Just as Grant was a plainspoken Midwesterner, so too was Abraham Lincoln, although his Midwestern roots did not begin at birth. Lincoln created an American tradition of “folksy” politicians, breaking from the aristocratic, be-wigged images of most of the Founders. His style was carried on notably by the likes of Harry Truman and, to a lesser extent even by George W. Bush.
“Honest Abe” is a nickname which embodies the greatest compliment Americans bestow upon their leaders. This was in stark contrast to the vast majority of leaders history had foisted upon the world up to that time. Disraeli in England was an honest man, too; a contemporary of Lincoln’s. A new age had been brought forth by America, adopted eventually by the English, and eventually by much (but not all) of the world. It was no longer an age in which great men possessed the divine right of kings, sanctioned by God at the expense of common people. Humility in the eyes of God now replaced the bluster of propped-up buffoons. Freedom, the “dangerous concept” that every Machiavellian had always feared the most, was the guiding aim of Lincoln. With preservation of the Union and emancipation of the slaves, Lincoln had further pushed open the floodgates of the new ideas that propelled the “great experiment” of Democracy.
Lincoln was elected by the voters and directed a Democratic army to victory. The revolution might have been an uprising, and the Mexican War a desire for territory. But Lincoln led the Army of Democracy to victory. It was the first tried and true example that the words, images and high brow statements of intellectuals and politicians could be translated into a motivating force. It kept soldiers fighting despite terrible hardship. Lincoln led a cause that asked ordinary men not to fight solely for their families, their homes, or selfish interests, but instead to travel great distances to fight for an idea. The fact that the idea was believed wholeheartedly is his greatest legacy.
Lincoln was born in a log cabin in Kentucky on February 12, 1809. It has been extremely interesting to me, as I research history and famous people, to note the enormous numbers of great men who were born in January and February (particularly February). Lincoln’s parents were all-but illiterate. His family had Quaker roots, but Lincoln was not raised in a particularly religious manner. The family moved to Indiana when Abe was seven. They built a cabin to live in. Lincoln’s mother died during the hardships. Lincoln worked extremely hard farming and splitting wood to maintain simple survival. Although he studied under local schoolmasters, his chores took up too much of the daylight hours for him to get a real formal education. Lincoln inherently knew that to make a better life for himself he would have to attain that education. He begged, borrowed and stole books to read by candle light on cold frontier nights.
The books included the Bible and accounts of the American Revolution, plus Shakespeare, and other works that some of the intelligentsia recommends as important reading. He husked corn for the loan of one book and walked 18 miles to obtain another. He taught himself mathematics, grammar, history, and surveying. He read “Pilgrim’s Progress”, “Aesop’s Fables”, and “Robinson Crusoe”. As he gained confidence, Lincoln developed a gregarious nature and joined the debating society. He became a champion wrestler and weight lifter. He spent much time in a neighborhood store where men gathered to discuss politics.
As Lincoln developed into manhood, he traveled, took odd jobs, and experienced failure in business. This put him in debt. He took the study of law, reading Blackstone at night. Despite his failures he became a community leader, which led to his being elected captain of a volunteer company from Salem, Illinois that fought in the Black Hawk Indian War. When he returned, his service was central to his election to the state legislature of 1834.
He was 6-4, rugged, but not handsome. In all ways he maintained the image of the woodsman, which in later years was a political benefit but in all ways was a real trait of his personality. He also possessed the gift for oratory. His folksy style was just the ticket. He quickly became known for his honesty, which could border on bluntness diffused by a flair for diplomacy. His politics were that of a minority Clay Whig. Lincoln’s law studies were successful and led to his completion of the educational process, then admittance to the Illinois bar in 1837. He moved to Springfield to open a practice. He met and married Mary Todd, and became a successful attorney. He formed partnership with leading lawyers in Illinois, including Congressman John T. Stuart. In 1843 he became associated with William Herndon. Eventually he represented leading corporate interests in the railroad and harvesting industries.
In 1846 Lincoln was elected to Congress. He refused to support slavery, an institution that was “founded on both injustice and bad policy,” he said. He opposed the Mexican War, but once the fighting began approved all supplies for troops. He did challenge Polk’s assertion that U.S. soil had been invaded. Lincoln was independent and courageous by virtue of his taking on the unpopular role of opposition to Polk. He paid for it when the Democrats swept the 1848 elections. Lincoln announced his retirement from politics.
Lincoln’s legal practice took him before the Eighth Judicial Circuit for six years. During this period he developed excellent debating skills while confronting as part of his practice issues involving slavery in the region. But until the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Bill, his interest was relatively passive. After this practical repeal of the Missouri Compromise, opening the way to a possible vast extension of slavery, Lincoln found his earnestness. While still a Whig, he answered Stephen A. Douglas on the slavery question in his “Peoria speech.” He denounced slavery. It played well in Peoria, and foretold much of the state’s attitude. However, the Whigs were unable to muster enough support to put Lincoln over the top in his Senate bid.
