Sunday, February 12, 2012

Happy 203rd Birthday, President Lincoln!

On this day in 1809, the American Messiah entered the world.  Hodgenville, Kentucky may not be Bethlehem, and no three Magi came to see the newborn child, but they might as well be given the reputation Abraham Lincoln enjoys in history.  I am well aware of the literature about his life and presidency, from Lerone Bennett's furious attacks on his racial views, Barbara Fields' more measured criticism of his emancipation policies, Stephen B. Oates' and David Donald's biographies, to Merrill Peterson's brilliant analysis of the changing view of Lincoln in memory.  Yet I cannot help but admire the man who, as if by miracle, emerged from obscurity to save the Union in the War of the Rebellion. Little in his background could suggest that he would amount to much.  Becoming a lawyer was itself a major achievement for someone of such humble beginnings.  He was a Whig in a strongly Democratic state; his one term in Congress was as much a payoff to his party as an endorsement of him.  After two years in Washington, he abandoned politics for several years until the Kansas-Nebraska Act propelled him back into the fray.  All those years as a rival to Stephen Douglas paid off.  Though losing the 1858 Illinois Senate race, Lincoln's national reputation as a critic of the expansion of slavery rose to make him a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 1860.  And yet, as the dark horse candidate, he prevailed over better known (and more controversial) men for that post.  That he won owed more to the sectional crisis developing over the past decade.  That he succeeded in that office is nothing short of a miracle.

The story of the Lincoln presidency is well known.  He had to contend with numerous, dangerous and overlapping issues at the same time.  Not only had seven, and later eleven, states seceded from the Union, but even the loyal viewed him with disdain if not hostility.  Even his own cabinet, termed the "Team of Rivals" by Doris Kearns Goodwin, had their reservations.  Yet Lincoln pressed on to assert his way on others.  Working eighteen hours a day, he sought to deal with people directly.  Sometimes they worked, other times not so.  Lincoln's search for winning generals lasted for years, particularly the troublesome George McLellan, but he ultimately found them.  He wavered on slavery, famously saying to Horace Greeley in August 1862 that

"I would save the Union. I would save it the shortest way under the Constitution. The sooner the national authority can be restored; the nearer the Union will be "the Union as it was." If there be those who would not save the Union, unless they could at the same time save slavery, I do not agree with them. If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time destroy slavery, I do not agree with them. My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union. I shall do less whenever I shall believe what I am doing hurts the cause, and I shall do more whenever I shall believe doing more will help the cause. I shall try to correct errors when shown to be errors; and I shall adopt new views so fast as they shall appear to be true views."

Doing so required multiple policies, first protecting slavery everywhere, then punishing the disloyal by seizing them.  The enslaved themselves, inspired by their view of the war as a struggle over their condition, influenced his actions.  The Emancipation Proclamation had only a partial effect, ending slavery only in areas not under Union control.  That said, Lincoln encouraged exempted areas, like West Virginia for example, to abolish slavery on their own terms.  I argue that West Virginia's slaves had already ended it by self-emancipation, but other areas like Kentucky had a much harder time with it.  And yet many say that the Civil War had nothing to do with slavery!  After four years of struggle and devastation, the Union won the war.  My personal favorite moment in the entire history of this important era is Lincoln's visit to Richmond on April 4, 1865.  While whites closed their doors to avoid seeing him, the freedmen greeted him like he was the Messiah - a true Biblical moment come true.  Yet it was not to last.  Five days later, Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox, starting the end of the war.  And five days after that, Lincoln made his fateful trip to Ford's Theater where he became the great martyr for the war.  It is unsurprising that the Reverend C. B. Crane of Hartford compared Lincoln to Christ Himself in a sermon delivered on April 16.  Since then, Lincoln's very name has become synonymous with honesty, tolerance, and the democratic ideal.  There are statues to him in London and Mexico City, streets and places in other parts.  The Lincoln Memorial in Washington is my personal favorite monument where above the grand statue of the man is etched into the wall:


Yes, I admit to hero worship here, with good reason.

Here's my Lincoln joke.  Lincoln's last Tweet, Facebook post or Text message was: "OMG why does Mary make me come to these boring plays!  FML!  Somebody shoot me." 

A good friend of mine called it "Hilarious and totally perfect, but wrong."

No comments:

Post a Comment

Your comment is awaiting moderator's approval.