While running for the presidency in 2008 Barack Obama made it a point to align himself and his campaign with what he viewed as Lincoln’s vision for the nation. For many, Obama was the heir to Lincoln’s legacy. Those connections were only reinforced following his victory. In that moment the Civil War and even Reconstruction made perfect sense and it felt good. Artist Ron English’s painting and popular print, “Abraham Obama,” beautifully captures this collapse of historical time. Look closely and it’s difficult to discern where one ended and the other began.
The promise of a post-racial society has all but collapsed with recent news stories of the shooting deaths of young black men by police and the overwhelming evidence that racial inequality is growing wider in the United States. Many Americans are disappointed in what they perceive to be a lack of attention to matters of race by the president himself. But if Obama disappoints, Lincoln is always available to point us in the direction of “the better angels of our nature.” As we approach the 150th anniversary of his assassination echoes of Lincoln’s role as our national moral compass will likely grow louder. We would do well to be cautious.
This weekend Martha Hodes, who has authored a wonderful book on how Americans responded to Lincoln’s assassination, published an op-ed that considers the most famous lines from his Second Inaugural Address. She argues that in the shadow of recent cries for ‘Black Lives Matter’ we should reconsider Lincoln’s call: “with malice toward none, with charity toward all.”
Many at the time thought they knew what Lincoln meant, and many today understand those words in the same way: As the Union Army approached triumph, it seemed that Lincoln wanted the conquerors to treat their vanquished Confederates with mercy. But what if that reading misunderstands the fundamental political impulse behind those lyrical directives?
I believe that this indeed captures Lincoln’s “fundamental impulse.” It is true, as Hodes explains, that white and black Southerners embraced radically different visions of reconstruction and it is also true that Lincoln’s vague words about the possibility of a limited suffrage for some blacks sent John Wilkes Booth over the edge. In the wake of his assassination it is undeniable that black Americans mourned the loss of a president that for them held great promise.
Unfortunately, by placing Lincoln (intentionally or unintentionally) on one side of a mutually exclusive choice over America’s racial future, Hodes ignores a crucial element. The vast majority of the loyal citizenry of the North did not fight the war primarily to end slavery with the promise of civil rights. They fought and died to preserve the Union. Mark Summers makes this perfectly clear in his new book, The Ordeal of the Reunion: A New History of Reconstruction.
That desire to return to the way things had been went to the heart of white northerners’ ideal of “Reconstruction.” To reconstruct meant to build again, for some to build anew, but for many others to raise an edifice, with more solid foundations, perhaps, but a distinct resemblance to the structure that had stood before the war. The place of blacks in the new order of things must change, but the essence of a republic, federal and not consolidated, must not. Finally, there was a point to obvious that later generations could overlook it. The one indisputable aim of the war had been to bring the Union together again and, the issue of slavery aside, a Union recognizably like the one left behind, based on the consent of the governed and the widest possible latitude for state power and personal freedom consistent with rule of law and a supreme national authority. (p. 13)
This is the historical context in which we must understand Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. This is the context in which to understand what he meant by “a just and a lasting peace.” This is the ‘work that the nation must strive to finish.’ Hodes concludes:
Lincoln’s call … today holds a special poignancy — and a call to action. For as protesters in New York, Florida and Missouri remind us now, without justice, peace will remain elusive. As will Lincoln’s spirit of “malice toward none” and his guiding vision of “charity for all.”
In embracing his words as a rallying cry we betray a need to believe that had he the opportunity Lincoln would be standing alongside marchers in Ferguson and elsewhere. But what if imagining Lincoln throwing tear gas cans gets us closer to the hard truth and a better understanding of America’s racial problems?