Last week we heard from John Burt, author of Lincoln’s Tragic Pragmatism, on the promise of equality in Barack Obama’s second inaugural address. In the piece below, Burt further explores the historical allusions in Obama’s speech, and considers the contingent and expanding ideal of freedom in American history.
President Obama’s Second Inaugural Address expresses optimism about our country’s seeing its way clear to the next step, rather more optimism than Lincoln felt. To see the difference, consider the way Obama juxtaposed three different allusions to speeches of Lincoln about the lessons of the Civil War:
Through blood drawn by lash and blood drawn by the sword, we learned that no union founded on the principles of liberty and equality could survive half-slave and half-free. We made ourselves anew, and vowed to move forward together.
The first sentence quotes a famous sentence from Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. In Obama’s version, the blood drawn by the lash of the master and the blood drawn by the sword of the soldier are the (high) price of a lesson by now thoroughly learned. Lincoln’s version is rather darker. What Lincoln said was:
Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”
In saying this, Lincoln imagined that God may have in mind a course of retribution for the United States so severe that the not-yet-ended Civil War will seem only like the first act; furthermore, should this dire fate befall the Union, Lincoln conceded that it will be a fate the Union has richly deserved.
The phrase about how no union founded on the principles of liberty and equality could survive half-slave and half-free alludes, of course, to Lincoln’s “House Divided” speech of 1858, and it does capture one of the main lessons of the Civil War. But when Lincoln referred to the same subject in the opening sentences of the Gettysburg Address, he saw the question not as whether a republic divided into slave states and free states could survive (he already knew that that question had a negative answer) but whether any republic that chose to test the proposition that all men are created equal could endure. That is a related but distinct problem and the question it raised was in Lincoln’s mind still an open one.
Finally, the phrase about making ourselves anew alludes to the key paragraph of Lincoln’s December 1862 Annual Message:
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, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.
Lincoln here did not just imagine the Republic learning a hard-earned lesson. He imagined the Republic reinventing itself completely, freeing itself from illusions about itself to which it has been enthralled, enslaved. Now the Republic has indeed moved forward together since the Civil War, and President Obama certainly knows as well as anyone else does how messy and slow and partial that progress was.