Commencement 2009: Commencement Address
- Commencement 2009: Commencement Address
Commencement Address by James Oakes
I assume that President Kelly’s invitation to speak to you this morning is the latest piece of fallout from a book I recently published about Abraham Lincoln. I did not realize while writing it that the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth was approaching, nor could I have known that we were about to elect a president who openly embraces Lincoln as his ideal. This conjunction of events has kept me busy lately. Like many of my fellow historians, I’ve been besieged with unusual invitations—to speak at the annual black-tie dinner the Abraham Lincoln Club of Wilmington, Delaware, for example, or to do an interview, on Lincoln’s 200th birthday, with the national radio of the Czech Republic. I have been asked questions I never imagined I’d ever have to answer: Was Abraham Lincoln Jewish? Was he gay? Were any of his ancestors African? It’s easy enough to wave such questions away by just saying no: Lincoln was not Jewish. Neither was he gay. Nor did he have any black ancestors that anyone knows about. But lurking behind this popular interest in Lincoln’s identity is a powerful urge on the part of various groups to claim some connection with him, and that urge is something I cannot fully explain, or explain away.
Nor can I wave off so easily some of the other questions put to me in the past year. A few months back, just prior to Barack Obama’s inauguration, I was invited to do an interview on Bloomberg television. I hesitated. Bloomberg is a financial news network. What do they want with a historian of 19th-century America? I should have said no.
My concerns heightened when I was introduced to viewers as a presidential historian. Uh, oh, I thought. I write about slavery and antislavery and the coming of the Civil War, so it’s not hard for me to talk about Lincoln. But I’m not a presidential historian. What if she starts asking me about Franklin Roosevelt or Lyndon Johnson, or worse, Millard Fillmore or William Henry Harrison? As the beads of sweat began forming on my temples, she threw me her first curve ball: “What,” she asked, “will Barack Obama’s economic policy be?”
There was no way for me to hide the blank stare spreading over my face. Why couldn’t this be a radio interview, I thought to myself. In befuddled ignorance I managed to mutter something to the effect that Obama’s policy would likely be different from that of the previous administration.
“How so?” she asked.
After a few more minutes of fumbling, the interview got around to a very different kind of question: “Will Obama be a great president?”
I couldn’t answer that one either—nobody can. But at least I could trace the logic behind it. You are an expert on Abraham Lincoln, the interviewer was assuming. Abraham Lincoln was a great president. Therefore you know what it takes for someone to become a great president. Does Barack Obama have what it takes?
I left the interview frustrated, not because I couldn’t speculate intelligently about Obama’s economic policy, nor because I couldn’t predict the fate of his presidency. Rather, I was frustrated because I realized that at that point—at this late date in my career—I still couldn’t answer the one question everybody assumes I should be able to answer: What made Abraham Lincoln a great president?
It’s a hard question for me because I’ve never subscribed to what’s known as “the Great Man theory of history,” a point of view most closely associated with the Scottish historian Thomas Carlyle. He believed that the history of human civilization could be told as a series of biographies of Great Men—those rare individuals who rise above the chaos of events, take history by the horns, and shape it to their wills. I don’t think history works that way. On the other hand, I would not go as far as Leo Tolstoy, who believed that history has neither rhyme nor reason, that it is little more than the chaotic flow of unpredictable events. If there are patterns in history, Tolstoy argued, they are the work not of Great Men but of an inscrutable divine providence—this puts history beyond human control and even beyond human understanding. But that can’t be right either. I think there are patterns in history, but they are the work less of great men than of ordinary men and women who together create great forces and great movements—human forces and social movements that press against and shape the actions of those who exercise power.
I am close to Tolstoy in one respect. He believed that Abraham Lincoln was the greatest man in all human history, and I am inclined to believe—more modestly—that Lincoln was our greatest president. And so, in a sense, Tolstoy’s problem is mine as well: I don’t believe in Great Man history, yet I do think that Abraham Lincoln was a Great Man.
Having failed on Bloomberg television, I went home and thought about the nagging question. What made Lincoln Great? Now, if CNN ever decides to ask me the question, this is what I would say.
There are three things, different but closely related, that made Lincoln great.
The first was his capacity for growth. This was a man who, as a young politician, was little more than a party hack—who in the 1830s used racial demagoguery to attack his political opponents and who, as a lawyer in the 1840s, took cases defending a master’s right to reclaim fugitive slaves.
