Within days of President Obama’s second inauguration the country and the government had returned from the moment’s pageantry to the social and fiscal challenges we face. His inaugural address, though—with its echoes of hallowed American oratory and its own appeals to posterity—deserves far greater consideration than afforded by the swift turn to business. In the piece below, the first of two, John Burt examines the ways in which the speech links Barack Obama’s sense of American identity to that of Lincoln. Burt’s new book, Lincoln’s Tragic Pragmatism, is a deep engagement with the limits of liberalism and with democracy’s inability to settle moral conflict.
President Obama’s Second Inaugural Address draws together, in an organic whole, themes from the speeches and acts of the Presidents he most admires. Its vision of an economy of mutual care, in which young and old, rich and poor, sick and well, share an ethos of responsibility for each other and express that responsibility in law and policy, derives, with allowances for changed political circumstances and chastening experiences, from the thinking of Franklin Roosevelt, and Roosevelt’s great successor, Lyndon Johnson. Its vision of America’s place in the world looks back, in ways tempered by harsh experiences, through President Truman’s Marshall Plan to President Wilson’s Fourteen Points. But most of all, Obama’s vision of what it is to be an American, his argument that a shared sense of the moral equality of all people is not only an important political value but the ground of American identity itself, the thing that makes Americans a people, ties his sense of what American nationality is to Lincoln’s.
Quotations from Lincoln, whether direct or oblique, recur throughout President Obama’s speech. What most descends from Lincoln is the way Obama reads the promises of the Declaration of Independence:
We recall that what binds this nation together is not the colors of our skin or the tenets of our faith or the origins of our names. What makes us exceptional—what makes us American—is our allegiance to an idea, articulated in a declaration made more than two centuries ago: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”
What is Lincolnian about this passage is its sense that in America a never completely fulfilled vocation for moral equality stands in the place that shared blood, or shared language, or shared religion stands in other countries. Lincoln argued, in a speech in Chicago in July, 1858, that it is the belief that the promises of the Declaration are “the father of all moral principle in them,” that gives all Americans, wherever their ancestors may be from, a right to claim American nationality “as though they were blood of the blood, and flesh of the flesh, of the men who wrote that Declaration, and so they are.” It is a calling for equality, Lincoln maintained, that distinguishes America as America and defines its place in the world. This calling to advance equality is what is exceptional about America, and its success or, all too often, failure, to live up to the demands of that calling, both within its borders and in the world at large, is the measure of its success or failure as a nation. What is more, the course of American history, as Lincoln argued in the Gettysburg Address, is a test, a test in which the rest of the world has a stake, of the viability of equality as a political ideal.
It is by virtue of equality, by virtue of recognizing each other as equal citizens with an equal claim to dignity and public respect, that we share a public world, and it is our participation in that world that shapes our collective identity as a nation and our private identities as citizens. Identity is not atomic; we are what we are because we are already bound up with each other, and equality assures that however else we may be connected with each other, we are also bound up in an ethos of mutual care that shapes our being and gives it a moral vocation. We are what we are as individuals because we share the promise to acknowledge each other as citizens and to take up the obligations toward each other that go with citizenship, with a shared investment in the common life of our republic.
Equality is not homogeneity; indeed, to treat equality as a political value is to assume that people are different from each other in profound ways and have to work out a habit of life with each other. Equality only rises to salience in our minds because we are different. We enjoy the dignity of citizenship in the res publica only to the extent we respect that dignity in others who are unlike us. When Lincoln wrote in an 1858 note to himself, that “As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master,” what he meant is that I do not have freedom unless I recognize it in others and embrace them as moral equals; if I fail to embrace the dignity of others, conceding their place at my side in the public world, I lose it for myself. The would-be master is enslaved by his vision of mastery, the bigot straitened and foreshortened by his bigotry. More than this, a me-first, leave-me-and-my-stuff-alone vision of personhood is a shrunken vision of personhood; a hardminded individualist identity is finally not much of an identity at all. Mutual acknowledgment is the ground of identity, and the public world is not merely a place we go to seize private goods for ourselves, to protect our standard of living or to better enrich ourselves with the fruits of our enterprise, but also, and chiefly, the place where we seek to become what mutual acknowledgment can make us.
