As President Obama was sworn in for his second term he channeled both Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King. In his inaugural address he sought to keep us on a path toward a more perfect Union, walking in the footsteps of these other two great men of history. This is Part Three of my series on inaugural speeches. It is best to first read Part One and Part Two to put this part into context. [I’ll wait again]
Inaugural emcee Senator Chuck Schumer primed us to think about Abraham Lincoln in his introduction of the President. Schumer noted that when Lincoln was first being sworn in the Capitol Dome was only half built. Lincoln insisted that construction continue through the brutal war to follow, and on the occasion of his second inaugural the dome stood gloriously the proceedings, a sign that “the Union shall go on.”Obama did not mention Lincoln by name during his inaugural address. He did not have to. At least some of Lincoln’s words and deeds are known to most and understood by all. In the most recognizable homage to Lincoln, Obama noted that the Founders of this country “gave to us a Republic, a government of, and by, and for the people, entrusting each generation to keep safe our founding creed.” Shades of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address in which he extolled that the nation would have a “new birth of freedom” and that “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Obama goes on to remind us that for more than two hundred years we have done so, though often with struggles against our own demons. Again channeling Lincoln, this time his own second inaugural and his “House Divided” speech, Obama noted that “through blood drawn by lash and blood drawn by sword, we learned that no union founded on the principles of liberty and equality could survive half-slave and half-free. We made ourselves anew, and vowed to move forward together.”
Perhaps fewer in the crowd were aware of another reference to our 16th President. Early in his state legislative career Lincoln was a big proponent of “internal improvements,” the building of railways, canals, roads and other large capital intensive projects. As President he signed into law the Pacific Railroad Act, which effectively created the first transcontinental railroad. During his inaugural address President Obama acknowledged Lincoln’s contributions when he said “Together, we determined that a modern economy requires railroads and highways to speed travel and commerce; schools and colleges to train our workers.”
The “schools and colleges” part is also a reference to Lincoln, who in 1862 signed into law the Morrill Land-Grant Act, which allowed the creation of land-grant colleges.
While Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation that began the process ending slavery and inequality for African-Americans, that process was slow and painful. One hundred years after the Civil War it took the strength of conviction of another man, Martin Luther King, to bring us closer to equality in basic civil rights. President Obama paid homage to King by being sworn in on his bible, along with Lincoln’s, on the day we honored the birthday of the civil rights leader. In a larger sense, the very presence of an African-American man “with a funny name” was taking not only his first, but his second, oath of office as President of the United States is testament to how important Lincoln and King are to our history. Obama captured the spirit of both men and the continuing struggles to achieve that “more perfect Union” as he bound together the common goals of equal rights for all men, all women, and all peoples:
We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths – that all of us are created equal – is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth.
As both Lincoln and King asked us to withhold malice and work together, so too did Obama end with a call for us all to embrace our lasting birthright: “With common effort and common purpose, with passion and dedication, let us answer the call of history, and carry into an uncertain future that precious light of freedom.”
More about Abraham Lincoln.