2009-01-30 / Columnists

The Rockaway Beat

Drawing Parallels Between Lincoln And Obama, As Well as Roger Brooke Taney and John Roberts
Commentary By Howard Schwach

President Barack Obama went out of his way to draw parallels between himself and former president Abraham Lincoln as he moved through his campaign and then capped it off by using the same bible to be sworn in as Lincoln did in 1861.

There are some strange connections among that bible, Lincoln's inauguration and the inauguration of the first black president that Obama may well not want the public to think too much about, however.

Obama was sworn in (using an incorrect formulation, as it turns out) by Chief Justice John Roberts. When Obama was in the Senate, he voted against placing Roberts on the bench, and may well be the first president ever to be sworn in by a man against who he voted.

Interestingly, Lincoln did not think much of Chief Justice Roger Taney, the man who swore him into office in 1861. In fact, much of Lincoln's political agenda was stoked by his opposition to an opinion that the chief justice wrote in 1857 in the case now known widely as the Dred Scott Case, but more formerly known as Dred Scott v. John F. A. Sandford, one of the seminal Supreme Court cases decided prior to the Civil War.

Talk about errors. The respondent's name was really Sanford, but a court clerk misspelled his name, and it was never corrected.

Dred Scott was a slave who traveled with his master, an army doctor, to Illinois. You have to remember that, during that time, the battle over the spread of slavery to the new states being admitted to the union was raging.

The question of which new states would be "slave" and which would be "free" was as real to the people who lived the 1800s as the monetary crisis is to us today.

In any case, when the doctor moved on to a new post, he left Scott and Scott's wife behind, hiring them out for the duration.

Illinois was a free state, and abolitionists took up Scott's case, arguing that his extended stay in a free state, a state where slavery was abolished, made Scott a free man.

A state court agreed that Scott should be free, but the case eventually came to the Supreme Court, where it ran into Taney, an old line proponent of states rights.

In his decision, Taney wrote the majority opinion (The vote was 6-3).

Taney wrote, "Beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations, and so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect."

He added that allowing Scott to be free would "Give to persons of the negro race … the right to enter every other state whenever they pleased … the full liberty of speech in public and in private upon all subjects upon which its own citizens might not speak; to hold public meetings upon political affairs and carry arms wherever they went."

The ruling said that black men and women, whether free or slave, could not be American citizens and could, therefore, not sue in federal court. In addition, it said that, under the Constitution, black slaves were property and that the federal government could not take the property rights of slave owners from them by law.

The final thunderbolt in the ruling was that the Missouri Compromise, which had detailed which states would be free and which would be slave, was unconstitutional because the federal government had no power to abolish slavery in the federal territories.

The ruling permitted the uncontrolled spread of slavery to new states coming into the union.

The Missouri Compromise of 1820 was overturned by the Kansas- Nebraska Act, which was passed in 1854 and allowed each state coming into the union to decide for itself whether to be free or slave.

That eventually led to "Bloody Kansas," the battles between groups who wanted slavery and those who did not that rival anything perpetrated by the Shias and Sunnis today.

That was the political background of the 1861 inauguration of Abraham Lincoln by Roger Taney.

If a similar confluence of circumstances occurred today, you can imagine what the cable news services would have made of the story.

In 2007, Roberts wrote the majority opinion in a case that involved invalidating voluntary school assignment in Kentucky and Seattle that mandated diversity by taking into account the race of a participant and setting up what amounted to racial quotas.

While I wouldn't equate that decision with Dred Scott, I certainly think that Obama was aware of that decision and had some strong feelings about the man who wrote it, even though the conventional wisdom is that Obama is not a strong supporter of affirmative action programs.

Roberts is a strong supporter of the government's right to extend its powers during times of war and trial. He virtually gave the Bush administration a free hand in its post-9/11 activities that many believed subverted the Constitution.

On his first day in office, Obama put a halt to the military trials of suspected terrorists held in federal facilities.

Roberts would probably not support that move.

When Lincoln suspended the right of Habeas Corpus during the darkest days of the Civil War, Taney wrote a decision in Ex Parte Merryman that said only the legislature could suspend the political rights granted in the Constitution.

Lincoln ignored both the decision and Taney.

The battle between the two men went on, each pushing against the other over both civil and political rights.

When Lincoln issued the "Emancipation Proclamation," ending slavery in all of the states then under rebellion, he effectively ended the question of slavery, but not of the rights of former slaves.

The post-Civil War Fourteenth Amendment overturned the decision in the Scott case without the court acting on its own on the question and ended the slavery question for all time.

Did Obama understand those parallels when he chose the Lincoln Bible to be used in his inauguration?

I have to believe that he did and that he reveled in the connection not only between Lincoln and himself, but between the two Chief Justices, who served their presidents nearly 150 years apart.

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