When the Republican party was founded to oppose the Democrats, its number one initiative was to end slavery. Lincoln was attracted to their superior policies. In 1856 he delivered a masterful speech at their convention in Bloomington. This earned him national attention and eventually 110 votes for the Vice-Presidential nomination at the Republican National Convention, and unquestioned leadership of the Illinois Republicans.
After the Dred Scott decision of 1857, Lincoln turned all his attention to the question of slavery. It is very instructive to study his strong attention to the goal of ending slavery, from 1857-60. When he became President he did not immediately advocate abolition. His critics have made much of this fact, not giving credence to the necessities of diplomacy and compromise in his efforts at maintaining the Union. When he later made abolition a prime focus of the war, some said it was opportunistic, but Lincoln’s pre-Presidential rhetoric puts the lie to that talk.
In 1858 he stated, “A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved – I do not expect the house to fall – but I expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all another.” Lincoln engaged in seven debates with Douglas during his Senate campaign. The debates, along with his “house divided” speech, were published throughout the country. Even though Douglas won the 1858 Senate election, it was Lincoln who emerged as a national figure.
Lincoln was conservative. Now that he was the front-runner for the Republican Presidential nomination in 1860, he tried to formulate a policy that would have national consensus in a country in which slavery was popular in a large portion of the nation. He did not advocate outright abolition, preferring instead to tailor his rhetoric to the Scott decision. He maintained his statement that the practice exist in all the states, or none of the states. Lincoln would not stand for slavery in all the states.
Lincoln campaigned in his base, the Midwest, throughout 1859. He took his case to the opinion centers of the East in 1860. He was formally introduced to the Cooper Institute in New York City. His official campaign was amazing. Lincoln did not appear at the nominating convention in Chicago. His supporters were there, and in three ballots he went from 102 votes to 173 for William Seward, to a landslide for Lincoln on the third ballot. He then went to Springfield and remained silent. His silence frightened the South. They were unaware of his intentions, but the lack of rhetoric raised hopes that peace might prevail. Lincoln defeated Douglas, John Breckenridge and John Bell, winning the White House without a single Southern electoral vote and less than a majority of the popular vote.
Between the election and inauguration day, the South seceded from the Union. Lincoln maintained silence. His plans regarding slavery, war and compromise were not made public. In private correspondence he revealed a determination to “hold or re-take” Federal property. He took on a very conciliatory tone, not promising to end slavery, in an effort at stopping secession.
The new Confederacy rendered his efforts at compromise moot by firing at Fort Sumter. Lincoln returned fire. He blockaded the South, suspended habeas corpus, and took on near-dictatorial powers that history has shown were necessary to maintain order in Washington and the surrounding areas. Despite his powerful position, Lincoln, unlike so many others who became drunk with power, remained modest and kind.
Lincoln appointed rivals and men from “enemy” territory to his Cabinet. Secretary of the Treasury Salmon Chase was obviously hoping to become President himself. Abolitionists made immediate demands and thought Lincoln to have abandoned them when he refused to immediately “free” the slaves. Congress meddled constantly in military affairs. He had difficulties with his generals, all of whom seemed to be politicians in their own right. George McClellan, Irvin McDowell, John Pope, Joseph Hooker and George Meade all were either failures or failed to fulfill all the potential that the Union Army had. When he appointed Grant, he was criticized. Grant’s performance was suspect for a long time before it paid off.
Lincoln’s great desire to save the Union was criticized, too. When he issued the Emancipation Proclamation, it was said to carry little weight. His plan to compensate slaveowners in states that remained loyal was excoriated.
In 1864, Lincoln still thought he would lose re-election. Some advised that the election be postponed. Lincoln said that such a thing would give his enemies a victory. McClellan ran against him on the Democrat ticket. Horace Greeley used his New York publishing empire to mercilessly criticize Lincoln, starting a long tradition of liberal bias against Republicans. Lincoln’s war aims were proved to be the successful course, thus identifying and exposing the lies of Democrats and their media brethren, starting still another tradition. In November he won re-election.
As Sherman marched through Georgia, 1864 turned into 1865. Lincoln began the process of reconciliation, but on April 14, John Wilkes Booth, an actor sympathetic to the Confederacy, assassinated him at Ford’s Theatre in Washington. Jefferson Davis may have expressed the country’s attitude best when he said that the South had suffered a second tremendous loss by Lincoln’s death.
