President-Elect Barack Obama on Saturday evoked Abraham Lincoln’s train procession to Washington DC, the last leg of which took the Great Emancipator from Philadelphia to Baltimore, and from Baltimore to Washington.
It is worth considering three texts on this occasion. The first is Lincoln’s speech at Philadelphia, where, as he noted, the Declaration of Independence had been issued.
‘February 22, 1861
I am filled with deep emotion at finding myself standing here, in this place, where were collected together the wisdom, the patriotism, the devotion to principle, from which sprang the institutions under which we live. You have kindly suggested to me that in my hands is the task of restoring peace to the present distracted condition of the country.’
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‘ I can say in return, Sir, that all the political sentiments I entertain have been drawn, so far as I have been able to draw them, from the sentiments which originated and were given to the world from this hall. I have never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence. I have often pondered over the dangers which were incurred by the men who assembled here, and framed and adopted that Declaration of Independence. I have pondered over the toils that were endured by the officers and soldiers of the army who achieved that Independence. I have often inquired of myself, what great principle or idea it was that kept this Confederacy so long together. It was not the mere matter of the separation of the Colonies from the motherland; but that sentiment in the Declaration of Independence which gave liberty, not alone to the people of this country, but, I hope, to the world, for all future time. It was that which gave promise that in due time the weight would be lifted from the shoulders of all men. This is a sentiment embodied in the Declaration of Independence.’
As Jeff Gammage explains, Lincoln addressed his remarks to municipal leader Theodore Cuyler, who had urged him to make concessions to the slave states for the sake of national unity.
Lincoln replied to Cuyler by standing on principle, especially on the principles enshrined in the Declaration of Independence. He was referring to the passage, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” What strikes Lincoln about this passage is its universality. It is not a claim about rights that Americans might have. It says, “all men,” by which it signified, “all human beings.” So Lincoln replied to Cuyler’s plea for concessions with an ethical assertion of universal rights to life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and representation in a democratic state, which, he implied, slaves of African heritage would one day experience, as well if the Declaration of Independence was to be a meaningful charter of American values.
It is worth considering in this context the Abraham Lincoln Memorial Lecture, delivered by Booker T. Washington on February 15, 1899 (the same year that the Supreme Court went beyond the separate but equal doctrine in Plessy to a separate and unequal doctrine in Cumming v. County Board of Education, which kicked off the Jim Crow era of American Apartheid).
‘ The four million slaves that Lincoln freed are now nearly ten million freemen. That which was three hundred years in the doing can hardly be undone in thirty years. How can you help the South and the Negro in the completion of Lincoln’s work? A large majority of the people Lincoln freed are still ignorant, without proper food, or property, or skill, or correct habits—are without the requisites for intelligent and independent citizenship. The mere fiat of law could not make a dependent man independent; it could not make an ignorant voter an intelligent voter; it could not make one man respect another man. These results come by beginning at the bottom and working upward; by recognizing our weakness as well as our strength; by tangible evidences of our worthiness to occupy the highest positions. . . Yes, in answer to your proclamation, Father Abraham, we are coming, ten million strong—-we are coming by the way of the college, by the way of agriculture, the shop, the factory, the trades, the household arts. With this foundation, if God is right and the Bible is true, there is no power that can permanently stay our progress.’
You think about that last long sentence in the context of Barack Obama,and it gives you shivers.
The we come to the speech on January 18, 2009, of President-Elect Obama himself.
He, like Lincoln and Booker T. Washington, sees the absolute equality in rights of human beings as intrinsic (God-given), not artificial or accidental.
Lincoln confronted the problem of slavery. Booker T. Washington faced the inequities of the south of the Reconstruction, on the eve of a cruel American Apartheid, confident that education and the gaining of skills by African Americans would lift them up and bestow on them their God-granted rights.
Obama faces an army of the unemployed, an army of the uninsured, and army of ex-military veterans (200,000 of them homeless). He said,
‘I will be taking with me some of the men and women I met along the way, Americans from every corner of this country, whose hopes and heartaches were the core of our cause; whose dreams and struggles have become my own.
Theirs are the voices I will carry with me every day in the White House. Theirs are the stories I will be thinking of when we deliver the changes you elected me to make. When Americans are returning to work and sleeping easier at night knowing their jobs are secure, I will be thinking of people like Mark Dowell, who’s worried his job at Ford will be the next one cut, a devastating prospect with the teenage daughters he has back home. When affordable health care is no longer something we hope for, but something we can count on, I will be thinking of working moms like Shandra Jackson, who was diagnosed with an illness and is now burdened with higher medical bills on top of child care for her 11-year-old son. When we are welcoming back our loved ones from a war in Iraq that we’ve brought to an end, I will be thinking of our brave servicemen and women sacrificing around the world, of veterans like Tony Fischer, who served two tours in Iraq, and all those returning home, unable to find a job. These are the stories that will drive me in the days ahead.’
Obama told us that “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” the birthright of all, depend on having a job, having health insurance, having a generous and caring Veterans Administration. Lincoln emancipated the slaves, and with them the slaveholders warped by an evil system. Booker T. Washington emancipated minds from ignorance. Barack Obama seeks to emancipate Americans from the cruel estates of being uninsured or unemployed.
Obama said something more radical, however,than the other two. He declared that the Revolutionary War is not over, because the ideals for which it was fought must be yet more perfectly realized.