Garry Wills: Two Speeches on Race

Roundup: Historians' Take

Of the two speeches discussed here, Senator Barack Obama's speech at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia on March 18, 2008, is available at www.barackobama.com and Abraham Lincoln's at the Cooper Union in New York on February 27, 1860, is available at showcase.netins.net.

Two men, two speeches. The men, both lawyers, both from Illinois, were seeking the presidency, despite what seemed their crippling connection with extremists. Each was young by modern standards for a president. Abraham Lincoln had turned fifty-one just five days before delivering his speech. Barack Obama was forty-six when he gave his. Their political experience was mainly provincial, in the Illinois legislature for both of them, and they had received little exposure at the national level—two years in the House of Representatives for Lincoln, four years in the Senate for Obama. Yet each was seeking his party's nomination against a New York senator of longer standing and greater prior reputation—Lincoln against Senator William Seward, Obama against Senator Hillary Clinton. They were both known for having opposed an initially popular war—Lincoln against President Polk's Mexican War, raised on the basis of a fictitious provocation; Obama against President Bush's Iraq War, launched on false claims that Saddam Hussein possessed WMDs and had made an alliance with Osama bin Laden.

Neither man fit the conventions of a statesman in his era. Lincoln, thin, gangling, and unkempt, was considered a backwoods rube, born in the frontier conditions of Kentucky, estranged from his father, limited to a catch-as-catch-can education. He was better known as a prairie raconteur than as a legal theorist or prose stylist. Obama, of mixed race and foreign upbringing, had barely known his father, and looked suspiciously "different."

The most damaging charge against each was an alleged connection with unpatriotic and potentially violent radicals. Lincoln's Republican Party was accused of supporting abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison, who burned the Constitution, or John Brown, who took arms against United States troops, or those who rejected the Supreme Court because of its Dred Scott decision. Obama was suspected of Muslim associations and of following the teachings of an inflammatory preacher who damned the United States. How to face such charges? Each decided to address them openly in a prominent national venue, well before their parties' nominating conventions—Lincoln at the Cooper Union in New York, Obama at the Constitution Center in Philadelphia....
Read entire article at NY Review of Books

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Vince Treacy - 4/22/2008

It is hard to take nitpicking like this seriously. Wills was off by a mere ten days.

R.R. Hamilton - 4/19/2008

The author writes, "Abraham Lincoln had turned fifty-one just five days before delivering his speech [on February 27, 1860]".

The Lincoln with whom most of us are familiar was born Feb. 12, 1809, which means he would've turned 51 15 days before the speech. The author seems to be confusing Lincoln's birthday with Washington's (Feb. 22). It's hard to take seriously anything he says after that.