He was trained as a lawyer. He came to national attention as a speaker, both as a Senate candidate in his native Illinois and on the national stage. After a brief and undistinguished career in Congress, he became President, winning his party’s nomination against opponents of greater national stature and far more experience.
His term in office was troubled from the very beginning. When he arrived in Washington, he reached out to his political opponents, preaching a message of unity. They spurned him, portraying him as a wicked tyrant out to centralize power, destroy the liberties of the states and betray the most fundamental principles of Republican government.
During his first term, some of his most committed core supporters lost faith with him. They believed he was too quick to compromise, unwilling to address the burning issues of the day in a manner consistent with his party’s principles. But after early talk of a challenge for the nomination, he healed the divisions in his party and led it united into his re-election campaign. His message was direct and simple – we have embarked on a mighty battle against the enemies of progress. The future of the nation, and the world, hangs in the balance. Let me complete the work I have begun.
I am speaking, of course, about Abraham Lincoln.
Last year I injured my leg, and spent two weeks on the couch with my leg in a cast. To get me through my time on the sidelines, I read both Shelby Foote’s and Bruce Caton’s massive three-volume histories of the Civil War.
I learned something that had escaped me before in my training as an historian. In his own time, Lincoln was reviled by many of those in his own party, because he placed the anti-slavery cause behind the preservation of the Union. His most vociferous opponents were the Radical Republicans, led by Congressman Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania. They hated Lincoln. Sometimes it seemed they hated him even more than they hated the Slave Power of the South.
On the other side of the great divide, Confederate President Jefferson Davis faced similar opposition from his own true believers. A core of radicals called the “Impossibilists” resisted measures to strengthen the Confederate national government and give it the tools Davis believed necessary to prosecute the war to a successful conclusion. Davis’s own Vice-President, Alexander Stephens of Georgia, became one of his most vocal critics. At one point Stephens threatened to pull his state’s troops out of the Confederate army, return them to Georgia and from there make independent war against Lincoln’s Federals.
To me, the Civil War period has disturbing echoes in our own time. Not since the Civil War, I believe, has the gap between our political parties been so large, the center so hollow, and compromise so hard to achieve. What does it say about our politics that former Democrat Representative Alan Grayson and Republican Representative Joe Wilson are heroes to many in their respective parties?
The parallels between Barack Obama and our second-greatest President are intriguing, but in my opinion not dispositive. Is Obama another Abraham Lincoln, defending American progress against a disloyal opposition, a party of reaction that has been captured by a core of anti-government radicals? Or is Obama himself the reactionary, trying to stem the tide of history in order to preserve, unchanged and unreformed, two of the great accomplishments of early- and mid-20th-century liberalism — Social Security and Medicare — in defiance of the demographic and fiscal realities of the 20th century?
The question of how to solve our nation’s looming entitlements crisis has barely been engaged in this year’s Presidential campaign. I continue to believe that it is the great political challenge of our time. Today’s election, whatever the result, will be but one battle in what is likely to be a protracted war.