Friday, August 22, 2008

What Obama Has Yet To Learn About Slavery, Race And U.S. Exceptionalism

By THOMAS KRANNAWITTER Posted Friday, August 22, 2008 4:20 PM PT

But in a 2005 feature essay in Time magazine, Obama distanced himself from what he called Lincoln's "limited" views on race. So, it seems, Lincoln leaned more toward bigotry than justice, at least for Obama.

An early morning sunrise lights Illinois' Old State Capitol on Friday in Springfield, where Abraham Lincoln gave his 1858 "House Divided" speech inside Representatives Hall. Lincoln also used the governor's rooms as a headquarters during the 1860 presidential campaign. Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama, the state's junior senator, was to make a pre-convention appearance there Saturday.

Barack Obama launched his presidential campaign from Springfield, Ill. He was to announce his vice presidential running mate on Saturday from Springfield as well. Why Springfield?

Obama is clearly trying to capitalize on the legacy of America's most captivating president, Abraham Lincoln, for whom Springfield was as much of a home as he ever knew.

What about America?

As we learn more about candidate Obama, many are troubled by Obama's attraction toward William Ayers, member of the terrorist Weather Underground organization, the God-damning-America Rev. Jeremiah Wright and Saul Alinsky, founder of the socialist Industrial Areas Foundation, all of whom share utter contempt for the principles and practices of the United States.

From his statements and affiliations, it's hard not to assume that Obama thinks America is racist and immoral, just like its most famous president. But if Obama paid less attention to America haters and more to America and its foremost defender, Lincoln, he might begin to understand the true ground of American goodness.

It might sound strange at first, but the problem of slavery in America best reveals America's goodness. Throughout history, slavery was a common practice that few, if any, thought to condemn much less try to end. But in America, slavery became a problem, one that would not go away without blood. This fact alone tells much about the goodness of America.

America was destined for some kind of moral and political confrontation over slavery because, and only because, America was founded on the principle of human equality, a truth that is diametrically opposed to slavery.

When Americans today ask why their forefathers of 1776 did not immediately abolish slavery, they are asking the wrong question. The right question is: Why did they establish a new regime on the idea that the rights of Americans are rooted in human nature, which they share with all human beings everywhere?

No people, anywhere, had ever attempted such a thing. Not in Africa, nor Europe, nor Asia, not in the peaks of Roman or Greek civilization, not anywhere else was there a model of establishing a self-governing republic and trying to combine justice with the consent of the governed, all out of dedication to the principle that all men are created equal.

The American Founders did more than abstractly declare the principle of equality. They understood with perfect clarity the injustice of slavery, taking every measure against it that prudence would allow. When the famed black abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, studied the compromises made over slavery in the original Constitution, he concluded that it was nothing less than a "glorious liberty document."

From 1776 through the early 1800s, America witnessed the greatest anti-slavery movement ever, as half of the original states abolished slavery and active anti-slavery societies sprang up elsewhere, the importation of African slaves was outlawed, and the spread of slavery was prohibited.

Nineteenth century changes in technology and economics, political theory and Christian theology gave rise to a defense of slavery and a corresponding rejection of the Founding principles. But Lincoln would not let those principles fade. Instead, he presided over America's most horrific struggle, the Civil War, in order to preserve them. His reward was a bullet blasted through his brain.

When Obama complains that he "cannot swallow whole the view of Lincoln as the Great Emancipator" because "as a law professor and civil rights lawyer and as an African-American, I am fully aware of his limited views on race," what more would Obama have advised Lincoln to do?

The equal protection of equal rights is the American ideal, enshrined forever in the proposition that all men are created equal. And it's right. Slavery and racism are wrong precisely because equality is right.

Acknowledging past sins of slavery and racism in America in no way requires abandoning the principles of America. Just the opposite. The more we hate the ugliness of slavery and racism, the more we should cherish the true principles upon which America was founded.

There is no greater student and therefore no greater teacher of American politics than Lincoln. If Obama wants to borrow from Lincoln's legacy, he should first learn from Lincoln.

The lesson Lincoln offers is a lesson of American exceptionalism. It is a lesson about how rare it is for a nation to be founded on the principles of justice, how beautiful it is that a nation can strive to live up to its own principles because they are good, and how the Americans were the first to figure that out.

Krannawitter teaches political science at Hillsdale College in Michigan and is author of "Vindicating Lincoln: Defending the Politics of Our Greatest President" (Rowman & Littlefield, 2008).

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