On February 12, we celebrate the 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth. The number of recent books about Lincoln indicates a growing interest in who he was and how, constrained by the Constitution and political realities, he faced the moral crisis of slavery within the military-political crisis of civil war.
George Santayana, the great philosopher and poet wrote, "Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it." Reactionaries and counter revolutionaries have long understood that the falsification of or simply the ignoring of history is the most potent weapon in their propaganda arsenal. This is especially true when linked to economic and social bribery. This cultivated disregard and falsification led the recorder of popular history, Studs Terkel, to refer to America as “the Alzheimer nation.” Nowhere is this truer and more dangerous than when dealing with Lincoln and the Civil War.
Under Lincoln’s leadership we moved from being these United States to becoming a nation, The United States of America. His unwavering leadership steered the country through the destruction of slavery and safeguarded that “last best hope of earth,” that the common people are capable of governing themselves. As our country lurches toward another critical crisis those who would again attempt to stop the fulfillment of that vision must first attack the visionaries.
Lincoln in the context of his times
A hundred years ago, few would have thought that some serious political radicals and struggle-hardened African Americans would become the flip side of the reactionary and often violent latter day pro-Confederates in their condemnation of Lincoln’s role in history. After a century of unlearning the Civil War, Reconstruction and the counter-revolution, articles began appearing in the late 1960’s, such as, the claim in 1968 by Ebony magazine editor Lerone Bennett Jr. that Lincoln was a “honky” and a racist, and the respected historian Donald Fehrenbacher’s claim that Lincoln accommodated racism. These kinds of claims continue today, and by giving ammunition to those who seek to undermine the lessons and meaning of Lincoln's life, keep alive the dangerous legacy of the Confederacy and the system of slavery.
Taken out of the context of time, war and politics, these condemnations of Lincoln raise him to the level of the omnipotent god “who can make a rock so big he can’t lift it.” Upon taking office, a President is immediately hemmed in by a number of forces. Among them is the oath to uphold the Constitution and the laws of the land. Should that President consider the Constitution “a covenant with hell” it must still be upheld. The President inherits a military and administrative bureaucracy, which, indispensable to governing, may not agree with him and dangerously hinder his capability. Most importantly, no one can govern a people who disagree with him.
There is no question that Lincoln wished “that all men everywhere could be free.” He never retreated from his statement, made when he was nineteen years old, that "If I ever get a chance to hit this thing, I'll hit it hard.” In judging leaders it is necessary to evaluate them, on the one hand, as private individuals with their visions and social morality. On the other hand, we judge leaders by what they attempted to accomplish under specific circumstances. We must know what their options were and, with all things considered, did they choose the right path? Finally, we judge them by how they combined their personal goals with their legal responsibilities.
Hundreds of books have been written attempting to untangle this complex man and his turbulent times. One article can only briefly answer a few of the detractions that we believe deserve consideration on this anniversary.
What Lincoln faced
Lincoln was elected in 1860 by a minority vote of about four out of every ten ballots cast. John Breckenridge's split of the Democratic Party between war and peace Democrats allowed for his election. The slave owners held a livid hatred of Lincoln and there is no record of him receiving a single vote in the South. For economic reasons, a significant section of the North opposed the extension of slavery and, for those same reasons, opposed emancipation. They hated the “Slave Power” but were not prepared to move against slavery, as it was a legal institution and the underpinning of their economic well being. The Northern working class was united in their opposition to throwing millions of emancipated slaves onto the labor market. There was a huge movement of the traitorous "Copperheads", especially in New York. That state and city was indispensable to winning the election and financing the government.
When the war broke out, some Northerners were pro-Union and anti-South, some were pro-Union and pro-South, and some wanted the North to go its way free from the South and its slavery. As the war began, there was a general uprising in the North to save the Union. They deeply believed that the Union, with all its corruption and genocide, its inhumane slavery, and annexationist wars was still the best hope of a downtrodden humanity, just awakening to the drumbeat of an idea whose time had come.
1860 was a time when the Western world was debating the “Rights of Man.” There was a growing revulsion against slavery. Even in Russia – the land of the whip, the prison, and the gallows – Czar Alexander freed the serfs and Russia was the only country to stand firmly beside Lincoln during the war. The Church of Ireland and England, and especially the Calvinists added a moral condemnation to the institution, but the political base in the North supporting emancipation was narrow.
For at least ten years the slave power prepared for the rebellion. Since the preceding Federal governments were dominated by Southerners and in the hands of men, such as then Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, it was a simple matter to transfer practically all the arms, gold and, other means of war to the South. All new armories were built in the South leaving only the small armory in Springfield, Massachusetts in the North. Troops suspected of being loyal to the Union were shipped to Texas, California, and other remote areas. The officer corps, trained at West Point, was mainly Southern and mostly from Virginia. Washington, D.C., a Southern city, teemed with spies from the Confederacy. At least one Senator was a spy prior to and during the war as were several members of the House of Representatives and several high-ranking military officers.
