Network News

X My Profile
View More Activity

Obama, Honoring Lincoln, Urges Unity

President Obama appeared briefly at the celebration of the Lincoln Bicentennial in the Rotunda, on Capitol Hill. (Melina Mara / The Washington Post)

By Anne E. Kornblut
President Obama issued a message of civility in honor of Abraham Lincoln's birthday centennial -- urging citizens to forgive their former rivals as the 16th president did at the end of the Civil War.

Obama, speaking at a ceremony in the Capitol Rotunda on Thursday, said Lincoln had not sought retribution against the South. "No Confederate soldier was to be punished," Obama said. "That was the only way, Lincoln knew, to repair the rifts that had torn our country apart."

Obama travels to Illinois on Thursday to speak at the Abraham Lincoln Association's banquet in honor of Lincoln's 200th birthday. The visit caps months of Lincoln honors, including Obama's swearing-in on the same bible Lincoln used and, on Wednesday night, the re-opening of the Ford's Theater, where Lincoln was shot.

Obama appeared with members of Congress just before noon. "I feel a special gratitude to this singular figure who in so many ways made by own story possible -- and who in so many ways made America's story possible," he said.

Obama's full remarks at the Capitol, as prepared for delivery, follow below:

It is an honor to be here - a place where Lincoln served, was inaugurated, and where the nation he saved bid him a last farewell. As we mark the bicentennial of our 16th President's birth, I cannot claim to know as much about his life and works as many of those who are also speaking today, but I can say that I feel a special gratitude to this singular figure who in so many ways made by own story possible - and who in so many ways made America's story possible.

It is fitting that we are holding this celebration here at the Capitol. For the life of this building is bound ever so closely to the times of this immortal President. Built by artisans and craftsmen, immigrants and slaves - it was here, in the rotunda, that union soldiers received help from a makeshift hospital; it was downstairs, in the basement, that they were baked bread to give them strength; and it was in the Senate and House chambers, where they slept at night, and spent some of their days.

What those soldiers saw when they looked on this building was a very different sight than the one we see today. For it remained unfinished until the end of the war. The laborers who built the dome came to work wondering whether each day would be their last; whether the metal they were using for its frame would be requisitioned for the war and melted down into bullets. But each day went by without any orders to halt construction, and so they kept on working and kept on building.

When President Lincoln was finally told of all the metal being used here, his response was short and clear: that is as it should be. The American people needed to be reminded, he believed, that even in a time of war, the work would go on; that even when the nation itself was in doubt, its future was being secured; and that on that distant day, when the guns fell silent, a national capitol would stand, with a statue of freedom at its peak, as a symbol of unity in a land still mending its divisions.

It is this sense of unity, this ability to plan for a shared future even at a moment our nation was torn apart, that I reflect on today. And while there are any number of moments that reveal that particular side of this extraordinary man - that particular aspect of his leadership - there is one I'd like to share with you today.

In the war's final weeks, aboard Grant's flagship, The River Queen, President Lincoln was asked what was to be done with the rebel armies once General Lee surrendered. With victory at hand, Lincoln could have sought revenge. He could have forced the South to pay a steep price for their rebellion. But despite all the bloodshed and all the misery that each side had exacted upon the other, no Confederate soldier was to be punished, Lincoln ordered. They were to be treated, as he put it, "liberally all round." All Lincoln wanted was for Confederate troops to go back home and return to work on their farms and in their shops. He was even willing, he said, to "let them have their horses to plow with and...their guns to shoot crows with."

That was the only way, Lincoln knew, to repair the rifts that had torn this country apart. It was the only way to begin the healing that our nation so desperately needed. For what Lincoln never forgot, not even in the midst of civil war, was that despite all that divided us - north and south, black and white - we were, at heart, one nation and one people, sharing a bond as Americans that could not break.

And so even as we meet here today, at a moment when we are far less divided than in Lincoln's day, but when we are once again debating the critical issues of our time - and debating them fiercely - let us remember that we are doing so as servants to the same flag, as representatives of the same people, and as stakeholders in a common future. That is the most fitting tribute we can pay - and the most lasting monument we can build - to that most remarkable of men, Abraham Lincoln. Thank you.

By Web Politics Editor  |  February 12, 2009; 1:38 PM ET
Categories:  Barack Obama  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: Axelrod Admits 'Bumpy' Start for Bailout
Next: Gregg Steps Aside as Commerce Secretary-Designate


Less than one cent per capita. How about the Iraq war?
Always gnats and camels.

