History’s greatest President of America, Abraham Lincoln envisioned and endeavoured for a united nation built on the principles of ‘equality and free labour’. His political master mindedness and genuine commitment for creating an American nation, united in its heart and soul, led to the 13th Amendment to the Constitution through Congressional approval and ratification in 1865. USA fought a bloody civil war which cost it more than six hundred thousands of lives, both white and Afro-American. The only solution to avoid recurrence of such inhuman wars in future and save millions of unborn from such tragedy was possible through the creation of a Union of States on the legality of racial equality. Lincoln dedicated, mostly, his tenure as the President of America for that noble dream.
Though the thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution could abolish slavery and end the civil war, one could argue that racism in USA prevailed much longer and took many more civil society battles for the removal of the cancerous social issue from the social fabric; but, no one can deny that the Lincoln-sponsored constitutional amendment laid the most solid foundation for such future battles against racism as a social evil. The philosophical underpinning of the thirteenth Amendment speaks volumes about its greatness since that small piece of legislation containing only a few lines, carried an enormous power in it to fuel the American dream of becoming a great power in the world.
According to Mortan J. Frisch, Lincoln believed that “a democratic nation ceases to exist if it has no central libertarian philosophy, no humanitarian spirit, (and) no moral fiber”. This is something leaders of small nations like ours should take into their heart and mind, if, at all, they have any concern about the future existence of their nations.
When Sri Lankan polity suffers from historically constructed myths on ethnicity, religion and caste, we need to realise that, all people barring their caste, creed, ethnicity or religion are entitled to all the natural rights. The provision of legality for such rights, as Lincoln did, through constitutional means would be the only means for avoiding repetition of the history of violence in future.
As critics tell us Lincoln never pursued a deal- making politics, but a politics of principle. May be he excelled in an idealist brand of politics, yet he had a pragmatist within him who could ultimately push his ideational philosophy into action and transform it into legal norms. Those politicians who think and act as hardcore realists who never compromise with the ideational values, but firmly believe in use of power and oppression as the ultimate, see that their realism is an embedded egoism detrimental to the common harmony and longer existence of the society.
By 2009, the year of the bicentennial anniversary of Lincoln’s birth (1809-2009), the USA once again appeared to change the history. The election of its first Afro-American President, Barack Obama, has testified to the greatest truth espoused by Lincoln, that ideas are more powerful than weapons and suppression. Such ideal leaders like Lincoln are immortalised in history, and their philosophies and politics are being interpreted and reinterpreted by academics and artists. More than fourteen thousand books have been written and several cinematic creations been made on Lincoln. The most recent example is Steven Spielberg’s cinematic poetry, ‘Lincoln’, the legendary figure enlivened on the screen by Daniel Day-Lewis, an actor par excellence.
Lincoln who emerged from a poverty stricken life to become the first person of a nation which was destined to become the world’s most powerful nation had firsthand experience of the ordinary men’s lives. That knowledge made him cognisant of the greatest truth that racism and exploitation of labour through slavery hinders the future progress of the nation. Lincoln’s political philosophy teaches us a great lesson that ideas and empowering such righteous ideational enterprises, by wise leadership through political power of people, could pave the way for resolving structurally embedded communal and ethnic issues in multicultural societies.
Sri Lanka never learns
The 13th Amendment to the US Constitution became the result of a hard won struggle against the conservative elements and sectarian mindedness of some sections. One can also see that a similar fate has befallen the 13th Amendment in Sri Lanka, though J.R. Jayewardene was no Lincoln. On devolution of power, liberal school of thought could never create its hegemony in Sri Lanka’s context for reasons hitherto unexcavated properly. President Rajapaksa once said he is even prepared to go beyond the 13th Amendment and bring in 13 plus something. If Sri Lanka’s political leadership thinks that, in future amendments to the Constitution, it can go beyond the 13th Amendment and bring in a more enlightened one, which can truly guarantee the existence of this nation’s democratic character, and also survive in an anarchical world, we need to take such political rhetoric seriously and support them to come into practical existence.
Like US abolished slavery and thereby freed labour, today Sri Lanka’s political leadership is endowed with the historical task of ending ethnic conflict and religious animosity. Ethnic politics can only lead this State towards the endless darkness of political doom. The first condition for such an endeavour is to recreate the lost faith in constitutional governance and law. All political parties should end playing ethnic politics as a way to gain power.
It is not the rich or elite who suffer mostly from ethnic and religious violence of this country but the ordinary people, those whose children have to steal coconuts to pay their school fees and are employed in armed forces. Therefore, egotism and myth about the nation should not be allowed to prevail over rationality.
Today, this nation has been subjected to enormous external pressures.. Talks about sovereignty are nothing but far cries for such losing character of Sri Lanka’s freedom as a nation to decide its own fate. As a nation devoid of vengeance and hatred we should have faith in “the inherent power of truth and of the ultimate and universal triumph of justice, humanity and freedom”, as Lincoln did, and exemplified through his political life.
(References: Frisch, Morton J. (1953), “Lincoln’s Philosophy of Politics”, Prairie Schooner, Vol. 27, No. 4 (WINTER 1953), pp. 385-388)