Sunday, January 20, 2013

The State of The Union 2013

The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.
Fellow-citizens, we can not escape history. We of this Congress and this Administration will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance or insignificance can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass will light us down in honor or dishonor to the latest generation. We say we are for the Union. The world will not forget that we say this. We know how to save the Union. The world knows we do know how to save it. We, even we here, hold the power and bear the responsibility. In giving freedom to the slave we assure freedom to the free--honorable alike in what we give and what we preserve. We shall nobly save or meanly lose the last best hope of earth. Other means may succeed; this could not fail. The way is plain, peaceful, generous, just--a way which if followed the world will forever applaud and God must forever bless.
Abraham Lincoln, State of the Union, 1862

Tomorrow, President Obama will give his 2nd Inaugural Address. Of course, there will be comparisons to Lincoln's 2nd Inaugural Address, already have been in today's New York Times, in which we are told Lincoln's address ran only 701 words, that  2nd Inaugural Addresses tend to run too long, and to use the word "I" too much.

The comparison to Lincoln's address is, while inevitable, in essence, academic masturbation. It give pleasure to the authors of these articles, but doesn't connect much with reality or the needs of others.

In fact, President Obama has a more important address to prepare: On February 12, Abraham Lincoln's birthday, President Obama will deliver the State of the Union Address.

On this occasion, it is revealing to read the State of the Union Address delivered by Lincoln during the second year of this presidency, in December, 1862.

This address is not the sort of speech school children are given to memorize. It is not short, and in fact, it is  roughly 2500 words, and fascinating as it is, a little bit tedious and the television networks would groan if they had to carry it today.

But it is fascinating,  because it displays the "vision" of Abraham Lincoln, who looks ahead to what the United States will look like in 1930, when he estimates the country to be a nation of 200 million. Remember, his country, in his time, was 30 million. He sees a transcontinental railroad connecting the Midwest to San Francisco and beyond, to the markets in the Pacific and he sees New York as the gateway to Europe.

When George H. W. Bush talked about "That Vision Thing," it sounded pathetic, because, for whatever virtues he had,  vision was not one of them.

The best presidents are futurists, and Lincoln gave no ground to any who have succeeded him.

What strikes Mad Dog about Lincoln is how much a man of his time and place he was--he just could not see people of African American ancestry living harmoniously in these United States in the long term, although some see in this speech an argument that this could be achieved, eventually. Given the level of racism, both North and South and given  the helplessness of the freed slaves, who flowed into vile camps in and around Washington, D.C., it is easy to understand. 

But Lincoln valued human life and hated cruelty to animals and cruelty to human beings.

His address is filled with astonishing numbers, from the listing of the total collected revenues of the federal government, down to the last 6 cents,  to its expenditures, down to the last cent. Remarkably, in 1862, in the midst of the great war, the government actually, if I read his speech correctly, had a slight surplus. For the first time an income tax--only on the top incomes--had been instituted, but most of the funds seems to have come from "customs," i.e. trade, which apparently flourished in the North, despite the war.

Lincoln marches through the concerns about the possibility Europe will recognize the Confederate States of America, which England and France were both considering because their mill workers were idled by the naval blockade of the South and with it the flow  of Southern cotton, and despite strong anti slavery sentiment in England, money mattered more.

Lincoln had already issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which froze efforts to recognize the South in England.

Then he talks about the massacre of 800 white settlers in the state of Minnesota by Dakota Sioux Indians, and the call to move these Indians off their Minnesota reservations,  completely out of the state.  He does not mention the intense pressure being applied to him to sign the execution orders for 300 defeated Indian warriors, a  pressure he resisted with the remark he would not trade lives for votes, but he was under intense pressure:  the general who held them and the governor both warning him they could not prevent mass lynching by an outraged white population, if the President did not act swiftly. Lincoln insisted on a methodical, slow review of the case against each of the 300, many of whom were only imperfectly identified in records, which could not manage the unfamiliar Indian names. (He wound up signing certificates for 38 Indians.)

He announces the formation of the Department of Agriculture, with a laboratory to discover and disseminate new science and technology to benefit the American farmer, showing a perspicacious faith in science.

