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Wednesday, January 23, 2013

January 23, 2013: Second Terms: Abraham Lincoln

[With Monday’s Inauguration Day, Barack Obama begins his second term as President. So this week I’ll be highlighting some interesting second term moments and issues from American history. As always, your responses, thoughts, and other ideas, on Obama’s second term or any other one, will be appreciated for the crowd-sourced weekend post!]
One two things I love about how Lincoln’s second term started, and one I especially hate about how it ended.
It’s not quite the Gettysburg Address, but Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address (March 4, 1865) offers its own pretty remarkable combination of brevity and power. “Little that is new could be presented,” Lincoln noted at the outset in justifying his conciseness; after four years of brutal civil war and all the public coverage, response, and damage it had brought with it, he had a point, but of course a lack of cause has never kept many American politicians from rambling on. Moreover, just as he did at Gettysburg, Lincoln packed a number of striking phrases and ideas into this 700-word speech, such as his invocation of Scripture and Christian faith to at once link and yet contrast the North and South: “Each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces; but let us judge not that we be not judged.” And I don’t know that the conclusion of any American speech begins more strongly than “With malice toward none; with charity for all.”
Just over a month later, on April 9th, Robert E. Lee and the Confederacy surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant and the Union at Appomattox Court House. Two days later, Lincoln delivered an impromptu speech from the White House’s front window on the prospects and his hopes for Reconstruction. The speech certainly extended the idea of charity for all, expressing Lincoln’s clear desire for a relatively magnanimous set of policies toward the former Confederate states. But it ended with one of Lincoln’s most overt and impassioned statements on behalf of African Americans, in this case an overt argument for extending the vote to African American men as quickly as possible. “The colored man,” Lincoln argued, “in seeing all united for him, is inspired with vigilance, and energy, and daring, to the same end.” For a president whose racial perspectives and politics had been complex, if consistently evolving, this moment can be seen as a high point, and in any case represented an impressively strong stand on what would become one of Reconstruction’s most contested questions.
Unfortunately, Lincoln would not live to play a role in that debate or any other aspect of Reconstruction; in the audience for his April 11th speech was actor and Southern partisan John Wilkes Booth, who three days later would assassinate Lincoln at Ford’s Theater. There is of course no shortage of reasons to mourn Lincoln’s untimely death, and to echo every word of Walt Whitman’s poetic eulogy “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.” But what I especially hate is that America was denied the chance to see a second Lincoln term, to witness the continuing evolution and (if history is any indication) growth of this unique and impressive leader. It’s easy to say that that’s partly hindsight, given the kind of leader that Andrew Johnson turned out to be, and all the other things that went wrong in the subsequent years. But honestly, even if none of that were the case, I don’t know that any AmericanStudies “What If?” would be more painful to contemplate than a full second term for Abraham Lincoln. Damn you, Booth!
Next second term tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Takes on Lincoln, on Obama, or on any other president’s second term?

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