Channelling George Washington: Should Obama Have Gone to Gettysburg?

tags: Barack Obama, Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address



Thomas Fleming is a former president of the Society of American Historians. This is the latest in an ongoing series, Channelling George Washington. Mr. Fleming is on the advisory board of HNN.

I was shocked when he didn’t show up.”

“I’m afraid you’re ahead of me, Mr. President. Who should have showed up where?”

President Obama. At the one hundred fiftieth anniversary of Gettysburg.”

“Why do you say that?”

He’s living proof that we’ve finally had a new birth of freedom in America.”

“Why didn’t he come and say that?”

Because it’s complicated. In several ways. The new birth has proven to be much more difficult than anyone expected. A hundred and fifty years later, it is still only partially successful. Mr. Obama knows that, but he doesn’t know what to say or think about it. Sometimes he’s angry, sometimes he’s discouraged, when he ponders it. I sympathize deeply with him.”

“Did you have feelings like that when you were president?”

Did I ever. I was trying to achieve the first birth of American freedom.”

“I thought we’d won that in the Revolutionary War.”

That was only the first step. Freedom for a nation has to be blended with order. The French Revolution was a glaring example while I was president of what can happen when a nation in a revolution doesn’t know how to create order with a workable constitution. You wind up with maniacs like Robespierre, guillotining thousands of innocent men and women because they don’t agree with his so called moral instincts. In a word, you have a bloodbath.”

“Was that a danger in America?”

You bet it was. Tom Jefferson never understood this. He called the French Revolution his polar star. At one point he said he would not mind if everybody in the world was massacred, if at least two survivors still believed in liberté. When I tried to keep America neutral in the war between England and France, he and his followers turned on me and called me every vile name you can possibly imagine. Their newspapers even dredged up forgeries the British had published during our Revolution, about me being an adulterer, a crook and a coward -- and said they were true. They welcomed a French ambassador named Genet, who tried to turn us into a subdivision of France. He had agents trying to get Kentucky and western counties in Virginia and Pennsylvania to secede and form a separate country. He said he was going to appeal over my head to the people. Tom and his friends were all for it. More than once, I asked myself why I didn’t quit and in disgust and go back to Mount Vernon.”

“Not many people know this.”

Practically no one knows it today. But it’s worth remembering. Basically it’s about learning to accept imperfections in life. Maybe President Obama’s agonies with his health care law are teaching him that lesson.”

“What do you think he would have -- or should have -- said at Gettysburg?”

I’ve written a possible text, with almost the same number of words as Abe Lincoln’s historic speech.”

“I’m wide awake and listening, now.”

Seven score and ten years ago, our forefathers, led by a great president, gathered on this battlefield to renew their resolve to continue the struggle for a new birth of freedom in America.

Unfortunately, the president who uttered this memorable summons was murdered as he prepared to begin making these words a reality. The government of the United States fell into the hands of congressmen who wanted revenge for the war’s terrible cost -- a million dead. Abraham Lincoln’s vision of a peace of reconciliation and mutual understanding was destroyed by these men. They called for the execution of Robert E. Lee and other Southern leaders, and the confiscation of the South’s land to be redistributed as they saw fit. An embittered South resisted and we soon had a tragically flawed rebirth of freedom.

However flawed, it was still freedom! Recent historians have told us how black Americans, in spite of the nightmares of segregation and lynch-mob violence, sustained and even expanded that freedom in the South. In the next century, they found the strength and the wisdom to launch one of the greatest migrations in world history. Over two million black Americans moved to the North and forced the entire American nation to deal with their insistence on full unqualified, uncorrupted freedom.

We are still struggling toward that goal. Perhaps we will never reach it in the glory that Abraham Lincoln envisioned it. But I think we can now say that the men who died here at Gettysburg, and the President who later gave his life for the restored union that made this reborn freedom, however flawed, a reality, have not died in vain.”

“All anyone can say to that is “Amen.”



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