Much has been made of the parallels between the improbable journeys of Barack Obama and Abraham Lincoln, and each leader’s appeal to what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.” In a cogent piece in The Nation, historian Eric Foner stresses another, less-celebrated aspect of the parallels: the role of activists who in his own beleaguered time called Lincoln to his better angels.
“The Lincoln we should remember is the politician whose greatness lay in his capacity for growth,” writes Foner. “Much of that growth stemmed from his complex relationship with the radicals of his day, black and white abolitionists who fought against overwhelming odds to bring the moral issue of slavery to the forefront of national life.”
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“Until well into the Civil War,” Foner notes, “Lincoln was not an advocate of immediate abolition.” It was the prodding of those around him that nurtured his greatness. “On issue after issue--abolition in the nation's capital, wartime emancipation, enlisting black soldiers, amending the Constitution to abolish slavery, allowing some blacks to vote--Lincoln came to occupy positions the abolitionists had first staked out,” Foner notes. “The destruction of slavery during the war offers an example, as relevant today as in Lincoln's time, of how the combination of an engaged social movement and an enlightened leader can produce progressive social change.”
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