Lincoln remains a personal enigma, his speeches parsed for clues as to his belief in God or his own greatness. He was to the end a man of amusement and self-deprecation. He suffered depressions and personal tragedy. His sons died of illness, and his wife was more or less nuts, spending money as if it was going out of style. Not to mention she was a Southerner and a political liability. Lincoln probably suffered from clinical depression. He told ill-timed jokes in an effort to relieve his own tensions. Few ever felt he achieved real happiness in war or peace. One finds comfort in the knowledge that upon ascension to Heaven, Abraham Lincoln found everlasting peace.
All that was left after Lincoln’s assassination was Reconstruction, which lasted until 1877. Lincoln’s plan was based on his plan for West Virginia, which had split from the Confederacy. Lincoln had appointed Andrew Johnson military governor of Tennessee after Nashville fell in 1862. As Confederate strongholds fell in New Orleans, Arkansas and North Carolina, the President appointed military governors. On December 8, 1863, Lincoln offered “amnesty and reconstruction” to all Confederates, except for the highest-ranking military and civilian officials. If Lincoln could get 10 percent of the Southern voters of 1860 to sign, he hoped to start a new state and recognize it.
This program was criticized and ridiculed by economic interests who wanted to exploit the South and politicians fearful of restoration of their power. Lincoln vetoed the Jacobin’s Wade-Davis bill, which required 50 percent of the South taking an oath of allegiance to the U.S. before re-admittance to the Union. Republicans opposed early formation of state governments. The issue of Negro suffrage was tantamount. Lincoln maintained a moderate approach.
Johnson, who succeeded Lincoln, had worked with the Radicals, who expected him to surrender most of the control to Congress. In the Summer of 1865 Johnson appointed provisional governors and brought the Wade-Davis Bill back into play. He hoped to create an egalitarian society by handing power to poor whites, farmers and mountaineers. Many of the lessons of the American Revolution were ignored. The mistakes of Reconstruction, when compared with the brilliance of the revolution, is one reason I propose the notion that the Founding Fathers were divinely inspired. Sides were taken and splits emerged in the government, amid immediate troubles in the old Confederacy. Radicals refused to recognize Southern Senators and Representatives. The treatment of blacks became an exploited political issue. The so-called “race card” was played out for the first, but not last time.
Nobody could agree on much. Johnson vetoed a bill to give blacks full citizenship. Race riots broke out. “Black Codes” became the pre-cursor of Jim Crow. The military took control of the Southern states again. States were admitted piecemeal. Carpetbaggers entered, creating an atmosphere of corruption, extravagance and ineptitude. Native whites found themselves excluded from voting while blacks stuffed the ballot boxes. Negro education and civil rights bills were proposed, but white resentment and intimidation became violent with the formation of the Ku Klux Klan. Control escaped the Federal government, and with it black hopes were dashed. Slowly, all the states were “redeemed” under white leadership, barely loyal and full of contempt for Washington. All glorified the memory of the Confederacy.
President Rutherford Hayes ordered Federal troops removed. The last soldiers left in 1877. Much has been written about the failure of diplomats to maintain an international peace between Germany and the world between World War I and World War II. The failure of Reconstruction had terrible consequences of a longer-lasting nature. Sickening heartache marked the period right up until the day – like Lincoln’s assassination it happened in April – when Martin Luther King died in 1968. The way political forces splintered apart, compared to the way they had been kept together by Lincoln, did as much to point out the martyred President’s greatness as any other example.
There is no doubt that Southerners were going to resent the freed blacks among them. The South was humiliated, but instead of being given a chance to save face, central to Lincoln’s vision, they had their noses rubbed in their defeat by corrupt white carpetbaggers and “uppity” blacks, dressed in fineries. They rode about the countryside like royalty. Blacks got the vote and whites had it denied them, creating ludicrous black “elected officials.” Blacks robbed, looted, and raped white women. The Southern men had their concept of blacks as animals and wild creatures of low morality "confirmed" in their eyes. They vowed revenge that lasted a century.
It should have been handled in such a way that the South could have been brought back into the fold in a coherent manner, without the “in your face” attitude of black resentment to further the hatred. To deny former slaves the ability to gloat and lord over their former masters would have been a monumental task, like trying to keep the French from spitting on collaborators, or asking Holocaust survivors to be benevolent in their views of Nazi war criminals. But vision is the mark of great politicians. No one had the vision and foresight to see a future that should have been obvious. If they did, their voices were drowned out.
Retribution and revenge replaced education, conciliation and compromise. All it created was a vicious cycle. The European powers learned nothing from it at Versailles. Horribly, and unbelievably to me, America had not learned from the failure of the French Revolution. Those who do no remember the past are condemned to re-live it.
Causes Steven Travers Supports
Conservative, Christian, USC, American patriotism