A Defining Test for the Union: Past and Present

Strong. The state of the union is strong. For the past few decades, this five-lettered word has rung in our ears countlessly, every first month of the new year, through every single State of the Union Address. Presidents come and go, but the idea of our Union being strong has undoubtedly prevailed. Watching the State of the Union cumulatively for these past few years, I wonder, what is it about that word? What makes the top leader of the nation deliver it in such an assured and charismatic way, despite his mentioning of evident struggles in our country? What makes him say it over and over again, though as we Americans know, hopelessness is a possibility?

It occurred to me, that it must not have always been this way. The idea that our Union was ever this “strong”. That this solid national persona of unity and strength appears to not be what we have built the foundation of this country on. Derived of personal knowledge from former readings, it is a known fact that previous presidents have struggled through with cultivating the identity of our nation, from setting ourselves apart from other supreme powers to shaping our own values. We were not the most successful and united bunch, as seen in Washington’s enforcement of Hamilton’s plan, further igniting the different passionate views of each political party, and Jackson’s democratic views that perhaps didn’t benefit us the most, with his introduction of the spoils system and stretching beyond the limits of his own power. Though these were negative aspects of our past, through an extent and through history’s perception, these two different situations didn’t display much weakness within the Union. They’re not that relevant to your average history textbook. That is because these two situations proposed more of a weakness in government as opposed to more of in the Union. There’s a major difference between those, I’ve concluded, after much understanding. A weakness in government can mostly be resolved with compromise and laws and meetings…but a weakness in Union? That could start a whole civil war.

There is no doubt that Lincoln’s presidency was one that shook a whole nation, good and bad. Generally good because of its long-lasting benevolent effect and well bad, because of the timing. Many states had seceded from the Union, slavery was the hottest of debates, and a tremendous war was in action. Still, in the midst of the Civil War in December 1, 1862, it was President Lincoln’s obligation to address the Northern war effort to Congress in an attempt to present a plan for all current conflicts. Compared to the present day, Lincoln’s State of the Address focused on more of a resolution to one immense problem and advocated inspiration to that cause, as opposed to the 2014 notion that improvement is better, and that if we are number 1, we are better. Lincoln’s address was an effort to save the Union foremost, and then to strengthen it. Unlike today, it was quite difficult to endow this ideal of the Union being strong in the 1860s while the nation was stuck in a state of fragility. In fact the Union couldn’t be strong because that was the cause of all the conflicts, the Union being split up. As the address commenced, Lincoln formally gave his introduction and then afterwards stated, “The civil war, which has so radically changed for the moment the occupations and habits of the American people, has necessarily disturbed the social condition and affected very deeply the prosperity of the nations…” He straightforwardly claimed that the war had submerged the nation into a not-so-great place, where the lives of people were changing and perhaps placing them into deeper trouble with the future. For everyone in Congress and for everyone in the nation, that was the fact. But for what Lincoln would propose, that would be a test. He delivered the current report of the divided nation, but it would be a defining test as for what he would choose to do with it. What does he think is the best for the Union and how will he go upon it? Also, what is America going to do about slavery?

Lincoln first started off with the basics. He first mentioned developing good relations with other countries during the war, not too strong yet not too little, and establishing joint commissions. He also points out that maintaining the same form of currency throughout the nation has its beneficial effects. Although he covered over the finance basics, with the war in place, there was a major problem with money. With all the revenue that was taken up for supplies and other necessities of the war, what will resolute their debt and what will protect their reimbursements, if any at all? Lincoln then answered by carefully explaining that their expenditures are not as big in face value, and also mentioned that the Treasury was to simplify rates and create more aiding propositions. He also declared the continuance of the construction of the Pacific Railroad along with more additive points in his plan, but halfway through, he got down to the big question- the current state of the Union. And with this, came slavery. Lincoln proclaimed,

“Physically speaking, we can not separate. We can not remove our respective sections from each other nor build an impassable wall between them…The fact of separation, if it comes, gives up on the part of the seceding section the fugitive-slave clause, along with all other constitutional obligations upon the section seceded from, while I should expect no treaty stipulation would ever be made to take its place.”

