So where do these similarities and contrasts leave us in considering what Lincoln's view of Obama's inauguration might have been? About this we can be absolutely certain: Lincoln and his contemporaries couldn't even have imagined a day when America would elect a black man as president. Such an elevated position was simply out of sight from the social paradigm of their time.
Case in point: On the one hand, in August 1858, Abraham Lincoln affirmed the equality in humanity of blacks: "I have never said anything to the contrary, but I hold that notwithstanding all this, there is no reason in the world why the Negro is not entitled to all the natural rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence, the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. I hold that he is as much entitled to these as the white man. I agree with Judge Douglas; he is not my equal in many respects -- certainly not in color, perhaps not in moral or intellectual endowment. But in the right to eat the bread, without leave of anybody else, which his own hand earns, he is my equal and the equal of Judge Douglas and the equal of every living man."
On the other hand, just one month later, Lincoln questioned blacks' social and political equality: "I will say then that I am not nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races -- that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of Negroes nor of qualifying them to hold office nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races, which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together, there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race. I say upon this occasion I do not perceive that because the white man is to have the superior position the Negro should be denied everything."
Of course, as some propose, Lincoln could have had a change of heart over the next seven years, after experiencing the Civil War and his presidency. Others say, however, that the Emancipation Proclamation was merely a wartime measure and political document with no personal reflection.
No matter what the final verdict of Lincoln's degree of prejudicial blood, blacks were freed. And 144 years later, Obama is president. And those bookends in social history happened despite the fact that Abraham Lincoln, like many of us, retained some biases and still had room to grow.
What's most important now is not how Obama's and Lincoln's lives connect but how all of ours do. Any way you look at it, triumph or travesty, Obama's presidency is a colossal and culminating event according to any historical criteria. And all Americans would do well momentarily to drop our partisan politics and rigor and follow the advice given by Lincoln in his second inaugural address, which also is etched on his memorial:
"With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations."