Sunday, January 15, 2006

RIP Rhetoric

Economist and polymath Brad Delong has some excerpts of Lincoln on the campaign trail and Fredrick Douglass commenting on Lincoln. Note that the Douglas Lincoln refers to is Stephen A. Douglas, his political opponent, and not Fredrick Douglass, the former slave, abolitionist, writer and orator. The Lincoln we see is not Lincoln at his finest, but Lincoln the politician, not above a cheap oratorical trick or two, but I challenge anyone to read these and not think about how far we have fallen to the present. Lincoln:

I have never said anything to the contrary, but I hold that, notwithstanding all this, there is no reason in the world why the negro is not entitled to all the natural rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence, the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. [Loud cheers.] I hold that he is as much entitled to these as the white man. I agree with Judge Douglas he is not my equal in many respects--certainly not in color, perhaps not in moral or intellectual endowment. But in the right to eat the bread, without the leave of anybody else, which his own hand earns, he is my equal and the equal of Judge Douglas, and the equal of every living man.


Fredrick Douglass:
Abraham Lincoln was not, in the fullest sense of the word, either our man or our model. In his interests, in his associations, in his habits of thought, and in his prejudices, he was... the white man's President, entirely devoted to the welfare of white men.... ready and willing at any time during the first years of his administration to deny, postpone, and sacrifice the rights of humanity in the colored people to promote the welfare of the white people....

[Y]ou, my white fellow-citizens... were the objects of his deepest affection and his most earnest solicitude. You are the children of Abraham Lincoln. We are at best only his step-children ...

Can any colored man, or any white man friendly to the freedom of all men, ever forget the night which followed the first day of January, 1863, when the world was to see if Abraham Lincoln would prove to be as good as his word? I shall never forget that memorable night, when in a distant city I waited and watched at a public meeting, with three thousand others not less anxious than myself, for the word of deliverance... the emancipation proclamation....

I have said that President Lincoln was a white man, and shared the prejudices common to his countrymen towards the colored race.... His great mission was to accomplish two things: first, to save his country from dismemberment and ruin; and, second, to free his country from the great crime of slavery. To do one or the other, or both, he must have the earnest sympathy and the powerful cooperation of his loyal fellow-countrymen. Without this primary and essential condition to success his efforts must have been vain and utterly fruitless. Had he put the abolition of slavery before the salvation of the Union, he would have inevitably driven from him a powerful class of the American people and rendered resistance to rebellion impossible. Viewed from the genuine abolition ground, Mr. Lincoln seemed tardy, cold, dull, and indifferent; but measuring him by the sentiment of his country, a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult, he was swift, zealous, radical, and determined...

The more extensive quotation by Brad shows even more of this great man's penetrating insignt, generosity and nobility of spirit, as well as his rhetorical power and eloquence.

What a frightful contrast to our current President, who displays none of these admirable qualities and seems incapable of expressing anything but the most superficial and obtuse of ideas - and those not well. Equally scary is the fact that few among the current generation of politicians are much better.

Part of the genius of Lincoln and Fredrick Douglass was that they saw through complexity and could appeal to the "better angels of our nature," unlike Bush and his Nazghul, Vulcans, or whatever the hell they call themselves, who know only how to appeal to the smallest and meanest elements of the human spirit.