When are Lincoln analogies legitimate?

By Michael Lynch

A piece on President Obama’s recent Afghanistan speech drew some analogies between those remarks and Lincoln’s second inaugural address:

Obama has made it no secret that he draws sustenance from Abraham Lincoln. And as he faces a challenging re-election season, he may be seeking more inspiration from the 16th president who also found himself facing re-election at during an unpopular war.

In 1864, many northerners had grown frustrated and exhausted with a Civil War that dragged on longer than they expected at its outset and which saw the Union Army suffer repeated setbacks. It had gotten so bad that Lincoln seriously doubted he would be re-elected. But he was, just as Obama hopes to be.

Obama obviously had Lincoln on his mind Wednesday evening. At the end of his Afghanistan speech, Obama said:

Now, let us finish the work at hand. Let us responsibly end these wars, and reclaim the American Dream that is at the center of our story. With confidence in our cause; with faith in our fellow citizens; and with hope in our hearts, let us go about the work of extending the promise of America – for this generation, and the next.

It was an intentional echo of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural in which that earlier president from Illinois said:

With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.

The analogies between Lincoln and Obama on the one hand, and between the Civil War and the conflict in Afghanistan in the other, have stirred up some criticism.  The Weekly Standard, for example, called the comparison “ludicrous,” arguing that Lincoln’s commitment to see the Confederacy defeated was of a different stripe than Obama’s desire to focus on domestic efforts: “So one leader (Lincoln) urged the nation to ‘strive on to finish the work we are in,’ shortly before winning the war the nation was fighting. And the other leader (Obama) says, ‘let us go about the work of extending the promise of America,’ immediately after calling for America to cut and run from the war the nation is currently fighting. See the parallel? Apparently it’s visible only to NPR hosts.”

An editorial in the Greensboro, NC News & Record argued that the strategic situation of the Union was fundamentally different from that of the U.S. in 2011:

Furthermore, NPR’s analysis of the military situation in 1864 is faulty. Union victory was all but assured after Lee’s defeat at Gettysburg and the fall of Vicksburg in July 1863. It was simply a matter of pushing through to the end. Obviously, Lincoln had to maintain the nation’s political will to complete the task. But the end was in sight, and he knew how to achieve it.

There is no end in sight in Afghanistan, no sure outcome and no clear plan to accomplish our objectives. Under those circumstances, trying to exit with honor makes sense.

It isn’t a matter that Obama isn’t Lincoln. Of course he’s not, but circumstances aren’t remotely comparable. Even Lincoln couldn’t be Lincoln in dealing with Afghanistan. So NPR’s analogy is a poor pretense and trying to make Obama appear Lincolnesque is flawed flattery.

Regarding the situation in 1864, I’m afraid that it’s the editorial writer’s analysis that is faulty, or at least highly over-simplified. The dual Union victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg in July 1863 were indeed critical.  Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was never so formidable after its defeat at Gettysburg as it had been beforehand, and Grant’s capture of Vicksburg was possibly the most decisive military achievement of the war.  But to say that after those victories the Union effort “was simply a matter of pushing through to the end” doesn’t fully capture the complexities or significance of the campaigns that took place after those two turning points. Formidable southern forces with considerable offensive capability remained in the field, and important points remained in Confederate hands.  This is not to say that the situation the Obama administration faces in 2011 is fundamentally the same as the situation Lincoln faced after 1863, but simply to point out that Lincoln had a much tougher slog ahead of him by that point than the writer seems to indicate.  Indeed, as late as August 1864, Lincoln was stating outright that Americans were so dissatisfied with the war’s progress that he would be “badly beaten” in his bid for re-election.

Still, the writer has a point.  Lincoln’s main objectives in the war were pretty clear.  He wanted the Confederate armies out of commission, loyal state governments restored, and (after the Emancipation Proclamation made freedom a war aim) slavery eradicated in the areas which had rebelled.  Lincoln knew what he wanted to accomplish; perhaps this editorial writer is correct in arguing that this isn’t true of the current American effort in Afghanistan.

Ultimately, though, I don’t think the exactness of these analogies between Lincoln and Obama and between the Civil War and Afghanistan matter all that much.  Americans have been harkening back to Lincoln’s wartime rhetoric in virtually every conflict they’ve fought since 1865, regardless of how much the situation at hand resembled the crisis which Lincoln faced.  That Obama would try to echo Lincoln’s cadences and that some observers would try to extend the comparison seem to me little more than the latest variations on a very old American theme—drawing on the cultural capital of Lincoln and his struggle for Union in order to make sense of present-day challenges.  The NPR piece wasn’t the first occasion in which someone has visualized Lincoln’s shadow hanging over an embattled administration, and it probably won’t be the last.

—Michael Lynch graduated from LMU with a degree in history, worked at the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum as an assistant curator, and now teaches survey-level history courses on campus.  He holds an M.A. in history from the University of Tennessee and blogs about historical topics at pastinthepresent.wordpress.com.

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1 Comment

Filed under Lincoln and Memory

One response to “When are Lincoln analogies legitimate?

  1. Pingback: If you’re interested in my take on the latest Lincoln-Obama analogies | Past in the Present

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