This res publica is a promise, but not yet a reality. We are, as President Obama said, on “a never-ending journey, to bridge the meaning of those words with the realities of our time.” Now there is always a tension between principles and possibilities, between means and ends, between promises and the power and imagination to fulfil them. But the difference Obama speaks of is not only the shadow that always intervenes between the aim and the deed. The journey towards equality is never-ending not merely because we so often fail at equality but also because the meaning of equality continues to unfold, continues to reveal entailments that may not have been in our focal consciousness when the promise was first made.
The Thomas Jefferson who articulated that promise of equality did not intend to emancipate all the slaves in the colonies at the time of independence. He did tremble when he reflected that God is just, and he did try to prevent slavery from going into the western territories, but not only was he unable to free his own slaves, he was also unable to imagine how to end slavery, and how to live with his former slaves afterwards. He both did and did not seek the end of slavery, and which of those intentions was deepest in his mind is hard to say. He did, however, make commitments that would continue to trouble the Union until slavery came to an end, putting a burr under the saddle of America (in Robert Penn Warren’s phrase) that would never enable it to rest so long as the loudest yelps for liberty were coming from the drivers of slaves.
In the same way Lincoln, ending slavery, both did and did not will political equality across racial lines. But he articulated values that would not allow us to rest until equal citizenship became a reality. Part of his hesitation might have been strategic indirection: a more direct avowal of that aim might have complicated, and possibly even foreclosed, the destruction of slavery. But it may also have been that he only dimly sensed the meaning of his own promises, feeling his way among the possibilities as he did.
How often does the logic of our own acts become clear to us only in retrospect! We are always slightly at odds with our values, because they work not only on what we know but also on what we are on the point of knowing. We see our values only as we work them out under the constraints of our culture and politics, which means that we cannot see them clearly or see them whole. But they critique our culture and politics as much as they emanate from them, and just as much as they are limited by our culture and politics, they are also saturated with entailments that we do not come to understand until urgent contingencies force them out of the shadows of latency. As Obama remarks, “[H]istory tells us that while these truths may be self-evident, they have never been self executing; that while freedom is a gift from God, it must be secured by His people here on earth.” What seems obvious in retrospect, because it fulfills the demands of the deep concepts our everyday conceptions only dimly render, is in prospect fraught with difficulties and double binds, because our everyday conceptions blind us to the meaning of the values we believe they serve.
It did not seem obvious to much of the Union that emancipating slaves because they are endowed by their creator with inalienable rights also requires that those slaves be seen as equal citizens with their former masters, although it seems obvious to us. It took more than a century to transform that claim from being a leap of imagination to being a commonplace that should go without saying.
It seems obvious to us that equal citizenship across racial lines implies equal citizenship across gender lines as well, and the same thing seemed obvious to vanguard elements of the feminist and abolition movements in the antebellum era. But racial equality and gender equality had a fraught relationship from Reconstruction to the First World War, and in those years commitment to one all too often foreclosed commitment to the other. Opponents of a measure providing suffrage for black men in postwar Kansas, for instance, used a measure providing suffrage for women to defeat it, and many of the famous feminist leaders of that era opposed the Fifteenth Amendment because it gave the vote to what they thought of as uneducated black men but denied it to educated white women.
Future generations will think it obvious that Seneca Falls, Selma, and Stonewall were moments in the same struggle. But that didn’t seem so obvious to most of America two decades ago, and even as recently as last year President Obama himself was hesitating about gay rights (although that may have been more for strategic than for philosophical reasons). The promise of equality is a promise with inexhaustible inwardness. We do not know what it will demand of us next, whether it is a demand about immigration or a demand about class. We do not know how we will make ourselves ready to face that next demand. But we do know that future generations will be astounded at how long it took us to come to our senses about it.