Seven score and seven years later, Obama takes cue from Lincoln, prof says

Honest Abe and President Obama have more in common than their Illinois roots, said Eric Foner.

By William Wilcox

Honest Abe and President Obama have more in common than their Illinois roots, said Eric Foner, a political historian at Columbia University, in a lecture in the Social Sciences Building Thursday.

The rhetoric of both men helped win them the hearts of citizens and eventually the presidency, said Foner, author of The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery.

“Both Lincoln and Obama came to prominence through oratory with speeches of elegance and power,” he said.

Obama may have taken a lesson or two from the Great Emancipator when he started his campaign for change, since Lincoln’s abolition movement has been a model for political change for the past century, Foner said. “A social movement and an enlightened leader together produce change,” he explained.

But the common perception of Lincoln as a fighter against racism is misguided, according to Foner, because Lincoln did not see the “fight against slavery as the fight against racism.”

“Lincoln saw blacks as an alien group that had been uprooted from their native land and were not really part of society,” Foner said, noting that Lincoln advocated for black colonization in Africa or Haiti instead of integration.

Foner described Lincoln not as part of the abolitionist movement exclusively, but as part of a broader set of ideas. “Lincoln saw himself as part of the broad historical movement toward abolition,” said Foner, who was the president of the American Historical Association in 2000. “On issue after issue, Lincoln came to support positions that had been staked out by abolitionists.”

About 80 people attended the lecture, which was hosted by University history professor Tom Holt, and many students said they were happy to hear a truly honest depiction of Honest Abe.

“Professor Foner did a really compelling thing by putting Lincoln in historical context and looking at the evolution of his views instead of making him out to a be a perfect saint,” third-year Zach Conn said.

Melanie Cloghessy, project assistant at the Music Department, was encouraged by the fact that conversation on slavery and racism still continues.

“I’m 60 years old and I’m deeply discouraged to see over the course of my lifetime the unwillingness of white people to see the realities of slavery,” Cloghessy said. “So when people gather like this, it means a lot to me.”