Abraham Lincoln Would Both Agree and Disagree with Me
HT to Justin Taylor for the video below, fearturing the very fine historian Eric Foner discussing Abraham Lincoln’s evolving thinking about race and slavery. The interview is based on Foner’s 2011 book, The Fiery Trial. I’ve not read The Fiery Trial but I do appreciate Foner as a historian. My introduction to him came with his book Forever Free: The Story of Emancipation and Reconstruction. Foner has thought long and carefully about the 1800s, slavery, Republican ideology before the Civil War, and the like. You can check his Amazon author page for the bibliography.
My comments will make the most sense (if they make sense at all) if you can invest the 45 minutes or so to watch this engaging interview. So, stop and watch. It’s riveting and really quite timely for our election season. It’s a complete disappointment that the video gets cut off just as Foner is asked about Obama’s channeling of Lincoln as a compromiser. But check the video. I think you’ll find things that likely affirm your view and challenge your view. I know I did.
Did you watch the video? Go back and watch the video!
Okay, so here’s what I’m thinking. Foner presents to us a Lincoln who is both a “party man,” as Foner calls him, and a man of principle and growth. He paints a Lincoln that’s committed to the machinery of party politics while also working out a personal conviction within an American constitutional framework. Lincoln grows up disliking slavery, but also holding prevailing racist attitudes toward the inequality of slaves. Around 21’50″ in the interview, Foner begins to speak of Lincoln’s commitment to the Republic party of his day (not to be confused with the Republican party of today). Foner says, “You’re right; he believes in practical solutions. But on the other hand, unlike some politicians who don’t seem to have any core beliefs, Lincoln has this core hostility to slavery. He is not willing to compromise that.” There’s the rub. That’s why Lincoln would agree with me about the state of politics and the lack of ideals, but also why Lincoln might disagree with me about the possibilities of party politics and voting.
Here’s what I think I see in so much of the political discourse: an inversion of Lincoln’s outlook. We have a lot of people committed to party politics and machinery (as Lincoln was) without commitment to ideals and deep conviction. That’s not true of everyone committed to parties, mind you. Surely a great many are committed to their parties because of deep-seated convictions. But I wonder if our convictions might be of two sorts–one a deep belief in political expediency and pragmatism, so that the conviction is really a strategy rather than an ideal, and the other a commitment to particular principles and visions of the good life (something resembling ideals). I’m thinking the latter is the minority and a fair number of people who profess to certain convictions and ideals are really holding to party pragmatics. I wonder if many are not confusing party with principle by making the party an assumed shorthand for the principle(s).
But if I’m understanding Foner correctly (and I may not be), it seems important to remember the time in which Lincoln’s Republican party had to earn its political keep. It was not a time of soundbites. The public was accustomed to long political speeches and carefully crafted words. Lincoln himself was a master. The Lincoln-Douglass debates were quite unlike our debates. One man spoke for an hour uninterrupted; the next man spoke for 1.5 hours; then there followed a 30 minute rebuttal. By contrast, we get men practicing zingers or looking to teleprompters while analysts run focus groups during the debate so they can pinpoint which comments scored high and which low or which tie communicated warmth. Immediately following the debates, we’re trying to decipher “who won,” largely based upon style and likability. It’s not the political discourse of Lincoln’s day. Sadly, we’re not the political public of Lincoln’s day. There’s not only a lowering of intelligent discourse between candidates but also a lowering of intelligent discourse in the populace. Things could be nasty in the 1800s, just as they can be nasty in our day. Nevertheless, Lincoln and Douglass spoke to regular folks, frontiersmen and women, rough hewn and less educated on average than we are, treating them as thinking men and women, and offering developed thought and ideas. Today, we can’t finish digesting one press release before there’s another backing away and redirecting.
Which leads me to how I think Lincoln illustrates what I’ve been calling for in the posts using DuBois and King as exemplars. The Lincoln Foner presents was a man of unswerving principle, a man of high ideals, the most central of which was the bone-deep sense of the wrongness of slavery. Now, some people have assumed that in calling for a man of high ideals I’ve been call for an ideal man. The two things couldn’t be farther apart. Thinking that I’m calling for an ideal man, some have quickly rejected the entire idea as if simply asking “Who is ideal?” ends the discussion. But again, I’m not thinking of an ideal man but of a man with ideals.
A man with ideals, like Lincoln, could be deeply flawed. Lincoln held some racist views, for example. Nevertheless, he knew that slavery was wrong, that emancipation should be achieved, and the union preserved–even if he didn’t know how to get those things done at first. What keeps him centered and moving gradually but relentlessly in the right direction is the deep sense of ideals. If Lincoln took a stance based on public opinion polls, either we’d still be fighting the Civil War or he would never have insisted on the emancipation of African people. Public opinion wasn’t really on his side. He faced an uphill battle in much of the country, and even some “on his side” were supporting him out of their own sense of pragmatism. But pragmatists can never tell you whether a thing is right or wrong to do, only whether they think it will work in some sense. To stay the course of right and wrong, you’ve got to have ideals tethered to a moral north star. Lincoln had that. And I think Lincoln would not only be dismayed at the state of American political candidacies, but he would be so moved by the state of things that he would run and keep running until able to lead change. I say that not because I’m guessing or resurrecting Lincoln, but because that’s precisely what Lincoln, the man of ideals, did in his own lifetime.
