Can there be a poetry to history? Surely one of its lessons is that history is unsentimental, and that while it provides many reprise lines it almost never repeats itself.
Is there a physics to history? Surely no professional historian can subscribe to a theory of synchronicity, where events unrelated by cause nonetheless converge in a meaningful way.
So what are we to make of today’s 200th anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln, coming as it does in the first month of the administration of Barack Obama, the first black president? Mere coincidence? Or some celestial mystery whose message we dare not ignore?
These questions perhaps are better suited to the Swiss psychologist C.G. Jung than to the newspaper columnist. (Tantalizing fact: Jung was born during Reconstruction only to die during the civil rights movement.) But this remarkable moment surely offers lessons for Barack Obama. Here are some that Lincoln might endorse for his spiritual successor:
• Be the friend of the soldier, the scourge of the generals.
Lincoln biographies are full of stories of the strong affinity between the man who prosecuted the war and the men who fought it, a bond that was sealed at the cottage on the grounds of the Soldiers’ Home on the outskirts of Washington (where Lincoln would later write the Emancipation Proclamation) and in visits to troops in various theaters of battle.
“Lincoln never came to regard the army as a mere machine, never forgot the individual men who made it up,” the great 19th-century journalist Ida M. Tarbell wrote. “From the outset, he was the personal friend of every soldier he sent to the front, and somehow every man seemed to know it.”
As faithful as he was to the soldiers, he was equally skeptical of the generals, particularly Gen. George B. McClellan, who eventually would run against Lincoln in the 1864 election. So impatient with McClellan’s procrastination and excuses was Lincoln that he finally remarked: “If General McClellan does not want to use the army, I would like to borrow it for a time.”
Obama has made a start, at least on the first half of the matter. His beloved grandfather fought with George S. Patton in World War II and may have passed down some of his attitudes on military matters. Serving under Patton tended to make soldiers more devoted to each other and less devoted to their generals. Many of them thought that Patton, known as “Old Blood and Guts,” fought with their blood and his guts. But like the last two presidents, Obama is not a veteran. Neither, it might be added, was Lincoln.
• Don’t let your views on race or fundamental principles get watered down in the White House.
Lincoln was a white man full of the traditional views of his time, but he also possessed an extraordinary conscience that allowed him to break out of the prison of conventional thought.
“Though Lincoln shared the prejudices of his white fellow countrymen against the negro,” Frederick Douglass said in 1876, “it is hardly necessary to say that in his heart of hearts he loathed and hated slavery.”
Much of Lincoln’s world view was on prominent display in 1858, when he ran against Stephen A. Douglas for the Senate in Illinois. The transcripts of the Lincoln-Douglas debates provide the most detailed glimpse into the views of race of any American president — until Obama, at age 34, published “Dreams From My Father.”
Even so, a letter Lincoln wrote to James N. Brown, a friend and prominent Sangamon County, Ill., politician, provides an important insight.
“I have made it ... plain that I think the negro is included in the word ‘men’ used in the Declaration of Independence,” Lincoln wrote on Oct. 18, 1858. “I believe the declara(tion) that ‘all men are created equal’ is the great fundamental principle upon which our free institutions rest.”
It is not too much to say that at Gettysburg, in November 1863, Lincoln transformed the Declaration, which had no legal force in the United States, into a document with a moral power even greater than the law. But that was not a view he adopted or adapted in the White House. It was one that came with him.
• Do more than face the crisis.
Lincoln had one pre-eminent task: Save the Union by winning the war. Everything else was peripheral. And yet what was peripheral to Lincoln swiftly became central to the nation he saved.
He transformed the economy from agricultural to industrial, a process that was under way before the war but was consolidated during it.
He overhauled the nation’s tax system, instituting the first income tax and decreasing Washington’s reliance on tariffs, which had warped the economy and the political debate.
He signed the Homestead Act, which, by providing 160 acres of land to settlers, created the new American West — and the American dream.
He supported the Morrill Act, which created the great land-grant institutions that changed the face of American education, put a college education within reach of millions and spawned some of the world’s greatest institutions of higher learning, including Cornell, Penn State and the University of Wisconsin.
• Change the terms of the debate.
Gettysburg was the second time Lincoln did this. The first time came 11 months earlier, with the Emancipation Proclamation, which (you will note an important trend here) had little legal force but enormous moral force. Lincoln freed slaves in territory over which he had no power (exempting Union states and border states), but his achievement was freeing the nation from the scourge of slavery once the war was over.
Lincoln knew the import of what he was doing. He told an Illinois congressman that his hand and arm trembled as he signed the proclamation.
“I never, in my life,” he said, “felt more certain that I was doing right, than I do in signing this paper.”
By this one act, he changed the course of the war and the course of American history.
“The proclamation,” Ronald C. White Jr. wrote in his new biography of Lincoln, “was not so much a fact accomplished as a promise to be realized.”
Obama’s election is a fact accomplished — and a promise to be realized. Two hundred years after Lincoln’s birth, he is the first black American to live in the White House. Now he, like Lincoln, must recognize the power of the promise.