Truths, beyond the reach of powerful leaders, order history. President-elect Abraham Lincoln failed to recognize this. President Abraham Lincoln lost his life because he did.
It is fitting that President Barack Obama assumed office with his right hand on the same Bible on which President Lincoln first assumed office, for when Lincoln first became President, President Obama could have legally been a slave.
Obama’s Presidency is a national milestone and a significant personal achievement for Mr. Obama, his family and those who supported his candidacy. The same is true for Mr. Lincoln—from log cabin to the White House, Lincoln defeated the odds. Yet, Lincoln’s Presidency is not measured great by such. Rather, it is the issue Lincoln desired to avoid, was forced to face, and while struggling with—finally chose right—that renders President Lincoln a great man and President.
The “slavery question” was festering in America prior to the American Revolution. Regardless, great men sought compromise with evil and allowed the stain of slavery on American soil as our nation was founded. But “truth keeps marching on.” Americans struggled to reconcile the “self-evident truth that all men are created equal” with the obvious truth that in America many were more equal than others and some not considered human at all.
Leaders stated that “coloreds” or “negroes” were naturally inferior and destined to be “nurtured” in the plantation family. As slavery apologist and author William John Grayson wrote in 1855: “(the negro) is lazy and improvident…slavery…ensures homes, food and clothing for all.”1 In Grayson’s mind, the black race could not survive without the beneficence of white lordship.
Recognized theologians and religious leaders joined the chorus. In an 1822 letter to the Governor of South Carolina, Richard Furman, President of the Baptist State Convention, stated that slavery was clearly “supported by the Holy Scripture” and was beneficial to the slave in that the slave “become(s) part of (a) family” where he is provided all that he truly needs.2
Author George Fitzhugh in his 1854 book, wrote, “the negro race is inferior to the white race, and living in their midst, they would be far outstripped or outwitted in the chase of free competition.”3
I wonder what Mr. Fitzhugh would say to President Obama. Yet, more important for our times, what would President Obama say to Mr. Fitzhugh?
Slavery, during the life of Mr. Fitzhugh, was protected by law, enshrined in our constitution and Americans had the right to support or reject slavery: they could refuse to own a slave if they did not support the institution. Americans had a choice.
President Obama would be forced to argue to Mr. Fitzhugh what is now “self-evident”—that any free nation is not free unless it enshrines human dignity into law such that; the power of one person’s life over another is not allowed to define the value of the other’s life. This is the American promise. And President Obama is a reflection that America is coming to terms with that promise on the issue of race.
But Mr. Fitzhugh would have a counter. Slavery is justified, he would say, because the slave’s life would be miserable away from slavery. (“Every child a wanted child.”) Ending slavery would wreak economic hardship. (“Ending abortion would force millions on welfare.”) A colored is not human and therefore not a citizen. (“Biologically speaking…an embryo is far more primitive than a fish or a bird,” writes abortion supporter Christian Beenfeldt for the June 2006 issue of Capitalism Magazine.4) People should be free to choose, Mr. Fitzhugh reasoned.
In 1860 President-elect Lincoln snuck into Washington to become President on a midnight train in order to avoid assassination. Jefferson Davis was inaugurated President of the Confederacy two weeks earlier.
Lincoln’s personal Bible was left behind in his luggage, not arriving for days. Accordingly, Chief Justice Roger Taney asked the Supreme Court Clerk to find a Bible. He did, and Lincoln placed his right hand on the Bible, just as President-elect Obama did on the same Bible a short time ago.
In his first inaugural address, Lincoln sidestepped the slavery issue stating: “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists.”
Within four years, President Lincoln gave this nation two of its most precious gifts: the Emancipation Proclamation and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address—an address from which President Obama claims inspiration. On this second occasion, Lincoln took the oath on his personal Bible. Less than two months later, Lincoln was dead.
President Obama called for a healing in this nation and he calls on the words of Lincoln’s second inaugural address in which Lincoln concludes, “with malice toward none, with charity for all…”
Mr. Lincoln did call for healing, but only if the nation joined in the recognition that the evil of slavery could not exist within the shores of a free nation. Lincoln was charitable to those who would abide by this truth but called forth resolve to defeat those who would not.
For in the previous sentence, Mr. Lincoln writes, “if God wills that (this war) continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn by the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether…with malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in…’”
President Obama did not mention abortion once in his inaugural address despite the issue being the most divisive in our nation. Just as President Franklin Pierce did not once mention slavery in his only inaugural address in 1853, less than a decade before the issue plunged the nation into war.
On abortion, politician Obama has survived through political calculation, deception and with gratitude to a self-indulgent culture full of distraction and willful ignorance. And his first actions have been aggressively opposed to this significant civil rights issue. Yet, President Obama will not escape the judgment of history.
We will speak and read of the economy, foreign affairs and military action during his presidency. But the success of the Obama presidency will be determined by whether he leads us to the fullness of the dream—that every human being will be valued in this nation with just and righteous laws that protect the right to live.
And then, and only if he provides such leadership, will President Obama have earned the right, though maybe not the political support, to be sworn in to his second term of office, with his right hand on the Bible President Lincoln used in his second swearing in ceremony—Lincoln’s personal Bible—which is well worn and was well understood.
1 The Hireling and the Slave, by William John Grayson (Second Edition), (Charleston: John Russell, 1855).
2 Exposition of The Views of the Baptists Relative to the Coloured Population in the United States; In Communication to the Governor of South-Carolina, compiled by Rev. Dr. Richard Furman, letter from Mr. Furman to the Governor (December 24, 1822).
3 Negro Slavery, Sociology for the South, or the Failure of Free Society, Chapter V., George Fitzhugh (Richmond, VA: A. Morris, 1854).
4 Anti-Abortion “Pro-Life” Movement is Anti-Life, by Christian Beenfeldt (Capitalism Magazine June 8, 2006).