2:00 P.M. EST
NATIONAL PRESS BUILDING, WASHINGTON, D.C.
MR. REIDY: Good afternoon, everyone. Thank you, Mr. Strike, for the kind invitation to join you this afternoon. And Cynthia Brown, likewise, it’s a pleasure to meet you.
Colleagues, as you know, tomorrow marks the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, and I’m sure you’re aware this is one of the most famous speeches of certainly United States history and I guess some would argue perhaps even of the English language.
Now, you have before you a copy of that speech. And in fact, given that Mr. Strike said that I could speak for about 10 minutes, I was half-tempted to read it, because as you know, it can be read in about two and a half minutes. But I thought maybe I’d cling to those two and a half minutes and return to the speech more piecemeal later in the discussion.
In any case, Lincoln began the address essentially to commemorate the establishment of a National Cemetery at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania to mark the burial site of men who had given their lives in the Battle of Gettysburg which occurred in the early part of July of 1863. So in November of 1863, at the point at which the cemetery was ready to be dedicated, Abraham Lincoln, among other luminaries, was invited to give some several remarks.
Now, as you may have heard, the major orator of the day, in fact, was not the President. It was former Senator Edward Everett, who, in fact, gave a two to two-and-a-half hour oration where he went into a great deal of detail, by way of background of the battle, by way of the causes that gave rise to the Civil War, essentially covering everything that could be possibly said about the occasion and the war itself up to that point. So Lincoln’s remarks were meant to be more dedicatory rather than comprehensive, and so what he came up with were the 272 words that you have before you on the sheet of paper.
Now, to place this in a little bit of context – and here forgive me, I am a history professor so I will be a little bit pedantic but hopefully not too – and if this is all information that you’ve heard before, then just start waving your hands as though you’ve heard it all before and I’ll move quickly on to the meat of the matter.
But I’m sure you’re aware that the war began in April of 1861, and when Lincoln called for volunteers to suppress the rebellion, the war was really about saving the Union. There was no mention of attacking slavery at that point in time. But within a year after the start of the war, it became increasingly clear not just to Lincoln but to other members of his government, members of the House of Representatives and the Senate, members who were serving in other government agencies – that saving the union would be increasingly impossible without attacking slavery.
So over the course of roughly the year between the summer of 1862 and the summer of 1863, both Congress and Lincoln went on record that the war had to be against slavery in order for the Union to succeed. And of course, the most famous expression of that is Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which, as you know, was promulgated on January 1st, 1863.
So as of 1863 then, Lincoln had gone on record on behalf of the nation that he served as President, and indeed the armed forces that he served as Commander-in-Chief, that the war was about both saving the Union and destroying slavery.
So by the summer of 1863, when Lee’s army invaded Pennsylvania, which, of course, was the starting point that culminated in the Battle of Gettysburg, it was evident to Northerners and Southerners alike that the war had taken a different turn from what it had at its start in April of 1861, that the end of slavery was really a major objective of the Northern armies at that time.
However, not all Northerners were comfortable with making the war a war against slavery. There was no doubt in the mind of virtually every Northerner that saving the Union was worthwhile, but even that goal came at a certain price. And the price in lives, the price in bloodshed, the price in injured men, the price in wrecked families and destroyed property and disrupted communities, would that price become too high at a certain point for the Northern public to continue to support Lincoln’s war?
So Lincoln saw this occasion, the dedication of the Battlefield at Gettysburg, as an opportunity, in effect, to explain the case to the Northern public why the war had to continue and why the war was a war on behalf of freedom and not simply on behalf of saving the Union.
Now, if you look carefully at the wording of the address, you see that Lincoln referred both explicitly and implicitly to the Declaration of Independence. Right? So he begins it, in fact, with an explicit reference: “Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation.” So he’s referring specifically there to the Declaration of Independence.
The secondary challenge beside bolstering public support to continue the war despite such horrible losses – and please remember that in the course of that three-day battle at Gettysburg some 23,000 Union soldiers were casualties and some 28,000 on the Confederate side were either killed, wounded, or missing in action as a result of those three days battle. So the sacrifice was enormous, but in addition to that Lincoln had to reinforce the importance of the Emancipation Proclamation, of the war on behalf of freedom and not just on behalf of reuniting the United States.
