My job involves teaching courses that span the whole of modern history, and thus forces me to think about many different historical periods in rapid sequence. Just last week I was busy writing a lecture on Lincoln and Bismarck, comparing their political problems and strategy, while meanwhile, I continue, when possible, my research on Roosevelt in 1940-1. Thus I am continually learning more about the last two great crises of American life--and thinking, as I instinctively do, about how they compare to the one we are passing through.
Of the two the Civil War is in many ways more similar. Republicans reacted to President Obama's election in roughly the same way that southerners reacted to Lincoln's: as an unparalleled catastrophe, a threat to everything in which they held dear, which had to be resisted by any means and at all costs. We are fortunate, of course, that in today's context that simply meant total political obstructionism, rather than secession (although the latter has been mentioned by no less a figure than the Governor of Texas, among others.) But what is striking is how overblown both portraits of the two new Presidents has been. Lincoln was most definitely not an abolitionist, much less an advocate of equality between whites and freed blacks, when he became President. He was simply a free-soiler who was determined to restrict slavery to where it existed, confident, without much real reason, that it would wither and die on its own. Well into the war, and subsequent to the emancipation proclamation in late 1862, he hoped to see the freed slaves emigrate to Africa or somewhere in the Caribbean. But white southerners claimed nearly unanimously that his election meant an immediate threat of both abolition and the mixing of the races. Believing apparently that slavery was the only way the two races could live together, they assumed that if they were no longer masters they must be slaves. In the same way, Republicans a year ago immediately declared Barack Obama, a very moderate Democrat who so far has used mainstream methods to try to save capitalism and has bragged about having done so, was immediately labeled a socialist determined to destroy the free enterprise system. Ironically, had southern Democrats in 1861 used the strategy Republicans are pursuing today, slavery would surely have lasted much longer than it did. By staying in the union they could have made even the free soil program difficult, if not impossible, to implement, since it was not universally accepted even in the North, and it is hard to see how slavery would ever have been ended by purely Constitutional means.
Lincoln also faced the same kind of division within his own party--whether one defines it as the Republican Party or the whole North and border states. Relatively few Northerners wanted a war to abolish slavery in 1861, although the ones that did, such as Charles Sumner, were vocal indeed, far more so than today's proponents of single-payer health care. Lincoln had to find some other basis to carry on the war, and he did. He defined it not as a struggle to free the slaves, but as a fight to prove that a free government could survive. "Our popular Government has often been called an experiment," he told Congress on July 4, 1861 "Two points in it our people have already settled-the successful establishing and the successful administering of it. One still remains-its successful maintenance against a formidable internal attempt to overthrow it. It is now for them to demonstrate to the world that those who can fairly carry an election can also suppress a rebellion; that ballots are the rightful and peaceful successors of bullets, and that when ballots have fairly and constitutionally decided there can be no successful appeal back to bullets; that there can be no successful appeal except to ballots themselves at succeeding elections." This remained the cornerstone of his rhetoric throughout the conflict, climaxing in the Gettysburg Address:
"Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
"Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure."
Barack Obama's great difficulty so far has been his inability to find a phrase or a concept equivalent to "the Union" for Lincoln--really a shorthand for the above-stated point--or the "New Deal" for Roosevelt. He is trying simply to restore some government role in the regulation of the economy to provide minimum benefits for all, and to put something in place of the mindless anti-government rhetoric that has seized and held the initiative in American political life for the last thirty years. But he has not yet been able to do so, and meanwhile, he is constantly forced, like Lincoln in 1861-2, to make serious compromises to go forward at all. Just as Lincoln in the spring of 1861 told abolitionists who pleaded with him to please God by freeing the slaves at once, "I would like to have God, but I must have Kentucky," Obama has had (with some regret) to rule out a single-payer option for health care. His failure in the economic sphere, unfortunately, seems to be conceptual, not tactical: neither he nor his advisers seem to believe there is anything fundamentally wrong with our deregulated economic system. Lastly, Obama, like Lincoln, has staked much of his first year in office on a mirage of bipartisanship. Lincoln was a brilliant politician, but for too long he cherished the illusion that Unionist sentiment in the South--which he vastly overestimated--would bring the seceded states to their senses and end the war at relatively early date. In the same way, the Democrats have wasted many months chasing Republican support--and cooperative Republicans in the Congress are even rarer than white Unionists in the South 150 years ago.
If the the President and Congressional Democrats succeed in getting health insurance reform through Congress over the next month, then they, like the Northern armies in the west in early 1862, will have seized some momentum. But meanwhile, I wish the President would spend some time reading not only some of Lincoln's speeches, but some of Roosevelt's. Perhaps the actions he takes and the legislation he proposes have to be tentative, but his rhetoric need not be. Here is the climax of the speech he gave on health care last week.
"The United States Congress owes the American people a final, up or down vote on health care. (Applause.) It’s time to make a decision. The time for talk is over. We need to see where people stand. And we need all of you to help us win that vote. So I need you to knock on doors. Talk to your neighbors. Pick up the phone. When you hear an argument by the water cooler and somebody is saying this or that about it, say, no, no, no, no, hold on a second. And we need you to make your voices heard all the way in Washington, D.C. (Applause.)
"They need to hear your voices because right now the Washington echo chamber is in full throttle. It is as deafening as it’s ever been. And as we come to that final vote, that echo chamber is telling members of Congress, wait, think about the politics -- instead of thinking about doing the right thing.
