Obama and Lincoln — Keep Hype Alive

A recent Bloomberg article points out the obvious efforts to compare Obama and Lincoln. Politically, I understand the attempt. But until someone directly spikes my kool-aid, I have to point out why I think the comparison is laughable, while still hoping Obama succeeds in his presidency.

A brief rundown of Lincoln’s leadership resume before assuming the presidency.

  • 1832 – Captain of a militia during the Black Hawk War.
  • 1834 – Elected to the State Legislature.
  • 1837 – Admitted to the Illinois Bar. He was self-taught, no law school.
  • 1837 – First protest against slavery.
  • 1846 – Elected to the US House of Representatives.
  • 1847 – Opposed the Mexican-American War.
  • 1854 – Instrumental in forming the new Republican Party.
  • 1858 – Losing Senate race against Douglas. Makes ‘house divided against itself cannot stand’ argument.
  • 1837 thru 1860 – Legal career. Lincoln and his partners appeared before the Illinois State Supreme Court more than 400 times.

Below I repeat a portion of a blog post I made in July, which compared Obama’s experience with other presidents, along with the Bloomberg article.

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Abraham Lincoln [elected 1860] – Lincoln biography:

Lincoln began his political career in 1832, at age 23, with an unsuccessful campaign for the Illinois General Assembly, as a member of the Whig Party. The centerpiece of his platform was the undertaking of navigational improvements on the Sangamon River. He believed that this would attract steamboat traffic, which would allow the sparsely populated, poorer areas along the river to flourish.

He was elected captain of an Illinois militia company drawn from New Salem during the Black Hawk War, and later wrote that he had not had “any such success in life which gave him so much satisfaction.”

For several months, Lincoln ran a small store in New Salem.

In 1834, he won election to the state legislature, and, after coming across the Commentaries on the Laws of England, began to teach himself law. Admitted to the bar in 1837, he moved to Springfield, Illinois, that same year and began to practice law with John T. Stuart. With a reputation as a formidable adversary during cross-examinations and in his closing arguments, Lincoln became one of the most respected and successful lawyers in Illinois and grew steadily more prosperous.

He served four successive terms in the Illinois House of Representatives as a representative from Sangamon County, and became a leader of the Illinois Whig party. In 1837, he made his first protest against slavery in the Illinois House, stating that the institution was “founded on both injustice and bad policy.”

A Whig and an admirer of party leader Henry Clay, Lincoln was elected to a term in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1846. As a freshman House member, he was not a particularly powerful or influential figure. However, he spoke out against the Mexican-American War, which he attributed to President Polk’s desire for “military glory” and challenged the President’s claims regarding the Texas boundary and offered Spot Resolutions, demanding to know on what “spot” on US soil that blood was first split.

By the mid-1850s, Lincoln’s caseload focused largely on the competing transportation interests of river barges and railroads. In one prominent 1851 case, he represented the Alton & Sangamon Railroad in a dispute with a shareholder, James A. Barret. Barret had refused to pay the balance on his pledge to the railroad on the grounds that it had changed its originally planned route. Lincoln argued that as a matter of law a corporation is not bound by its original charter when that charter can be amended in the public interest, that the newer route proposed by Alton & Sangamon was superior and less expensive, and that accordingly, the corporation had a right to sue Barret for his delinquent payment. He won this case, and the decision by the Illinois Supreme Court was eventually cited by several other courts throughout the United States.

Lincoln was involved in more than 5,100 cases in Illinois alone during his 23-year legal career. Though many of these cases involved little more than filing a writ, others were more substantial and quite involved. Lincoln and his partners appeared before the Illinois State Supreme Court more than 400 times.

Lincoln returned to politics in response to the Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854), which expressly repealed the limits on slavery’s extent as determined by the Missouri Compromise (1820). Illinois Democrat Stephen A. Douglas, the most powerful man in the Senate, proposed popular sovereignty as the solution to the slavery impasse, and incorporated it into the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Douglas argued that in a democracy the people should have the right to decide whether or not to allow slavery in their territory, rather than have such a decision imposed on them by Congress.

Drawing on remnants of the old Whig, Free Soil, Liberty and Democratic parties, he was instrumental in forming the new Republican Party. In a stirring campaign, the Republicans carried Illinois in 1854 and elected a senator. Lincoln was the obvious choice, but to keep the new party balanced he allowed the election to go to an ex-Democrat Lyman Trumbull. At the Republican convention in 1856, Lincoln placed second in the contest to become the party’s candidate for Vice-President.

In 1857-58, Douglas broke with President Buchanan, leading to a fight for control of the Democratic Party. Some eastern Republicans even favored the reelection of Douglas in 1858, since he had led the opposition to the Lecompton Constitution, which would have admitted Kansas as a slave state. Accepting the Republican nomination for Senate in 1858, Lincoln delivered his famous speech: “‘A house divided against itself cannot stand.'(Mark 3:25) I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved — I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing, or all the other.” The speech created an evocative image of the danger of disunion caused by the slavery debate, and rallied Republicans across the north.

Don’t be embarrassed that you entertained the thought that they had similar experiences prior to becoming president, just stop watching PMS-NBC. Bottom line, Lincoln really was a great lawyer, not someone who punched that ticket on the resume. Case closed. Onward, Christian [as far as I know] soldiers.
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Obama Inaugural Strains Lincoln Comparisons While Inviting Them

By Hans Nichols

Jan. 17 (Bloomberg) — Barack Obama’s inauguration is dedicated to the proposition that all presidencies are not created equal.