Ten years later Lincoln was refusing to take those cases. In 1854 he began denouncing slavery, publicly and eloquently, and by 1858 he was publicly denouncing racism as well. He continued to grow during his presidency. Only weeks after the war began, Lincoln took the first of several steps that would end in the abolition of slavery, and once he made emancipation the policy of his administration, Lincoln took the next step—toward supporting citizenship and voting rights for blacks. The demagogic hack of the 1830s and 40s had become a determined emancipationist by the 1860s.
Lincoln had not been the first politician to raise his voice against slavery. He was not the first elected official to endorse emancipation during the Civil War. Nor was he the first to support civil rights for the former slaves. He preferred to move with public opinion at his back, and he certainly wanted to make it appear as though he were responding to pressure rather than taking the lead. “I claim not to have controlled events,” he once said, “but confess plainly that events have controlled me.” There was a vein of fatalism running so deep in Lincoln that some historians see him as essentially passive, “forced into glory,” as one critic put it. But then most of history’s “Great Men” are, in some sense, forced into glory. What distinguishes the Giants from the Lilliputians is their very different responses to the crises they confront. Not everybody can be forced into glory.
A different person might have been forced into disrepute by the very real pressures urging Lincoln to compromise with the slaveholders, to reject emancipation, and to repudiate civil rights for blacks. There were pressures from every direction. As Frederick Douglass recalled, Lincoln was “assailed by abolitionists; he was assailed by slaveholders; he was assailed by men who were for peace at any price; he was assailed by those who were for a more vigorous prosecution of the war; he was assailed for not making the war an abolition war; and he was most bitterly attacked for making the war an abolition war.”
The political skill with which Lincoln negotiated these contradictory pressures is, I believe, the second element of his greatness. He refused to compromise with secession, yet he kept the four border slave states from leaving the Union. He kept the War Democrats loyal, yet he moved steadily toward an emancipation policy that most Democrats despised. He maintained relationships—even cultivated friendships—with radicals and abolitionists who often distrusted him.
So Lincoln’s capacity for growth—his embrace of emancipation and his moves toward racial equality—cannot alone account for his greatness. He had to bring a good many skeptical Americans along with him. And that required unsurpassed political skill.
It also required his legendary way with words, his ability to persuade those skeptics—and so I would rank Lincoln’s literary gifts third in my list of elements that made him great. His speeches are so impressive and well known that we give them names: the Peoria speech, Cooper Union, the Gettysburg address, the Second Inaugural. But how many of you know about the public letters he began issuing halfway through his presidency as part of a concerted campaign to persuade Northerners to support the war, emancipation, and black troops? They, too, have names familiar to most historians: the Greeley letter, the Corning letter, and the most impressive of them, the Conkling letter—Lincoln’s brilliant public reply to critics back in his home state of Illinois who objected to a war for emancipation, especially one in which blacks were allowed to fight along with whites in the Union Army.
“You say you will not fight to free negroes,” Lincoln wrote. “Some of them seem willing to fight for you; but, no matter. Fight you, then, exclusively to save the Union.” But bear in mind, Lincoln warned, that when this war is over and slavery has been abolished, “there will be some black men who can remember that, with silent tongue, and clenched teeth, and steady eye, and well-poised bayonet, they have helped mankind on to this great consummation; while, I fear, there will be some white ones, unable to forget that, with malignant heart, and deceitful speech, they have strove to hinder it.”
I don’t want to say that Lincoln was a great president because he wrote beautiful sentences. My point is rather that Lincoln’s literary skill was an element of his greatness, precisely because he put it to use. Language was one of his weapons—his “sword,” Douglas Wilson calls it. It matters that at critical moments Lincoln wielded that weapon to persuade Northerners that a war for Union had to be a war for universal freedom and equality as well.
Lincoln was not great the way Thomas Carlyle thought men could be great: He did not bestride American history and bend it to his indomitable will. He did not free the slaves with the stroke of his pen. He did not give our otherwise amoral democracy a moral soul. To accomplish what he did, Lincoln needed—among other things—the pressure of the abolitionists, the commitment of the Republican Party, the determination of runaway slaves, and the victory of the Union Army. They were the wind at Lincoln’s back, the forces that controlled him, the human forces and social movements he confronted, and to which he chose to respond.
No doubt there are lessons here—and as this is a commencement address, I’m tempted to send all of you newly minted Ph.D.s out with some uplifting words of wisdom from Professor Dumbledore, who once explained to Harry Potter that—not unlike Abraham Lincoln—it was not the talents he possessed that defined him, but the choices he made.
But that’s not what I want to say. I often tell my students that in your last paragraph you’re allowed to say whatever you want. Here’s what I want to say.
