The Fiscal Abe: What Lincoln Can Tell Us About the Cliff

by Bob Grundfest

Just when you thought we knew so much, along comes history to teach us a lesson in humility. Of course I’m talking about the present political and fiscal morass, but the history lesson comes from our star attraction of the season, Abraham Lincoln.

LincolnNeither the left nor the right seems to be happy with the deal worked out in the Senate concerning the tax hikes and lack of spending cuts to avoid the fiscal calamity that won’t come quickly anyway. But the larger lesson here is that solving the nation’s problems take time and, in most cases, many steps. There will be no grand bargain, and I challenge anyone to show me an instance where the two parties immediately came together to solve a problem the first time they attempted it (outside of war). Far-reaching bills and programs have evolved over time, for good and for ill, with additions and tweaks based on the moment and level of political will. So it will be with us.

For perspective, consider Lincoln and the major issue of his day: Slavery.

Think the parties are divided today? The debate over slavery led to beatings of legislators, acts of violence in statehouses and a rehearsal for civil war in Kansas. Abolitionists protected runaway slaves when it was expressly illegal to do so and proponents of slavery abducted free blacks to make up for their losses. In the end, the Supreme Court ruled that slavery was legal. Case closed.

But of course, case not closed. So how did we get from the Dred Scott decision to the Thirteenth Amendment, which ultimately abolished slavery? Very slowly.

Columbia University History Professor Eric Foner does his usual terrific job framing the story in this article from Tuesday’s New York Times. In it, he reminds us that Lincoln did not, in fact, free the slaves with the Emancipation Proclamation, whose 150th anniversary was January 1. It took years to do that and Lincoln made many enemies along the way.

The real lesson, though? From the article:

Like all great historical transformations, emancipation was a process, not a single event. It arose from many causes and was the work of many individuals. It began at the outset of the Civil War, when slaves sought refuge behind Union lines. It did not end until December 1865, with the ratification of the 13th Amendment, which irrevocably abolished slavery throughout the nation. 

But the Emancipation Proclamation was the crucial turning point in this story. In a sense, it embodied a double emancipation: for the slaves, since it ensured that if the Union emerged victorious, slavery would perish, and for Lincoln himself, for whom it marked the abandonment of his previous assumptions about how to abolish slavery and the role blacks would play in post-emancipation American life. 

The slaves were freed first in areas where the Northern government did not even have jurisdiction (the southern states), and not in areas where it did (border states such as Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky and Missouri). For abolitionists, this was not enough. For slaveholders, it was an abomination.

And then there was President Lincoln’s attitude, which also had to change. Slowly:

While not burdened with the visceral racism of many of his white contemporaries, Lincoln shared some of their prejudices. He had long seen blacks as an alien people who been unjustly uprooted from their homeland and were entitled to freedom, but were not an intrinsic part of American society. During his Senate campaign in Illinois, in 1858, he had insisted that blacks should enjoy the same natural rights as whites (life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness), but he opposed granting them legal equality or the right to vote. 

By the end of his life, Lincoln’s outlook had changed dramatically. In his last public address, delivered in April 1865, he said that in reconstructing Louisiana, and by implication other Southern states, he would “prefer” that limited black suffrage be implemented. He singled out the “very intelligent” (educated free blacks) and “those who serve our cause as soldiers” as most worthy. Though hardly an unambiguous embrace of equality, this was the first time an American president had endorsed any political rights for blacks. 

It took a four year war and the suppression of southern representation in Congress tofinally rid the country of the scourge of slavery. There was no grand bargain. It required a president who took a stand, and a slow process that pleased noone.

Our constitution was written to slow down the pernicious influence of passion and haste. We are supposed to deliberate and debate and recognize that a balance of powers will provide us with the best chance of solving our problems. It is frustrating and sometimes we do ourselves some harm while paying it respect. So for those of you who see evil in the Republican’s attempts to undermine President Obama’s every turn, or see the president as having given up too much in the fiscal negotiations, I say, relax. Take one step at a time. Neither side is evil and neither side’s program will lead to the country’s destruction. Taxes will go up and some social programs will need to be changed, slowly. The tax code will be modified, slowly The chances that you will be completely satisfied with any of these developments, or the speed with which they occur, will be close to zero.

That’s how we know we’re getting it right.

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