No one begrudges a statesman a degree of latitude in his manipulation of historical precedent. FDR’s Jefferson was largely a fantasy. Sir Edward Coke, in his struggles with the Stuart dynasty, invented a phony theory of Magna Carta. Napoleon, as first consul of the French Republic, invoked the image of Caesar Augustus, then discarded it when, in 1804, he threw away the republican mask and had himself crowned emperor of the French.
The difficulty with President Obama’s reprise of Abraham Lincoln is partly one of style, perhaps of taste. It is one thing to invoke a precedent. It is another thing to trivialize it. The president-elect’s redundant train ride to a Washington he had, after all, arrived in earlier this month had a Disney theme-park air that didn’t quite work. It is said that “Lincoln-inspired foods” will be served at the luncheon in the Capitol following the inauguration. Lincoln-inspired foods? I suppose it is only a matter of time before we learn that the new First Puppy has been christened “Fido.”
Lincoln has already been obscured by a mountain of kitsch. Why add to it?
But there is a deeper oddness in the new president’s invocation of this predecessor. Lincoln’s principal preoccupation as a politician was liberty: He ran for president in order to prevent the expansion of slavery in the nation’s territories. The incoming president, in his own speeches and writings, has emphasized community rather more than he has liberty.
Fair enough: Both liberty and community are essential to a healthy polity. But why, if your political shtick is community, look to the guy whose political shtick was freedom?
There is, of course, a school of thought that holds that Lincoln’s solicitude for liberty was a pose; that as a pro-tariff Republican he was hardly a consistent champion of economic freedom; that his statements about blacks reflected the prejudices of his age; that he rode roughshod over civil liberties; that if he had been really committed to freedom he would have let the Confederate states secede in the name of national self-determination. Whatever one thinks of these criticisms, it is safe to say that President Obama, if he has not much interest in the Lincoln-as-Liberty-Lover school of historical interpretation, has even less in the Lincoln-as-Tyrant school. What, then, does he see in the man?
Probably it is the Lincoln “brand” (Honest Abe, the Good Politician) that most deeply interests him, as well as his own superficial resemblances to the national hero. (E.g., Lincoln was tall, so is Obama; Lincoln came from Illinois, so does Obama; Lincoln was a lawyer, so is Obama; Lincoln had ten fingers . . .) It is significant that the one serious aspect of the Lincoln legacy to which the incoming president has laid claim–what Doris Kearns Goodwin has called Lincoln’s “Team of Rivals” approach to governance–is only half the story, and arguably the easier half.
That Lincoln sought to conciliate rivals like William Henry Seward and Salmon P. Chase by bringing them into his cabinet was undoubtedly one element of his political mastery. That he refused to conciliate pro-slavery politicians on the question of territorial slavery was another, no less important element.
Between Lincoln’s election as president in 1860 and the fall of Fort Sumter in the spring of 1861 Seward made several attempts to reach an accommodation with political leaders in the South. In his speech in the Senate on January 12, 1861, he seemed to open the door to a compromise on the question of territorial slavery; in private he almost certainly went further. But on February 1, Lincoln, reiterating his own uncompromising policy, told him to back down:
I say now, however, as I have all the while said that on the territorial question–that is, the question of extending slavery under the national auspices,–I am inflexible. I am for no compromise which assists or permits the extension of the institution on soil owned by the nation. And any trick by which the nation is to acquire territory, and then allow some local authority to spread slavery over it, is as obnoxious as any other.