Obama's Lincoln Quote In The State Of The Union Is As Poignant Now As It Was In 1862
On Tuesday night, President Obama delivered the final State of the Union address of his tenure. And just like last year, he decided to reveal its content to all of America before the actual speech. Obama worked in a phrase that we've heard from him before, from out of the mists of history ― did you happen to wonder what Obama's State of the Union Lincoln quote meant?
It's a poetic, beautifully phrased statement that Obama invoked, saying that America should not and has not adhered to the "dogmas of the quiet past." Here's how Obama used it:
America has been through big changes before — wars and depression, the influx of immigrants, workers fighting for a fair deal, and movements to expand civil rights. Each time, there have been those who told us to fear the future; who claimed we could slam the brakes on change, promising to restore past glory if we just got some group or idea that was threatening America under control. And each time, we overcame those fears. We did not, in the words of Lincoln, adhere to the "dogmas of the quiet past." Instead we thought anew, and acted anew. We made change work for us, always extending America's promise outward, to the next frontier, to more and more people. And because we did — because we saw opportunity where others saw only peril — we emerged stronger and better than before.
The phrase originated from Lincoln's second annual address as president. As TIME detailed, it's a massively revered speech as far as presidential rhetoric goes, a response to the ongoing Civil War and the racist, pro-slavery politics and economics of the time that spurred it. Here's how Lincoln used it in 1862, more than 150 years ago.
The plan is proposed as permanent constitutional law. It can not become such without the concurrence of, first, two-thirds of Congress, and afterwards three-fourths of the States. The requisite three-fourths of the States will necessarily include seven of the slave States. Their concurrence, if obtained, will give assurance of their severally adopting emancipation at no very distant day upon the new constitutional terms. This assurance would end the struggle now and save the Union forever.
...Is it doubted, then, that the plan I propose, if adopted, would shorten the war, and thus lessen its expenditure of money and of blood? Is it doubted that it would restore the national authority and national prosperity and perpetuate both indefinitely? Is it doubted that we here — Congress and Executive can secure its adoption? Will not the good people respond to a united and earnest appeal from us? Can we, can they, by any other means so certainly or so speedily assure these vital objects? We can succeed only by concert. It is not "Can any of us imagine better?" but "Can we all do better?" Object whatsoever is possible, still the question recurs, "Can we do better?" The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.
The "plan" Lincoln is talking about is nothing less than the emancipation of black slaves throughout the secessionist Confederate states, a plan which would ultimately be made real just one month later, on Jan. 1, 1863. That's when Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which declared the following.
...On the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.
That's the proud legacy that Obama invoked on Tuesday night ― of refusing to accept the status quo, and pushing to better conditions for marginalized, maligned communities, and individuals in spite of swirling distrust, fear, or uncertainty. It's also useful as an assurance that he wants to have a productive final year ― after all, he's entering that dreaded "lame duck" territory.