So he linked the experiment in government that the nation began to bring forth in 1776 with what he termed the proposition that all men are created equal. And he said, in effect, fulfilling that proposition would be the essence of winning the war. And the two aims – namely freedom, a new birth of freedom, and continuing government of the people, by the people, and for the people – were really joined goals from that point forward. But he had many more skeptics with regard to the need to make the war a war for freedom beyond those who had some growing sense of qualm about the sacrifice that was involved.
Now, interestingly enough, as I said earlier, this speech is so well known, certainly in the United States, that most schoolchildren could at least recite the first sentence without pausing for a breath, the: “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
Now, given the fact that at the time of the Declaration of Independence the nation was arguably a slave nation and for the nation to have conceived of itself as fighting for liberty in the way the Declaration of Independence stated it, in effect, could be interpreted quite the opposite way. And in fact, I daresay that with only the change of a few words that first sentence could have come out this way and accurately described the mood of the fledgling nation in 1776. So instead of “conceived in liberty,” Lincoln could very well have said “conceived in slavery, yet dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
But clearly, given the sense of resentment around making the war a war for freedom, he could not very well have done that. And being both the master of public opinion that he was and also, quite honestly, the master wordsmith that he is – and I think by reading the document you can get a sense of that – he understood that he had to have a positive, encouraging take on what the message from the Declaration of Independence was. He knew perfectly well indeed that the nation was founded on slavery. In fact, had it not been founded on slavery, then, arguably, there might not have been cause for a civil war in the first place. So the carnage that he was trying to justify to those whose political support as well as the support literally of their volunteering for military service became a critical objective of his in the speech.
So, in effect, Lincoln said that the Union soldiers who gave their lives at Gettysburg did so to make possible a new birth of freedom and to preserve government of the people, by the people, and for the people. And he also realized that this new birth, arguably like every birth, is not a thing. It’s a process. So too did he realize that no single act such as the Emancipation Proclamation could by itself produce equality any more than a single battle such as the Battle of Gettysburg could save the Union. And all of this, of course, became painfully clear after Lincoln was assassinated in April of 1865.
Now I’ll very quickly go through some of the implications following Lincoln’s death down to and, in fact, into the 20th century, because after all, the Civil War was clearly a turning point in the history of the United States. And the Declaration of Independence, which, of course, served as Lincoln’s motive, his backdrop as it were for the Gettysburg Address, and the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution which created national citizenship and gave the right of suffrage to African American men, these advanced the national cause in precisely the directions that Lincoln was talking about: reunifying the nation but doing so on an expanded base of freedom.
Now, Lincoln’s contemporaries, as I said, did not all agree with this emphasis. And clearly, after he was assassinated there was much more opportunity for voices of opposition and political movements of opposition to this redefined purpose of a nation to take root. So as you may know, President Andrew Johnson, who succeeded to the White House upon Lincoln’s assassination, attempted to restore citizenship to former Confederates, following which the so-called radical Republican wing of the Republican Party, Lincoln’s party after all, decided to take more aggressive action in terms of shaping the so-called reconstruction that would follow the Civil War. So the amendments that I just referenced a minute ago were largely the work of the radical Republicans.
And of course, they did much more; they established a Freedmen’s Bureau. So you may remember that Mr. Strike indicated that I am from Howard University. Howard University, after all, was founded as a result not just of the Freedmen’s Bureau but of the end of slavery during the Civil War. And in fact, the person after whom the university is named, General Oliver Otis Howard, was a very distinguished Union general who did fight in the Battle of Gettysburg.
So the radical Republicans were attempting not just to shore up the advances that had been paid for in such blood over the course of the Civil War but to expand the meaning of citizenship, especially with regard to African American men. But as you also know, by the 1890s, much of that momentum had lost its energy and local forces often operating within the Democratic Party in the respective states of the former Southern Confederate states attempted to and often succeeded in getting control over the legislative process such that they could legislate a form of second-class citizenship to the very people whom Lincoln was arguing in the Gettysburg Address and elsewhere needed to become full citizens, namely African Americans, especially those who had been former slaves.
