In the last two days, much has been made over the contents of (or was the cadence of?) this speech. It is a speech that bears study and it is only fair to say that there is much to be admired in it--even as one can be skeptical of the political sentiment and intentions behind it. That said, the speech was an attempt either at reconciliation or at consolidation (grown-ups know there’s rarely a difference and that "bi-partisanship" is a sweet delusion) and the next four years will test whether this attempt will succeed and his legacy as its architect will endure. If it fails, it will not be for lack of effort, lack of thought, lack of purpose and, certainly not, for lack of raw political power. It may suffer from a lack of capital--of both the tangible and the political sort--but we will have to wait and see how that plays out.
Turning to the speech itself, one notes that it is always a good thing to hear the words of Lincoln invoked in American public life. But the goodness of Lincoln’s words cannot be ripped from the context in which they were delivered if one wants to understand them in their fullness. Perhaps unwittingly, Obama’s speech invoked Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural wherein Lincoln pleaded that, ""We are not enemies, but friends ... though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection." Yet, as we know, little more than a month after Lincoln delivered this beautiful plea to a nation torn apart by partisan and sectional differences, the rebels fired on Ft. Sumter and began the bloodiest and most perilous conflict in our cumulative national history.
Of course, Obama readily (and, I trust, happily) acknowledges that the America of the 1850s and 60s was a far more divided and troubled country than the America we now inhabit. (The civility and graciousness exhibited between him and John McCain on Tuesday evening is only one of many testaments to that.) But scarcely a paragraph below Obama’s invocation of Lincoln, he offers this understanding of the "true genius of America":
For that is the true genius of America--that America can change. Our union can be perfected. And what we have already achieved gives us hope for what we can and must achieve tomorrow.In Lincoln’s first inaugural, Lincoln did talk of what made and what would continue to make us "a more perfect Union." In Lincoln’s understanding, our Union was perpetual and this meant that our fidelity to the Constitution and to the laws consistent with it, must always be paramount. Lincoln knew that this kind of fidelity would limit his power and he knew that it would mean he could not insist on "change"--however well-intentioned or however more consistent with America’s fundamental principles it might be--if said change could not be accomplished within the limits imposed by this Constitution as the solemn and sovereign will of the people. Fidelity to the Constitution would be a testament to our civility, our graciousness, our moderation and our greatness as a people.
Fidelity to the Constitution is, moreover, a testament to our humility; an acknowledgment that while we always can be "more perfect" than we actually are; we are unlikely, ever, to reach a point (or even look to a point in theory) where we can say with certitude that we are "perfected." Fidelity to our Constitution and laws is the primary requirement in our perpetual--as opposed to linear--movement toward a "more perfect Union" in that it imposes a kind of humility on citizens and, most especially, on their elected representatives. In this humility we recognize our limits and this is why we have a limited government. These limits are born of our natural equality--not just as men, but as mere men. No man has been born booted and spurred and ready to ride the mass of mankind (or history) as he will.
As Barack Obama begins his tenure as the 44th President of the United States, no small measure of his greatness will be the extent to which demonstrates humility as he approaches that great document to which he will take an oath to protect and defend.