Progressive are Disenchanted with Obama—Abolitionists were Disenchanted with Lincoln





Kenneth W. Mack is a professor at Harvard Law School

HNN Roundtable: Do Democrats Have a Double Standard for Obama?


Are liberal Democrats compromising their principles by supporting President Obama, despite the centrist positions he has taken on some partisan issues?  This is precisely the kind of question that is far more difficult for a historian to answer than, say, a journalist.  Historians, by definition, work with the benefit of years or decades of hindsight, and this is the type of issue about which reasonable people could change their minds within the course of a few months.  Presumably, those who assert that a double standard is at work are concerned about issues such as the continuation of the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, civil liberties during the war on terror, the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, the expansion of presidential power, and budget cuts for social programs.  The writer Garry Wills, for instance, publicly broke with Obama after having supported and spoken with him, over the president’s tendency to compromise on many of these issues.  Yet, a single action, such as Obama’s recent announcement of a drawdown in Afghanistan, can make a policy position that once earned the criticism of liberal Democrats into something that seems much closer to their own desires.  Historians take an even longer view, and perhaps Obama’s liberal supporters may as well.  Perhaps, in the longer term, the president may be seen as someone who advances an agenda that is closer to their own—certainly more than his opponents would if one of them occupied the Oval Office.  To see how this might be so, it may be useful to take a page from the career of a figure who Obama cites as his favorite president—Abraham Lincoln.

Lincoln, of course, presented a conundrum for both his contemporaries and modern historians.  The reason is encapsulated in those qualities that scholars have identified in recent years—that moral opposition to slavery’s expansion, tinged by a pragmatism that led him to approach slavery and many other issues (such as civil liberties) with a flexibility that can make him hard to pin down even a century and a half after his assassination.  Lincoln approved of the original proposed Thirteenth Amendment, which would have entrenched slavery instead of abolishing it, in his first inaugural address.  He also came late to the belief that emancipated slaves should be made full citizens and remain in this country.  Others came to this conclusion much earlier, among them black abolitionists who had to decide what to do about a Republican president who, early in his first term, might have seemed like a leader who too closely resembled his Democratic opponents.  One of the most prominent abolitionists who faced this decision was John Mercer Langston, the bi-racial Ohio lawyer who would vie with Frederick Douglass for pre-eminence in post-bellum black politics.  For all of his adult life, Langston asserted that no principled believer in democracy could fail to also believe in abolition and full citizenship rights for emancipated slaves.  As a younger man, he had once publicly endorsed black emigration to another land where equal citizenship rights would finally be respected.  But he was also schooled in the art of compromise in service of his longer term objectives (he was even admitted to the bar as a white lawyer, since the Ohio courts would not admit blacks).  So he threw his lot in with the Union effort, and ultimately with Lincoln.  Langston worked tirelessly to recruit black troops for the Union during the Civil War, and was in the crowd that heard Lincoln endorse some degree of black suffrage a few days before his assassination.  After that tragic event, he remarked of the president who had come quite late to the positions that Langston believed were self-evident, that African Americans “felt as though they had lost their best friend.”

It was not obvious during Lincoln’s early years in office that someone like Langston should believe that the seeds of black citizenship lay in the Union war effort.  But Langston joined in nonetheless, and in a well-chronicled story, made himself part of the masses of African Americans who ultimately helped convince Lincoln to endorse both emancipation and some degree of black suffrage.  It also was not obvious during Lincoln’s time as president, or even in its immediate aftermath, that he would be seen as an essential link in the long American narrative of equal citizenship rights.  It took a leap of faith for someone like Langston to support a president with whom he did not always agree, and much time would pass before it was clear whether that act of faith was justified.  There is certainly nothing hypocritical about such leaps, and they do not necessarily smack of a double standard.  Whether they will be validated, however, will only be determined from the vantage point of history.



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