By David Kidd, January 20, 2010 in Outside the Classroom
Lewis E. Lehrman reflects on how Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. inspired comparisons with Moses, and in doing so took a place in a tradition stretching back to America's founding. What follows is the text of the article Mr. Lehrman wrote for Fox News Forum.
"The Bible tells the thrilling story of how Moses stood in Pharaoh's court centuries ago and cried, 'Let my people go,'" Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. proclaimed, as he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. "This is a kind of opening chapter in a continuing story. The present struggle in the United States is a later chapter in the same unfolding story," Rev. King said of the civil rights struggle.
Moses and the flight of the Israelites from Egypt has long been a metaphor that has defined America's most crucial leaders. America's Founders saw their struggle in the context of Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt. In May 1776, John Adams heard a Philadelphia minister who preached "upon the signs of the times." The minister made "a parallel between the case of Israel and that of America, and between the conduct of Pharaoh and that of [King] George [III]."
When a few months later, Benjamin Franklin suggested a design for the Great Seal of the United States, it featured Moses "lifting up his Wand, and dividing the Red Sea, and Pharaoh, in his Chariot overwhelmed with the Waters." At the time, Thomas Jefferson offered a similar image for the seal: "The children of Israel in the wilderness, led by a cloud by day, and a pillar of fire by night."
Best-selling author Bruce Feiler has described Moses as America's Prophet. Leading America out of crisis and into the "Promised Land" has been a recurring theme strongly linked to George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Luther King. Of the three, Washington lived longest, dying of natural causes at 67 after two full terms in the presidency of the new Republic. Feiler has noted: "Two-third of the eulogies at Washington's death compared" Washington to Moses. Washington had seen his country through the trial of the American Revolution to the creation of the American Republic under the Constitution of 1787. Unlike Moses, Washington largely reached the Promised Land he sought – though slavery left many Americans on the wrong side of the "Jordan River."
Having seen the new land of Israel across that river, Moses had died atop Mount Nebo at age 120. The day before he died, Moses had pronounced a blessing on the assembled Israelites: "All these blessings will come upon you and accompany you if you obey the LORD your God: You will be blessed in the city and blessed in the country."
Abraham Lincoln understood that the blessings of liberty must be extended to all Americans. He was just 55 when assassinated on April 14, 1865 after leading America through its Second Revolution. Lincoln's last major address focused on his vision of the civil rights reconstruction he would not live to see. The president had already assured, however, that the end-of-slavery dream of the Emancipation Proclamation would be codified on earth in the American Constitution through passage of the Thirteenth Amendment.
Although Lincoln's first name made it inevitable that he would be called "Father Abraham," the deeper comparison was to the story of Moses. "Like Moses leading his Israel through the wilderness, he has seen the day when every man seemed ready to stone him, and yet, with simple, wiry, steady perseverance, he has held on, conscious of honest intentions, and looking to God for help," wrote novelist Harriet Beecher Stowe, whom Lincoln called the "little woman who wrote the book [Uncle Tom's Cabin] that started this great war."
African-Americans, whose spirituals used the Moses story as a code for their freedom story, often described Lincoln as their own "Moses" in the wake of the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. Like Washington, eulogies for Lincoln were full of Moses analogies. Harriet Beecher Stowe's equally famous brother, the Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, spoke extensively of the Moses story in Deuteronomy, noting that God told Moses: "This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. I have let you see it with your own eyes, but you shall not cross there."
Indeed, the promise of Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteen Amendment remained unfulfilled for more than a century until Americans themselves opened a path across the "river." Dr. King led the renewed civil rights movement, begun by Lincoln, although King would not live to see its culmination.
"Well, I don't know what will happen now," said Dr. King as he concluded a speech the night before he was murdered. "I've been to the mountaintop," he said in a deliberate comparison to Mount Nebo. "Like anybody, I would like to live a long life....But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the promised land."
Lewis E. Lehrman is founder of the Lehrman American Studies Center and author of Lincoln at Peoria: The Turning Point (Stackpole Books, 2008).