Lincoln... or Buchanan?

David Forte

February 1, 2009

The popular narrative is that our new Abraham Lincoln—Barack Obama—has succeeded our bumbling James Buchanan—George W. Bush. Obama, the lawyer from Illinois, relatively inexperienced but with a savvy political sense, takes over from the man who made a mess of things—just as Lincoln took over from his inept predecessor, James Buchanan, president from 1857 to 1861.

Obama studied Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals and filled his cabinet (and the vice-presidency) accordingly. He took his oath on Lincoln’s Bible. He keeps a picture of Lincoln on his desk. He announced his candidacy in front of the Old State House in Springfield, the site of Lincoln’s “House Divided” speech. Like Lincoln, he writes most of his own speeches. Like Lincoln, his words move his audience. He repairs frequently to Lincoln quotes. An artist in Boston fused Obama and Lincoln into a single visage.

This is the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth. So, out of respect for that great president, let us take another look. No one, least of all George W. Bush, would make the claim that Bush is another Abraham Lincoln. Nonetheless, is it not possible that we have things a little bit backwards, when we think of Obama as the new Lincoln? In fact, he may be our new Buchanan.

The two crises that James Buchanan and Abraham Lincoln faced were first, war and the prospect of the possible destruction of the Union, and second, the question of the innate dignity of an entire class of human beings. George W. Bush faced and Barrack Obama now faces two crises as well: the war and the prospect of the possible destruction of the country, and the question of the innate dignity of an entire class of human beings. Bush faced and Obama now faces a third crisis—the faltering economy—but they have approached it on similar (if not always wise) grounds. The questions of war and of human dignity, however, separate them as they separated Lincoln from Buchanan.

When President James Buchanan faced the secession of seven states of the South in early 1861, he declared that secession was illegal, but that military intervention to stop it was illegal as well. His policy of enforcing simple legality permitted to the South the complete destruction of the Union. The most Buchanan would do was to send a supply ship to relieve Fort Sumter, but when it was frightened off by shore batteries, Buchanan remained effectively immobilized.

When Lincoln became president, he had but one objective: the Union must be saved. If it took a war to do it, he would go to war. If, as it turned out, certain legal or constitutional limitations stood in the way of the work of its salvation, he would ignore them for the sake of preserving the whole of the Union and the Constitution. To save the nation from the prospect of another attack, George W. Bush went to war. And, as his critics constantly accused, he was not particularly fastidious about legal limitations in his quest to keep terrorists out of the country. On the other hand, Barack Obama, like James Buchanan, has consistently declared that all legal forms will guide his response to the country’s enemies.

At his first inaugural, Lincoln held out the hand of understanding and mutual respect to the South, but above all, he declared, he had “the most solemn oath…to preserve, protect, and defend” the Union. From that he would not flinch. That surely describes George Bush’s attitude.

But he made a mess of it, didn’t he? Lincoln, that is. After thousands of deaths and enormous costs and suffering, by 1864, many in the North, including many in Congress and veterans such as Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., thought the war unwinnable. Lincoln’s opponent in the 1864 election, General George McClellan, called for an exit strategy of negotiating with the enemy, and of militarily extricating the North from the hopeless and futile struggle. Only a political solution would do, he asserted. Throughout the Iraq war, Barrack Obama called the conflict not only mistaken, but unwinnable. Withdrawal and the end of the American part in the hostilities was his objective. Only a political solution would do, he asserted.

President Lincoln stared defeat in the face, but did not waver. He pressed on until he found a general, Ulysses S. Grant, “who [could] fight.” With Grant indefatigably pressing Lee and with the victories gained by Sherman’s surge through the South, the prospect of military defeat was no longer an issue in the 1864 campaign.

President Bush too faced defeat. The war was unwinnable. His party deserted him. Opinion leaders called for withdrawal under the cover of negotiations. But he found a general who knew how to fight in Iraq: David Petraeus. With the surge of troops and the defeat of al Qaeda, the prospect of military defeat was no longer an issue in the 2008 campaign.

Barack Obama now stares victory in the face, but he wavers. He sends a weak ambassador, Christopher Hill, fresh from his dismal record of making unrequited concessions to nuclear North Korea. Obama seems not to grasp the world-changing opportunity wrought by Bush and the Iraqis. Lincoln, on the other hand, saw the dramatic change in the American political and social landscape wrought by the North’s victory. Sadly, he did not live to see it through.

Bush is not, to say the least, the giant of a political figure as is Lincoln, and Obama possesses none of the hesitant style of Buchanan. But on the question of war and what it takes to save the country, Bush’s unwavering focus is as was Lincoln’s, and Obama’s temporizing is nearer to Buchanan’s.

What of the human dignity question? Abraham Lincoln asked Senator Stephen A. Douglas, “Is not the Negro a Man?” Barack Obama told reverend Rick Warren that the question of the humanity of the unborn “is above my pay grade.”

President James Buchanan was known as a “doughface,” a Northerner in support of Southern slavery and Southern interests. And that he was. He filled his seven cabinet posts with four Southern and two Northern defenders of slavery. He supported the Dred Scott decision legalizing slavery in the territories. Where Lincoln would have confined slavery to the existing slave states, Buchanan supported legislation that would have solidified slavery in Kansas, and he attempted to have the United States absorb Cuba as a new slave state—actions that would have extended and given moral credence to slavery rather than put it on a path to eventual extinction.

Lincoln said, “As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master.” President George W. Bush declared that “a noble goal for this country is that every child, born and unborn, ought to be protected in law and welcomed into life.” In the midst of the Civil War, President Lincoln emancipated most of the country’s slaves. President George W. Bush supported and signed legislation that protected children born alive after a failed abortion, made punishable acts that harmed or killed unborn children from an assault on the mother, and that outlawed partial birth abortions. He opposed federal funding of research on stem cells drawn from embryos. And he appointed judges whose views of the Court’s role in interpreting the Constitution paralleled Lincoln’s.

President Barack Obama regards having to bear an unwanted child as a “punishment.” He has filled his cabinet with abortion-rights supporters. He supports the Roe v. Wade decision creating a right to an abortion in all of the states. He has extended the pro-abortion program by rescinding the ban of American funds to international organizations that provide or support abortion. He has promised that he would sign legislation that would create a federal statutory guarantee to an abortion in all states, and he is expected to ask for federal funding of abortions and to reverse President Bush’s policy on the use of embryonic stem cells.

Lincoln schooled us: “In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free.” The election of Barack Obama fulfills—far too late in our country’s history—Abraham Lincoln’s gift of freedom to every American, born of his noble spirit and his courage. That freedom is now protected because of Lincoln’s dedication to saving the country and his recognition of the human dignity and potential of all—no matter how weak or degraded by force of law and habit. It is a sorrow, then, that thus far, President Obama acts more like the Great Emancipator’s predecessor and not the one who saved the Union and freed the slaves.

David Forte is an adjunct fellow of the Ashbrook Center and a Professor of Law at Cleveland-Marshall College of Law in Cleveland, Ohio. He is Senior Visiting Scholar at the Center on Religion and the Constitution at the Witherspoon Institute.