When Barack Obama takes the oath of office Jan. 20, he will place his left hand on Abraham Lincoln’s Bible.
Much has been made of the Lincoln connection, with the first black man assuming the presidency in the 200th anniversary of Honest Abe’s birthday. The historic alignment has occasioned renewed spasms of idolatrous odes to "The Great Emancipator."
But before we’re all swept away in a paroxysm of national ecstasy, a few inconvenient truths must be noted about "Honest Abe."
First, Lincoln’s Bible wasn’t some well-worn family tome. It was purchased for his first inauguration by William Thomas Carroll, clerk of the Supreme Court.
Lincoln himself wasn’t exactly a traditional Christian, or even religious. In his 20s, he wrote a "little Book on Infidelity," which questioned the inspiration of the Bible. Most research suggests that Lincoln believed in some form of providence, but wrestled with the idea of a personal God, despite frequently invoking deity in public utterances.
Such heterodoxy might have placed Lincoln ahead of his time in terms of secular philosophy, but his thinking on racial matters was truly mainstream for the period. During the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858, for example, he declared:
"I have no purpose to introduce political and social equality between the white and black races. There is a physical difference between the two, which in my judgment, will probably forever forbid their living together upon the footing of perfect equality.
"I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people. I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race."
Four years later, in an Aug. 22, 1862, letter to New York Tribune Editor Horace Greeley, Lincoln wrote:
"If I could save the union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that. What I do about slavery and the colored race I do because I believe it helps to save the union."
When Lincoln panned those words, a draft of the Emancipation Proclamation lay in his desk drawer.
So who was "The Real Lincoln"? Loyola (Md.) College professor Thomas DiLorenzo, who titled a 2003 book with that question, says it’s important that the public get the unvarnished picture.
"The average American — who has not spent much time reading Lincoln’s speeches, but has learned about him through the filter of ‘Lincoln scholars’ — will be surprised or even shocked by some of his words and actions. He stated over and over again that he was opposed to political or social equality of the races; he was not an abolitionist, but denigrated them, and distanced himself from them; and his primary means of dealing with racial problems was to attempt to colonize all American blacks in Africa, Haiti, Central America — anywhere but in the United States."
Much like Soviet-era schoolchildren who were indoctrinated to worship Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin, a corpus of 16,000 books on Lincoln conditions Americans to believe that the simple country lawyer from Illinois honorably defended his country and freed a race. His ethereal presence at Obama’s inaugural ceremonies, and Obama’s copious references to him, reinforce this national mythology.
Indeed, Lincoln was positively clairvoyant about the Leviathan State, and fought to usher it in.
"Lincoln thought of himself as the heir to the Hamiltonian political tradition, which sought a much more centralized governmental system, one that would plan economic development with corporate subsidies and the printing of money by the central government," DiLorenzo writes.
While waging the Civil War, Lincoln turned constitutional rights on their head, imprisoning thousands of Northern citizens without trial (including dozens of newspaper publishers and members of the Maryland legislature), confiscating citizens’ firearms and even deporting a member of Congress, Clement Vallandigham, for opposing Lincoln’s income tax proposal.
Obama and Lincoln certainly wouldn’t see eye to eye on race today, but they could yet become soul mates on wielding power for the "greater good."
(Ken Ward writes for the Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers.)