What Obama Can Learn from Lincoln’s Inaugural
Over the past three years, Americans have witnessed Barack Obama’s affection for, and occasional obsession with, Abraham Lincoln. He launched his presidential campaign in Lincoln’s hometown, has made frequent pilgrimages to the Lincoln Memorial, and quotes or paraphrases Lincoln in most of his speeches. In selecting his Cabinet, he has relied heavily on the model of a “Team of Rivals,” the title of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s bestselling book describing Lincoln’s supposed brilliance at managing his Cabinet. He even will take the oath of office on the same Bible Lincoln used.
Obama has been inspired by Lincoln’s graceful resolve in facing personal and political crises. And like his predecessor, Obama will take the reins of a deeply troubled America at a potentially transformative moment.
But before Obama delivers his Inaugural Address which will set an important tone for his administration — before he draws on Lincoln’s example one more time — he would do well to consider why so many Lincoln supporters lost faith in him after his Inaugural Address. Among these critics, none was as penetrating as Frederick Douglass.
In many respects, Obama is more Douglass’ descendent than Lincoln’s. Both men are children of one black and one white parent, both rose from the humblest origins to become world-famous before the age of forty, and both are among the greatest orators of their generation. And both men learned early on how to use words as powerful weapons.
As a former slave and radical abolitionist, Douglass never agreed with Lincoln’s conservative antislavery views. But he had been impressed with Lincoln’s firm stance against a belligerent South in his debates with Stephen Douglas. When Lincoln received the 1860 Republican nomination, Douglass joyously predicted that he would be elected president, since the Democratic Party had split along sectional lines. And on Election Day, Douglass was hopeful that Lincoln could bring the change the nation needed.
During the four months of transition (reduced to two months in 1933 with the Twentieth Amendment), seven states seceded and the Confederacy was formed. Throughout this crisis, Lincoln refused to endorse any compromise scheme that would violate his campaign promise to prohibit the spread of slavery. Douglass was much impressed, and said that “Honest Old Abe” was an accurate reflection of Lincoln’s words and actions.
But Douglass’ faith in Lincoln evaporated with the Inaugural Address. In fact he was so upset over Lincoln’s Address that he planned a trip to Haiti, with an eye toward emigrating there and encouraging other blacks to do the same.
Why? Because the speech was “little better than our worst fears,” Douglass complained. Instead of rebuking Southerners as traitors, Lincoln “courted their favor.” He vowed to uphold the draconian Fugitive Slave Act, which many Northerners considered unconstitutional. He promised to suppress slave insurrections. And he declared that he would never interfere with slavery in the states. Douglass was outraged and called Lincoln “an excellent slave hound.”
Even worse, the Inaugural was a “double-tongued” address, for it renounced Lincoln’s campaign promise of working toward the “ultimate extinction” of slavery, Douglass said.
Congress had just passed a new constitutional amendment in the hope of wooing Southerners back into the Union. Although it was never ratified, this “first” Thirteenth Amendment was the exact opposite of the actual one that abolished slavery (in 1865). It was an unamendable amendment guaranteeing slavery in the states forever. Lincoln affirmed it in his Inaugural, declaring: “I have no objection to its being made express and irrevocable.”
Lincoln’s inaugural destroyed Douglass’ hope for change. Only the Confederate firing on Fort Sumter a month later stopped Douglass from going to Haiti. With the war, he believed, the chance to destroy slavery had “come at last,” whether Lincoln embraced that goal or not.
Why did Lincoln defend slavery so vigorously in his Inaugural Address, thus alienating abolitionists and progressives in his party?
His goal was to reach beyond partisan wrangling and national divisions for common understanding. He wanted to appease slaveholders, prevent the upper slaveholding states from joining the Confederacy, and save the Union.
He also made the mistake of heeding the advice of his “team of rivals,” especially Secretary of State William Seward. His first draft of the Inaugural was far less conciliatory than the one he delivered. In it he opposed the new Thirteenth Amendment, saying he liked the Constitution as it was. He treated Southerners with a firm but understanding hand, and had he delivered this draft, Frederick Douglass (and many other supporters) would have been far more sympathetic to him and his dilemma.
It was Seward who told Lincoln to “strike out” the sentence that opposed the constitutional amendment protecting slavery. He also told Lincoln to soften the ending, and suggested a final paragraph. Lincoln followed this advice as well. He borrowed many of Seward’s words, but had a much better ear than Seward and created with his new ending an elegant plea for reunion. “We are not enemies, but friends,” he told Southerners. And he characterized North and South as being irrevocably united by “the mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearth-stone, all over this broad land.”
To Douglass, the “mystic chords of memory” ignored the cries of four million blacks in chains. The beauty of Lincoln’s language masked the brutality of his content.
Lincoln’s Inaugural Address should serve as a cautionary tale against heeding the advice of a “team of rivals.” Lincoln accomplished none of his objectives with it, and he alienated radicals and progressives throughout the North. Despite his efforts to placate the South, rebels interpreted the Inaugural as a declaration of war, and the upper slaveholding states of Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas soon seceded.
Obama’s attempt to replicate a Lincolnian “team of rivals” makes sense as way to employ bipartisan politics to accomplish his goals. But he also needs to understand that Lincoln’s management of his wartime Cabinet was far more a failure than success, especially when heeding members’ advice, as he did in his Inaugural Address.
Seward was not the only Cabinet member who misled him. Lincoln selected as cabinet members men with huge egos who couldn’t work together, and three of them resigned. Attorney General Edward Bates left in part because he felt marginalized, and he cited the administration’s “open contempt of Constitution and law” and “ignorance of policy and prudence.” Treasury Salmon Chase was continually disloyal and even tried to win the Republican nomination over Lincoln in 1864 before resigning. And Secretary of War Simon Cameron put personal interests ahead of his country, resigning in disgrace over charges of corruption.
Over time, Lincoln increasingly made his own decisions rather than rely on his Cabinet. This was especially true in his decision to issue the Emancipation Proclamation.
As a result, Frederick Douglass eventually forgave Lincoln for trying to appease the South while ignoring blacks—his natural allies because they were the Confederacy’s worst enemy.
Douglass met Lincoln three times in the White House, and the two men put aside their vast differences and came together as friends. Their friendship was chiefly utilitarian: Lincoln needed Douglass to help him destroy the Confederacy; and Douglass knew that Lincoln could help him end slavery. But by the end of the war, they also genuinely liked and admired each other.
While Douglass was ready to leave the country after Lincoln’s first Inaugural, he considered the Second Inaugural one of the great works of American literature. In this speech, Lincoln imagines a wrathful God wreaking vengeance against slaveholders. After the ceremony, Douglass attended the reception at the White House. Lincoln asked Douglass what he thought of his address, adding, “there is no man in the country whose opinion I value more than yours.”
“Mr. Lincoln, that was a sacred effort,” Douglass said.
Their profound shift from enemies to friends stemmed in large part from Lincoln’s abandonment of his “team of rivals” model of leadership, coupled with his realization that he needed radicals and progressives–especially blacks–on his side.
Douglass’ response to Lincoln’s Inaugural Addresses thus offers a salutary lesson for Obama: as he tries to move beyond partisan politics, he needs to be careful not to alienate his natural allies and renounce his campaign promise to “bring the change our country needs.”
John Stauffer is Chair of History of American Civilization at Harvard University and the author, most recently, of GIANTS: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln (TWELVE).