The juxtaposition with Lincoln’s leadership was painfully clear on New Year’s Day in Washington. It ought to have been an occasion to celebrate a landmark achievement in enlightened governance. With a new movie about Abraham Lincoln in theatres and the first black President freshly re-elected, it would have been propitious to mark the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln announced the forthcoming measure in the fall of 1862, and signed it on January 1, 1863.
There are competing views about the legal effect of the proclamation and, in fact, Steven Spielberg’s film about Lincoln takes the view that the 13th amendment was more important. Nevertheless, Lincoln’s decision to free the slaves was of momentous importance, both in terms of ending slavery itself and by how it infused the civil war with a more noble purpose than merely preserving the union. With the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln recast the American project as one of universal liberation, a rhetorical and political shift confirmed later in 1863 with the address at Gettysburg.
Indeed, at the height of the civil rights movement, it was 1863, and not 1776, that Martin Luther King invoked in his I Have a Dream speech at the Lincoln memorial in 1963:
“Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.”
Leave aside the titanic figure of Lincoln in 1863. In 1963, a century later, America faced serious challenges, both at home and abroad. But in the 1960s, Americans could look to JFK, RFK, LBJ, Hubert Humphrey, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Nelson Rockefeller — just to list the most prominent leaders in both parties.
Those men were not in the same league as Lincoln, the “great American” of King’s speech. Lincolnesque figures are extremely rare; after all, re-founding a nation does not happen repeatedly. Yet in the ’60s, and subsequent generations, Americans could have confidence that their leaders were roughly capable of the task. Perhaps the end of the Cold War meant Americans took their politics less seriously, and so entrusted it to men of less gravitas: Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and now Obama.
America is not in the crucible of a civil war. So Jan. 1, 1863, and Jan. 1, 2013, are not fairly comparable. But one cannot help noting that in the former era, bold action requiring true courage transformed a nation, while in the latter, grudging action by timid men postponed for a few months the next installment of not dealing with America’s fiscal crisis. If this is what American leadership looks like when a president ought to be at the peak of his influence, what can be expected as a second term unfolds?
At the Lincoln Memorial in the centenary year of the Emancipation Proclamation, the Reverend King used the rhetorical image of black Americans coming to “cash a check,” a “promissory note to which every American was to fall heir.” While that note had not been honoured in regard to black Americans, King refused to believe that American justice would bounce a cheque. The images were powerful because no one could imagine then that an America so rich could be bankrupt.
Now it is: Writing bad cheques is the American government’s principal task, and there appears to be no one capable of doing anything about it.