Then he turns to the thorniest and most central and pressing problem:  What to do with the African Americans living in America. And here, he launches an argument both magisterial in its conception and breathtaking in its detail, in the numbers he marshals to support his argument, as if he were presenting not an address to Congress, but an academic paper before a society of public policy at Harvard.

He begins with the basic observation: "A nation may be said to consist of its territory, its people, its laws. The territory is the only part which is of certain durability. 'One generation passeth away and another generation cometh, but the earth abideth forever.' It is of the first importance to duly consider and estimate this ever-enduring part."

He moves on to the war: "One section of our country believes slavery is right and ought to be extended, while the other believes it is wrong and ought not to be extended. This is the only substantial dispute."

When Mad Dog was growing up, in the South, the Civil War was taught as a war fought over regional economic differences. But Lincoln, here and on many other occasions both in famous remarks to guests in the White House (to, among others, Harriett Beecher Stowe--"So this is the little lady who wrote the book that started the great big war") and in his Second Inaugural address, always said the war was about slavery.

And then he goes on to make the case that you cannot divide the continent into a slave country and a free country, because slaves would try to escape to the free zone and ultimately, abolitionists in the North would not abide the presence of slavery just across some imaginary line, drawn on a map, but invisible to the human eye.

He recommends a set of solutions:  Constitutional amendments to 1. End slavery, but not until 1900.  2. Pay slave owners for the value of their lost slave property 3. Provide for the relocation of emancipated slaves to colonies outside of the United States. 

He then addresses arguments about the expense of paying off the slave owners, saying it would be cheaper than fighting a war about it. And then he launches into a detailed analysis of the expected population growth in this continental nation, and how that would translate into more tax dollars, more people essentially, working to pay off the slave holders.  He even calculates the effect of this program on the national debt. 

He addresses the fear some had expressed that freed slaves would compete for jobs with white citizens--in an eerie prequel to the arguments about immigrants displacing good Americans from jobs. He insists his preference is for relocating the freed slaves to colonies, but he accepts this may be impractical because many slaves would not go and only Liberia and Haiti have expressed any willingness to accept them.

He addresses concerns about refugees overwhelming local governments, and says the country is big enough to handle these freed slaves, citing the experience of Washington, D.C., where there was one freed slave to every 6 white people. (In this, he did not anticipate the ghettoization of the inner cities.) Besides, he says, "People of any color seldom run, unless there is something to run from." And he expects the slave owners hiring the slaves to pick the cotton and work the fields. He opposes complete immediate emancipation of all slaves in the Confederacy--his Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves only in states in rebellion against the union, and gave these states until 1863 to stop fighting, in which case the slaves would remain in bondage. He says immediate emancipation of all the slaves would result in vagrant destitution among illiterate slaves who had never learned to provide for themselves.

So he addresses each argument against his proposals, patiently, in a lawyerly way, as if addressing a jury, having heard the arguments from the other side, as if engaging in a give and take in a sort of 19th century precursor to a blog debate.

If he gave this speech today, it would stretch the attention spans of current day Americans, who would be hitting the channel surfing button after ten minutes, looking for an NFL game or American Idol or So You Think You Can Dance. 

But some, maybe 15-20 % of our citizens would likely stay tuned and would be flattered to think the President was talking to them in a thoughtful, rigorous way.

If President Obama could do this for 1. The problem of mass shootings  2. Abortion 3. Taxes and tax fairness 4. Government spending  5. The burdens of popular programs like Medicare and Social Security  6. The plan to attack terrorism at home and abroad  7. The ongoing loss of life and fortune in Afghanistan and Iraq  6. Approaches to climate change  8. The attack on labor unions  9. The problem of a radically conservative, reactionary supreme court and the necessity to make the court more responsive to changes in American life and technology 10. Who should win the Academy Awards and the Super Bowl, then we would have a great chance for the beginning of a great 2nd term.


  1. Mad Dog,
    Your posts on Lincoln were very interesting and informative-I hadn't heard of the Indian story before-thanks. I'm looking forward to today's address by the President. Thank God it will be Obama taking the oath and viewing the parade not President Romney...

  2. Maud,

    Amen, that, sister.
    (Have you persevered with the Wire?)

    Mad Dog