Saturday, January 26, 2013

All the Best Presidents, Part 1

Did anybody else hear the echo of Lincoln's second Inaugural Address in President Obama's speech the other day? 

Speaking towards the end of the Civil War, President Lincoln said, "Yet, if God wills that [this war] continue until ... every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said 'the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.'"

And a few days ago President Obama said "Through blood drawn by lash and blood drawn by sword, we learned that no union founded on the principles of liberty and equality could survive half-slave and half-free."

You would think that in the wake of Stephen Spielberg and Doris Kearns Goodwin, it would be the talk of all the pundits. Well, a quick Google search reveals that it was at least the talk of the town. It was beautifully analyzed in The New Yorker (of course), in a blog post by Amy Davidson. Check out Davidson's commentary for a brilliant take on how Obama transformed and transfigured Lincoln's language.

I'm sorry to say that I had never read Lincoln's Second Inaugural until a few years ago, when I visited the DC presidential monuments. (The relatively new FDR monument is worth an essay in itself.) There on the wall of the Lincoln Memorial, along with the Gettysburg Address, was the Second Inaugural, including the words quoted above. Since the only thing I'd ever heard was the famous phrase "With malice toward none, with charity for all...", I was amazed to find this vengeful god extracting blood for blood. To this day some historians insist that the Civil War was not really a war to end slavery. The Lincoln of the Second Inaugural left no doubt what he thought -- it was all about slavery. If you've recently seen the movie "Lincoln," this fiercely anti-slavery president will be familiar.

If you've recently seen the movie, then parts of The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln by Stephen Carter will also be familiar. In fact, I was glad to have read Carter's book before I saw the movie. (Who needs Team of Rivals? An alt-hist thriller served just as well to illuminate the issues.) In particular, Thaddeus Steven's rabid abolitionism and William Seward's extremely valuable political counsel were already on my radar. And because of Stephen Carter, I was aware that Lincoln had enough enemies on both sides of the aisle for impeachment to be feasible ... if, as Carter posited, Lincoln had survived the assassination attempt.

That's the excellent premise of Carter's book, and it works very well up to a point. His heroine is Abigail Canner, a graduate of Oberlin, who aims to be the first African-American woman to practice before the bar in the U.S. She goes to work for the firm that is defending Lincoln, and many legal and extra-legal twists and turns ensue, including murder. The plot is a little too much of a mash-up of political thriller, courtroom drama, and murder mystery. But the characters are great, especially a very folksy Daniel Day Lewis -- I mean Abraham Lincoln -- whose response to almost any situation is to say, "That reminds me of a story...."