Obama’s Lincoln problem: Which Lincoln is he, the great orator or the great obfuscator?

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tags: Lincoln, Obama



Todd Brewster is the author of "Lincoln's Gamble." He has worked as an editor at Time and Life, and written for Vanity Fair, The Huffington Post and the New York Times, among other publications. With Peter Jennings, he co-authored "The Century" and "In Search of America."

When Barack Obama recited the oath of office to become the 44th president of the United States, he placed his hand on the very same King James Bible upon which Abraham Lincoln had sworn his allegiance to the Constitution. The image was, of course, a powerful one. Here was the nation’s first African-American president connecting with the aura of the president who, nearly 150 years before, had freed the slaves. But Obama clearly intended the symbolism to go beyond this. Lincoln was not only the American president who made his election possible, he was also the president whom Obama most wished to emulate: a man of compassion, who stood for justice, and who occupied a transformative presence on the national stage.

Well, Obama succeeded, just not the way that he hoped he might have. The Lincoln Americans carry in their breast pockets is a mythic figure: a gifted orator – author of some of the nation’s most stirring phrases – who was known as the “Great Emancipator” and who had successfully presided over our nation’s bloodiest war, saving the country from ruin.

All that may be true. But there is another, less affirmative Lincoln that history, so protective of its heroes, has obscured: As president, Abraham Lincoln claimed broad executive powers, was a master of indecision, and, in a nation with deep-seated regional differences, was almost certainly too enamored of the federal solution. In other words, he was a lot like the man in the White House today.

“I’ve got a pen and I’ve got a telegraph”

For someone who was so steeped in the law and the Constitution, Lincoln was surprisingly dismissive of the separation of powers. He claimed that the emergency conditions of the war – which, of course, were considerable – required him to suspend habeas corpus, this despite the fact that the Constitution addresses the authority to do this in Article I, which outlines the powers of Congress, not the executive. Chief Justice Roger Taney noted the breach and called him on it, but Lincoln went ahead anyway.

When he signed the Confiscation Act of 1862 – which Congress had authored to allow the seizure of property, including slaves, from those offering direct support to the Confederate cause – Lincoln, worried that this act might alienate the Border States, penned a draft veto message and, like a modern-day signing statement, sent that to Congress along with his signature enacting the law – “a veto that was not a veto” for an act he signed yet never intended to enforce. And the document for which he is perhaps best known – the Emancipation Proclamation – was, despite its clear moral foundations, a “taking” – that is, a seizure of property without compensation as prohibited by the Constitution. Recognizing that a legislative solution was politically impossible, Lincoln opted instead to “proclaim” the end of slavery in the rebel states – the proclamation serving here as modern-day presidents use the executive order – and to do so under his powers as commander-in-chief....




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