And so that system of Jim Crow which really took root during the 1890s continued well into the 20th century. And arguably it was only in the aftermath of World War II that African Americans and other allies, white Americans, international allies, were able to make the case that that kind of forced legal separation of the races had to end. And so you’re familiar with the reference to the 1954 Supreme Court decision that overturned the principle of separate but equal, which had been the cornerstone of that Jim Crow system. And then, of course, a year after that in 1955 and ’56 came onto the scene Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to lead the Montgomery bus boycott, and of course for him to find his way not just into leadership in the Civil Rights Movement, but in fact, into the history books throughout the world.
But I’d like to close by saying simply that we can make a case that Lincoln’s vision, as articulated so beautifully in the Gettysburg Address, remains a work in progress. It’s a destination toward which the United States and arguably much of humanity is still proceeding, still in transit. He closes by vowing to take increased devotion to the cause for which the men had given their last measure. And remember, the cause was both government of the people, by the people, and for the people, but also liberty. And as he said in the absolutely closing line: “They should not have died in vain – so that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom – and that government of the people, by the people, and for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” That remains a challenge, as I say, for the 21st century, as well as it was for Lincoln during the mid-19th century.
Thank you very much. I’ll be happy to take your questions.
MODERATOR: As we move to the Q&A portion of the event, I’d ask you to please state your name and publication for the transcript and wait for the microphone, which could be coming from either side. Please, go ahead. Come right down here.
QUESTION: Hi. Thank you, professor. Xian Wen from People’s Daily. Well, and my first question is: What do you see the political significance of this address for now? And my second question is: President Lincoln grew up from a rather poor family.
MR. REIDY: Yes.
QUESTION: Yet and he was a Republican. For quite a few people, and in their mind, the Republican Party is a party for the rich people. And what’s your opinion about this?
MR. REIDY: All right, sure. In terms of the contemporary relevance of the Gettysburg Address, again I think it’s within the context of what Lincoln was attempting to do to steer the nation toward establishing that foundation of freedom for African Americans, and that’s what the contemporary relevance is. Taken by itself, you see the references that I pointed out that Lincoln made, drawing back upon the Declaration of Independence but also emphasizing the importance of the new birth of freedom. That’s essentially what he was talking about and everybody understood it as such. He meant emancipation of the slaves, basically. So he was articulating a vision in which the polity, the government, the society, the public institutions of the United States would stand on a basis of equality among all people, regardless of their race, regardless of their former condition. And to the extent that we have still not achieved that goal, that’s the contemporary relevance.
Now, as to Lincoln’s affiliation with the Republican Party, please keep in mind, the Republican Party was a new party that came into being during the mid-1850s, so roughly six and seven years prior to the Civil War, and it had various origins. There were some wealthy industrialists who were affiliated with the Republican Party right from the beginning, but the real backbone of the party was farmers from the Midwestern states and far-Western states in particular, who viewed that party as the way to guarantee what they viewed as their rights. And keep in mind, their vision of citizenship as well as where individual voters – in this case, all men – fit into the relationship between their families, their communities, and their society, the men had a tremendous amount of responsibility. And often, that was grounded in ownership of property. So for the farmers who joined the Republican Party at its outset, their identification as landowners or as prospective landowners viewed – or shaped their view of citizenship and their role in the larger society.
So the party was not the party of the rich, as we might conceive of it – or at least some might conceive of it in the 21st century. And in fact, in some respects, the parties have changed over the years. But the Republican Party was very much a common man’s party during the mid-19th century at the time of the Civil War.
MODERATOR: Go back.
QUESTION: Hi. Simon Carswell with the Irish Times. I wanted to ask, you spoke there that Lincoln was speaking to a Northern public. Could you just tell us a little bit about on the day who would have been in the audience, who would have been there, who would have been listening? And I’m just wondering, did he himself know – did he know the significance and the context? And you spoke of him being a wordsmith. Did he know himself the significance of this speech in the context of all his other speeches?
