Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Inside The Tent

Tomorrow, February 12th, will be two hundred years to the day when Abraham Lincoln was born in a one-room log cabin on a farm in southeast Hardin County, Kentucky. How appropriate it is, then, that the beginning days of Barack Obama's presidency should include the two-hundredth birthday of the man who set the slaves free. And how appropriate it is that Obama, like Lincoln, should have begun his political career as a state legislator in Springfield, Illinois. And we wonder why Obama has often compared himself to Lincoln?

As with Lincoln's, Obama's educational background was the law. However, unlike with Lincoln, Obama got to go to the prestigious Harvard Law School, whereas Lincoln was almost wholly self-educated, with only eighteen months of schooling. Lincoln was also a talented wrestler and skilled with an axe. However, there's no evidence that Obama is either a talented wrestler or skilled with an axe.

But Obama likes playing basketball, and may even be talented at it. Although Lincoln never played basketball, if only because basketball hadn't been invented when he was alive, there's every reason to think he would have been good at basketball because he was very tall (6' 4"). He would likely have at least been better at basketball than Obama, because Obama is merely 6' 1".

While Lincoln was skilled with an axe, he avoided hunting and fishing because he didn't like killing animals, even for food. And Obama seems not the sort of person who would hunt or fish because he, too, wouldn't like killing animals, even for food.

Barack Obama, as an avowed student of Lincoln, has learned lessons from how Lincoln conducted his presidency, particularly in inviting his competitors in the Democratic primaries, like Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, and Bill Richardson, to join his administration. Add to this a prominent Bushite hold-over, Robert Gates at Defence, plus Republicans like Congressman Ray LaHood at Transport, and Senator Judd Gregg at Commerce (replacing Bill Richardson, who had withdrawn), we can see that Obama believes it's better - in the memorable words of the earthy Lyndon Johnson - to have your enemies (and rivals) "........inside the tent pissing out, rather than outside pissing in........".

Thus Obama has formed a "Team of Rivals" - the title of the book about Lincoln's administration, by Doris Kearns Goodwin, who, in an article in the Guardian (UK), says that, while Lincoln's having rivals in his cabinet worked, Obama's having rivals in his cabinet may not work, because today, unlike in Lincoln's day, we have 24-hour news channels.

As Doris Kearns Goodwin says: ".......Lincoln's cabinet meetings were fiery affairs. Members openly feuded with one another and with the president. They castigated each other as liars and scoundrels. Yet this information rarely appeared in the newspapers; we know about it through diaries and letters. In contrast, our 24-hour news cycle significantly lessens the possibility of containing dissenting opinions within the president's official circle. If internal feuds are reported by the nightly news, magnified day by day by the cable shows, dissected by countless political blogs, made fodder for late-night comedy, a modern team of rivals would collapse..........".

However, Doris Kearns Goodwin goes on to say, "........Still, by building dissent into his inner circle, Obama is more likely to question his assumptions and to weigh the consequences. The story of Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation provides a telling example. In the months before he issued the historic order, he listened intently to the arguments within his cabinet over what to do about slavery. The radical members wanted Lincoln to move more quickly; the conservatives cautioned against moving at all. Lincoln realised the search for consensus could be paralysing. In 1862 he told his cabinet the time for debate was over. The time for the Proclamation had come. 'It is my conviction,' Lincoln later said, 'that, had the Proclamation been issued even six months earlier, public sentiment would not have sustained it.' Because of the heated discussions within his cabinet, his timing was perfect..........".

Lincoln, then, was the very opposite of impetuous. He knew he couldn't go too far ahead of (white) public opinion. He had to coax it, to guide it in the direction he wanted. Barack Obama, the student of Lincoln, seems, too, to be following his mentor's nuanced gradualism.

Then President-Elect Lincoln's nuanced gradualism was commented on by the Economist in its editorial of November 24th 1860, just after Lincoln's first election as president. Lincoln's circumspection had been such, that there was almost nothing in his election speeches to frighten southern slave-owners. As the Economist, addressing its English readers, said, "........our English politicians will be tempted not only to wonder at the dismay of the South, but to ask where is the gain to the Anti-Slavery cause in the election of so very moderate and cautious a Republican..........".

But the Economist went on to say, in so many words, that Lincoln was setting the tone for the eventual abolition of slavery, which could only come about when the tide of (white) public opinion would begin to turn against slavery.

As a public service, I've appended the Economist's entire editorial by cutting and pasting it in digestible paragraphs, since I suspect that you who are reading this, will find the Economist's interminably long paragraphs - which were de rigueur in all writing of that time - as tiresome to read as do I:

The success of the Republican candidate for the Presidency in the United States will prove one of the greatest events of modern times, if it indicates, as we trust, no mere accidental fluctuation of public opinion in the direction of the Anti- Slavery cause, but the commencement of a permanent and sustained movement. It will be impossible to say how far this will prove to be as we should wish, till we see the details of the popular vote. It is a discouraging fact that the Republican President will not at first be supported by a Republican majority in either House or Congress, but there is good reason to hope that, now the tide has fairly turned, this defect may be remedied at the next Congressional elections.

It would be a great mistake to suppose that Mr Abraham Lincoln is an extreme man. His views seem to us to fall far short of what may fairly be termed even a statesmanlike Anti-Slavery creed. Few in England have the smallest sympathy with the extreme party of Abolition,—those who maintain that to hold a serf for a single day in slavery after you have the power to release him is a deadly sin,—that Washington and Jefferson deserve infamy for holding slaves themselves, and admitting any compromise on the subject into the Constitution of the United States.

