UPDATED: Obama, Lincoln, and the risks of compromise

Interesting piece from Harvard's John Stauffer on Lincoln's 1861 inauguration -- you know, that one that Barack Obama and Joe Biden were echoing with their Philly-launched train jaunt. Did Lincoln start his presidency at the start with too much of a focus on compromise and governing from the center?

Why did Lincoln defend slavery so vigorously in his Inaugural Address, thus alienating abolitionists and progressives in his party?

His goal was to reach beyond partisan wrangling and national divisions for common understanding. He wanted to appease slaveholders, prevent the upper slaveholding states from joining the Confederacy, and save the Union.

He also made the mistake of heeding the advice of his "team of rivals," especially Secretary of State William Seward. His first draft of the Inaugural was far less conciliatory than the one he delivered. In it he opposed the new Thirteenth Amendment, saying he liked the Constitution as it was. He treated Southerners with a firm but understanding hand, and had he delivered this draft, Frederick Douglass (and many other supporters) would have been far more sympathetic to him and his dilemma.

It was Seward who told Lincoln to "strike out" the sentence that opposed the constitutional amendment protecting slavery.

Thankfully, Obama doesn't face an issue as destructive as slavery -- but there are still a host of issues like torture or government spying where Obama will be torn between his gut principles and that desire to "reach beyond partisan wrangling." Again and again, history has shown us the right path.

UPDATE: Also, check out this excellent contrarian take on Lincoln and Obama from Leonard Pitts.

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