Kentucky-born Abraham Lincoln was a one-term Congressman from Illinois when he was elected president of the United States.
Hmmm. That sounds a little familiar, doesn’t it?
Like Lincoln, Barack Obama, a one-term Senator from Illinois who was born in another state, ascended to the presidency in a time of crisis. But, as crises go, the one in Lincoln’s day was even more dire, as an exhibit at the Carter Center and Presidential Library in Atlanta shows.
The exhibit, titled “Lincoln: The Constitution and the Civil War,” is one of many around the country coinciding with the 200th birthday of our first overtly anti-slavery president.
Obama faces a divided country, with some factions convinced that government needs to play a bigger role in solving the challenges we face while others argue, without offering any other real options, that more government is not the answer.
But, so far at least — I don’t want to under-estimate the potential folly of contemporary Republican governors around the South — no one wants to break up the nation over this fight. Even before Lincoln was sworn in, seven Southern states had renounced their allegiance to the United States to form the Confederate States of America. (You know, those people with the disgraceful flag that some folks still like to fly as a proud symbol of their racist views.) South Carolina was first, followed by Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas.
Just over a month after Lincoln was inaugurated in March of 1861, Fort Sumter in Charleston was attacked and the Civil War began. Not long afterward, Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee and Arkansas also seceded, joining their misguided neighbors in a vain attempt to preserve a system built on injustice that should have long been remedied, and the nation was quickly bogged down in a war that proved to be long, bloody and bitter.
Despite winning only 40 percent of the popular vote, Lincoln was elected in 1860 vowing to stop slavery’s spread into new territory. But he was vague about how he would stand up to slave holders. Even the final Emancipation Proclamation he signed on New Year’s Day of 1863 freed only slaves in territories held by Confederates, making it more symbolic than meaningful.
By the time the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, abolishing slavery, was ratified in December 1865, Lincoln was dead, a victim of an assassin’s bullet eight months earlier. Abolishing slavery would seem to be a simple act of decency. But if racial equality was meant to be the result of that simple act, as the most devoted abolitionists would have insisted, the nation showed precious little will to follow through. Significant kick-starts toward that elusive goal would not take place again until the mid-20th century.
During the Civil War, even in the North, Lincoln faced constant battles — with Congress, state legislators and some elements of the press — who argued that he was exceeding his powers to wage war, suspend liberties and free slaves. Abolitionists, meanwhile, challenged him to act more decisively.
Lincoln won re-election in 1864, with the nation still embroiled in Civil War, this time with 55 percent of the popular vote.
Like all presidents, he was sworn to uphold the Constitution. More than most, perhaps, he tried to do the right things. But, as the Carter Center exhibit demonstrates, his record on upholding civil liberties would not necessarily have made the ACLU proud.
He was shaky on the rights of a free press. The first national draft in July of 1863 provoked the worst riots in national history. (More than a hundred people died in a week-long anti-draft riot in New York City.) Thousands of people were arrested for draft evasion or deserting from the Union army. And to counter Southern sympathizers and potential saboteurs in the North, Lincoln suspended the right of habeas corpus, meant to protect citizens against arbitrary arrest. Martial law was declared in Maryland, where 23 allegedly pro-secessionist members of the Maryland Legislature and hundreds of others were arrested.
Visitors to the Carter Center can test their own judgment of how specific civil liberties cases should have been resolved by answering questions on interactive devices. After you’ve entered your own view, the devices tell you how the cases eventually turned out.
Those results — and the exhibition as a whole — are reminders that human history is often a messier affair than the textbooks we read in school might have us believe.
Barring the last few die-hard supporters of George W. Bush, few people would today argue that great wisdom was a hallmark of our leadership in the last eight years. Encouraged by the often inspiring rhetoric and idealistic vision of Barack Obama, many of us want to believe that we are entering a new era of hope.
Obama’s hero, Lincoln, might have been our greatest president. He was certainly among the wisest to hold the office.
But like all presidents before and after, Lincoln made decisions that not everyone liked. Sometimes, as the exhibition suggests, he disappointed even his most zealous supporters. He faced tests that challenged his own principles and his own evolving beliefs, even as he attempted to act in a cauldron of politics and shifting public perceptions.
“Lincoln: The Constitution and the Civil War” not only reflects on the challenges of the past but hints at subtle and sobering warnings of the trials and dilemmas not only for President Obama but also for the rest of us as we confront our own crises in a new and divisive era.
“Lincoln: The Constitution and the Civil War” continues at the Carter Presidential Library and Museum in Atlanta through April 26.