Thursday, November 26, 2009

The Presidents' Lincoln

From Andrew Johnson’s assumption of the presidency following Lincoln’s death to Obama taking office, there have been 27 US Presidents. That is a time span of 144 years and only three other Presidents became victims of assassination (Garfield, McKinley and Kennedy). However, no other President besides Lincoln has had to deal with a section of the country trying to establish its independence by breaking up the Union. Presidents, much like other Americans since Lincoln’s assassination, have tried to find ways to use the Lincoln memory.

Although this was not always the case, contemporary politicians and especially Presidents (and executive hopefuls) face the problem of “getting right with Lincoln,” to use David Donald’s phrase. Reviewing the public papers of US Presidents yields the curious result that Lincoln’s name is rarely invoked until the turn of the 20th century. An interesting figure among the Presidents is Rutherford B. Hayes, who judging by his Diary and Letters, was a Lincoln admirer. Yet, in his public papers Lincoln is only named twice in veto messages. It is easy to guess why Hayes would shy away from Lincoln in public documents when we consider the controversial nature of Hayes’ election in 1876 which earned him the nickname Rutherfraud B. Hayes from Democrats.

The modern use of Lincoln by US Presidents often descends into banal repetition of a few of Lincoln’s words out of context. John F. Kennedy was fond of saying (at nearly every campaign stop in 1960) that the issue of the day was “whether the world will exist half slave and half free.” Kennedy of course was not merely attempting to show that he could rhetorically fight the Cold War with more of the hyperbole which categorized that era than could Nixon. After the election was over Kennedy would dangerously act (from the Bay of Pigs to the Cuban Missile Crisis to Vietnam) as President as if the world was actually at risk of enslavement by the Soviet Union. After all, Kennedy did say in his 1961 Inaugural Address that “we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty”. At a series of fundraisers in 1975, Gerald Ford continually cited Lincoln’s “Fragment on Government.” Before Ford used it, the fragment was one of Eisenhower’s favorite references. Specifically, these Republican Presidents were fond of the line: “The legitimate object of government, is to do for a community of people, whatever they need to have done, but can not do, at all, or can not, so well do, for themselves -- in their separate, and individual capacities”. That Lincoln also said in the “Fragment” that “pauperism” was one the things which fell under the “desirable things” a government should take care of because it was something that “the individuals of a people can not do, or can not well do, for themselves” was lost on both Eisenhower and Ford, but obviously not only on them. George H.W. Bush began saying in 1991 that we should take after Lincoln and “think anew.” Yet, in Lincoln’s Second Annual Message where the phrase “think anew” comes from, he was begging the nation in 1862 to think and act “anew” as the situation the country faced was novel. Lincoln had laid out a plan for compensated emancipation in the message as a way to foreshorten the war and “a means, not in exclusion of, but additional to, all others for restoring and preserving the national authority throughout the union.” Bush was not talking about anything so desperate. He was just upset with the Democratic Party’s control of Congress and the members of the Democratic Party whom he described in Orwellian terms as “old thinkers.” Considering that Francis Fukuyama penned his “End of History” essay (later a book) in Bush’s State Department, Bush invoking Lincoln’s Second Annual Message becomes particularly ironic when we consider its more famous phrase: “we cannot escape history.”

Having made himself politically in Illinois, President Obama could not help but employ the Lincoln memory—historians would take up the task of connecting Obama and Lincoln in any event. Even before Obama became a candidate for the Democratic nomination, he wrote about Lincoln and connected himself to the 16th President. Based on the Obama Presidency so far it does not seem as if he will invoke the memory of Lincoln any less than his predecessor, George W. Bush. After the Thanksgiving pardon of the turkey Courage, Obama joins Bush in carrying out a tradition first enacted by Truman, or, was it Lincoln who started the practice by pardoning his son’s turkey which later showed up in 1864 at the polls? Clinton gave credit to both Presidents (even though Truman never pardoned a turkey). The Lincoln stories are anecdotal and seem to originate in Noah Brooks’ article in The Century magazine. That the turkey pardoning practice appears to be no older than Bush Sr. who granted one in 1989, Bush Jr. stuck to the Lincoln story in 2001. Lincoln did however issue a Proclamation of Thanksgiving which fits in with the current time frame of the national holiday. It was therefore inescapable that Obama mention it, and the context of the Civil War, in his own Proclamation.