Posted by: rooster54 | February 13, 2009 5:05 PM | Report abuse

How much did this trip to Illinois cost the U.S. taxpayers?

Posted by: JakeD | February 12, 2009 10:08 PM

Posted by: rooster54 | February 13, 2009 5:00 PM | Report abuse

With new advances in mechanised cultivation, slavery was bound to fail economically. Aquisition and transportation of slaves was difficult and expensive. Once they were purchased, they had to be fed, housed, clothed, kept healthy, watched for escape or rebellion. Machines didn't require so much.

However, the belief that one is entitled to a servant class and a sense of superiority has never left many in the South. Many of these were democrats, but they fled in droves to the republican party after LBJ signed the Equal Rights Amendment. They make up the margine that has kept the republican party from falling into oblivion where it belongs.

Slavery, however, still thrives in America on many levels. Thanks to the WTO, we no longer have the expense of aquiring slaves, keeping them alive, and avoiding upheavals. No, we're smarter than that. Now we leave them in their own countries, work them to death for less money than it takes to survive. No safety standards, no insurance expense, no nagging child labor laws. As an added bonus, we can put our own workers out of business with the goods we import! When they get desperate, they become slaves too!

Thanks Reagan, Bush, and Clinton!

Posted by: rooster54 | February 13, 2009 3:56 PM | Report abuse

Government costs money; stupid comments are cheap.

Posted by: nodebris | February 13, 2009 12:11 AM | Report abuse

How much did this trip to Illinois cost the U.S. taxpayers?

Posted by: JakeD | February 12, 2009 10:08 PM | Report abuse

rbullard: W won his first "election" in the Supreme Court. He won his second when we all waited until the next morning for the results.

He pushed through his "agenda" with a rubber stamp GOP controlled Congress and didn't give a rat's a$$ what the opposition thought.

Our turn. :-)

If we screw it up you will get your chance to gloat.

Posted by: toritto | February 12, 2009 9:16 PM | Report abuse

Obama's idea of "unity" is "my way, I won."

Posted by: rbullard1 | February 12, 2009 8:59 PM | Report abuse

Oh Jake!

Even on the 200th anniversary of Lincoln's birth?

So maybe deep in his soul of soul he didn't think black people were equal to white makea his greatness more unassailable that he came to recognize that there would be no union with slavery.....that he believed the words of the Declaration of Independence.

Whether he believed black people were the equal of whites or not....he had Frederick Douglas to the White House for dinner.

Why not spend the day telling us all how FDR ruined this nation.......:-)

Posted by: toritto | February 12, 2009 8:01 PM | Report abuse

LOL! :-D


The Only REPUBLICAN O'Bomba wants to embrace! ;~)

Posted by: SAINT---The | February 12, 2009 6:20 PM | Report abuse

"Actually, Lincoln likely would have been appalled. How could he not? He was a 19th-century white man who famously said in 1858 that "there is a physical difference between the white and black races, which ... will forever forbid the two races living together upon terms of social and political equality."

How do you reconcile that with all those cartoons of Lincoln congratulating Obama? You don't. You simply recognize it for what it is: yet another illustration of how shallow our comprehension of history is, yet another instance where myth supersedes reality.

Not that this is anything new — or that political cartoonists are the only ones susceptible. Indeed, blacks once tended to regard Lincoln with an almost religious reverence. Consider another Lincoln statue, this one in a park east of the Capitol: It depicts Lincoln towering over a newly freed black man who kneels at his feet. While modern eyes might find the image unbearably paternalistic, it represented the heartfelt sentiment of the black men and women who gave it to the city in 1876 in gratitude, they said, for Lincoln freeing the slaves.

Of course, Lincoln freed no slaves. That's the myth. His Emancipation Proclamation was a military measure to demoralize and destabilize the rebellious South; it covered states he did not govern, but did not apply in slaveholding states that remained under his jurisdiction.

None of which is to deny or diminish the greatness of the 16th president. His greatness stands unquestioned, unquestionable. We would be a very different nation, a lesser nation, without his political genius, his dogged faith in the unsundered Union, his refusal to accept less than Union, even when haunted by reversals and setbacks that would have broken anyone else.

