by Christopher Dickey

A century and a half after Abraham Lincoln was elected, some truths go marching on. Take heed, Obama.

President Barack Obama loves to quote the lyrical closing lines of Abraham Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address, calling on “the better angels of our nature” to overcome partisan hatreds and political divisions. Obama cited those words in his own inaugural proclamation and rested his hand on Lincoln’s Bible when he took the oath of office. He has come back to those angels again and again ever since. A search of Google and the White House Web site turns up half a dozen examples. He used the phrase to eulogize Ted Kennedy, to chide a would-be Quran burner in Florida, and to say goodbye to chief of staff Rahm Emanuel. Obama, it seems, sees better angels just about everywhere. Even as he traveled in India this week he talked about his efforts to live up to the example of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and, yes, Abraham Lincoln.

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But in light of today’s real-world politics, Obama should think a little harder about the context in which Lincoln summoned those better angels on March 4, 1861. Led by South Carolina (now home to Sen. Jim DeMint), seven of 33 states had already seceded from the Union to form the Confederacy at that point. Only days before Lincoln took office, he had to sneak into Washington in the lonely hours before dawn because of an assassination plot. The month after his inauguration, the South fired on the federal garrison at Fort Sumter to begin the Civil War in earnest.

If, in the end, Lincoln did manage to hold the Union together, it was not because of the better angels of human nature, but because he finally found the killer angels among his generals who could, and did, and at enormous cost, crush the secessionists.

These basic facts about a moment of history that Obama obviously holds dear are worth going over again right now because, in fact, the secessionists of 1860 are the ideological forebears of the Tea Party movement today. No, the United States is not on the verge of another violent breakup, not close at all, even if Tea Party icons like Gov. Rick Perry in Texas or some of Sarah Palin’s friends and relatives in Alaska may toy with the notion of secession. But there is in American politics today a discourse of such cupidity, bigotry, and self-delusion about the role of government that it would have been familiar to anyone following the rhetoric of the Southern “fire-eaters” pushing the country toward a conflagration 150 years ago.

As Douglas R. Egerton points out in his fascinating new history, Year of Meteors: Stephen Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, and the Election That Brought on the Civil War, the radical secessionists were willing to do just about anything, including destroy their own national party, in order to get their way. “They planned to ruin so they could rule,” writes Egerton.

The rhetoric in 1860, as now, was essentially about throwing off the burden of federal authority, getting rid of the tariffs and taxes Washington imposed, and protecting private property from the depredations of central government. There was one essential difference back then, of course: the private property in question in 1860 was human. But the fire-eaters of the Old South never put the emphasis on “human,” they always put it on “property,” and they pointed to their (white man’s) rights enshrined in Article I, Article IV, and the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution, which declared no person can be “deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” If this meant, perversely, that human chattel who were not considered persons could be torn away from their families, beaten, raped, and killed at the whim of their owners, and often were, that was less important to the secessionists than a strict interpretation of America’s founding document. They might have talked about states’ rights and the right to liberty, and many did then, as many do now, but the core freedom defended by those activists of 1860 was the freedom to enslave black people and to spread their racist system of forced labor across the continent.

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Story Compliments Of Newsweek.com

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