Obama has something of a pardonable obsession with his fellow Illinois citizen – so much so that his speech on Tuesday night in Chicago quoted Lincoln’s first inaugural address in 1861 without at first identifying him – as if the whole watching political nation would automatically know who he was talking about, especially since Lincoln’s words spoke achingly of a national reconciliation even on the very threshold of civil war.
By Simon Schama
The Telegraph (UK)
It’s easy enough to guess what Lincoln, the 16th president, would make of Obama, the 44th. But what about the third? It was from Jefferson’s hand that so much of the tragic atrocity, as well as the ennobling idealism of the American experiment, followed. For unlike Washington, the author of the Declaration of Independence, who proclaimed to the world as a truism that all men were created equal, could never bring himself to free his 100 or so slaves. And although Jefferson professed to believe in the universal fraternity of mankind, he thought black people intellectually inferior to those of European descent and patronised appallingly the most gifted of their race – like the scientist and inventor Benjamin Banneker.
In August 1791, Banneker presumed to write to Jefferson in Paris asking him, as a man of enlightened ideas, to “eradicate that train of absurd and false ideas and opinions which so generally prevails with respect to us” since “your sentiments are concurrent with mine, which are, that the Universal Father hath given being to us all and that he hath made us all of one flesh but that he hath also, without partiality, afforded us all the same sensations and endowed us all with the same faculties”.
This was all very nice. But then Banneker took a step too far, adding his dismay at finding that Jefferson himself was one of those who detained “by fraud and violence a part of my brethren groaning under captivity and cruel oppression” and that “you should at the same time be guilty of that which you professedly detested in others”. Jefferson wrote back crisply from Paris that “no body wishes more than I do to see such proofs as you exhibit, that nature has given to our black brethren, talents equal to those of the other colours of men”. But then he added, with fatal condescension, that “the appearance of the want of them is owing merely to the degraded condition of their existence both in Africa and America”.
Jefferson insisted that no one “wishes more ardently to see a good system commenced for raising the condition both of their body and mind to what it ought to be”. But his ardour apparently stopped well short of emancipation.