President Barack Obama loves to quote the lyrical closing lines of Abraham Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address, calling on “the better angels of our nature” to overcome partisan hatreds and political divisions. Obama cited those words in his own inaugural proclamation and rested his hand on Lincoln’s Bible when he took the oath of office. He has come back to those angels again and again ever since. A search of Google and the White House Web site turns up half a dozen examples. He used the phrase to eulogize Ted Kennedy, to chide a would-be Quran burner in Florida, and to say goodbye to chief of staff Rahm Emanuel. Obama, it seems, sees better angels just about everywhere. Even as he traveled in India this week he talked about his efforts to live up to the example of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and, yes, Abraham Lincoln.
But in light of today’s real-world politics, Obama should think a little harder about the context in which Lincoln summoned those better angels on March 4, 1861. Led by South Carolina (now home to Sen. Jim DeMint), seven of 33 states had already seceded from the Union to form the Confederacy at that point. Only days before Lincoln took office, he had to sneak into Washington in the lonely hours before dawn because of an assassination plot. The month after his inauguration, the South fired on the federal garrison at Fort Sumter to begin the Civil War in earnest.
If, in the end, Lincoln did manage to hold the Union together, it was not because of the better angels of human nature, but because he finally found the killer angels among his generals who could, and did, and at enormous cost, crush the secessionists.
These basic facts about a moment of history that Obama obviously holds dear are worth going over again right now because, in fact, the secessionists of 1860 are the ideological forebears of the Tea Party movement today. No, the United States is not on the verge of another violent breakup, not close at all, even if Tea Party icons like Gov. Rick Perry in Texas or some of Sarah Palin’s friends and relatives in Alaska may toy with the notion of secession. But there is in American politics today a discourse of such cupidity, bigotry, and self-delusion about the role of government that it would have been familiar to anyone following the rhetoric of the Southern “fire-eaters” pushing the country toward a conflagration 150 years ago.
As Douglas R. Egerton points out in his fascinating new history, Year of Meteors: Stephen Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, and the Election That Brought on the Civil War, the radical secessionists were willing to do just about anything, including destroy their own national party, in order to get their way. “They planned to ruin so they could rule,” writes Egerton.
The rhetoric in 1860, as now, was essentially about throwing off the burden of federal authority, getting rid of the tariffs and taxes Washington imposed, and protecting private property from the depredations of central government. There was one essential difference back then, of course: the private property in question in 1860 was human. But the fire-eaters of the Old South never put the emphasis on “human,” they always put it on “property,” and they pointed to their (white man’s) rights enshrined in Article I, Article IV, and the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution, which declared no person can be “deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” If this meant, perversely, that human chattel who were not considered persons could be torn away from their families, beaten, raped, and killed at the whim of their owners, and often were, that was less important to the secessionists than a strict interpretation of America’s founding document. They might have talked about states’ rights and the right to liberty, and many did then, as many do now, but the core freedom defended by those activists of 1860 was the freedom to enslave black people and to spread their racist system of forced labor across the continent.
What is striking about Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address is that he actually accepted much of this argument. While appealing to the better angels of human nature, he openly compromised with the worst instincts of society and reached out to offer reconciliation with the most violent political currents in American life. He did not speak out against slavery where it existed, only against its spread. Then he called on those better angels to hold the Union together. It didn’t work.
But Lincoln had an ally then of a kind that Obama could use now. Lincoln’s old rival from Illinois, Stephen Douglas, whose party had been split by the fire-eaters and whom Lincoln defeated at the polls, became a wise and vital friend. In the months between the inauguration and Douglas’s early death in June 1861, the “little giant,” as he was known, spent many long hours talking to Lincoln about how best to preserve the Union—and compromise wasn’t part of the picture.
When word of the attack on Sumter reached Washington, Douglas immediately went to the White House, where he found Lincoln alone at his desk. As Egerton writes, Lincoln confided that he planned to call up 75,000 volunteers to fight for the Union. “Make it 200,000,” Douglas shot back. He spent the few remaining weeks of his life rallying his supporters to back the federal government, calling for the recapture of Sumter and the earliest possible invasion of the Confederate states. “You do not know the dishonest purposes of those men as I do,” he told Lincoln.
What both of those great politicians understood by then was that there may be better angels in the nature of some people, but there are others who are willing to weaken, even destroy a nation to serve their own self-righteous self-interest, and they will do it in the name of the Constitution. If Obama hasn’t learned that yet, perhaps it’s time he did.
Christopher Dickey’s history of diplomacy and espionage in the Civil War era will be published in 2012. He is also the author most recently of Securing the City: Inside America's Best Counterterror Force—The NYPD, chosen by The New York Times as a notable book of 2009.