Sunday, October 25, 2009

Abraham Lincoln: a reflection on the man

In the bicentennial year of Abraham Lincoln's birth writings continue to examine every aspect of his life and personality. One recent writer has even assumed Lincoln was gay because he shared a bed, at times, with other men. We will probably never really know the man who was our Greatest President.

Lincoln was a very private man. Even his closest friends were never truly intimates. Melancholia best describes his personality. While few people ever saw him lose his temper or control of his emotions, he did weep on occasion. He liked telling stories and racy jokes. His sad face would often break into a generous smile with loud laughter of a type and manner indicative of his mid-western origins. He took his time in thinking through issues of all types. He spoke publicly only after careful consideration and preparation.

Lincoln had a moral and ethical nature uncommon for his time. While he could stretch his ethical views as a lawyer he was exceptional in always seeking fairness in his dealings with others. Morality was central to Lincoln's entire being. He took to the golden rule as a personal inner compass.

He loved children and animals and could not abide with the mistreatment of either. He pardoned Tom the Turkey(thanksgiving dinner) for his young son Tad. He had an aversion to executions of any type and pardoned many soldiers during the war as well as native americans tried and sentenced to death for the Minnesota rebellion.

The only major office he had ever held was as a one-term Congressman from Illinois. Yet he was a very experienced politician. In losing races he grew only stronger politically.

He was the first President elected as a Republican. He captured less than 40% of the
public vote, yet swept the electoral college.

What is the new President to do? 7 States had seceded from the Union and 4 more would shortly follow his swearing in as the 16th President. His greatest challenge would be to save the
Union from an uncompromising group of elite men determined to place their rights (States Rights) above the common good of the entire nation. This group of aristrocrat planters wanted an oligarchy and not a democracy. They would breakup the Union rather than compromise.

As a lawyer Lincoln saw secession as an illegal act. It violated the Constitution. The Constitution did not provide a provision for a State to leave the Union. Indeed if a State could choose to secede from the Union could not also a County, City, town, or individual choose not to obey the laws passed by Congress and go their own way? Prior to the Constitution and the formation of the United States the freed colonies had formed a Confederation that proved to be very unsuccessful. Realizing their mistake the founding fathers met and carefully worked out a democracy in the form of a United States.

Lincoln was pushed into a Constitutional corner. While he felt he did not actually have the authority to coerce the Southern States to remain in the Union he did have an obligation to protect and defend federal property and citizens threatened by Southern military actions.

The federal army was very small. Political emotions ran so high that when Lincoln made the mistake of calling for volunteers to supplement the army 4 additional State Legislatures voted to leave the Union. Lincoln was treading on egg shells and any further actions might result in the loss of the border States of Maryland, Delaware, Missouri, Kentucky. Then South Carolina's state militia chooses to fire upon the federal fort of Fort Sumter in the harbor of Charleston.

At this point Lincoln could have wished the South good riddance and be gone from the Union.
But the Constitution did not allow him to do this either. In his legal opinion the South had never left the Union and certain parties were in rebellion. As a result of this thinking he never used the phrase "Confederate States" in any of his speeches or discussion. So therein lies the dilemma. To fight or not to fight. He chose to preserve the Union above all else within his power.

As a lawyer Lincoln had alway seen slavery as a legal act that had to be changed as it was immoral. The challenge was convincing others of this same moral fact. The United States remained one of the few countries in the world still recognizing the legality of slavery. The U.S. Supreme Court had ruled in 1857 (Dred Scot Decision) that black people were not citizens of the United States. Even though the Constitution counted them in the census as people to determine representation in Congress. The Constitution also failed to define what constituted being a slave. So, place yourself in Lincoln's situation. Slavery is morally wrong. The law and Supreme Court say that slaves are not people but property. The vast majority of americans do not care if a black man is free or a slave as long as they live somewhere else. What should he do? Lincoln did what he always did to solve an injustice. Go slow, go deliberate, but move in the right direction.

Lincoln said that if he could save the Union by freeing none or all of the slaves he would do so. Or if by freeing some and not others he would do that. He was a practical man. He saw that extremism in the actions of John Brown failed to free one slave. If slaves could be freed by buying them and sending them abroad to South America or Africa to save the Union he would do that. Lincoln even had a back up plan of compensating slave owners for their slaves and eliminating slavery in the U.S. by 1900, if that would save the Union. When war became the only option due to the South's unwillingness to compromise on State's Rights and slavery this left him only waiting for a major union army victory to impose a limited emancipation for held slaves. In the end even one of his earliest abolitionist critics Frederick Douglass praised Lincoln's approach as the one that resulted in achieving the end of american slavery.

One wonders what might have happened if Lincoln had served out his second term. As far a Reconstruction he said "let them down easy". At the time of his assassination Louisiana and Arkansas were ready to come back into the Union. President Johnson (a Southerner) only wanted to punish the planter elite of the South, rather than use them to help reunite the country. Congress reacted to Johnson's leniency by punishing the South with a big stick and impeaching the President. The South was left to fester. The rough approach by Congress did nothing to solve the deep seated problems that lead up to the rebellion but only suppressed them until they could resurface at a later time.

Would we have had the KKK and Jim Crow laws if Lincoln had lived. We will never know. Shortly before his death Lincoln had urged in his 2nd Inaugural Address that the solution was:

"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."

1 comment:

  1. It is a shame Lincoln was shot before given a chance to heal the nation. I recently read a couple of interesting Lincoln books and reviewed them at my blog. I even included a Lincoln crossword puzzle, so your readers can test their Lincoln knowledge here: