About that Abraham Lincoln reference in President Obama’s speech

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Opinion Zone,Neil Hrab

From our first days as a nation, we have put our faith in free markets and free enterprise as the engine of America’s wealth and prosperity.  More than citizens of any other country, we are rugged individualists, a self-reliant people with a healthy skepticism of too much government.

But there has always been another thread running throughout our history – a belief that we are all connected; and that there are some things we can only do together, as a nation.  We believe, in the words of our first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, that through government, we should do together what we cannot do as well for ourselves.

-President Barack Obama, speaking on April 13, 2011

President Obama and his speechwriters chose to paraphrase the above words attributed to Abraham Lincoln. President Obama is most likely referring here to some fragmentary notes on the role of government that Lincoln prepared in 1854 (perhaps for use in a speech, we can guess).

Here’s the fragment in full:

The legitimate object of government is to do for a community of people whatever they need to have done, but cannot do at all, or cannot so well do, for themselves, in their separate and individual capacities. In all that the people can individually do as well for themselves, government ought not to interfere. The desirable things which the individuals of a people cannot do, or cannot well do, for themselves, fall into two classes: those which have relation to wrongs, and those which have not. Each of these branch off into an infinite variety of subdivisions.

The first—that in relation to wrongs—embraces all crimes, misdemeanors and non-performance of contracts. The other embraces all which, in its nature, and without wrong, requires combined action, as public roads and highways, public schools, charities, pauperism, orphanage, estates of the deceased, and the machinery of government itself.

From this it appears that if all men were just, there still would be some, though not so much, need of government.

Now that we have the full Lincoln reference in front of us, the question that arises is this – should President Obama have made a direct quotation, rather than paraphrase it?

I myself don’t see the problem with paraphrasing from Lincoln, as long as the spirit of the fragment is respected (and I believe President Obama did respect it).

Perhaps the original Lincoln quote is too wordy, too 19th-century-sounding for our age of Twitter and short Facebook updates to use in full – hence the President and his speechwriters opting to paraphrase Lincoln, rather than quote him directly. Even if someone is not a professional speechwriter, one can understand this paraphrasing as a necessary concession to life in 2011.

Sympathetic observers can also understand why Obama would not want to quote that last part of the fragment – the part about “if all men were just, there still would be some, though not so much, need of government.”

This line is too meditative, too contemplative, with a hint of regret about mankind’s fallen state – and therefore too likely to cause columnists, editorial writers and TV talking heads to twitch violently.

“In all that the people can individually do as well for themselves, government ought not to interfere.” Now, why couldn’t Obama quote this part of the Lincoln fragment?

Why, that’s obvious from the proceeding part of the speech – President Obama wants to establish that “we should do together what we cannot do as well for ourselves.”

Talking about government interfering with private initiative would sound too much like US Chamber of Commerce-speak, given President Obama's goal with this speech of asserting that there's a consensus view around the proper role of government in US life in 2011.

Talking about Americans and their “healthy skepticism of too much government” is therefore more in line with this goal, and helps position the President as standing between two extremes.

My quibble with the President’s speech is this: while he didn’t reduce Lincoln to a rhetorical prop, President Obama ought to have acknowledged that he was paraphrasing the Great Emancipator, rather than leave the impression he was quoting Lincoln directly.

The speechwriter responsible for this oversight ought to be sentenced to hard labor – perhaps writing after-dinner speeches for VP Joe Biden, for a minimum of 60 days.

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