Thursday, February 12, 2009

Personal Aside: Honest, Abe, You Ditched the Constitution but Saved the Union and Freed the Slaves. It Wasn’t Pretty but We’re One Nation Because of You.


You kind of suspected that today…February 12…the 200th anniversary of his birth, you’d hear from me about Lincoln, didn’t you?

You’re right. Where do I come down on him? Well, he isn’t up there with Butler’s Lives of the Saints as the current media have him, I’ll tell you that. Frankly, I imbibe my Lincoln much diluted with a hefty chaser. Which means I skip Carl Sandburg’s Christ-like pop lefty fairy tale Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years; Abraham Lincoln: the War Years in favor of a concoction two parts realism (Lincoln by David Donald and A. Lincoln by Ronald White, Jr.) and one part anti: The Real Lincoln: A New Look at Abraham Lincoln; and Lincoln Unmasked: What You’re Not Supposed to Know About Dishonest Abe by Thomas di Lorenzo, professor of economics at Loyola College, Baltimore.

Well, sifting through the bad and the good, what should Lincoln’s realistic epitaph say? Answer on the last line of this column—but don’t look at it yet: it’ll spoil the surprise.

Let’s start out…as we should with all politicians…looking at the bad.

The Bad: Assumed Dictatorial Powers.

These things he did bad: (a) Ignored the inherent right of states to secede: In order to get the Constitution ratified, key states insisted on a qualification in 1789 that they could secede if they got sick of the national government. Virginia, Rhode Island and New York (of all places) included clauses in their ratification that they could pull out if the federal government became oppressive in their estimation. What rights were given to them apply to all. Lincoln brushed that “technicality” aside.

He (b) believed whites were intellectually superior and in his heart of hearts favored deportation of freed slaves to Liberia. When he was elected and throughout the campaign, while he always hated slavery, he (c) publicly opposed only the extension of slavery not the forcible ending of it, adding that if he could save the Union without ending slavery or by keeping slavery…anything short of extending slavery…he would do it. Convinced after his election that Civil War was inevitable, he nevertheless (d) maneuvered the South to fire the first shot in a brilliant way (tell you how toward the bottom of this piece).

Although maneuvering the south to fire the first shot, he (e) started a war without congressional approval…(f) shut down more than 300 newspapers which he felt were destroying morale…(g) illegally prevented Maryland legislators from voting for secession…(h) confiscated firearms in border states…and (i) insisted all telegraph communications be censored so as not to give aid, comfort and military information to the enemy…

The most important bad thing: he temporarily (j) suspended habeas corpus…(k) actually arrested a severe critic—Cong. Clement Vallandigham who made a speech on the House floor against this by sending 67 federal soldiers…67!…to Vallandigham’s apartment in the middle of the night and deported him to Canada…(l) gave serious thought to arresting Roger Taney, the chief justice of the U.S. who objected to his suspension of habeas corpus (but didn’t)…(m) allowed West Virginia to secede from Virginia without Congress’ approval in order to weaken the South set up a new state favorable to the Union, to strengthen the Union side.

Then (n) he duplicitously denied to critics in Congress that he had any…any…thought of abolishing slavery while in his top desk drawer lay a draft of the Emancipation Proclamation he had written and was getting ready to spring on his cabinet. Finally (o) he trickily made sure the Proclamation freed only slaves in the Confederacy, taking the risk that when they heard this they would lead an insurrection against white plantation owners (then mostly women since their men had gone to war) which could result in wholesale rape, murder and pillage in the South. Pretty cold-blooded. Chillingly so. (Minor, personal but still disturbing: (p) decided against going to his own father’s funeral in revenge for the old man’s picking on him as a kid, calling him a lazy lout).

In essence, he was the only dictator we’ve ever had. Now let’s tick off the points where he did good.

The Good: Saving the Union, Freeing the Slaves.

