From The Archives -- The Failure Of Lincoln's Bipartisan Outreach

[ Posted Monday, February 18th, 2013 – 16:52 UTC ]

[Program Note: Since it's a federal holiday, I thought it'd be a good day to take a look back at where we were four years ago. Also, it is easier than writing a new column, and I am lazy. I ran this on the first Presidents' Day which happened in Barack Obama's first term. I didn't make too many rash predictions or concrete evaluations, so it's not exactly "laughably wrong" (which it sort of predicts, at the end), but it is interesting to see how four years can change perceptions. Obama tried bipartisanship, to the frustration and annoyance of his Democratic base, over and over again. His results were much the same as Lincoln's, in the end -- not much to show for his efforts. Lincoln, in his second term, had a much different outlook on how things in Washington really worked (no, I still haven't seen the new movie yet, but I hear it's wonderful). One gets the sense that this is true as well for Barack Obama. He has four years' worth of scars from the partisan battles to show, and hopefully he's learned from a few of his mistakes. In any case, I thought it was worth a look back, now that Obama stands at the start of his second term, to what we were saying about the possibilities of his first. One last note: I have updated the comment at the end, to add a link for Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address.]


Originally published February 16, 2009

Happy birthday, Abie baby,
Happy birthday to you!
Happy birthday, Abie baby,
Happy birthday to you!

-- "Abie Baby" from the musical "Hair"

Since it's the random Monday when we celebrate "Presidents' Day," and since it is the year of the 200th anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln, I'd like to take a moment to see whether any lessons can be learned from Lincoln in the Obama age. Lincoln and Obama seem linked together in our minds already (Obama encourages such, it must be noted), so I'd like to look back to Lincoln's First Inaugural Address and see what it has to say to us today.

Most, when quoting this speech, politely focus on the closing paragraph:

I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

It is an eloquent and poetic plea for stopping the Civil War before it began. It was, you might say, Lincoln's plea for bipartisanship. Lincoln was reaching across the aisle (which was growing into a chasm) and attempting to sit down and talk this thing out rather than go to war. He was a lawyer, so this was natural.

But between Lincoln getting elected and his swearing-in ceremony, seven states in the South had seceded. The day Lincoln was inaugurated, the South officially adopted a flag. Little more than a month later, Fort Sumter happened, and four more states seceded.

In other words, Lincoln didn't have a "honeymoon" period with the press, with Congress, or with the country, instead he was served "divorce papers." He even alludes to this divorce in his speech: "A husband and wife may be divorced and go out of the presence and beyond the reach of each other, but the different parts of our country can not do this. They can not but remain face to face, and intercourse, either amicable or hostile, must continue between them."

But the part of the speech that interests me is the beginning. Lincoln was making more than just overtures to the South, he was proclaiming his duty to abide by the Constitution and everything in it which condoned slavery. In the language of the day in this passage, "property" equates to "slaves," as one of the fears of southern slaveholders was that if slaves were freed, they would lose valuable "property" (the slaves themselves) without being adequately compensated. With this in mind, here is the beginning of Lincoln's speech:

Fellow-Citizens of the United States:

In compliance with a custom as old as the Government itself, I appear before you to address you briefly and to take in your presence the oath prescribed by the Constitution of the United States to be taken by the President "before he enters on the execution of this office."

I do not consider it necessary at present for me to discuss those matters of administration about which there is no special anxiety or excitement.

Apprehension seems to exist among the people of the Southern States that by the accession of a Republican Administration their property and their peace and personal security are to be endangered. There has never been any reasonable cause for such apprehension. Indeed, the most ample evidence to the contrary has all the while existed and been open to their inspection. It is found in nearly all the published speeches of him who now addresses you. I do but quote from one of those speeches when I declare that:

"I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so."

Those who nominated and elected me did so with full knowledge that I had made this and many similar declarations and had never recanted them; and more than this, they placed in the platform for my acceptance, and as a law to themselves and to me, the clear and emphatic resolution which I now read:

"Resolved, That the maintenance inviolate of the rights of the States, and especially the right of each State to order and control its own domestic institutions according to its own judgment exclusively, is essential to that balance of power on which the perfection and endurance of our political fabric depend; and we denounce the lawless invasion by armed force of the soil of any State or Territory, no matter what pretext, as among the gravest of crimes."

I now reiterate these sentiments, and in doing so I only press upon the public attention the most conclusive evidence of which the case is susceptible that the property, peace, and security of no section are to be in any wise endangered by the now incoming Administration. I add, too, that all the protection which, consistently with the Constitution and the laws, can be given will be cheerfully given to all the States when lawfully demanded, for whatever cause -- as cheerfully to one section as to another.

There is much controversy about the delivering up of fugitives from service or labor. The clause I now read is as plainly written in the Constitution as any other of its provisions:

"No person held to service or labor in one State, under the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall in consequence of any law or regulation therein be discharged from such service or labor, but shall be delivered up on claim of the party to whom such service or labor may be due."