No, the argument is not about Lincoln's greatness. Rather, it is about our tendency to cherish untextured myths that affirm our preferred narratives. George Washington confessing that he chopped down the cherry tree is one, a parable of honesty that has survived for generations despite the minor inconvenience of not being true. Lincoln the Great Emancipator is yet another.

Abraham Lincoln did not believe in the equality of black people. He did, however — and this was no minor distinction in his era — believe in their humanity. He also abhorred slavery. But he was willing to countenance it if doing so would have vindicated his primary goal: to save the Union."

Posted by: JakeD | February 12, 2009 4:21 PM | Report abuse


The Republican Party "knowingly destroyed themselves out of ignorance"? You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

Posted by: JakeD | February 12, 2009 3:55 PM | Report abuse

What would Lincoln do about:

* State-supported "community gang-stalking"
* Use of radiation weaponry on suspected "undesirables"
* Secret bureaucratic "programs of personal destruction"?
* State-sanctioned "eugenics"




OR (if links are corrupted):

Posted by: scrivener50 | February 12, 2009 3:48 PM | Report abuse


Posted by: MatthewAvitabile | February 12, 2009 3:32 PM | Report abuse

Posted by: MatthewAvitabile | February 12, 2009 3:31 PM | Report abuse

fr toritto:

>...Lincoln came out and listened to the band and the "hurrahs" of the adoring crowd......and then he requested that the band play "Dixie".

You are correct. He is reputed to have said that it was one of the best songs he'd ever heard.

Posted by: Alex511 | February 12, 2009 3:20 PM | Report abuse

Let the Band Play Dixie
(Bob Gibson and Dave North)

The news was run from Richmond in that fading April sun,
That Lee had handed Grant his sword, the war was finally won;
Into the streets the people spilled,
Feeling the excitement build;
And the crowd around the White House milled,
Asking, "Is it true, it's finally done?"

Inside the White House, Lincoln heard them calling out his name;
He sat there, wondering what to say to ease their years of pain.
Someone yelled, "Come out the door
And tell us what you've got in store
For the rebels who have lost the war!"
So, out upon the porch, Abe Lincoln came.

He said, "We are gathered not in anger, but in celebration.
Let's be grateful we are once again a single nation.
Let's stand together reassured,
Now that peace has been secured
Our nation's illness can be cured
And I suggest the overture for this occasion."

He said, "Let the band play 'Dixie,'
Play that tune that holds its head up high and proud,
And let our nation, once divided, bloody but unbowed,
Take the swords of war and beat them back into a plow."
On the day that we surrendered, Mr. Lincoln told the crowd,
"Let the band play 'Dixie.'"

The tired Union soldier hobbled on his only limb,
Filled with bitter memories the war had left with him;
He dragged his wooden leg and came,
His face was set and creased with pain,
He stumbled, fell, and rose again,
And wondered what the future held for him.

He spied a black child kneeling there in humble gratitude;
He knelt down right beside her, to share her thankful mood;
Grateful words were raised in prayer,
"God, in your sweet loving care,
Our broken lives now please repair,
Let our wounded nation be renewed."

"And let the band play 'Dixie,'
Play that tune that holds its head up high and proud,
And let our nation, once divided, bloody but unbowed,
Take the swords of war and beat them back into a plow."
On the day that we surrendered, Mr. Lincoln told the crowd,
"Let the band play 'Dixie.'"
"Let the band play 'Dixie.'"

Posted by: toritto | February 12, 2009 3:08 PM | Report abuse

Celebrating the end of the war outside of the White House, crowds and a military band serenaded the President.

Lincoln came out and listened to the band and the "hurrahs" of the adoring crowd......and then he requested that the band play "Dixie".

You did very well Abe........

Posted by: toritto | February 12, 2009 3:03 PM | Report abuse

Lincoln would be a Democrat today.

No way would he want to be a part of the current Repub party, the party that thinks that 'Barack the Magic Negro' is just the funniest thing ever and demonizes everyone who does not look or think like they do.

When history looks back at the current Republican party and asks why they shrank to such small numbers, they'll come to the conclusion that the Republican party was unwilling to change and they knowingly destroyed themselves out of ignorance.

Posted by: DrainYou | February 12, 2009 2:53 PM | Report abuse

was the River Queen a riverboat?

Posted by: saracooper | February 12, 2009 2:00 PM | Report abuse

The comments to this entry are closed.

RSS Feed
Subscribe to The Post

© 2010 The Washington Post Company