Tag Archives: political rhetoric

NOT A BAD EXAMPLE A CENTURY AND A HALF LATER

I continue to make my way through the Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, and just this week made it to the eighth and final volume in the series.  Volume Eight begins in September 1864, in the midst of the presidential campaign of that year.  Abraham Lincoln was seeking re-election to the presidency, but the human costs of the war had exceeded the darkest predictions, and that combined with divisions within his own party, widespread war weariness, and the passionate opposition of northern Democrats made his re-election far from certain.

At the end of August, the outlook for the Union was so grim that Lincoln himself had come to expect defeat.  Although William Sherman’s capture of Atlanta in early September initiated a decisive shift in military momentum and boosted popular support for the Lincoln Administration, the presidential campaign was still one of the ugliest of the century.  Northern Democrats lampooned Lincoln as “Abe the Widow-maker” and held him personally responsible for the deaths of the Union slain.  With a crudity that almost defies description, they hailed him as King “Abraham Africanus the First” and accused him of being a “negro-lover” who advocated miscegenation and the rule of blacks over whites.  In their platform they denounced the war as a “failure” and called for an immediate cease-fire to be followed by negotiations with the South.

Lincoln sat for this photograph less than a month before his Second Inaugural Address.

Lincoln sat for this photograph about three months after his re-election to the presidency.

Here is how Lincoln responded publicly after news arrived of his re-election.  Presidents did not hold news conferences in those days, and Lincoln scheduled no public speeches of any kind in the weeks following his electoral victory.  But on November 10th, 1864, the day after Lincoln learned beyond doubt that he had been re-elected to a second term, a torchlight parade of supporters proceeded to the White where they “serenaded” the victor, prompting Lincoln to deliver a short speech from his balcony.  Here is a portion of what he had to say:

 . . . now that the election is over, may not all, having a common interest, re-unite in a common effort, to save our common country?  For my own part, I have striven, and shall strive to avoid placing any obstacle in the way.  So long as I have been here I have not willingly planted a thorn in any man’s bosom.

While I am deeply sensible to the high compliment of a re-election; and duly grateful, as I trust, to Almighty God for having directed my countrymen to a right conclusion, as I think, for their own good, it adds nothing to my satisfaction that any other man may be disappointed or pained by the result.

May I ask those who have not differed with me, to join with me, in this same spirit towards those who have?

A remarkable example, don’t you think?  Lincoln told his private secretary afterward that his comments were “not very graceful,” but they revealed a largeness of heart and magnanimity of spirit in short supply a century and a half later.

 

LINCOLN AND TRUMP ON “BINDING OUR WOUNDS”

“Let us . . . bind up the nation’s wounds,” the founder of the party of Lincoln exhorted his fellow countrymen in his brief second inaugural address in March 1865.  “It is time for America to bind the wounds of division,” the current standard-bearer of Lincoln’s party told the nation in the wee hours of Wednesday morning.

I don’t know if Donald Trump was consciously echoing Abraham Lincoln in his victory speech, but it strikes me as possible, perhaps even likely, given how much the president-elect admires Lincoln.  Trump’s aides have noted that “Abraham Lincoln is going to be an important figure in terms of Mr. Trump’s vision for the Republican Party,” while Trump himself has paid eloquent tribute to his predecessor.  As he explained to columnist Bob Woodward, Lincoln was

 . . .  a man that did something that was a very vital thing to do at that time. Ten years before or 20 years before, what he was doing would never have even been thought possible. So he did something that was a very important thing to do, and especially at that time.

Did you follow that?

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I’d consider it a personal favor if Mr. Trump never referred to Lincoln again or repeated his words.  As a historian and a lifelong Republican, anything that intentionally juxtaposes Abraham Lincoln and Donald Trump is just too painful. But beyond the personal discomfort that it causes, Mr. Trump needs to understand that quoting a past president doesn’t make him “presidential.”

Context matters.

When Abraham Lincoln spoke of binding the nation’s wounds, he was referring to a rending in the national fabric that he saw as wholly unnecessary and which grieved him deeply.  As a polarized nation careened toward war at the close of the 1850s, the antislavery Lincoln repeatedly told antislavery audiences that they were not morally superior to slaveholding white southerners.

“I have constantly declared, as I really believed,” Lincoln told an Illinois audience in October 1858, that “the only difference between them [the white South] and us, is the difference of circumstances.”  In an 1859 speech in Dayton, Ohio, Lincoln figuratively addressed the South with this promise: “We mean to remember that you [Southerners] are as good as we; that there is no difference between us other than the difference of circumstances.  We mean to recognize and bear in mind always that you have as good hearts in your bosoms as other people, or as we claim to have.”

