12.22.08 5:27 PM ET
Why Obama Is Right to Use Abe's Bible
UPDATE: The Presidential Inaugural Committee announced on Tuesday, "President-elect Barack Obama will take the oath of office using the same Bible upon which President Lincoln was sworn in at his first inauguration." Obama will be the first president to use the bible since Lincoln did in 1861.
Rumors are circulating that Barack Obama will take the Presidential oath on January 20 with one hand on Abraham Lincoln’s Bible. Although the Library of Congress, which houses the Bible, would not confirm this, they did say that the Obama team has expressed interest in it. “It’s been discussed, it’s in the air,” a Library of Congress Rare Books spokesperson said.
The Bible itself, an 1853 Oxford Edition, is covered in worn red velvet and sealed with a metal clasp. It is small in size, not much bigger than a man’s hand. The Lincoln Bible was not a family heirloom—he came to Washington without one—but is thought to have come from the Supreme Court’s holdings. A historian in the Library of Congress’ Rare Books Division said he was not aware that the book had been used to inaugurate any other president.
While Bush related to Lincoln as an unpopular wartime President, Obama identifies with him as a unifier.
Were Obama to choose Lincoln’s Bible, the spokesperson said, it would be escorted from the Library of Congress to the Capitol by a security detail and a member of the Library’s Rare Books Division.
The president elect has drawn steadily on Lincoln throughout his campaign, highlighting commonalities with the 16th President and portraying himself as Lincoln’s spiritual heir. He observed in a 2005 Time article, “… As Lincoln called once upon the better angels of our nature, I believe that he is calling still, across the ages, to summon some measure of that character, the American character, in each of us today.”
According to Henry Louis Gates Jr., the W.E.B DuBois Professor of the Humanities at Harvard University who is currently writing a book on Lincoln, “Barack Obama is wrapping himself in the myth of Lincoln, but a particular myth that he’s interpreting in his own way. Lincoln’s image is so capacious that all of us can find ourselves in it somewhere. All subsequent presidents have been able to find themselves reflected in Lincoln through the myth that each generation concocts.” Gates explains that while George W. Bush related to Lincoln as an unpopular wartime President, Obama identifies with him as a unifier.
When Lincoln was sworn in by Chief Justice Roger B. Taney on March 4, 1861 (two weeks after Jefferson Davis had been inaugurated as President of the Confederacy) he took control of a nation divided. Obama, similarly, is inheriting a country at crisis and a constituency torn over controversial issues.
After taking his oath of office, Lincoln ended one of his greatest speeches by dedicating himself to unifying the splintering country: “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection.” Nearly a century and a half later, if Obama places his hand on Lincoln’s Bible, he will undoubtedly be hoping some of that magnanimity will rub off on him.
Isabel Wilkinson is a recent graduate of Princeton University, where she majored in Art and Archaeology. She was also editor of 'Street,' the arts and culture section of the Daily Princetonian. Isabel is originally from New York City and has interned at Women's Wear Daily and the Council on Foreign Relations. She is now pursuing a Masters degree from the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and freelances for New York Magazine and The Villager.