By David S. Reynolds / Special to The Washington Post
“The most important election since 1860.”
While the point might have been debatable, that was the mantra on the right and the left in 2020. Accordingly, both sides tried to channel the man who won that historic election: Abraham Lincoln. President Trump said repeatedly that he has done more for Black Americans than any president since Lincoln. The Republican convention even featured videos of Lincoln’s Indiana home and the Lincoln Memorial, as well as several speakers who mentioned the 16th president. On the other side, in his victory speech, Joe Biden pointed to “Lincoln in 1860 coming to save the union” as a peak moment in history. Quoting from Lincoln’s first inaugural address, Biden declared that it was time for our “better angels” to prevail.
It was Biden who best modeled Lincoln, pointing to a strategy that led to comparisons between Lincoln and his era’s most famous tightrope walker.
In 1859, French acrobat Charles Blondin dazzled Americans with his tightrope walks, the most famous of which were his repeated crossings of Niagara Falls. Poised on a rope 200 feet above the falls (without a net), Blondin traversed the 1,100-foot span between the American and Canadian sides as thousands of spectators gasped and cheered. Advancing across the rope, he performed amazing tricks: somersaults, flips, headstands, pushing a wheelbarrow and even walking across with a man on his shoulders.
For journalists and political cartoonists, Lincoln was Blondin: a politician who kept to the center, carefully avoiding extremes in his party. He won the Republican nomination in 1860 because he was known as a moderate who showed the capacity for stabilizing the nation at a time when it was deeply riven over slavery. The worst thing he could do, he knew, was to inflame extremists.
In June 1860, shortly after Lincoln became the Republican presidential nominee, he appeared in a popular magazine cartoon as “Mr. Abraham Blondin De Lave Lincoln,” walking precariously on a narrow rail, barely keeping his balance because he was holding a pole weighed down by a bag holding a Black man: a symbol of the immense challenge he faced trying to stick to the center on the issues of race and slavery. The same theme informed “The Coming Man’s Presidential Career, a la Blondin,” in which Lincoln was pictured walking on a rope above Niagara Falls with an African American man on his shoulders.
Lincoln’s moderation, of course, was not enough to prevent Southern secession or the descent into Civil War.
Yet, during the war, it was Lincoln himself who observed the similarities of his task with those of Blondin. Several times he was attacked by leftists in his party — in a day when Republicans were the liberals and Democrats were the conservatives — for not making the Civil War an explicitly anti-slavery war instead of one fought to restore the Union. When they complained of his slowness on slavery, he asked them to suppose Blondin was crossing Niagara Falls while pushing a wheelbarrow loaded with everything valuable in America. Would they shake the cable or distract him by shouting “Blondin, a step to the right! Blondin, a step to the left!” or “Blondin, stoop a little more; go a little faster; lean a little more to the north; lean a little more to the south”? “No,” he added, “you would hold your breath as well as your tongue, and keep your hands off until he was safe over.”
Lincoln’s point was that he, too, was undertaking a delicate strategic balancing act. If he came out too strongly against slavery in the early going, he could lose the loyalty of the slaveholding border states, in which case, he thought, the North might as well surrender at once to the South. “I think to lose Kentucky is nearly the same as to lose the whole game,” he wrote.
Analogizing to Blondin was perceptive: Even as he piqued the left, Lincoln also confronted attacks from the right by Peace Democrats (conservatives, known as Copperheads, who opposed the war) for being a “Negro-loving” Republican who would bring about a nightmarish racial reversal in America.
Despite the criticism from extremists on both sides, Lincoln maintained laserlike focus on walking the tightrope to preserve national unity.
For example, he leaned temporarily to the right in the months before he issued the potentially explosive Emancipation Proclamation. In late summer 1862, keeping mum about the proclamation, which he had already drafted, he put on a reactionary front to a delegation of Black Americans, telling them that prevailing racial prejudice in the United States might necessitate the voluntary removal of Black people from the country (an idea he soon tabled). He also hedged with a group of Chicago ministers, whom he told that his declaring emancipation would be as futile as when a pope once passed a bull against a comet.
Leftists in his party were outraged by his apparent apostasy, but they were thrilled when on Jan. 1, 1863, he signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Blondin-like, he softened its radicalism by not freeing enslaved people in the border states and by citing military necessity rather than morality as the reason for his move. But he called for the participation of African Americans in the armed forces, thereby greatly improving the chances for a Northern victory and for the eventual passage of a constitutional amendment ending slavery. This move was emblematic of how he slowly but steadily took steps toward freeing the nation’s enslaved millions, eventually overseeing the passage of the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery.
When the very future of the United States was at stake, then, Lincoln saved the nation by remaining centered while pushing incrementally to the left, toward social justice; like Blondin walking across his rope, adjusting his balance as the conditions demanded.
Biden shares Lincoln’s vision in 2020. During the presidential race, he avoided extreme positions on issues. While offering an environmental agenda, he did not support the Green New Deal, and he denied that he would end fracking. He called for reforming, not defunding, the police. He fended off charges of wanting to slash defense spending and to end U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. He recommended an improved Affordable Care Act rather than Medicare-for-all. When Republicans branded him as a puppet of the radical left who would usher in chaos and socialism, he asked voters, “Do I look to you like a radical socialist with a soft spot for rioters?”
By staying balanced on the political tightrope, Biden won the support of both wings of the Democratic Party and, more importantly, the majority of American electorate. His success shows the wisdom of a recent plea by centrist Democrats for the party to abandon self-destructive references to socialism and defunding the police.
The case of Lincoln, who managed to hold the North together to prosecute the Civil War while also cautiously pushing leftward toward social justice, indicates that Biden would be well advised to remain an unswerving, left-leaning centrist and to make good on his campaign promise to foster national unity by awakening our better angels. His vow to work as hard for those who didn’t vote for him as for those who did is, potentially, today’s version of Lincoln’s pledge to act “with malice toward none; with charity for all.” By centering himself between far-left radicalism and right-wing extremism and adjusting his balance as the moment demands, he can advance a forward-looking agenda without alienating average Americans or losing support within his party.
Only time will tell whether Biden is as masterful a Blondin as Lincoln was.
David S. Reynolds, a distinguished professor at the City University of New York Graduate Center is the author, most recently, of “Abe: Abraham Lincoln in His Times.”