Even when we manage to elect the most impressive politician to the highest public office—no matter how fine his convictions, how sharp his political instincts, no matter how intelligent and articulate—there still has to be pressure. Swooning is not enough. Politicians need—and the best of them cultivate—the pressure of public opinion if they are to do the right thing. They want to be forced into glory. The great ones can be.
Daniel N. Robinson
In May of 1965, Daniel N. Robinson became the first person to receive a Ph.D. from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. He was one of only two doctoral graduates at that first commencement; we have asked him to return today and hood the 10,000th.
But first we want to honor Dr. Robinson for his extraordinary career.
In 1965, a reporter covering that first commencement asked him what he hoped to achieve. He replied that he aspired to the status of a footnote. As the author of eighteen books and the editor of thirty more, he has far exceeded that modest aspiration. Indeed, his book An Intellectual History of Psychology has become a classic in the field; so too Wild Beasts and Idle Humours: The Insanity Defense from Antiquity to the Present, his definitive history of the legal conception of mental competence.
Dr. Robinson is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Georgetown and a Faculty Fellow at Oxford. He has been a Visiting Professor at Princeton, Columbia, and Amherst. He is a member of the Board of Scholars at Princeton’s James Madison Program where he delivered this year’s America’s Founding and Future address.
Dr. Robinson has served as president of, and has been honored by, two divisions of the American Psychological Association. His teaching and writings span an extraordinary range of interests, including moral philosophy, legal history, the philosophy of the mind, intellectual history, and the history and philosophy of psychology.
Dr. Robinson has served as a consultant to the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, and the Department of Health and Human Services. PBS drew on his wide-ranging expertise as principal consultant for their award-winning programs The Brain and The Mind. The more than one hundred lectures he has recorded for the Teaching Company have secured his place among America’s greatest teachers.
In honoring Dr. Robinson for his accomplishments, we at the Graduate Center, along
with our 9,999 other alumni, are honored by those accomplishments.
It is with pride and admiration that I present Daniel N. Robinson with The Graduate Center President’s Distinguished Alumni Medal.
As a singer, actress, and civil rights activist, you have brought beauty, hope, and enlightenment to millions across the world.
From the legendary Cotton Club in Harlem, you launched a career that encompassed nightclubs, recordings, international concert tours, film, television, and Broadway. One of the most beloved singers of all time, you are emulated by musicians and revered by audiences. In a field in which many careers flare for a few brief moments, yours has endured because it draws from a deep well of talent and experience.
Your voice is a powerful instrument, instantly identifiable and impossible to disregard. It pierces indifference and despair, lifts the spirit, and resonates long after the song has concluded. With incomparable artistry, you have transformed songs such as Stormy Weather and Just One of Those Things into timeless standards. In collaborations with Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, Charlie Barnet, and Benny Carter, you have shaped a genre that is America’s greatest cultural achievement.
Confronted with challenges, you have never recoiled, demonstrating courage in the face of racial discrimination, the Hollywood blacklist, and personal loss. You have transcended the
world of entertainment to become an icon of grace, strength, and integrity.
In gratitude for your singular contribution to American culture, The Graduate Center of
the City University of New York is proud to present you with a Doctor of Humane Letters, honoris causa.
As a businessman, philanthropist, and civic leader, you have inspired our city and our nation.
After attending City College, you embarked upon a successful career with Oppenheimer and Company, Sanford Bernstein and Company, and Alliance Capital Management. But you have never restricted your creativity to the world of finance. You have moved with comparable agility in the larger marketplace of ideas.
As a visionary board member and benefactor, you have sustained many of the cultural and educational institutions that define our remarkable city, including the New-York Historical Society, the New York Public Library, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the New York Philharmonic, and the City University of New York.
At Commentary, The New Republic, and The New York Sun, you provoked thoughtful conversation among scholars, diplomats, politicians, community activists—citizens who
care about the life of the mind and value the world of ideas.
At the Manhattan Institute, AEI, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and the Shalem Center in Israel, you have energized debate and reconfigured the terms of critical engagement. At the Alexander Hamilton Center for Political Economy at NYU, the Tikvah Project on Jewish Thought at Princeton, and the Tikvah Center for Law and Jewish Thought at the NYU Law School, you have extended the reach of academic inquiry.
You have, in short, been an advocate for informed discussion and enlightened debate.
In gratitude for your steadfast commitment to the vibrancy of intellectual life in America, The Graduate Center of the City University of New York is pleased to present you with a Doctor of Humane Letters, honoris causa.
Submitted on: MAY 28, 2009