Friday, January 9, 2009

If Obama Emulates Lincoln, Will Progressives Follow Abolitionists and Radical Republicans?

President-elect Obama's frequent deployment of Abraham Lincoln-related symbolism (arriving to the inauguration by train, swearing in with "Lincoln Bible," launching campaign at the Old Capitol Building in Springfield) has generated a surge in commentary regarding the famed president. But much of the recent discourse depicts Lincoln as an undifferentiated hero of oppressed people, a vigorous champion of human rights, and a tireless opponent of the status quo. The preeminent historian Eric Foner, however, offers a more nuanced and realistic portrayal of Lincoln in his recent essay "Our Lincoln" (which appears in The Nation).

Lincoln May Have Held "Bold" Personal Beliefs on Slavery, But He Preferred "Moderate" Policies
Lincoln, like Obama, was far more moderate than many progressives choose to acknowledge. Although he expressed a personal opposition to slavery, Lincoln would have compromised his own stated values on the issue in order to maintain national unity. Lincoln advocated the "ultimate extinction" of slavery, which he hoped to accomplish by opposing its extension rather than abolishing it in pro-slavery states. Lincoln was a moderate, not "radical," Republican.

Lincoln only supported emancipation as "policy" after large numbers of slaves abandoned plantations when Union soldiers arrived. Slaves needed food, shelter, clothing, and attention to their health. Also, Lincoln realized that blacks could help fight the war, which was rapidly losing support among Northern voters. Depriving the South of slaves would also devastate the region financially during a costly war. Furthermore, abolitionists, who consistently pressed Lincoln, believed that the War's narrative should center around emancipation.

Congress actually did more than Lincoln to press for emancipation. Prior to Lincoln's signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, Congress passed statutes that freed slaves who fled to Union forces and which abolished slavery in federal territories, the District of Columbia, and in certain Union occupied areas. So, as Foner argues, the Emancipation Proclamation accomplished far less than the great symbolism surrounding the document suggests.

Lincoln Was Not a Racial Egalitarian, But He Embraced "Some" Rights for Blacks
Lincoln also broke from abolitionists and progressives in the Republican Party who favored complete racial equality. Lincoln did not believe in extending civil, political and social equality to blacks, and as an Illinois legislator, he refused to condemn or seek the repeal of the state's infamous "Black Laws," which relegated Illinois blacks to a subordinate status and prohibited nonresident blacks from entering the state. Also, Lincoln was once a strong supporter of the colonization movement, which literally would have sent blacks "back to Africa" or to places in the Caribbean or Central America in order to get rid of the nation's "race problem."

Whenever Stephen Douglas, his Democratic opponent for Senate in 1858, portrayed him as an advocate of "Negro equality," Lincoln responded by denouncing the claim. Although Lincoln argued that blacks were entitled to the broad rights in the Declaration of Independence (life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness), he did not favor blacks intermarrying with whites, holding office, voting, or serving on juries. After the conclusion of the war, however, he supported extending the right of suffrage to black men -- but only those "very intelligent" blacks who were free prior to the war and those who served in Union forces. Radical Republicans, like Thaddeus Stevens and Charles Sumner, however, supported full racial equality, viewed racial discrimination and slavery as equally immoral, and often criticized Lincoln's moderate stances.

Social Movements Must Press for Change and Criticize Obama When Appropriate
Lincoln came to positions that abolitionists had long held due to a combination of factors, including military and economic need and, more importantly, the persistent engagement of social movements. As Foner (and other scholars) have argued, Lincoln's progressive accomplishments resulted from an "engaged social movement" and his own leadership. This fact can inform social movement actors today.

During the Democratic primaries and general election campaign, progressives and liberals often shocked and upset me by (1) refusing to criticize Obama on any issue, while demonizing his critics and (2) portraying progressive "change" as simply a matter of getting Obama elected. Once Obama began embracing moderate and conservative positions and appointing persons to his Cabinet whom many progressives despise, the Left cried foul play. It felt betrayed, duped, and let down.

The Left's disappointment with Obama rests on a willful effort to distort or ignore his campaign message and voting record (which as a shrewd politician he encouraged) and from a lack of knowledge of the complex and interdependent forces that have created progressive change historically. Progressive change has not occurred because "radical" presidents mandated it. Instead, progressive social movements have pushed moderate national leaders to implement reform under opportune conditions (a point I make at greater length in this essay).

Reform will most likely occur when "political opportunities" exist that make progressive change acceptable. Thus, emancipation happened because freedmen could help fight the war, ending slavery could bankrupt the South, European countries would side with the United States once abolition framed the combat, and because abolitionists insisted that it occur.

Likewise, the economic reforms of the New Deal era resulted because the Great Depression created and highlighted economic vulnerability, and it legitimized progressive reforms that labor and anti-poverty advocates had long advanced. And the Civil Rights Movement helped accomplish racial progress after a long period of brutal racism because World War II shattered popular beliefs in Social Darwanism and Nazism and because fighting the Cold War required the United States to project a progressive image into world affairs. News reports of domestic racial violence undermined foreign affairs. Contemporary social movements can engender change only if they take their cues from this rich history.

