AT the public ceremony marking his second inauguration last week, Barack Obama took the presidential oath with his left hand placed on two Bibles.
One of them, which Obama also used on the historic occasion when he was first inducted into the White House four years ago, had specifically been purchased for Abraham Lincoln’s first inauguration in 1861.
The other one had belonged to Martin Luther King Jr, whose birth anniversary was officially being marked on the day Obama took the oath.
The symbolism is significant in several ways. It was 150 years ago this month that Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation, sounding the death knell for slavery.
And next August it will be 50 years since King’s keynote oration at the march on Washington, in which he articulated his dream for a future in which Americans would be judged by the content of their character rather than the colour of their skin.
It is important to remember that it took a century for emancipation to be transformed into something approaching equal rights.
The 13th Amendment to the US constitution, which formally outlawed slavery and involuntary servitude in 1865, is separated by exactly 100 years from the Voting Rights Act that enforced the 15th Amendment of 1870, formally ending the effective disenfranchisement of African Americans across many of the southern states that had seceded upon Lincoln’s election.
It is notable, at least in passing, that Obama’s re-election prompted secessionist stirrings, albeit on too small a scale to warrant alarm. There have long been indications, however, that unfinished business lingers on from the Civil War that dominated Lincoln’s first term.
The Confederate flag remains a potent symbol for some, and the notion of “states’ rights” contains within it echoes of the right to perpetuate slavery that vested interests in the south clung on to in the mid-19th century. Lincoln, when first elected, was disinclined to interfere with those “rights”, not least because he believed the constitution did not empower him to do so.
His first inaugural address clearly stated that not only would the status quo be maintained in the slave states, but that slaves who had managed to escape to the north would, if caught, be returned to their masters.
He was adamant, though, that the geographical boundaries of the areas where uncompensated servitude was legal would not be allowed to expand under his watch.
His moral opposition to slavery — eloquently stated in 1858, at the launch of an unsuccessful senatorial campaign, in a speech wherein he declared: “A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free” — sufficed to provoke the slave-owners’ revolt after he, against the odds, was elected president in 1860.
It was the Confederacy that initiated hostilities in its effort to conquer federal territories, and it came uncomfortably close to overrunning Washington. The Unionist response, under a succession of inadequate generals, floundered for a long time, amid a series of setbacks and a monumental loss of life.
Inevitably, the rebellion concentrated Lincoln’s mind, and his stance on slavery evolved. He had initially assumed that the institution, sequestered in the south, would gradually wither away. That ceased to be an option once the war was under way. It was logically decreed soon after that escaped slaves would not be returned to their masters.
Lincoln’s attitude that colonisation under American auspices would be the ideal outcome for liberated slaves also underwent a change, perhaps largely through interactions with radical abolitionists — who viewed the president’s general standpoint on slavery as grossly inadequate (much as progressives have hitherto scoffed at Obama’s inadequacies) — as well as African Americans such as the redoubtable intellectual Frederick Douglas.
Intriguingly, one of the north’s consistent supporters from afar was a German exile based in London, who vociferously derided widespread sympathy in the British press for the Confederacy on the ersatz basis that the Union forces were ostensibly not engaged in a struggle to liberate slaves.
Karl Marx was consistently convinced that the great conflict would, one way or another, spell the end of slavery. And he hoped that the victory for free labour would set in train a vaster socio-economic transformation.
How closely Marx followed the progress (and setbacks) of the American Civil War can be gauged from a series of articles he contributed to the German publication Die Presse, recently reproduced in Robin Blackburn’s fascinating book, An Unfinished Revolution: Karl Marx and Abraham Lincoln.
In 1864, in a letter to Friedrich Engels, who occasionally worried about a Confederate victory, Marx presciently wrote: “If Lincoln gets through this time [the re-election] — as is very probable — it will be on a much more radical platform and under wholly changed circumstances.”
Lincoln’s second inaugural address bears out this hope. Shortly before that, in an address to Lincoln composed by Marx on behalf of the International Workingmen’s Association (aka the First International), he wrote: “Since the commencement of the titanic American strife, the workingmen of Europe felt instinctively that the star-spangled banner carried the destiny of their class…
“They consider it an earnest of the epoch to come, that it fell to the lot of Abraham Lincoln, the single-minded son of the working class, to lead his country through the matchless struggle for the rescue of an enchained race and the reconstruction of a social world.” The address received a gracious, albeit indirect, response from Lincoln.
Just a few months later, another address was directed to Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson, extolling the virtues of the assassinated president as “a man neither to be browbeaten by adversity nor intoxicated by success … in one word, one of the rare men who succeed in becoming great, without ceasing to be good”.
By and large, Marx’s generous assessment of his American contemporary has stood the test of time — as Steven Spielberg’s latest cinematic venture, scripted by Tony Kushner, reputedly bears out.
Unfinished business from those days, meanwhile, includes the socio-economic exclusion of a substantial proportion of African Americans and rates of incarceration that have been described, not altogether inappropriately, as a new form of slavery. This was one issue that Obama’s second inaugural address, more progressive in many ways than his first, did not broach.