In ways big and small, Obama is trying to summon Abraham Lincoln’s spirit to the proceedings.

Obama will roll into Washington’s Union Station today by train, duplicating part of Lincoln’s railroad journey from Illinois for his swearing in. The president-elect is to appear at a concert tomorrow at the Lincoln Memorial, and will take the oath of office Tuesday with one hand on the Bible that Lincoln used in 1861. Inaugural planners drew so many ties between the Illinois legislators-turned-presidents that Obama may risk straining the comparison.

“Everyone wants to be Lincoln,” says Harold Holzer, who has written or edited more than 20 books on Lincoln and the Civil War. “Is Obama overdoing it? Maybe.”

For most of the 144 years since Lincoln’s death, presidents of all political persuasions have tried to enlist Lincoln’s reputation for honesty and courage in support of their own ambitions. Leaders “see in Lincoln’s suffering validation of the criticism they have to endure,” Holzer says.

Still, the election of America’s first black president, from the same state as the leader who issued the Emancipation Proclamation, gives Obama a stronger claim than most predecessors to Lincoln’s legacy, says Tom Schwartz, a historian at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield, Illinois.

‘Clear Thread’

There’s a “very clear thread that connects the two,” says Schwartz, who describes Obama’s history-making election as “a kind of bookend to Lincoln’s legacy in the Civil War.”

Obama will be sworn in at noon on Jan. 20, just three weeks before the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth on Feb. 12, 1809, an anniversary to be accompanied by museum exhibits, ceremonies, and new books planned long before Obama’s victory. “There’s a serendipity to it,” Schwartz says.

“Both of them were born to modest circumstances,” says former Democratic New York Governor Mario Cuomo, an amateur Lincoln historian. “Both of them wrote well, both of them spoke well, and neither of them is an ideologue.”

Obama’s childhood, as the son of a single mother who sometimes relied on food stamps, is a modern analogue of Lincoln’s log-cabin upbringing. Both presidents studied law and bested better-known U.S. senators from New York for their parties’ presidential nominations.

Strength of Oratory

Each man rocketed from relative obscurity on the strength of oratory, in Obama’s 2004 Democratic National Convention keynote address and Lincoln’s 1860 anti-slavery speech at New York’s Cooper Union.

A week after moving his family to temporary quarters in a Washington hotel, Obama took his wife and two daughters for a moon-bathed visit to the Lincoln Memorial, where a 19-foot-tall statue of the first Republican president looks down on the National Mall where throngs of visitors will watch Obama’s inaugural address.

The four-day inauguration schedule starts this morning in Philadelphia, where Obama boards a train to trace the last segments of Lincoln’s route, stopping in Wilmington, Delaware, to pick up Vice President-elect Joe Biden.

Gilding a Lily

“The inaugural train may turn out to be one gilding of the lily,” Holzer says, noting that the Obamas came to the capital two weeks ago. “Backtracking north to come south may be bit of an artifice.” Obama also plans a public event in Baltimore, which Lincoln slipped through in disguise, under cover of darkness, after learning about an assassination plot there.

The 44th president will be sworn in with an 1853 printing of the Bible, bound in burgundy velvet, purchased for Lincoln’s first inauguration in 1861. After his speech, Obama will join members of Congress in the Capitol’s Statuary Hall for lunch, served on china that duplicates the dishware first lady Mary Todd Lincoln picked for the White House.

Obama is following a well-worn precedent in comparing himself to Lincoln. Earlier this week, at his final news conference, departing President George W. Bush said his most- vocal critics remind him of fierce opposition that Lincoln endured: “There’s some pretty harsh discord when it came to the 16th president, just like there’s been harsh discord for the 43rd president.”

Obama announced his candidacy on the steps of old state capitol building in Springfield, noting that he and Lincoln both served in the state legislature. In May, as he was pulling away from New York Senator Hillary Clinton in the fight for the Democratic nomination, Obama suggested that — like Lincoln –he would consider stocking his Cabinet with former rivals.

‘One of My Heroes’

“I’m a practical-minded guy,” he said. “And you know one of my heroes is Abraham Lincoln.”

Obama did nominate Clinton for secretary of state, the same post Lincoln assigned to William Seward, a New York senator who was considered a frontrunner for the 1860 Republican nomination. For vice president, Obama tapped Biden, a Delaware senator and former presidential candidate.

Stephen Hess, a presidential scholar at the capital’s George Washington University, says that overplaying the Lincoln connections may raise false expectations. “At this point I would pull back a little,” Hess says.

Some efforts to link Obama and Lincoln may now be out of Obama’s control. The Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies picked “A New Birth of Freedom” as the official inauguration theme, lifting a phrase from the Gettysburg Address. For the post-inauguration lunch, the committee is serving dishes that Lincoln is believed to have liked, including a seafood stew, duck and pheasant.

“Some of his supporters go much too far,” says Princeton University historian Sean Wilentz. “Basically, a lot of it is twaddle, but it’s harmless twaddle.

“To the extent that he’s emulating any president, Lincoln is about as good as it’s going to get,” Wilentz says. “If he was trying to emulate Calvin Coolidge, that would be a problem.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Hans Nichols in Washington at hnichols2@bloomberg.net
Last Updated: January 17, 2009 00:01 EST
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About Jorge Costales

- Cuban Exile [veni] - Raised in Miami [vidi] - American Citizen [vici]
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