Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, And The 2012 Election

Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass And The 2012 Election

David Brooks wrote a column earlier this week, ruminating about changing attitudes towards authority.  “Maybe before we can build great monuments to leaders we have to relearn the art of following. Democratic followership is also built on a series of paradoxes: that we are all created equal but that we also elevate those who are extraordinary; that we choose our leaders but also have to defer to them and trust their discretion; that we’re proud individuals but only really thrive as a group, organized and led by just authority.”  

Brooks uses the Lincoln and Jefferson Monuments as metaphors for the expression of just authority-“strong and powerful, but also humanized”.  These were men who used their power in the service of higher ideals, and the physical structures reflect that.  He contrasts that with the more inward, more self-centered, less expressive modern monuments of Eisenhower, Roosevelt, King, and the War memorials.

Brooks can get carried away with himself, and the metaphor is strained, but he is on to something here.   There is an ocean of difference between unquestioning acceptance of authority that goes along with a hierarchical structure and reflexive opposition to anyone in leadership who voices even the smallest degree of independence.  We are living in an era where we spend a great deal of time thumbing our nose at authority-particularly authority exercised by members of the opposing party.  And we do it in the name of common sense-our common sense, because if it is clear to us, it should be clear to them. 

This is not new; in the 19th Century we had a codification movement-every man could be a lawyer or judge if the laws were written simply enough.  Whole political careers were built on “simple truths”-there’s a brilliant biographical essay on William Jennings Bryan by the late Richard Hofstadter that portrays Bryan not just as the “common man”, but as a common man, undistinguished in thought or idea, holding to simple concepts, a great voice for an unexceptional mind.

Unfortunately, the 2012 election already seems irrevocably closed to the marketplace of ideas.  Mr. Obama has been a disappointment-yes, he has real accomplishments, and yes, the Republicans, motivated by blind hatred and crass opportunism, have done whatever they could to see him fail, even at the cost of the nation’s well being.  But with all that, he has fallen well short of our expectations-he could do better, if we demanded it. Mr. Romney seems nothing more than a chameleon man, ready to invest in whatever principles bring him the maximum electoral return.   He wants the job; he will do and say what it takes to get it.  His passion seems to be for winning, not for using power in the service of higher ideals.  He, also, could do better, if we demanded it.   But we don’t, so there is no titanic contest of ideas here.

Brooks’ piece reminded me of another Lincoln Memorial, far smaller and less well known.  It was erected in 1876, with the contributions coming entirely from freed slaves, many who served in the Union Army, and is formally called the Freedmen’s Memorial Monument to Abraham Lincoln.  The statue itself is unremarkable and even controversial, with its depiction of a former slave at Lincoln’s feet.  Frederick Douglass, the escaped slave turned reformer, abolitionist, writer and statesmen, spoke at the dedication.

Douglass gave a speech like none other I can think of.  Douglass did not just praise, but criticized, sometimes harshly.  Lincoln, he said, was “preeminently the white man’s President, entirely devoted to the welfare of white men.”  Lincoln held many of the prejudices of his time.  Lincoln would have sacrificed the slave’s freedom if he could have preserved the Union.  Lincoln was late in delivering the Emancipation Proclamation.  Lincoln was “ready and willing at any time during the first years of his administration to deny, postpone, and sacrifice the rights of humanity in the colored people to promote the welfare of the white people of this country.” At length, and in great detail, Douglass goes on, a litany of Lincoln’s failures and flaws.

And yet, Douglass draws back.  He takes Lincoln’s measure, he judges the man in the context of his time and the impossible challenges of his office.   “I have said that President Lincoln was a white man, and shared the prejudices common to his countrymen towards the colored race. Looking back to his times and to the condition of his country, we are compelled to admit that this unfriendly feeling on his part may be safely set down as one element of his wonderful success in organizing the loyal American people for the tremendous conflict before them, and bringing them safely through that conflict. His great mission was to accomplish two things: first, to save his country from dismemberment and ruin; and, second, to free his country from the great crime of slavery. To do one or the other, or both, he must have the earnest sympathy and the powerful cooperation of his loyal fellow-countrymen. Without this primary and essential condition to success his efforts must have been vain and utterly fruitless. Had he put the abolition of slavery before the salvation of the Union, he would have inevitably driven from him a powerful class of the American people and rendered resistance to rebellion impossible. Viewed from the genuine abolition ground, Mr. Lincoln seemed tardy, cold, dull, and indifferent; but measuring him by the sentiment of his country, a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult, he was swift, zealous, radical, and determined.”

How did Lincoln do this?  How did he get past the “voice of doubt and fear all around him?”  Douglass answers his own question.  Lincoln, “had an oath in heaven, and there was not power enough on earth to make this honest boatman, backwoodsman, and broad-handed splitter of rails evade or violate that sacred oath. The trust that Abraham Lincoln had in himself and in the people was surprising and grand, but it was also enlightened and well founded. He knew the American people better than they knew themselves, and his truth was based upon this knowledge.”

With less than five months to go before the election, I wish Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney would take a few minutes, read the words of Frederick Douglass, and talk to us all like adults.

If they do, perhaps they may draw the comforts of history, or as Douglass says, “The honest and comprehensive statesman, clearly discerning the needs of his country, and earnestly endeavoring to do his whole duty, though covered and blistered with reproaches, may safely leave his course to the silent judgment of time.”

It worked for Lincoln.