Obama’s Whiggish inaugural

President Obama is now a Whig! I thought I was the only party member left. But Obama found the central structure and philosophy of his second inaugural address this week in the core Whig doctrine of equality.

Front page of the Washington Post, Jan. 22, 2013

Let’s first talk structure. Consider how Obama introduces the Declaration of Independence’s equality clause (“all men are created equal”). Obama’s introduction amounts to a restatement of the opening to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Both Lincoln’s and Obama’s openings say that American was founded on a concept (Lincoln, “proposition”; Obama, “idea”), they mention the number of years since the Declaration’s signing (Lincoln, “Four score and seven years ago”; Obama (rather more prosaically), “more than two centuries ago”), they mention the importance of committing to the concept of equality (Lincoln, “dedicated”; Obama, “allegiance”), and they quote the equality clause itself. Here’s a diagram of these similarities:

Comparison of Obama's and Lincoln's speeches

By the time Lincoln gave his Gettysburg Address, of course, the Whig Party was defunct, and most Northern Whigs had joined the nascent Republican Party. But the Gettysburg Address’s focus on the equality clause was a posthumous vindication of the Whig Party and its two central ideas. The first is that America is a single nation and not a confederation of states subject to the states’ secession. The second is that the Declaration’s equality clause was the philosophical force behind America’s social and economic improvement.

I’ll start with the latter idea. Obama cited the equality clause in support of equal pay for equal work, gay marriage, removing barriers from voting, immigration reform, and child safety issues, including gun control. That’s a lot of social and economic change justified by a single clause in the Declaration of Independence. I’ll look at three of those issues (equal pay, gay marriage, and immigration reform) and examine what Lincoln, with his Whiggish political philosophy, might have done.

1. “All men are created equal” and economic fairness

Lincoln might have done much to require equal pay for equal work were he alive today. Equal pay for equal work is an issue of economic fairness, and, according to Lincoln scholar Allen Guelzo, Lincoln explicitly tied the equality clause to economics:

Lincoln also read the Declaration as promoting the critical Whig demand for economic expansion. The foundation of any worthwhile idea of equality was economic “betterment,” and that right was what Lincoln found first in the Declaration. “It was that which gave promise that in due time the weights should be lifted from the shoulders of all men, and that all should have an equal chance.” [Quoting Lincoln]1

Guelzo quotes a Whig newspaper’s editorial connecting the equality clause with internal improvements and greater education on the same “equal chance” line of thought. Indeed, according to Guelzo, “No part of the Declaration had more appeal for the Whigs than the controversial ‘equality’ clause, since equality in the Whig lexicon immediately translated into economic opportunism, and thus positioned the Declaration as an endorsement of the Whig political agenda.”2

Obama’s endorsement of equal pay for equal work, then, would seem like an extension of the Whiggish alignment of the equality clause with economic issues.

Obama was whistling Lincoln’s economic tune long before this week’s inaugural address, of course. When asked during the second debate what was the biggest misperception the American people had of him, Obama answered (in pertinent part):

I believe in self-reliance and individual initiative and risk takers being rewarded. But I also believe that everybody should have a fair shot and everybody should do their fair share and everybody should play by the same rules.

Lincoln also was quick to point out that the equality clause called for economic opportunity and not for economic equality. The Declaration “does not declare that all men are equal in their attainments or social position,” Lincoln pointed out. But “all should have an equal chance”3 – the equivalent of Obama’s insistence that “everybody should have a fair shot.”

The equality clause was aspirational, as Lincoln also took Jesus’ injunction to “be ye perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect”:

The Savior, I suppose, did not expect that any human creature could be perfect, as the Father in Heaven; but . . . He set that up as a standard, and he who did most towards reaching that standard, attained the highest degree of moral perfection. So I say in relation to the principle that all men are created equal, let it be nearly reached as we can. . . .4

2. “All men are created equal” and gay marriage

Lincoln, however, probably never conceived of the notion that the equality clause would aspire as far as gay marriage. The very term “gay marriage” suggests, though, that its proponents see the issue as one of equal rights. Those proponents would find more support from Lincoln once the Civil War had begun than they would before he was president. Before becoming president, Lincoln was not prepared to grant African Americans social equality:

Blacks, Lincoln insisted, may have to tolerate some measure of inferiority in their civil or social rights in an overwhelmingly white society, and the probability that this would remain a permanent feature of American life kept Lincoln proposing gradual emancipation and colonization rather than abolition as the ultimate answer. But “no sane man will attempt to deny that the African upon his own soil has all the natural rights” the Declaration “vouchsafes to all mankind.”5

Lincoln changed his mind, of course, about the applicability of the equality clause to African Americans in their home country, the United States. And, as my students pointed out to me today as we discussed Obama’s inaugural, each generation may find its own inspiration from the Declaration’s equality clause.

3. “All men are created equal” and immigration reform

Obama also tracks Lincoln by tying immigration reform to the equality clause:

Our journey [to equality] is not complete until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity; until bright young students and engineers are enlisted in our workforce rather than expelled from our country.

Lincoln believed that the Declaration, and particularly its equality clause, made immigrants just as “American” as the colonists who adopted the Declaration in 1776:

“But when [immigrants] look through that old declaration of Independence,” Lincoln believed, they find principles that rise above one’s place of birth . . . . “They find that those old men say that ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,’ and then they feel that that moral sentiment taught in that day evidences their relation to those men . . . and that they have a right to claim it as though they were flesh of the flesh of the men who wrote that Declaration.”3

The universality of the equality clause – its self-evident application to every person in every nation – meant that, for Lincoln, immigrants had as much natural right as Americans in equality. If Lincoln agrees with Obama that “what makes us American is our allegiance to an idea” (i.e., the idea that all men are created equal), then the immigrant seeking equality and the economic opportunity equality envisions is as much of an American as I, a natural-born citizen.

The notion that our nation was “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” (Lincoln) – the notion that what makes an American is her “allegiance to [the idea that all men are created equal]” (Obama) – is a radical departure from the usual concepts of love of homeland; fear of another race, religion, or nationality;  and economic protectionism that in part seem to drive our immigration debate and decisions.

4. The Declaration of Independence and Secession

But beyond adopting Lincoln’s expansive and aspirational view of the equality clause, Obama’s speech adopts the Declaration of Independence itself as the document creating the country’s social contract. Obama’s stance is in harmony with the Whigs, who praised the Declaration “for creating a single unified nation, not the confederation of states that Calhoun found in the Constitution.”2 Obama stance about the nature of the union, reaffirmed by his frequent repetition of “We the people” from the Constitution’s preamble, was a philosophical shot over the bow of those who have threatened secession of late.

All this comes six months after I criticized Obama here for ceding the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence to the strict constructionists:

Little that Obama or his campaign says or does is ever traced back in the public’s mind to a coherent theory of government implemented before, say, the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt.

By adopting this week the old, Whiggish approach to the Declaration and its equality clause, Obama has made things interesting.

  1. Guelzo, Allen C. Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1999. Print. At  195.
  2. Id. at 194.
  3. Id. at 195.
  4. Id. at 197.
  5. Id. at 196.
  6. Id. at 195.
  7. Id. at 194.