Realistically he knew that what Jefferson learned: On occasion…serious occasion… where the Constitution ends off, practical men can get good things done. As I wrote here earlier, Alexander Hamilton a big “implied powers” man did it when he saw as first secretary of the treasury that the new country needed borrowing authority, needed a national bank run by professionals instead of the government of politicians printing money. The constitution said nothing about a bank but Hamilton convinced George Washington that one was needed and they got one through Congress anyhow. Jefferson thundered that the constitution must be taken literally: if powers weren’t mentioned in the document, they didn’t exist. Well, he had to eat his words when he had a chance to buy the Louisiana territory for 6 cents an acre, a provision not covered in the Constitution.

Andrew Jackson, pro-slavery, pro-South gallant general, crusty slave owner who had killed a man in a duel and as president beat off a potential assassin with his cane, knew states had the right to secede—but insisted that if the Union were to be broken up, we’d have not just two countries but a handful of small chip states scattered throughout and the dream of the Revolution (where Jackson was held as a POW by the British) would be dashed. And he’d be damned if he would help it along.

That’s how Lincoln felt. He said like Jackson that he would be damned if he would see or facilitate the country being broken up. So on his own he ingeniously ensured that the nation with the world’s greatest experiment in democracy would abide by the results of its national elections. He started off properly, trying to stave off war. Before his inauguration, he (a) instructed his secretary of state to try to get a constitutional amendment passed forbidding the feds from interfering with slavery in the South (it passed both houses) and Lincoln urged the idea in his first inaugural address). Next he (b) drafted a letter to The New York Times editor in 1864 asking him to set up a meeting with Confederate leaders to talk peace…then scrapped it, then tried to set one up in roundabout ways. Finally he set up behind the scenes in 1865 the Hampton Roads peace conference to negotiate an end to the war which fell apart because Davis insisted on a peace treaty between two nations, not one nation beset by civil war. Lincoln said flatly: “There are not two countries…and there never will be two countries.”

Lincoln believed that if there were ever two countries, it wouldn’t stop with e U.S. and the Confederate states—but ultimately fragmentation that would undue to effectiveness of the American Revolution. There would be a New England split-off would occur over trade; the Middle Atlantic states would have likely come next and the West would never be opened as it was with one united country. The new countries would not necessarily all republics, either but some dictatorships would become our neighbors-- not unlike the 15 Russian republics that broke away under Gorbachev.

Then Spain and Mexico would dominate much of North America but the British would joyfully regain major power here, nullifying the American revolution. By applying his absolute judgment of rightness to the greatest U.S. crisis…which is what we must do in conscience to serve a higher law of morality…he comes out well…not perfect but well… in my book.

How He Changed the Nation: the Speech at Gettysburg.

Not only did he save the Union he changed the entire concept of the country from an amalgam of states. Before he came along, people referred to the United States as “they.” Now it’s a single entity—the United States we). He did it solely by the power of his oratory.

How DID he do it? By being an intellectual genius in communication despite his meager education…by being not just a superb advocate and communicator but a literary artist: probably the superior of the classically educated Jefferson—a far greater communicator any president we had before or so. With two speeches, he changed the U.S. from a grouping of states to a nation---changed it for all time. At Gettysburg in just a little over 200 words, delivered in two minutes’ time. (Incidentally, he also changed oratory for all time. In his era, speakers imitated classical Greek and Roman oratory with florid wording, 2 hours delivery at a pop. Lincoln changed it all—short but vivid words, much shorter delivery time…which changes are with us yet.)

He made three points at Gettysburg which reshaped the concept of America. The three points: First, that our founders brought forth on this continent a “new nation.” Well, you’d get an argument about that from some of the founders. Lincoln changed all that, imbuing the concept of nationhood. Second, he stressed the idea previously lightly passed over since Jefferson…that all men…all men…are created equal. This in contrast to the debate of the founders preceding ratification of the Constitution where the south wanted all their slaves counted in the population so they would have more representatives in Congress by the census and the north didn’t want slaves counted at all, in order to subordinate the south in the protectionist-free trade controversies. The Constitution made the compromise: slaves should be counted as three-fifths of a white person. Again: Lincoln’s short speech changed American views totally: for the first time the language of the Declaration was not just rhetoric, the truth ignored by the need to paper over slave-owning states. Nope: all men are created equal.