In the process, Lincoln was indirectly admonishing his own followers to avoid self-righteousness and to treat their opponents charitably.   Addressing members of his own party, Lincoln imparted this advice:

It is exceedingly desirable that all parts of this great Confederacy shall be at peace, and in harmony, with one another.  Let us Republicans do our part to have it so.  Even though much provoked, let us do nothing through passion and ill temper.  Even though the southern people will not so much as listen to us, let us calmly consider their demands, and yield to them if, in our deliberate view of our duty, we possibly can.

Even as Union men were dying on the battlefields of Virginia and Tennessee, Lincoln resisted efforts to portray his southern enemies as either stupid or evil, and when northern clergymen would advise him to assure the North that the Lord was on their side, Lincoln consistently demurred.

In sum, when Lincoln famously called for reconciliation in his second inaugural–“with malice toward none, with charity to all”–his plea represented the logical culmination of a humble, gracious, charitable civility that had characterized his public rhetoric for years past.  Mr. Trump, in contrast, has for years sought intentionally to divide the nation as a conscious political strategy.   His language has been caustic, defamatory, reckless, unthinking, bombastic, anti-intellectual, and relentless self-aggrandizing.

Historically, it would be accurate to call him the anti-Lincoln.  Pretty soon, we’ll just call him “Mr. President.”

CHARITY AND CIVILITY IN A POLITICAL SPEECH?! AN EXAMPLE FROM ABRAHAM LINCOLN

Lincoln in the late 1850s

Lincoln in the late 1850s

I’ve been making my way slowly through the Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln this summer, and yesterday I re-read a speech that I’ve known for years, only this time I read it against the backdrop of this year’s interminable presidential campaign and the schoolyard name-calling that passes for serious political debate in 2016.  The speech is what is known as Lincoln’s “Cooper Union Address,” a talk that he made at a prominent lecture hall in New York City in February 1860, four months before the Illinois Republican received his party’s nomination for president.

As a historian, I am reflexively suspicious of supposed “golden ages” in the past, and when talking heads look solemnly into the camera and lament how far we have fallen from the civil discourse of past eras, I instinctively groan.  And yet, as I re-read Lincoln’s speech—a speech that introduced Lincoln to eastern audiences and transformed him into a serious contender for the presidency—I was repeatedly struck by the charity, humility, and civility that permeated it.  Here are just two examples:

First, in speaking figuratively to white Southerners (there were few, if any, in the audience), Lincoln began with this acknowledgement: “I consider that in the general qualities of reason and justice you are not inferior to any people.”  This echoed a familiar refrain in Lincoln’s speeches of the late 1850s, as he repeatedly, pointedly refused to characterize the southerners who vilified the Republican Party as either malevolent or misinformed.

“I have constantly declared, as I really believed,” Lincoln told an Illinois audience in October 1858, that “the only difference between them [the white South] and us, is the difference of circumstances.”  In an 1859 speech in Dayton, Ohio, Lincoln again used the rhetorical device of addressing the South with this promise: “We mean to remember that you [Southerners] are as good as we; that there is no difference between us other than the difference of circumstances.  We mean to recognize and bear in mind always that you have as good hearts in your bosoms as other people, or as we claim to have.”

Almost no southerners heard these disclaimers, as Lincoln surely understood, but in making them, he was indirectly admonishing his northern followers to avoid self-righteousness.  Lincoln was not arguing the moral equivalence of the two political factions.  He made no bones about his belief that slavery was a “moral, social, and political wrong,” but he simultaneously refused to portray antislavery advocates as morally superior to slavery’s defenders.

Second, in speaking to northern Republicans, Lincoln imparted this advice:

It is exceedingly desirable that all parts of this great Confederacy shall be at peace, and in harmony, with one another.  Let us Republicans do our part to have it so.  Even though much provoked, let us do nothing through passion and ill temper.  Even though the southern people will not so much as listen to us, let us calmly consider their demands, and yield to them if, in our deliberate view of our duty, we possibly can.

The current Republican nominee claims to admire Lincoln, explaining to Bob Woodward that Lincoln “did something that was a very important thing to do, and especially at that time,” whatever that means.  What is more, Trump has touted his ability to be “as presidential” as Lincoln, or nearly so.  Is it possible to imagine the current nominee following Lincoln’s example in either respect?

In fairness to Trump, his caustic, defamatory, polarizing anti-intellectual rhetoric is but an extreme example of the general tenor of partisan debate in our time.  Each party portrays the other as a combination of evil leaders and stupid followers.  What is destroyed in these characterizations is the possibility of what political scientists call “persuasive engagement,” the potential for rational argument in which each side respects the other and can conceive of some sort of compromise in which both sides benefit.

One hundred and fifty-six years ago, Lincoln implored his southern critics to be open to persuasive engagement.  Let the battle be over principles, not personalities, he exhorted them.  Above all, “meet us as if it were possible that something may be said on our side.”  The first step to constructive political dialogue, in other words, is humility, a willingness to acknowledge that no single party has a monopoly on wisdom and virtue.  Not bad advice.

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