MR. REIDY: Yes, he did. Actually, in terms of the audience, it was by invitation. So there were probably several thousand people in the audience, but given that he did not have the advantage of modern technology, like this microphone for example, the voices would not have projected very far. In fact, there’s a famous photograph that shows the stage at the time of the address and you can see it very crowded.
Many of the people there would have been dignitaries who were invited there, but by the same token, there were many people form the surrounding communities in central Pennsylvania who would have also come on this occasion to help to dedicate what they understood to be this very moving and very significant place.
Now, in terms of what Lincoln understood as his – as the place of this within his other public addresses, he was extremely conscious of it. And in fact, Lincoln had an interesting way of composing many of his more famous speeches. Often, he’d scribble down notes, and then as his aides would say, he would tuck the notes in his top hat. If you’ve ever seen photographs of Lincoln in his top hat, it was a stovepipe hat that probably stood 12 or 14 inches above his head. So arguably, it had the equivalent of what was perhaps in 21st century terms be a file cabinet’s worth of storing capacity. So he had notes tucked into the hat and he’d pull them out, he’d modify them, he’d add a thought to them. He tucked them back in again and then pulled it all together.
Interestingly enough, there are no such notes for this Gettysburg Address. But clearly, he was working on it for some time. Those who have studied the matter carefully see echoes of some of the themes that he was touching on, especially the Declaration of Independence, and the government of the people, by the people, and for the people, as early as the 1850s – even before the start of the Civil War.
But clearly, the way that he chose to weave in the new birth of freedom was done in a very calculated way. He didn’t feel the need, obviously, given the fact that Edward Everett was giving the main oration, he didn’t feel the need to recap what he knew that Senator Everett was going to say. But he did see an opportunity in the course of dedicating the ground, essentially, to reinforce the point of the declaration – excuse me, of the Emancipation Proclamation. And so he chose his words very carefully in that respect. And in fact, if it were not for the fact that the Gettysburg Address followed after the Emancipation Proclamation, then much of this wording would have been obscure, perhaps. But he had no doubt and he had no doubt that the audience would understand that his new birth of freedom essentially referred to the Emancipation Proclamation.
MODERATOR: Down there.
QUESTION: Hi, thank you. I am Silvia Pisani of La Nacion in Buenos Aires, Argentina. I have two questions. The first, I wonder if you can tell us which – what was the reaction after this speech? Because I can’t imagine that today, for example, if we can transpolate the situation and the President says that the nation was born in liberty, a lot of people would agree that no, it was born in slavery. So I can imagine the headlines and the discussion today. What happened in that time?
And the second one is not about the address, it’s about the cemetery. I will like to know, as I understand, in that place there are graves for the people from both sides of the Civil War, from the Union and from the Confederates. I will also like to know if there is – if, in that place, the soldiers are been buried together, black and white, or if there’s no such kind of situation.
MR. REIDY: All right. So let me go back to the first question about the reception, okay? As it turns out, the people who were crowded around the podium or the stage in Gettysburg to hear the President were still shuffling around when he began the speech. They had no way of knowing that this was going to be a two-minute oration and then he would be finished. So it’s quite possible that many people didn’t even hear what the President had to say, because they thought he’d be warming up for a good five or ten minutes and then he’d orate for a good 50 or 60 minutes, and over the course of that time they’d have plenty of time to tune into his main message.
So in fact, there was awkward silence after he completed the speech because the people standing there were thinking, “This can’t be it, can it?” Because many of them probably missed half of it anyway, and they couldn’t quite understand how the President, on this occasion or any occasion for that matter, would make such a short commentary at such a critical place at this time on such an important subject. So it was only after a few minutes that the polite applause began to surround the stage.