As the Confederates rose up in rebellion, the Union was practically defenseless. Northern troops, rushing to the defense of Washington were attacked by mobs as they entered Maryland. As a new army formed, the Commanding Officer General McClellan, issued a proclamation to the Southerners that the Union Army would join with the Confederates to crush any uprising by the slaves. The Union soldiers joined the army to preserve the Union as it had been. It was well known that if the stated aim of the war was to free the slaves, the Army would throw down its guns and go home. The slightest move against slavery would throw Maryland and Kentucky – with its huge militia – into the ranks of the Confederacy and the war would be lost before it began.
With the country at the verge of disintegration, the situation was indescribably dangerous. Lincoln had to fight for time – time to create an army that would fight the Confederacy, time to suppress the traitors in the North, time to win the people from anti-slave power to anti-institution of slavery, and time to create the legal conditions to carry out emancipation. Under attack from all sides, Lincoln alone never wavered.
To free the slaves
Lincoln’s latter day detractors criticize him for not immediately enforcing emancipation, and when he acted, doing so only partially and as a military rather than a moral statement. He is also accused of advocating purchasing slaves and returning them to Africa, and advocating white supremacy. We cannot deal with these questions in depth, but we call the readers attention to these facts.
Sworn to uphold the Constitution and the laws of the United States, Lincoln the President could not free the slaves. In the Dred Scott decision, the Taney court had ruled slaves to be chattel – property – no matter where they were. It was illegal to confiscate property without due process, and that due process was not available. This became especially clear when the Cabinet and the leading Northern politicians prevented Lincoln from throwing the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court into jail when he had clearly committed treason. Lincoln knew the Supreme Court would not uphold political emancipation.
To free the slaves required the defeat of the Confederacy and the support of the Northern working class. The border slave states held the balance of power. The North was close to losing the war in the beginning and any precipitous move toward emancipation would throw the Border States into the Confederacy. By advocating gradual emancipation and colonization, Lincoln gradually won the North and some in the Border States over to the general concept of emancipation. Although some abolitionists pursued the idea of colonization, there is no evidence that Lincoln ever took any concrete steps in that direction.
Unless elected President, Lincoln could not effect emancipation. To publicly call for integration and equality would do away with any hope of election. Frederick Douglass captured the beliefs of Lincoln the person, when he was invited to the Inauguration Ball. Douglass wrote:
"I was invited into the East Room of the White House. A perfect sea of beauty and elegance, too, it was. The ladies were in very fine attire, and Mrs. Lincoln was standing there. I could not have been more than ten feet from him when Mr. Lincoln saw me; his countenance lighted up, and he said in a voice which was heard all around; 'Here comes my friend Douglass.'"
The greeting was followed by a warm handshake and introductions. Such civility toward a person of color was unheard of at that time.
What Lincoln had to do as a politician and what he believed in were often at odds. This marks the relationship between the President and the people. When President Theodore Roosevelt had a private dinner with the African American leader Booker T. Washington, the press raised such an outcry that Roosevelt publicly turned against the African Americans. It was accepted that Eleanor Roosevelt said what Franklin Roosevelt thought, regarding the struggle of the African Americans. He needed the votes of the South in order to push through his social program and could not speak his mind. Dwight Eisenhower was a die-hard segregationist, but when ordered by the Supreme Court he called out troops to integrate Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. The list is endless.
After two years of bloody war, political conditions and sentiments of the North had begun to change. The Union victory at Antietam in September 1862 enthused a war-weary North, guaranteeing the continuation of the war and Lincoln’s election in 1864. In the wake of Antietam, Lincoln felt strong enough to take the dangerous gamble and issue the Emancipation Proclamation as a military move, since it could not be taken as a political move. This was dangerous because the right to seize Confederate property had been upheld by a thin margin of 4 to 5 in the "Prize cases.” This was the same court that issued the Dred Scott decision and had it voted against the Proclamation, Lincoln would certainly have been impeached and the cause lost for decades.
We should keep in mind that after the longest, most expensive and bloodiest war in history and after the murder of a then beloved President, the Senate would not convict the impeached President Johnson because they knew that would place the Presidency in the hands of the radical Republicans who would finish Lincoln's work. That was the depth of racism and an indication of what Lincoln dealt with as he reshaped our country.
As we celebrate the 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth, our country is again at the verge of a great economic, moral, and political crisis. We need to study our history. We need to create a political memory in order to understand and emulate the characteristics of this great man. After all these years he remains unchallenged as the greatest American leader and perhaps the only one beloved by the people of the world.
This article originated in Rally, Comrades!
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