A recent article, Frederick Douglass, the activist who would not 'grow up' offers a frame for evaluating the repeated criticism of President Obama from many members of the left. This article deals with President Lincoln as assessed by Frederick Douglass, not as a historian many years after the facts but as a witness to those events.
One of the most common misrepresentations of history is the oft repeated mantra that Lincoln freed the slaves. He didn't. The Emancipation Proclamation only applied to slaves that lived within the borders of states that were in rebellion against the Union; it did not apply to any slaves in the border states that were still loyal to the Union nor Confederate states which had already come under Union control; President Lincoln did not wish to lose the support of those slave owning states. The goal was to preserve the Union. As the Confederacy was not under the President's control, it did not accept Lincoln's offer to agree to the emancipation of slaves in exchange for compensation. The reality is that the Emancipation Proclamation was a grand gesture and of great symbolic value but it didn't free any slaves. [see for ex. pbs.org, thinkquest, national archives] In the year prior to the EP, 1862, Congress had passed a law that freed any Confederate slaves who escaped to the Union states and added those slaves to the Union's military ranks. Slavery did not officially end in this country until 1865 with the passage of the 13th amendment. [Id.]
The factual details don't lessen what Lincoln accomplished. I offer this history lesson because I think that the adherence to mythology is interfering with the ability of progressives to get on the same page and work at the business of re-electing Barack Obama. Lincoln was no cowboy riding in on a white horse. He compromised on what Frederick Douglass and the abolitionists saw as the most significant cause of the Civil War, ending slavery. He did so because the Union could not afford to lose the slave owning border states to the Confederacy.
In 1862, Horace Greely, editor of The New York Tribune addressed an editorial to Lincoln in which he suggested that Lincoln's administration lacked direction and resolve in its war efforts. Lincoln responded with a letter to Greely that few seem to accurately recall:
My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. 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; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union. [Lincoln letter]Frederick Douglass took issue with Lincoln's willingness to abide slavery if that was necessary to preserve the Union. However, Douglass was also pragmatic and eventually came to respect Lincoln's seemingly measured tread.
In April 1876, in a speech delivered at the unveiling of the Freedmen's Monument in Memory of Abraham Lincoln, Douglass said of Lincoln:
...I have said that President Lincoln was a white man, and shared the prejudices common to his countrymen towards the colored race. Looking back to his times and to the condition of his country, we are compelled to admit that this unfriendly feeling on his part may be safely set down as one element of his wonderful success in organizing the loyal American people for the tremendous conflict before them, and bringing them safely through that conflict. His great mission was to accomplish two things: first, to save his country from dismemberment and ruin; and, second, to free his country from the great crime of slavery. To do one or the other, or both, he must have the earnest sympathy and the powerful cooperation of his loyal fellow-countrymen. Without this primary and essential condition to success his efforts must have been vain and utterly fruitless. Had he put the abolition of slavery before the salvation of the Union, he would have inevitably driven from him a powerful class of the American people and rendered resistance to rebellion impossible...Viewed from the genuine abolition ground, Mr. Lincoln seemed tardy, cold, dull, and indifferent; but measuring him by the sentiment of his country, a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult, he was swift, zealous, radical, and determined. [emphasis added] [Douglass' Oration]Frederick Douglass was an activist and activists do not have to answer to a constituency, nor do they have to play well with others. There are those who no doubt will dismiss my evaluations of activism vs. politics as narrow and cynical. I intend it as neither, but simply pragmatic.
Activism is an essential part of political and societal change but the demand that such activism be regularly and blatantly engaged in by this President is to ask him to go beyond the bounds of his office. I chose to focus on Lincoln because of sheer laziness. Lincoln has been a hobby of mine for years and I didn't have to do a lot of research. However, similar issues can be raised with FDR's presidency.
Douglass' evaluation of Lincoln doesn't diminish the man at all but it does make it clear that no man walks on water and offers a prism that reflects how I believe history will also view Obama. Just as was Lincoln, Obama is the President, not an activist. His responsibilities are vastly different than those of an activist. I believe that far too many are demanding that Obama take on a mythical role that no president has ever exercised.
Bachmann just won the straw vote election out of a field of Republicans, any of whom is saner than she. I find that frightening. Rather than contributing to the constant criticism of President Obama and the continual refusal to acknowledge all that has been accomplished (an extensive list) our common goal should be to ensure that the President has a second term to work towards our goals. Douglass voted for Lincoln in 1864 in spite of his concerns and supported Lincoln's campaign. We have a president who understands the system and who is working that system with every tool at his disposal. What we need are activists; the campaign slogan has always been, "Yes we can." What have you done lately?