Perhaps this is an appropriate place to say something about the parties today. From where I sit, Barack Obama is the candidate with the stronger, enduring sense of ideals. His ideals are wrong–deadly wrong. But when we say things like, “He’s the most pro-abortion president in history,” we’re giving a HT to the perverse steadfastness of the man’s ideals. When I worked in the policy think tank world, one of my colleagues was a high level political strategist from Chicago. He used to be fond of saying, “The Republican Party is an ideology in search of a constituency, and the Democratic Party is a constituency in search of an ideology.” At the time, the Republicans had the more consistent message and less in-fighting and the Democrats were reeling after Bush’s elections. I don’t think my friend could say that now. The Democrats have their “Reagan” as one national magazine asserted recently, and with him they have a more galvanized ideology and constituency. Those who are afraid for what this means for the country ought to be. A man with the wrong ideals means the destruction of much that’s good.
But what of the Republican Party today? Can we simply assume that since Obama belongs to the Democratic side that the “good side” must be the Republicans? It seems to me that Republicans are now the party with a constituency–diverse and sometimes cannibalizing–in search of an ideology. They know they’re opposed to Obama, but they don’t seem to me to be clear about what they’re for or, better, how they’d be different. Is it going to be social issues? Fiscal issues? National defense? All of the above, and if so how? The party is organized to oppose Obama, but that won’t sustain a presidency if Romney wins. How will Romney deal with the competing agendas in the party base? Romney is no Lincoln. He’s not even Lincoln before Lincoln was “Lincoln.” And that’s why the Republican party doesn’t appeal to so many African Americans.
Now, some of my Republican friends won’t like this, but it’ll help you understand why conservative African Americans aren’t flocking to Republican dinner parties. Today’s Republican Party is not “the party of Lincoln.” Can we be frank? Lincoln arguably could have saved himself a lot of trouble and perhaps his life if he hadn’t been a man of principle when it came to slavery. He risked all political fortune and the union, and eventually gave his life, because he took a stance on behalf of a despised and oppressed people–enslaved African Americans. That’s precisely what African Americans don’t see in the Republican party today. We don’t see top party bosses or presidential nominees showing the slightest interest in the disenfranchised and dispossessed. Man, we don’t even see former Black stars in the Republican party having even much of a cameo in national settings (remember Michael Steele or Colin Powell or even ghosts from Christmas past like J.C. Watts?).
Oh, I know many would say, “That’s precisely what abortion is about. The great number of aborted babies are African American babies.” Some of us get that. Most Black folks don’t. Or, to say it more accurately, I think, most Black folks get abortion but they don’t get Republicans coming to them as if they care about them. Like it or not, the parallel to slavery doesn’t sell. And the reason it doesn’t sell is because it looks, tastes, and sounds very disingenuous coming from a party that doesn’t show a lot of concern for living Black people, a party thought of as supporting racist positions and opposing restitution. There’s a lot of work that needs to be done in learning to talk about these issues with African Americans(see here and here, and, after the talking, a lot of actual working for the unique needs of the African American community along with other communities. The party doesn’t have any credibility when it comes to working for justice and the concerns of the poor, ethnic minorities, and the hurting. African Americans care about justice for all; it’s tattooed on our collective conscience, our historical memory and contemporary sensibility. The Republicans don’t seem to care about these things–at least not the wider range of justice issues. And it’s not just a branding or PR problem. Nor is it simply a problem of political expediency. It’s a real crisis of indifference. But that wasn’t Lincoln’s problem.
In the final analysis, no party has it “all right.” That’s why, unlike Lincloln, we can’t be “party men.” We can’t be die-hard party loyalists. We have to be die-hard principle loyalists. We have to be people of noble and high ideals. We have to be able to stand with one man on one issue and oppose him on another. We have to be able to move across lines in order to unite ideals. We have to do that–not just to win a vote or elect a candidate–but to foster “a more perfect union.” We have to do that in order to see America cash that check it has written to her people. We have to be die-hards for ideals because we believe in a majestic and perfect God who really does rule and reign in righteousness. We don’t expect any human president to rule Zion, but as citizens of Zion we should not close one eye as we settle for unprincipled and unrighteous platforms. It’s not about being an ideal man, but about being men of ideals. If old honest Abe were around, he wouldn’t be slaying vampires but he might take out a politician or two.
Well, there you have it, for what it’s worth (exactly a plugged nickel). This election, go out and vote, but know why you’re voting the way you’re voting. And more than that, don’t tie your best hopes for the country to the wagon of a political party. I pray we’d clarify our ideals, have ideals inclusive of a wide range of issues, and work in whatever flexible ways we need to work to field candidates, advance issues, and sprinkle a little salt and shine a little light in this present evil age. As for me, I’m done settling. I want more than what we’re getting.