So the immediate reactions were probably confusion. There was some sense of: What did we miss, or what is this really all about? But it was pretty clear by the next day, as the press began to cover the speech, and in fact, there were transcribers there who were taking the President’s words down in shorthand – or as close to verbatim as they could get – that formed what appeared in the newspapers on the next day. And even though there are some variants in terms of wording, some of which, of course, is significant, but nonetheless the main gist of the speech was communicated very quickly overnight, so that by the next day it was appearing in newspapers throughout the North.
And quite honestly, even though there was some criticism on exactly that issue about slavery and, really, are we committing to this and is this really what we want to commit to, that was coming from quarters that had been voicing opposition against the emancipation from January, in fact, even from the prior September, September of 1862, when Lincoln issued the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. So to some extent, that kind of opposition was predictable. But others who read the speech were extremely moved by it, and his use of language, and especially the economy of language, to express such profound thoughts. Most commentators on it thought – even from the day after, when they saw the incomplete speech, they thought it was the work of a genius. So it was quite well received from that standpoint.
Now, in terms of the burial, there were no African American soldiers fighting in the Army of the Potomac at that time. And perhaps it’s ironic that Lincoln, who was making such a profound statement on behalf of freedom in that place to dedicate the burial ground, there were not African American soldiers who took part in that battle, certainly not as organized units. Now, it’s very likely that individual African American men served in some of the units that took part in the battle, but there was no wholesale involvement of African Americans. So the issue about burying blacks and whites together did not really occur at the cemetery at that time.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR. REIDY: You’re welcome.
MODERATOR: Come down here.
QUESTION: Hi. My name is Sung Jin Kim of Yonhap news agency, South Korea. Thank you for your background briefing. And this last sentence, “The government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the Earth,” it is recited very often. Even when I was still at (inaudible) student or high school student, we should memorize this --
MR. REIDY: Yes.
QUESTION: -- as an English study.
MR. REIDY: Exercise.
QUESTION: And this “shall not perish” is just not (inaudible) prophesying that this kind of a government will not perish in the future, but it implicates that – indicates that we should participate in this effort to let this legacy go on in the future, right? So --
MR. REIDY: Correct. Right. And only by honoring the men who were being buried there and vowing that their sacrifice was not in vain – would not be in vain did he hope to rally the American people to continue to fight, so that the government of the people would not perish.
But your perceptive comment about the verb that he uses really gets at the heart of the matter. He’s rallying the American people: This must not happen, that the government would fail, and only by continuing the sacrifice as we are shall it prevail.
QUESTION: So why did he finish this last passage by alluding to this kind of a government? So, originally we recognized this as a form of government in democracy, but its original intent was what, the expansion of freedom and the birth of our nation, the union? Was the --
MR. REIDY: Well, see – and we could spend the rest of the afternoon speaking about that, because the motive behind founding the nation in the first place was very complicated. So as I said, and as everybody who would’ve heard Lincoln at the time very well understood, slaveholders were active participants in that struggle for independence. Thomas Jefferson left his fingerprints all over the Declaration of Independence. So there were many who were advocating to form a nation dedicated to freedom who themselves were slave owners. And even if they were not slave owners, they recognized the legitimacy of the institution of slavery. So for them, there was no absolute contradiction between slavery of people of African descent and freedom of people of European descent. But that was a contradiction that was put in place at both the Declaration of Independence and the founding of the nation.
And so part of that legacy carried forward into the Civil War. So that’s what Lincoln was wrestling with. And he hoped that that government, if it were permitted to function with the equality of the citizens and the participation of all citizens – now, in his mind this meant all male citizens, all men – that those kind of contradictions could be worked out. But it depended upon that type of participatory democracy, in effect, for him to have that faith that this government could survive. But only on that basis did it have any hope of surviving.
MODERATOR: Okay. To Marcos.
QUESTION: Hello. Mark Bassets from The Guardian, Spain. I wonder when this text started to be thought and learned by schoolchildren in America, whether it was different in North and in the South, when it started to be the canon of the American big speeches.
