Manisha Sinha: Is Obama Lincoln to Hillary's Seward?

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Manisha Sinha was born in India and received her doctorate in American History from Columbia University in 1994 where her dissertation was nominated for the Bancroft Prize. She is Associate Professor of Afro-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. ]

Political pundits have likened Obama's oratory, its style and content, to that of Abraham Lincoln. Most recently, Gary Wills has compared Barack Obama's speech on race in America,"A More Perfect Union," with Abraham Lincoln's 1860 Cooper Union address. In fact, like most of Lincoln's great speeches, Obama's speech evokes history and broader political principles to address contemporary racial divisions. Its title too, which calls on ordinary American citizens to perfect their Union, is reminiscent of Lincoln's Civil War speeches. Like Lincoln, who was dismissed for being a"Black Republican" for opposing racial slavery, Obama ironically stands accused of playing the race card by Sean Wilentz, the Clintons' historian in residence, because he opposes the divisive politics of race.

More interestingly, the Democratic presidential nomination contest between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton bears some startling similarities to the 1860 Republican presidential race between Abraham Lincoln of Illinois and William Henry Seward of New York. In a series of strange historical coincidences, not only do the leading Democratic contenders for the presidency hail from the same states as their Republican predecessors but their political resumes are analogous too. Like Lincoln, who was a one term Congressman and who opposed the Mexican War of 1846-1848 as a land grab for slavery, Obama is a one term Senator and is known for his early opposition to the Iraq war. Like Lincoln, Obama is known for his soaring oratory and vision of change at a moment of crisis. Like Lincoln, voters view Obama as an unknown quantity but are inspired by him. Physically too, the tall and lanky Obama might well be an African American version of the man whose legacy he explicitly invoked when announcing his candidacy in Springfield, Illinois.

Clinton, on the other hand, looks a lot like Seward did in 1860. If anything, he was even more tested by national politics than she. Seward had been Governor of New York, the man behind the short-lived presidency of Zachary Taylor (1848-1850), and the Senator from New York in the 1850s. He was a leading voice of antislavery in Congress and reviled by southern Democrats on a regular basis. Compared to Lincoln, a small town lawyer, Seward, like Clinton, had been close to the White House, Congressional politics and was the more experienced and allegedly able candidate.

In 1860, however, the Republican nominating convention dumped Seward for the dark horse candidate, Abraham Lincoln. Seward commanded the loyalty of the party faithful but his lieutenants in the convention were completely out maneuvered by Lincoln's supporters from Illinois. The unexpected success of Barack Obama's presidential campaign strongly resembles the ultimate triumph of the Lincoln forces. Lincoln came from behind to defeat the front runner whose candidacy, like Clinton's, had an aura of inevitability about it until the very eve of the Republican convention.

A majority of Republicans in the convention viewed Seward, a veteran of many battles over slavery expansion in Congress, as too polarizing a figure. One of the biggest arguments against Hillary Clinton is precisely that she is too polarizing a figure. Over the years, Seward, like the Clintons, had made many political enemies, some within his own party. Some Republicans voted for Lincoln simply because they would rather not vote for Seward. Most Republicans went for Lincoln in 1860 because they wanted to broaden their party base and appeal to the less antislavery lower north. The solidly antislavery upper north was already in their column. That is same the argument that the Obama campaign is making now. No matter who is the Democratic presidential nominee, the reliably blue states will vote Democratic. But Obama might bring some red states and less partisan voters into the Democratic column. Here is the potential to create a new progressive majority that can shift the terms of political debate and transcend the politics of race. Just as Lincoln's election brought decades of slaveholder dominance of the federal government to an end, Obama can turn the tide on conservative dominance of political discourse in this country. Indeed, the Democratic party today is a counterpart to the mid-nineteenth century liberal Republican party, the party of Lincoln, and the Republican party today is a lot like its historical predecessor, the conservative Democratic party with its political base in the solid south.

During the Civil War, the tried and true Seward recommended negotiations with southern secessionists. It was the political novice, Lincoln, rather than Seward who comprehended the momentous nature of the war and moved toward emancipation, the arming of former slaves, and black citizenship. In the end, Seward and his pro-slavery southern Democratic detractors shared a common political world that Lincoln rejected. While John McCain and Hillary Clinton can vouch for each other's jingoistic patriotism, political experience and military toughness, Obama appeals in Lincoln's words, which Senator Edward Kennedy repeated in his endorsement of him, to the"better angels of our nature." Given the historical record, that might just be the quality that makes a great president.

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Jason Blake Keuter - 5/15/2008

Obama's speech on race was mediocre and unoriginal and unhelpful. Praised for its historical consequence, Obama simply stated what white,Limousine liberals have always said - namely, that all negative things black people say or do are a by-product of the historical legacy of racial oppression. In calling the speech historic, so-called historians are doing themselves a great disservice. I would say the whole thing - especially the media and intellectual class's response was farcical.