for the constant push of people like Phillips, Fremont, and Douglass, many of the best outcomes of the Civil War may never have happened. James Oakes has written well on the necessary interplay between radical activists and pragmatic politicians in the Civil War period.

But these are minor squabbles. The meat of Obama’s argument is that the Emanciaption Proclamation was a compromise from Lincoln’s lofty ideals, but he (like Obama) was willing to make it because he would achieve the Good rather than fail at the Perfect.

Here’s the problem: The Emancipation Proclamation was not a compromise for Lincoln. He had never previously stated that he could or would abolish slavery in the Southern states. When he ran for president, he was clear that he would not abolish slavery. In his first Inaugral Address he said:

I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.

The Emancipation Proclamation, when he signed it, was a move to the left for Lincoln, not a compromise on fundamental principles. In response to abolitionist pressure, the “General Strike” of runaway slaves, and the general revolutionary logic of the Civil War, Lincoln moved slowly to the left over his presidency. I’m sure I would have been one of those people like Wendell Phillips or Frederick Douglass who was often frustrated how slow he did it. But even they couldn’t accuse Lincoln of violating campaign promises by moving to the right. On issues like black soldiers, emancipation, black suffrage, etc… Lincoln was moving towards the position of his leftwing critics and away from his campaign positions.

On the other hand, when faced with a situation when he was called upon to compromise the core principles that he had run on, he showed a remarkable backbone. Before the war actually started, when hardline southerners had already seceded, there were numerous calls- from Seward among others- to pass some sort of compromise which would placate the South and avoid war. This movement coalesced around the Crittenden Compromise, which if it had passed, would have, among other things, guaranteed slavery below the 36° 30′ line for perpetuity (It’d sure be interesting if Los Angeles was a slave city, huh?). It was sort of the master “Grand Bargain” of the day.

Lincoln had ran on the platform of Free Soil, and so he took an admirably hardline stance on this issue, refusing to endorse any compromise that might end secession in return for the extension of slavery.

With Obama, on the other hand, the changes in his position are always to the right. At this point,the 2008 candidate who supported the public option, card check, protecting civil liberties, higher taxes on the rich, and cap and trade looks like Lenin compared to what we see today. I can’t think of a single issue on which Obama has moved to the left since the campaign, but I’ve lost count of the amount of times he’s moved to the right.

This isn’t to say Lincoln was always pure and Obama always compromises. But there is a difference between moving (slowly and haltingly as Lincoln did) towards doing the right thing, and moving (eagerly) to do the wrong thing. That Obama chooses not to see the difference is quite revealing. Lincoln started small, but grew big. Obama, on the other hand, seems determined to shrink.

Perhaps, Obama’s compromises are all justified. I believe, with plenty of others, that he needs to grow a spine. But either way, he shouldn’t be comparing himself to Lincoln.

Update: While I was writing this (clearly because he knew what I was going to say) Obama manifested evidence of a backbone for the first time in some while. Good. But my critique stands.


Written by Peter Wirzbicki

July 22, 2011 at 22:22

3 Responses

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  1. You leave out the key point, however, that by the time he was president Lincoln was leading a government from which his most intractable opponents had seceded. I’d like to see what Obama would be able to do if the Tea Party representatives abandoned the House en masse, leaving behind a center-left group of politicians more susceptible to reason.


    July 23, 2011 at 08:54

  2. […] a look at why Obama should stop comparing his compromises to Lincoln, from Wiz at PhD Octopus: But these are minor squabbles. The meat of Obama’s argument is that the Emanciaption […]

  3. DR. ABRAHAM LINCOLN-THE GREATEST PRESIDENT WHO EVER LIVED! END OF DISCUSSION!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    Al Dattolo

    January 19, 2014 at 12:08

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