Now third and the biggest hurdle that is with us yet —a radical approach: Government has the job of protecting the rights of the people. This is a revolutionary point never sanctioned before by either constitution or congressional statute. And since then it has been stretched…and I mean s-t-r-e-t-c-h-e-d by successive generations of liberal politicians…stretched to a point that conservatives now call a halt. This achievement made him an enduring hero with political liberals (although up to then in his presidency he was a regarded as a conservative).

Kick about it as some purists do, nevertheless they must admit this: Lincoln reshaped the country by his intellectual prowess: a stunning and intellectually Herculean achievement. Not a shot was fired to extend this concept: by his intellectual mastery of literary skill he achieved it himself. .

How He Changed the Nation—the 2nd Inaugural.

And what was the second speech where he re-framed the philosophy of the country? His Second Inaugural address. . There he said for the first time that slavery was a sin which God required recompense by requiring the whole country to shed its blood during the Civil War. This from a man who never affiliated with any organized church had now mustered theology, quoting God’s will from the Matthew 18:7: “Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.” He did it in 703 words, the second shortest inaugural delivered in history and the first up to that time to ask Americans to emulate the way of God. Unknown to him, in the audience were the main conspirators who would kill him one month hence: John Wilkes Booth (captured in the only photo taken during the speech), David Herold, George Atzerodt, Lewis Paine John Surratt and Edmund Spangler.

Liberal reformers in this country marched to his drum following his death with legislation in behalf of unions, farmers, woman suffrage, civil rights…all traceable to Lincoln. But liberals have disdained protecting the rights of the unborn but still to include gay rights in that formulation. To rectify this, social conservatives and pro-lifers have no other recourse than to harness the energy generated by Lincoln in behalf of rights to include the unborn…which is how the fight has been waged up to now…and to oppose instituting special rights liberals have hijacked by misapplying Lincoln.

Thus Lincoln is to me, indispensably great but also flawed. Two thirds of his presidency he seemed a lousy manager of the war. He hired and fired generals until he finally found his right general. Nevertheless, at the end he made the right choice in Grant, backed him despite charges of Grant’s alcoholism--sending a spy to Grant’s headquarters to measure how much he drank (the spy drank with Grant and went home extolling Grant’s virtues to Lincoln).

Upshot: Where would we be if Lincoln echoed his Democratic predecessor James Buchanan, a northerner from Pennsylvania, who said: “The Union is a rope of sand, to be penetrated and dissolved by the first wave of public opinion in any of the states.” With that the Dickinson College grad, former congressman, former senator, former minister to Great Britain, former minister to Russia, former U.S. secretary of state shrugged, resolved to buck the problem to someone else and not run for reelection.

Tricky Abe’s Maneuvering at Sumter.

How did tricky Abe, the canny lawyer, ex-lobbyist maneuver to have the South fire the first shot in the Civil War? Just one month before he took office, Confederate leaders, feeling their oats, demanded the feds withdraw their garrison of soldiers from Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina’s harbor…since the fort, they insisted, was theirs. If Lincoln did this, the game would be up and foreign countries, likely Britain first, would recognize the rebelling Confederates as an official government. If he did not and reinforced the garrison with troops shooting their way in and out, Lincoln would wear the collar for firing the first round. Instead, Lincoln said he that instead of sending troops, he’d only send provisions—food for hungry men…adding: “if such attempt be not resisted, no effort to throw in men, arms or ammunition will be made.”

But of course he knew the proud Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, couldn’t go along because it would look like weakness and ceding sovereignty of the port to the feds. Davis rejected Lincoln’s proposal and ordered his troops to fire on Sumter. Thus the South fired the first shot, looking like it wanted to starve the garrison to submission.

This move caused European nations to back away from the South. It also firmed up some northern anti-war constituencies. Not bad stratagem from a country lawyer with one full year of schooling, self-educated lawyer and ex-railroad lobbyist.

Now the Epitaph.

Lincoln’s deserved epitaph, in Everett Dirksen’s phrase: By rising above principle, he saved the Union..

1 comment:

  1. Fortunately, Lincoln was a pragmatist and not a slave to ideology as is the current GOP.