MR. REIDY: That’s a good point. It’s – some of it began right away, but it’s really in the 20th century that it came into vogue. And I daresay during the period of segregation in the southern states, this speech would not have been one that schoolchildren were memorizing, because the explosive nature of it with regard to equality and with regard to – in effect saving the Union meant defeating the Confederacy. So that remained a very sore subject.
But in the 20th century in northern schools, public as well as private, it became that kind of iconic text. And to some extent, I think it was a matter that it is so brief. Students would not – pupils, that is, in perhaps even the 5th and 6th grade, would not have to memorize two pages or more. And you see, even in one and a half space type, you can fit it all on one page. And 272 words should not be that difficult to memorize. So it took on that kind of iconic value during the 20th century.
QUESTION: Jim Mannion from Agence France Presse . So this 150th anniversary comes at a time of really deep divisions in this country. Are there lessons for our political leaders here to learn from either the address or the way Lincoln handled himself at the – during that crucial juncture?
MR. REIDY: Mm-hmm. Well, I think there are lessons, but they’re probably not just easily translatable – A becomes A in the 21st century. Lincoln had this ultimate belief that democracy would be the key to peace and prosperity in the United States. And by virtue of his political experience and quite literally his life experience, both before he became president and even while he was president, he simply had that abiding faith. And he believed that it resonated with all Americans. He believed that it could resonate with Confederates, for that matter. And he had hope that it would resonate with African Americans.
But as I said, this was a work in progress. So Lincoln himself was not quite sure that once freed, African American men even could participate in the democracy that he was saying he was the key to the future for the success of the nation and the prosperity of all the citizens. So even right down to his death, though Lincoln was advocating on behalf of granting citizenship rights to African American men who had served in the Army, or who were literate, or who otherwise could demonstrate what I guess you would call responsible citizenship, so that they could vote in public elections, and by that, of course, influence the course of public affairs, he wasn’t so sure about freed former slaves who had been denied education, who might not have served in the army, who had been oppressed their entire lives.
So the whole issue about where African Americans would fit into the society that he said was given a new birth of freedom remained the challenge of the day. And even though Lincoln had some ideas about that, he did not have a blueprint. And in fact both he and his closest advisors said that his ideas about Reconstruction were still evolving at the point at which he died. So in effect what he succeeded in doing, and after all what the Civil War succeeded in doing, in effect was putting an end to slavery. But what that meant in terms of, all right, if it’s no longer legal for one human being to own another human being as property, what does it mean otherwise? Does that person have the opportunity to ride on a public transportation vehicle, and to select their own seat? Does that person and the children of that person have the right to attend public schools, for example? Do they have the right to participate in elections? Do they have the right to serve in public office if they’re elected?
So all those issues were ones that had to be worked out because abolishing slavery, in effect, was a negative reference point. We’re not doing that anymore, but where does that leave us in terms of building a civil society in which everybody from every background has the opportunity to participate? And arguably, the nation has been struggling with that question ever since then. With the negative reference point of slavery having been put to rest, all right, what does a new birth of freedom mean?
And in the aftermath of the Civil War, legislators in the various former Confederate states had their vision, so they were going to legislate African Americans to a place, to a condition, as close to slavery as they could possibly get it without violating the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments. And even on some occasions, they did violate them; let’s be honest. And then of course in the 20th century, the pendulum swung in the other direction, largely as a result of the efforts of African Americans to demand equality and to demand the new birth of freedom that Lincoln had promised.
So here we are in the 21st century, as we know, with an African American President, who is still in many ways carrying that legacy of Lincoln forward. How do we construct and how do we maintain a society going forward in the 21st century that fulfills that promise of freedom and equality and participation by all citizens?
Other questions? Oh, right there.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) from South Korea. Similar question, please, but let me put it differently. You said the message of the – Lincoln’s Gettysburg speech still remains a work in progress, still unfinished work. Might be silly question: If Lincoln were still alive in 21st century, and do the speech at Gettysburg again and do the proclamation, I mean Emancipation Proclamation again, what would he try to emancipate now, do you think?