This kind of fanaticism is a species of political insanity. The statesman will believe that the order of the most imperfect Government is better than anarchy, especially if it contain within it principles by which it may be gradually purified and improved. He will accept his position and use all the means within his reach to improve it. He will not throw away the only political instruments within his power because they are indelibly marked with traces of the evil he wishes to remove.

It is not, therefore, because Mr Abraham Lincoln is very far from representing the extreme party of Abolition that we call his views moderate within the limits of statesmanlike moderation. But few Englishmen, only knowing that the Anti-Slavery candidate for the Presidency has at last triumphed, would be prepared to hear what his views really are. That they have roused the South to threats of immediate secession, which in some cases at least may not improbably be in part carried into effect, will scarcely be credited when we lay before our readers what the new President's creed on the Slavery question really is.

He is not opposed to a Fugitive Slave Law, though he would modify the one actually in operation. He thinks it would be impossible to uphold the Constitution as between Slave States and Free States without some Fugitive Slave Law, so long as Slave States exist at all. He has not, we believe, declared himself as yet even in favour of prohibiting the internal Slave Trade between the different States,—a measure which is the only efficient step towards the extinction of slavery that is constitutionally within the power of Congress to effect. He has declared himself in favour of abolishing slavery within the Congressional district of Columbia (in which the capital Washington stands), but only under conditions which would entirely obliterate all the revolutionary character of the measure,—namely, that it should be done gradually,—that it should be done only with the consent of a majority of the qualified voters within the district,—and that compensation should be made to unwilling owners.

We have enumerated the three principal articles of a statesmanlike Anti-Slavery creed,—and in two of them Mr Lincoln declares himself either uncertainly, or only in favour of very modified proposals, while on the third he attaches such careful conditions to his adhesion that all its terror to the slaveowners ought to be obliterated. About two years ago he stated, in his controversy with Mr Douglas:

"I do not now, nor ever did stand in favour of the unconditional repeal of the Slave Trade Law. I have never hesitated to say, and I do not now hesitate to say, that I think, under the Constitution of the United States, the people of the Southern States are entitled to a Congressional Fugitive Slave Law. Having said that, I have had nothing to say in regard to the existing Fugitive Slave Law further than that I think it should have been framed so as to be free from some of the objections that pertain to it without lessening its efficacy."

With regard to the abolition of the internal Slave Trade between the different States, Mr Lincoln says : "I am pledged to nothing about it. It is a subject to which I have not given that mature consideration that would make me feel authorised to state a position so as to hold myself entirely bound by it...I must say, however, that if I should be of opinion that Congress does possess the constitutional power to abolish the Slave Trade among the different States, I should not be in favour of the exercise of that power unless upon some conservative principle, as I conceive it, akin to what I have said in relation to the abolition of slavery in the district of Columbia."

Hearing this, some of our English politicians will be tempted not only to wonder at the dismay of the South, but to ask where is the gain to the Anti-Slavery cause in the election of so very moderate and cautious a Republican.

But, in truth, the gain is incalculable. Whatever compromises Mr Lincoln may concede to the South with respect to the limits and the right use of the Congressional or Presidential power, he stands irrevocably pledged to the principle that slavery is wrong, and that the national power, so far as it can be fairly used at all, must be used to limit, to repress, to promote its extinction.

These are his words: “I think we want and must have a national policy in regard to the institution of slavery, that acknowledges and deals with that institution as being wrong. Whoever desires the prevention of the spread of slavery and the nationalisation of that institution, yields all, when he yields to any policy that either recognises slavery as being right, or as being an indifferent thing. Nothing will make you successful but setting up a policy which shall treat the thing as being wrong.

When I say this, I do not mean to say that the General Government is charged with the duty of redressing or preventing all the wrongs in the world; but I do think that it is charged with preventing and redressing all wrongs which are wrong to itself. This Government is expressly charged with the duty of providing for the general welfare. We believe that the spreading out and perpetuity of the institution of slavery impairs the general welfare. We believe—nay, we know, that that is the only thing that has ever threatened the perpetuity of the Union itself. The only thing which has ever menaced the destruction of the Government under which we live, is this very thing. To repress this thing, we think, is providing for the general welfare.”

And he stands explicitly pledged to exterminate, so far as he can do so, the external Slave Trade,—and on the coast of Cuba a co-operation of English and American cruisers will effect this. He stands pledged to abolish slavery in Columbia (the district round Washington) under the conditions we have shown. He stands pledged to oppose and prohibit, so for as he can, the introduction of slavery into the Territories. And though he has refused to pledge himself to resist the admission of new Slave States, his whole influence will be exerted to give the free party in such States ample means for the fair expression of their wishes on the subject.

Yet, on the whole, no doubt the great importance of the election is less in its immediate results than in showing that the tide of public opinion is turning against slavery in the States. We must remember what this means. It is far more significant than the expression of conviction which an English election gives. The most bitter opponent of pure democracy,—and none regard its evils in a graver light than ourselves,—must admit that when the least enlightened, the worst opinion of a nation, at last after a long hesitation, declares against a national crime, the victory is more complete than it would be where the best intelligence and culture of a nation declares against it.

The more absolutely we are convinced that universal suffrage in America drowns the voice of the best educated and most refined classes in the North, the better satisfied must we be to learn from the elections there that the public opinion is turning against slavery. It shows that the dread and opposition to it has become general at a social level which might remain comparatively unaffected in England, in spite of a perfect unanimity amongst the electoral classes here. The strength of a chain is tested by its least reliable links,—and the least reliable links of the social chain in the Northern States have proved to us that they are strong enough now to resist the bribes and menaces of the Southern party.