President Obama and Abraham Lincoln: The Past and Future of America

Carson, as a part of his “teaching great students” series, wrote an article about Abraham Lincoln and the construction of him through history as mythic figure and as a real man. (Emphasis mine).

Abraham Lincoln was a transformative actor shaped by his destiny to will Rousseau’s’ notion of the human soul and to eradicate the concept of the noble savage. Set from the mark of statesman, Lincoln was perceived as a paradoxical figure; however, the dichotomy that defined his soul and shaped his politics were clearly antiquated by his fixed keen sense of conclusion: A boy who grew to be a man only to be characterized as a historical figure: A man that saved the union…. Thanks to popular myths designed by romantic historicists who used his achievements to create a national identity, the complex arguments of capitalism are often absent. Note that this identity was shaped more by nationalism and capitalism, and less by moral ism: This particular contention is often noted by some who contend that Lincoln would have left slavery intact if it meant national preservation; however, Richard Hofstadter shaped Lincoln as a man who was destined to complete what Thomas Jefferson did not finish: A nation of enlightened actors who would eradicate the evils of slavery now, not later. Much of my “now argument” was derived from Lincoln’s understanding of the changing economy and America’s world status.

With all the talk going on about the connections between Obama and Lincoln, it strikes me that Carson’s thesis also serves as a prescient description of the moment.  Obama is already one-part myth.   But, like Lincoln, his potential is great and he is entering upon the world stage at a critical and prudent juncture.

His presidency will shape him as much as he shapes our country.  In what directions will his transformations go?  What consequences will they have for the nation?  To what degree can Obama the man become Obama the myth?  And how will we tell the difference?

Obama the myth is already becoming quite the figure, in part, independently of Obama the man.  And his connections to Lincoln don’t stop there.

Like Lincoln, Obama has a keen understanding of the importance of the economy to the fulfillment of the American promise.  And this is an “economic time”.

Like Lincoln, Obama understands how important the status of America in the eyes of the world at large, and in the eyes of Americans themselves,  is to our security, and our interests generally.

And like Lincoln, Obama is the hope of the fulfilment of a legacy that has as yet been unfulfilled.  But, while for Lincoln that legacy was begun by Thomas Jefferson, Obama is to fulfill the legacy of Lincoln himself.

These are large and lofty expectations we place on a man who is, after all, only a man.  I’m not a very good idealist by nature.  I like hammering out pragmatic details, and find utopianism silly.  But I can sympathize with the sentiments.  I’m excited to see the future unfold.  And if the man can become even a fraction of the growing myth, we’ll be in good shape.

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2 responses to “President Obama and Abraham Lincoln: The Past and Future of America

  1. I recall the heat Obama took for suggesting his election is as historical as that of Lincoln’s. I think he is right; he is not comparing himself to a man that dealt with things I hope Obama will never face; still, Obama has challenges ahead of him. Oh, thanks for the defense and props at the Proletarian.

  2. We live in a historical time–good time to be a historian! And Obama is smart enough to notice. I also think he’s talented enough to face the challenges, and I’m glad that he’s picked a number of bright and talented people to join his administration. That’s a page out of Lincoln he wisely read.

    He is getting a lot of heat. And when his detractors found out he was also going to be riding the train along the same route as Lincoln, I think they all had heart attacks! I can see how some could find it all a bit silly, but sometimes gestures are important. (And sometimes being silly is important!)

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