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 State of the Union 

February 3, 2005 
President Bush’s State of the Union address was a triumph, far superior to his inaugural address two weeks earlier and delivered with a poise he has seldom commanded before. Its language was measured, largely free of the grandiose pseudo-eloquence of that other speech.

Its effect was reinforced by the lame replies of the Democrats’ congressional leaders. Read Joe's columns the day he writes them.Senator Harry Reid seemed to have plagiarized the po’ boy oratory of John Edwards: humble small-town origins, hard-working parents, “strong values,” ... everything but the hamster. Real pay dirt for the future biographer. Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, with a smile so determined it seemed to be stapled on, reminded us that “throughout our nation’s history, hope and optimism have defined the American spirit” and went even further downhill from there. Bush must pray for an opposition like this.

The annual State of the Union address has become one of America’s most inflated rituals, lacking only the ermine and jewelry of royal pomp. It wasn’t always so. The U.S. Constitution says only that the president “shall from time to time” — not annually, or even in person — “give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.”

That’s all it says. Often in the past this was accomplished by a short written message, not a speech. In 1862 Lincoln wrote his message, asking for three constitutional amendments. One of these provided for funding to resettle former slaves, “free colored persons,” outside the United States, in keeping with Lincoln’s dream of making the U.S. a Negro-free zone.

Lincoln’s real views on the Negro, whom he often called simply “the African,” are amply delineated in his collected speeches. But his white admirers rarely mention them except briefly, assuring us (falsely) that they were mere “concessions to the prejudices of his times,” implying that he didn’t really share those prejudices.

In trying to create an immaculate Lincoln, his admirers — who include some heavily decorated historians — end up making him a cynical hypocrite who pretended, for political advantage, to agree with views he secretly deplored. But the evidence points the other way. Lincoln passionately believed that North America belonged to the European races, and that “the African” didn’t belong here; in fact, that they could never be equal to whites. Black historians have been much more candid about this.

[Breaker quote: From 1862 to 2005]During the summer of 1862, as the Civil War raged, Lincoln also made history by inviting a delegation of Negro leaders to the White House. This had never been done before. But it’s another fact his admirers don’t discuss, because he brought these leaders there for the purpose of urging them to lead their fellow Negroes to settle abroad. He was trying to launch special colonies in the Caribbean and Central America for this purpose.

Lincoln sincerely thought total separation would be best for both races, and he seems to have been puzzled that others didn’t agree. The Negro press angrily rejected his scheme, on grounds that this country was their home. But whites also had little enthusiasm for the idea, maybe because they realized how impractical it was. The Negro population was already too large, and growing too fast, for mass repatriation.

Yet Lincoln wasn’t eccentric in this. Jefferson and many other distinguished Americans had also favored “colonization,” fearing that ending the evil of slavery would leave the U.S. with perpetual racial problems. In retrospect, this was hardly an unreasonable apprehension.

At the same time, advocates of colonization almost unanimously agreed that emancipation should be not only “gradual,” but also “compensated.” That is, the slaveowners, not the slaves, should receive monetary compensation from the government!

Of course it was government itself that made slavery possible by recognizing and enforcing the property rights of slaveowners. Slavery depended on laws authorizing slavery. This made abolishing slavery a thorny problem. Does the situation sound vaguely familiar? It should. It recurs all the time, in many forms.

Bush’s wrestling with Social Security and the Federal deficit reminds us how often government winds up trying to solve problems it created in the first place. And the Democrats’ resistance to reform reminds us how many people, over time, acquire vested interests in those problems.

Joseph Sobran

Copyright © 2005 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate,
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