MR. REIDY: Okay, yes. There are no enslaved people to emancipate, but as the people who are held in various kinds of economic subordination or social subordination, arguably those challenges have taken a somewhat different form, but they are still there. And it’s always interesting to try to speculate how political leaders from the past would respond to contemporary challenges. And as I said a minute ago, as Lincoln and his close allies always said, reconstruction for them was not a blueprint; it was something that was evolving in their own thinking, and in response to what was happening in the nation.
So clear enough, he would have to address the matter of inequality. If we talk about freedom, a new birth of freedom; if we talk about government of the people, by the people, and for the people; how can that be fully realized in a society in which there is such glaring inequality? In terms of overt kinds of discrimination, that after all go right to what is the meaning of freedom in a democratic society, obviously he would have to address those as well.
But I think perhaps most of all, the lingering effect of the legacy of this problem that dates back before the founding of the nation, after all, is something that I think even like President Obama in our own time, the Chief Executive of the United States has to address, but there is no simple solution to it. So it’s a matter of engaging and taking advantage of opportunities, political and otherwise, as they arrive, but holding up the noble ideal that freedom and equality are the goals, and anything short of that require a continued action.
QUESTION: Hello. Thank you for being here.
MR. REIDY: Sure. My pleasure.
QUESTION: My name is Nuria Ferragutcasas. I’m from Barcelona ARA. I would like to know how Lincoln affected the Obama Presidency – Obama as a President. You know that in his announcement he did it in Springfield, Illinois, because he – Lincoln did there a very important speech too, A House Divided. How do you think his figure has been important for him and how he has done his presidency?
MR. REIDY: Mm-hmm. I think President Obama has said that publicly himself, that he was very much influenced by Lincoln. Now, as you properly pointed out, he built his initial campaign for the presidency essentially on a foundation that was laid by Lincoln in Illinois. And he viewed himself very much as following in that tradition. But clearly, even apart from the fact that he was from Illinois, that he launched this campaign in Springfield, Illinois, I think the issues around which Obama saw the similarity of the challenges of the 21st century United States, and the unresolved challenges of the Civil War, are what draw him continually back to Lincoln.
And here, we could probably try to fault Lincoln for having certain limitations, even in his own time. So he was forward-thinking in many respects, but he was utterly conventional in other respects. And you’re probably aware that he was not above making racist remarks and casting African Americans in positions of humor where he’d make fun of them among his close friends. So he did – he had limitations, after all, as all of us do. We are products of the times in which we live.
Yet President Obama is not – he’s not hampered by that, and he does see the capacity of Lincoln to do great things in the interests of the great ideals to which he pledged himself, and in fact, managed to pledge the nation. And this was no small feat. And for Obama or, in fact, for any president to take Lincoln as a model, I think, is worthy of applause. Because in effect, from my standpoint on that note, the thing that was most admirable for Lincoln was to understand that the Civil War presented an opportunity, in effect, to try to correct some of the flaws from the founding of the nation, with slavery being one, others of course being there as well, recognizing that he could not do it with strokes of the pen. He couldn’t simply pass an edict saying, “We will abolish slavery.” He couldn’t do it in June of 1861, several months after the war began. He couldn’t do it in July of 1862, even though there were many people who were urging him at that time to do it. But he could, in September of 1862, put out a preliminary proclamation, in effect telling the Confederate states that if they did not stop the rebellion by January 1st, 1863, that he would abolish slavery, in effect.
So here was the case of a leader who saw himself very much in contact with the people who had elected him to office. And obviously, this was a dynamic that played out, and I’m sure you’ve seen the movie Lincoln, or at least have heard of the movie Lincoln, so you saw the way that that played out, even whatever quibbles we might have with the movie. But his relationship with his staff, with other members of government, with senators and congressmen whose cooperation was essential within this very government that he held up as the prize for all the world to see – it involved collaboration, it involved convincing other people of the correctness of your point of view. And ultimately, it involved a level of humility and respect both for the process and for the wisdom of the people that, as I say, can be a good approach to government on the part of any elected official, president or otherwise.
MODERATOR: Are there any final questions? (No response.)
If there are no more questions, this event is now concluded. Thank you all for coming.
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