"That’s what Mitch McConnell said this weekend. His main argument was, well, this is going to be really bad for Democrats politically. Now, first of all, I generally wouldn’t take advice about what’s good for Democrats. (Laughter.) But setting aside that, that’s not the issue here. The issue here is not the politics of it.
"But that’s what people -- that’s what members of Congress are hearing right now on the cable shows and in the -- sort of the gossip columns in Washington. It’s telling Congress comprehensive reform has failed before -- remember what happened to Clinton -- it may just be too politically hard.
"Yes, it’s hard. It is hard. That’s because health care is complicated. Health care is a hard issue. It’s easily misrepresented. It’s easily misunderstood. So it’s hard for some members of Congress to make this vote. There’s no doubt about that. But you know what else is hard? What Leslie and her family are going through -- that’s hard. (Applause.) The possibility that Natoma Canfield might lose her house because she’s about to lose her health insurance -- that’s hard. (Applause.) Laura Klitzka in Green Bay having to worry about her cancer and her debt at the same time, trying to explain that to her kids -- that’s hard. (Applause.) What’s hard is what millions of families and small businesses are going through because we allow the insurance industry to run wild in this country. (Applause.)
"So let me remind everybody: Those of us in public office were not sent to Washington to do what’s easy. We weren’t sent there because of the big fancy title. We weren’t sent there to -- because of a big fancy office. We weren’t sent there just so everybody can say how wonderful we are. We were sent there to do what was hard. (Applause.) We were sent there to take on the tough issues. We were sent there to solve the big challenges. And that’s why we’re there. (Applause.)
"And at this moment -- at this moment, we are being called upon to fulfill our duty to the citizens of this nation and to future generations. (Applause.)"
Let us compare this to the conclusion of Lincoln's July 1861 message to Congress which I quoted above.
"It was with the deepest regret that the Executive found the duty of employing the war power in defense of the Government forced upon him. He could but perform this duty or surrender the existence of the Government. No compromise by public servants could in this case be a cure; not that compromises are not often proper, but that no popular government can long survive a marked precedent that those who carry an election can only save the government from immediate destruction by giving up the main point upon which the people gave the election. The people themselves, and not their servants, can safely reverse their own deliberate decisions.
"As a private citizen the Executive could not have consented that these institutions shall perish; much less could he in betrayal of so vast and so sacred a trust as these free people had confided to him. He felt that he had no moral right to shrink, nor even to count the chances of his own life, in what might follow. In full view of his great responsibility he has so far done what he has deemed his duty.
"You will now, according to your own judgment, perform yours. He sincerely hopes that your views and your action may so accord with his as to assure all faithful citizens who have been disturbed in their rights of a certain and speedy restoration to them under the Constitution and the laws."
It did not occur to Lincoln to quote the rhetoric even of his northern political opponents (and he had many), nor to suggest that he could have more comfortably taken an easier path. He knew he had a task of enormous importance to world history, and his language always suggested this his chosen course of action was, to quote another great American document, self-evident.
And here is an almost random excerpt from FDR's rhetoric early in his Presidency, in a fireside chat delivered in the spring of 1934, when the success of his program was quite limited--if already visible--and opposition to him among Republicans and in the press was beginning to grow.
"Before I come to any of the specific measures, however, I want to leave in your minds one clear fact. The Administration and the Congress are not proceeding in any haphazard fashion in this task of government. Each of our steps has a definite relationship to every other step. The job of creating a program for the Nation's welfare is, in some respects, like the building of a ship. At different points on the coast where I often visit they build great seagoing ships. When one of these ships is under construction and the steel frames have been set in the keel, it is difficult for a person who does not know ships to tell how it will finally look when it is sailing the high seas.
"It may seem confused to some, but out of the multitude of detailed parts that go into the making of the structure, the creation of a useful instrument for man ultimately comes. It is that way with the making of a national policy. The objective of the Nation has greatly changed in three years. Before that time individual self-interest and group selfishness were paramount in public thinking. The general good was at a discount.
"Three years of hard thinking have changed the picture. More and more people, because of clearer thinking and a better understanding, are considering the whole rather than a mere part relating to one section, or to one crop, or to one industry, or to an individual private occupation. That is a tremendous gain for the principles of democracy. The overwhelming majority of people in this country know how to sift the wheat from the chaff in what they hear and what they read. They know that the process of the constructive rebuilding of America cannot be done in a day or a year, but that it is being done in spite of the few who seek to confuse them and to profit by their confusion. Americans as a whole are feeling a lot better—a lot more cheerful than for many, many years."
It has become clear to me that Roosevelt benefited from circumstances unique to himself. Unlike either Lincoln or Obama, he came into an office when literally no one could deny the extent of our national crisis and everyone welcomed his leadership. Yet this quote shows how, within a little less than a year, he had (as Lincoln took much longer to do) embraced the idea of building a radically different United States and placed all his many measures within the context of an entirely new vision. That is why, in my opinion, his achievements were both more substantial and more long-lasting than Lincoln's--who in the end did preserve the Union but could not lay the foundation for a better America based on different ideals.
We do not know what future events may once again increase the sense of crisis in the United States today, but history suggests that Barack Obama needs above all to decide exactly where he wants to take the United States and communicate his vision, in simple terms, to the American people. Or perhaps he, like Lincoln, will have to content himself with trying to prove, once again, that the government founded in 1787 can function at all.