Oh how far we have come


The Providence Journal

When Democrat Barack Obama formally launches his 2008 presidential campaign on Feb. 10 in Springfield, Ill., Abraham Lincoln’s hometown, it stands to be a dramatic statement of how far the nation has come.

The kickoff is two days before Lincoln’s birthday and one day short of the 146th anniversary of his boarding a train in Springfield to head east to assume the presidency in 1861.

No matter how you regard Obama’s credentials or platform, it is striking to realize that someone with a real chance of being the nation’s first black president is announcing his candidacy in a place synonymous with the man known for freeing the slaves.

Rhode Island Supreme Court Chief Justice Frank Williams, a Lincoln authority, says Obama is smart to do it. And Williams thinks Lincoln would welcome it, hard though it may have been for him to imagine it in his time.

In Lincoln’s day, most blacks were slaves, and Williams says even free blacks couldn’t vote.

No black man or woman was secretary of state. No blacks in Congress. No black governors.

Indeed, there were few famous blacks at all, a notable exception being abolitionist/orator Frederick Douglass, an escaped slave.

In fact, you could argue that Lincoln’s reputation as the Great Emancipator is idealized. He was a trailblazer. Still, he declared in a 1858 debate:

“I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races. … I say upon this occasion I do not perceive that because the white man is to have the superior position the negro should be denied everything.”

Williams says, “Lincoln was clearly subjected to the racial prejudices of his time, although ahead of most people around him.” He says Lincoln’s views evolved and he increasingly supported voting rights and education for blacks. “He was getting there,” Williams says. If Lincoln could see Obama announcing, “I think he’d be very supportive of a black man or woman seeking and serving in high office.”

Williams says it was a big thing when President Lincoln welcomed Douglass for visits at the White House — except for servants, black people weren’t seen there.

Williams notes Douglass’ later efforts to place Lincoln in perspective. Lincoln was focused on the Union cause, and Douglass said political realities kept the president from pushing earlier in the Civil War to abolish slavery.

In declaring in Springfield, the Illinois capital, Chicagoan Obama, 45, is returning to the place where he served as a state legislator, and it gives something of a grass-roots, Midwest flair to the kickoff that would be missing if it were held in Washington.

Visitors to Springfield can see Lincoln’s two-story home and the Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.

(Obama, the son of a Kenyan father and a white Kansan mother, grew up in Indonesia and Hawaii. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, the front-runner for the ’08 Democratic nomination, grew up in Illinois before moving to Arkansas and New York.)

Lincoln also was an Illinois state legislator and served two years in the U.S. House. Some people questioned his qualifications to be president, just as some believe that Obama, now in his third year in the U.S. Senate, lacks the necessary experience. Clinton is in her seventh year in the Senate and was first lady for eight.

Lincoln did not formally announce his 1860 presidential candidacy in Springfield or anywhere else. It was not the fashion in those days to hold flashy kickoffs. Presidential nominating politics relied heavily on backstage maneuvering. I loved a line in an overview Williams referred me to about the Republican National Convention, which Lincoln’s allies had conveniently arranged to have in Chicago, all the better to pack the galleries. After Lincoln telegraphed campaign manager David Davis, “I authorize no bargains and will be bound by none,” Davis said, “Lincoln ain’t here,” and made one deal after another with state delegations.

Lincoln had a national reputation as a thoughtful, articulate spokesman on the issue of slavery. Running for the U.S. Senate in 1858, he gave — in Springfield — his famous speech that a house divided against itself cannot stand. “I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free…. It will become all one thing or all the other.”

On Feb. 11, 1861, the day before he turned 52, Lincoln went to Springfield’s old Great Western Railroad depot — it still stands as a visitor site — to say goodbye to the home folks and to begin the long trip to Washington to assume the presidency.

Lincoln never saw Springfield alive again. He was assassinated on April 14, 1865, and is buried in a tomb with a tall granite spire in Springfield’s Oak Ridge Cemetery.

(M. Charles Bakst is the Providence Journal’s political columnist. E-mail mbakst(at)projo.com.)