Lincoln believes it is impossible to divide into two sections rather than remain in one unified entirety of a nation. He points out that if divided, then that will cause many legal discrepancies between the two and it will not legally work. Furthermore, there is a barrier within trading regulations, which overall affect the economy of their time. Last but not least, Lincoln explains wholeheartedly how the emancipation of slaves and the abolishment of the peculiar institution will “shorten the war, perpetuate peace, insure this increase of population, and proportionately the wealth of the country”. He finishes off the address by saying that the Union will only be preserved if collaboration is present, especially with demolishing slavery, backed up by honor and the mindset that this is what the country stood for.

Lincoln’s plan for his time was understandable and reasonable. As president, the defining test for him was what his certain stance was on the issue of the Union and slavery. Because he possessed morality and reason, he delivered an address that was both suitable for the conflict of his time and the best for the state of the Union. Even though much of America didn’t possess the influential ideal of strength, Lincoln through his address, tried heavily to impose it on his overall goals for the nation. This is definitely a drastic comparison today, in which America is rather united and successful among our world. Our only concern? To be better, to be bigger.

Americans today know very well that even with some conflicts in our world, we’re at top among a few more countries, with a thriving economy and prominent government. Nearly a century and a half later after Lincoln’s address, there has been significant changes in this nation economically, politically, demographically, and many, many more. We’re a generation of technology and equality and improvement, and that’s what Obama’s State of the Union of 2014 specifically addresses. In the midst of a new millennium, our political debates and economical concerns still remain, but a trend of the fight for social justice has been prevalent as well.

Just recently on January 28th, 2014, President Obama delivered the annual State of the Union Address, expressing his desires for reform on topics such as income inequality, education, immigration, minimum wage, and health care. Very similar to Lincoln, he tells us of how we are not in a bad place, and more successful than expected, with the lowest unemployment rates in five years, deficits cut by more than half, and America being the number one place to invest. But Obama states that there is more work to be done, and more could be improved. He is aware, as is our whole nation, that we are in lack of jobs, and that “inequality has deepened.” And yet, he brings us all back to the idea of the Union being strong and uses his words to sway us into believing that “Opportunity is who WE are” and that if as we Americans have “the simple profound belief in opportunity for all, the notion that if you work hard, then you could get ahead in America.” He stresses the value of self-accomplishment and how America provides that opportunity. In order to do this, President Obama proposes a plan that resides alongside his mindset of opportunity. He tells us what he envisions for our country: to create more opportunities in the middle class which will in turn expand more opportunities for American families, produce a budget compromise that will focus on creating new jobs and more importantly protect it, fix our immigration system and improve immigration reform so our country will be a more appealing place, provide education for children to build a better tomorrow, treat women equally as rightfully deserved, give America a raise in regards to the minimum wage, and everyone is ensured with sufficient health care. With all of this, Obama ties in the idea of strength and opportunity to deliver a rather motivational address. In a country of success and the constant pressure to become better, the president’s defining test was to see upon how he could improve it and what his visions were. It seems like America is responding rather well to his ideas.

I’m not sure specifically what it is, particularly what thing or combination of things that played an immense factor into the significant change between Lincoln’s presidency and that of Obama’s today, but it is quite unmistakable that it was all for the better. Even after Lincoln’s test of saving the union and successfully doing so, and now Obama’s test of leading our country into a braver, better path, Americans have developed this extraordinary sense of nationalism as the years went by. Indeed do presidents come and go, but the idea of our Union being strong? It will always be here. And how we’ve accomplished and solidified the idea throughout the years? That, at the end of the day, is what our nation is truly built upon.

Sources:

Abraham Lincoln: “Second Annual Message,” December 1, 1862. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project. http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=29503.

Obama’s televised State of the Union Address 2014.

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