We all know that President Obama specifically asked for the Lincoln Bible to be used during his swearing-in ceremony in January. But not until browsing through an old copy of Newsweek magazine was I reminded of the true historical significance of that little tidbit.
Okay, let’s walk through this. Lincoln was sworn in by then Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney. The same Chief Justice who, four years earlier, in 1857 wrote the majority opinion in the Dred Scott v. Sandford court case.
Drift back to history class . . . this was the case that determined that Africans imported into the United States as slaves and their descendants – whether free or not – were not legal persons and so could never be US citizens. The court’s decision also said that Congress could not prohibit slavery in federal land. The case in which, among other things, Taney wrote that African Americans were
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.
Lincoln’s resistance to the Dred Scott case was already very evident in 1858 during his debates with Stephen Douglas. And by his swearing-in ceremony in 1861, it had become clear that Taney and Lincoln were on opposite sides of the issue.
(Ask your kids what might have been going through the minds of those two during that ceremony and I will guarantee a powerful conversation.)
Now fast forward 148 years to January 20, 2009.
We’ve got an African American woman holding a bible last used at Lincoln’s first inauguration, who was sworn in by the author of the Dred Scott decision – a decision that clearly stated that she and her husband, also an African American, had no rights as people, let alone American citizens. A decision that left absolutely no room for the woman’s husband to become President.
(Ask your kids another question – What would be going through Taney’s mind if he were the current Supreme Court justice?)
Lincoln’s thoughts on slavery and the rights of African Americans clearly evolved over time. But his efforts, along with those of thousands of others throughout our history, made Michelle Obama’s simple act of holding a bible not just a possibility but a reality.
Happy Birthday, Abe.