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.