Monday, December 10, 2012

Obama Lincoln and Thaddeus Stevens

History has much to teach us:  It allows us to step back from the fog of conflict and the mists of emotion to gain perspective, as if from a mountaintop, looking at a distant time when the very same issues beset the nation, and we can learn from the solutions our forebears created.

Mad Dog has, almost since the first months of his first election, criticized President Obama for being insufficiently combative, for being too willing to compromise, but not bringing down the heavy hand of government on those who so richly deserve it.  So when Mr. Obama did not move to punish the financial miscreants who in their greed almost sent this nation into another Great Depression, Mr. Obama said something to the effect of, "Oh, that's all history. Let us move forward."  And Mad Dog howled, "Are we to look at a robbery or a murder and say, 'Oh, that's in the past. Let us forgive and forget?'" 
When President Obama did not push harder for a single payer system as one of the alternatives within Obamacare, Mad Dog frothed.
But most of all, when Mr. Obama did not attack his Republican opponents with sufficient venom and vigor, Mad Dog became apoplectic. 
Having seen the movie Lincoln and having read about Thaddeus Stevens subsequently, Mad Dog can see the many pressures which pull and push at the Presidential coat.  Thaddeus Stevens pushed Lincoln to state forthrightly and to move boldly to free the slaves, but Lincoln looked at those who emancipation would offend, particularly the slave owners in the border states, and he demurred. Upon arriving in Washington to take office he said he had no will to free the slaves in any state. Lincoln supported shipping the slaves back to Africa, because he could not see the United States of America ever functioning as a multiracial society. When he freed the slaves, he freed only the slaves in states actively rebelling against the Union, leaving slaves in Maryland, Kentucky and Tennessee untouched.  And once the Thirteenth Amendment was passed in Congress Lincoln did not advocate giving the freed men of color (never mind the women) the vote. He said only he hoped particularly "intelligent" Negroes and those who had served in the army might be granted the vote.
As the movie did make clear, Lincoln did abhor slavery, and he pressed reluctant Cabinet members and Congressmen to pass the 13th amendment before the Confederate states were readmitted to the union so they could not vote against it. 

As Lincoln is depicted as telling Stevens in a wonderful scene, after Stevens has accused him of having no moral compass:  "A compass only tells you true north. But it cannot get you where you want to go, if there is a swamp or a mountain between you and true north."  Thus, the argument for adjustment, compromise, going around obstacles rather than sinking in them, being concerned to play the game to win, not just being content with making the dramatic gesture and losing.

But Stevens, Mad Dog would argue, was just as important as Lincoln. Had Stevens not been so visibly and vocally hounding Lincoln, it would not have been clear that those who opposed Lincoln were better off dealing with Lincoln than with their more truculent radical opponents.  Or, at least, that's the argument of the moderate.

The fact is, those who opposed Lincoln were not persuaded to choose the lesser of two evils. They voted against Stevens and Lincoln on the 13th amendment, on slavery, on the idea of Negro citizenship and voting and for that matter on the idea of women voting.  The movie argues there was a middle ground, occupied by people who were wavering, but it is not clear there really was a middle ground, when it came to slavery. Lincoln wanted a gradual emancipation, which would have allowed slave states to keep slavery until 1900. But that was impossible in human terms.
And on this point, Stevens was more visionary: He could see a multiracial nation, and Lincoln was unable to see this. Just as Lincoln tended to forgive deserters, he could not bring himself to confront people and tell them they were wrong and had to change--at least that's the picture we see now. Lincoln did sign an order to hang 13 Indians in the Midwest for some act of rebellion. But he did not want to hang white Southerns once the war was over, not even "the worst of them."

Mad Dog would argue that it was pretty clear if Mr. Obama had cleaved to the Lincoln model, the inoffensive, jocular, unruffled approach he showed in the first Presidential Debate against Mr. Romney, Mr. Obama would not have been re elected. It was only when Mr. Obama began to look more like the truculent Mr. Stevens,  the tide began to turn in his favor.

Mad Dog is hoping we see a lot more Thaddeus Stevens and a lot less Lincoln in the coming months and years from Mr. Obama. 


  1. Mad Dog,
    What a great face-you can just tell his opponents faced verbal evisceration if they messed with him..

    As for The Wire, I have seen the first three episodes and you were right, it did take seeing all three to get the characters and the start of the plot lines straight. But it does really hook you-with the authentic dialogue and great sets from the dingy, depressing basement office of the police to the bleak landscape of the project where the guys hang around outside on a couch. Of course, most importantly, I like the characters and the fact that their actions seem to make sense at least from their perspective. They did a great job at casting-I'm not familiar with any of the actors so I only know them as the characters which is nice. It does feel like you are a fly on the wall watching people interact and function in their environment. I can certainly see why you are such a big fan-I'll let you know when I finish Season 1.

  2. Maud,

    Oh, the places you'll go...and you'll never be the same again.

    Mad Dog