The Role of Dissent in Social Movements
Finally, progressives need to discard their reluctance to engage in passionate dissent. Only dissent, rather than blind acquiescence, can push leaders where progressives want them to go. This does not mean that progressives should complain about every "disappointment." Instead, they need to compromise when appropriate and balance their praise with honest criticism.

On this end, I close this essay with a quote from Frederick Douglass, a former slave and abolitionist, who often criticized Lincoln, whom Douglass nonetheless considered a political ally. At a ceremony unveiling the Freedmen's Monument in Lincoln Park (located in the District of Columbia) Douglass delivered a very powerful speech that portrayed Lincoln, then deceased, in the honest terms that could inform progressive engagement with Obama. Although Douglass's speech included praise for Lincoln, he did not shy away critique:

Truth is proper and beautiful at all times and in all places. . . .

[Lincoln] was preeminently the white man's President. . . .He was. . .willing. . .during the first years of his administration to. . .sacrifice the rights of. . .colored people [in order] to promote the welfare of . . .white[s]. . . .He came into the Presidential chair upon one principle alone, namely, opposition to the extension of slavery. . . .To protect . . . slavery in the states where it existed. . .Lincoln [would] draw the sword of the nation. He was willing to pursue, recapture, and send back the fugitive slave to his master, and to suppress a slave rising for liberty. . . .
Only the full text of the speech can capture the beauty of Douglass's tribute, and I encourage readers to examine it. Douglass's approach can inform progressives today who seem confused about their role during a "liberal" presidential administration or who appear reluctant to appraise Obama critically. Obama, however, almost invites critical engagement with his frequent usage of Lincoln symbolism.

As Foner argues: "The challenge confronting President Obama is to move beyond the powerful symbolism of his election as the first African-American president toward substantive actions that address the still unfinished struggle for equality." But this will only occur if social movement actors demand that he articulate progressive policy, rather than resting on the transformative symbolism of his presidency. In doing so, they should model the behavior of abolitionists and other social movements participants whose bold political activism and dissent led to reform and innovation.

Related Readings on Dissenting Justice:

2008 Is Not 1964: Why Liberal Mania and Conservative Panic Are Nothing But Melodrama

Chicken Little Politics: Moderate Obama Causes Progressive Panic

Progressives Awaken from Obama-Vegetative State

Reality Check: Obama's Election Victory Does Not Mean That Era of Race-Based Identity Politics Has Died

Free at Last? No!

An Obama Presidency Would Cause the Death of Racism and the Civil Rights Movement, Says Alec Baldwin.

Race and Presidential Politics: Pre- and Post-Obama


Anonymous said...

I feel Obama wants to copy to much of several presidents. He emulates Lincoln by using the very site he did to announce his candidacy. He is using his bible for inauguration.
He went to Europe and in Germany tried to copy Kennedy by speaking from the same location Kennedy did in his Ich ein Berliner speech. He now sees the current economic situation through the eyes of FDR and now is acting like him by emulating a new deal with his recovery stimulus.

I mean where is his originality. Let those great men have their place. Seems most of the emulations are just symbolic but even if they are not let those men keep their own place in history and you independently create your own unique place in history. The fact that he will be the first AA president is his moment and trying to also incorporate all these past presidents as part of his CV seems a little over the top IMO.

Geoff Johnson said...

You're absolutely right that without pressure from folks to his left Obama's presidency will almost certainly be disappointing. FDR's presidency is also relevant here, as many of the achievements of the New Deal could never have happened without a powerful, militant labor movement.

Without getting into specifics I must say that I actually give Lincoln a large amount of credit for how he handled the war and the process of emancipation, but there's no question that slavery would never have come to an end in 1865 had it been Lincoln out there by himself. Black and white abolitionists moved Northern opinion in a far more anti-slavery direction, and enslaved African Americans in the South who ran away in droves in a sense freed themselves and provided Lincoln a politically and militarily viable path to emancipation.

There's a lot of bad commentary out there on Lincoln and Obama obviously, and given your post on this subject you might be interested in a piece I wrote on my "Past Progress" blog called Bad History and Obama's Team of Rivals.

It's always good to see folks mentioning Foner - he's one of the best historians out there.

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

Hi, anonymous. I have to admit that the Lincoln thing had me feeling a little uneasy at one point. But since the media decided to fawn over it, I decided to use it to my advantage as a "dissenter." Lincoln was not immune from criticism, and progressives were often his critics. If Lincoln, whom history now reveres, could endure criticism, why not Obama? Is he on a higher terrain than Lincoln? If not -- then take the "punches." If so, then ????????????

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

Geoff -- thanks for the link. I am going to click it once I finish writing this comment. First, I really admire Foner. I used his research extensively for a project that dealt with arguments concerning race in the Reconstruction period. It was of tremendous value.

I agree with you on FDR, and I have made that argument in another essay ("Chicken Little Politics"). You could add LBJ to the list as well.

I do not wish to imply that ONLY social movements were responsible for change. If that were the case, presidential character or ideology would not matter. Instead, I think having courage, a shrewd knowledge of politics, and the ability to appreciate and understand social movements helps a lot in a president. Thanks so much for your post.

PS: You are not surprised that media botch historical "analysis"?

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