It is scarcely questioned that this provision was intended by those who made it for the reclaiming of what we call fugitive slaves; and the intention of the lawgiver is the law. All members of Congress swear their support to the whole Constitution -- to this provision as much as to any other. To the proposition, then, that slaves whose cases come within the terms of this clause "shall be delivered up" their oaths are unanimous. Now, if they would make the effort in good temper, could they not with nearly equal unanimity frame and pass a law by means of which to keep good that unanimous oath?

Talk about bipartisan! Now, any casual student of history knows that Lincoln's main objective was keeping the Union together, and abolishing slavery was not his highest priority. The Emancipation Proclamation only applied to states in rebellion, and it was a tactical move on Lincoln's part to entice freed blacks to join the Union Army to bolster its size. It was a pragmatic decision, in other words, not an ideological one.

But that's not the history schoolchildren are taught (at least not at first), because the end result of Lincoln's term in office was what we remember: "Lincoln freed the slaves."

So what lessons, if any, can Obama draw from this? First, that the country's been a heck of a lot more "divided" than it is now, so don't let the media fool you into thinking otherwise. Our entire American history is chock full of partisanship, and is in fact the normal state of political affairs for us. The Civil War is one end of the spectrum, of course, but throughout our history we have debated with more partisan rancor than you hear today in the halls of Congress. Fierce partisanship is our natural state in American politics -- it's the norm, not some aberration. Likewise, our history is also full of the media being biased as all get out, and today's fare (even Fox News and Keith Olbermann) is downright civil in comparison.

The second lesson President Obama might learn from this is that presidents are sometimes remembered for the results actions they hadn't foreseen -- and not always the issues they campaigned on. George W. Bush certainly didn't run (the first time) as the anti-terrorist candidate or a "war" president," and yet he will be remembered for 9/11 and Iraq. And it's hard to remember, but after 9/11, his approval ratings topped 90%. So history is fickle, and just because Obama is dealing with the Bush Recession now, this may not be what we remember him for later. Lincoln would likely have been astonished, if you walked up to him after he gave that speech, and told him he would be remembered most a century later for freeing all the slaves.

The third lesson is a little harder to draw a clear parallel. Because I'm not expecting Republicans to (figuratively) storm Fort Sumter any time soon. I would put it as: there's a time for bipartisan outreach, and there's a time to draw a line in the sand. Lincoln was desperately begging for the South to reconsider, and offering support for their goals to convince them of his sincerity. Lincoln thought the Corwin Amendment (which had already passed both houses of Congress) was unnecessary, but he raised no objection to it:

I understand a proposed amendment to the Constitution -- which amendment, however, I have not seen -- has passed Congress, to the effect that the Federal Government shall never interfere with the domestic institutions of the States, including that of persons held to service. To avoid misconstruction of what I have said, I depart from my purpose not to speak of particular amendments so far as to say that, holding such a provision to now be implied constitutional law, I have no objection to its being made express and irrevocable.

This amendment would have made it impossible for the United States to ban slavery in any state which wanted it legal. This was not the line in the sand for Lincoln, rather the sanctity of the Union was where he drew his line.

Now, it is much too early to grade President Obama's ability to do so. But it was heartening to see, in the midst of the stimulus package debate, that there was a day when Obama stopped talking about bipartisanship and started saying: The time to talk is over. It is now time to act.

Obama also seems to be stealing a page from Ronald Reagan, and this Sunday David Axelrod seemed to say Obama was going to be going out beyond the Beltway to talk to the American people "once a week." This could be an enormous source of power and political capital for Obama, if he can (as Reagan used to put it): "Go over the heads of the media straight to the American people."

It's always hard trying to cut and paste the lessons of history onto whatever is happening today. My poor efforts here will likely be proven wrong (laughable, even) when read in the future. Such is the nature of snap judgments. And, as many presidents (Lincoln included) have found out, sometimes history remembers you for great actions and/or shameful actions which are forced upon you by the events of the day, instead of what you thought your presidency would accomplish.

So don't read too much into what I say, in other words. I leave you with an extraordinary line from Lincoln's speech. It's extraordinary because (1) you'd never hear a politician say something like this today, and (2) even while begging the South to reconsider and rejoin the Union, Lincoln almost seems to be justifying their actions morally. So, on the 200th birthday of this great American, consider:

This country, with its institutions, belongs to the people who inhabit it. Whenever they shall grow weary of the existing Government, they can exercise their constitutional right of amending it or their revolutionary right to dismember or overthrow it.

Very few people remember this bipartisan outreach today. But we do all remember what Lincoln accomplished for our country. I guess that's the best lesson to take from all of this. Happy birthday, Abie.


[If you're feeling patriotic and have the time, read the full text of Lincoln's First Inaugural Address this Presidents' Day. His Second Inaugural Address is worth a read, too.]


-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


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