Images of Lincoln

When I was a teenager–not very thoughtful and focused mostly on baseball and basketball–my grandfather, a retired custodian whom I would have never thought would read such books, gave me a three-volume biography of Abraham Lincoln by Carl Sandburg. The books appeared well-used, so clearly my grandfather had read them again and again. They must have been his favorite books, and now he was giving them to me—perhaps my grandfather’s wisdom and Carl Sandburg’s wisdom and Abraham Lincoln’s wisdom would combine to provide the sixteen-year-old inquisitor with wisdom itself! And so, despite the fact that most of the books I read were about sports, I began to read Sandburg’s portrayal of Lincoln.

Sandburg’s Lincoln was a humorous storyteller and practical joker; a shy, introspective man; a thoughtful, caring, honest, empathetic man; a great wrestler; a strong and dedicated worker: flat-boater, rail-splitter, store-keeper, postal-clerk, and self-taught lawyer; and a Good Samaritan—who became President of the United States. Sandburg’s Lincoln cared for people, for all people of whatever color, and for this care he became a martyr, a sacrifice to the principles of equality and freedom.

Sandburg’s Lincoln became part of the myth of Lincoln: the Great Westerner, the Great Emancipator, the Log Cabin President, Honest Abe. The reality of Lincoln, who Lincoln really was, is tougher to get at, especially with the profusion of biographies and other nonfiction books about Lincoln; the wide variety of fiction and fantasy; movies, both serious and absurd; portraits on coins and bills, art, photography, and statues; anecdotal stories told for generations; musical portraits, such as by the composer Aaron Copland; and other stuff of legend.

The real Lincoln, detached from legend, is more human: he suffered from depression, what he called melancholia, as well as from constipation; he was a consummate politician as well as statesman; he became rich serving as a lawyer for railroads; he advocated the colonization movement (to send freedmen back to Africa); he was a segregationist, and not an abolitionist; and the Great Emancipator’s Emancipation Proclamation did not, initially, free anyone.

At the same time, Lincoln, a northerner who was born in Kentucky, a slave state, but grew up in Indiana and Illinois, and spent his life in Illinois, which were free states, was a lifelong opponent of slavery. When in 1828 he worked on a flatboat taking goods down the Mississippi River to New Orleans, he saw slavery and developed a lifelong opposition to it.

Lincoln settled in Springfield, Illinois, and taught himself law; in the 1830s Lincoln ran for state office as a Whig (a party created in the 1820s out of the old Federalist party—it was a northern, anti-slavery, pro-business, pro-federal power). He served in state office in Illinois. Not until 1846 did Lincoln serve in national office, when he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. The President at this time was James Knox Polk, who presided over U. S. involvement in the Mexican War, which Lincoln opposed. Lincoln was not, however, opposed to federal power, nor to the increasing power of the Presidency. Lincoln believed in the Declaration of Independence, and the words: “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” The federal government, he thought, should have power to enforce the ideas of liberty and freedom, which were the bases of the U. S. Constitution.

At the same time, Lincoln professed a literal reading of the Constitution. The Constitution declared that Congress decided issues of slavery or freedom in territories. The Constitution also did not make slavery illegal. Lincoln believed that neither the Congress by legislative action nor the President by executive order could end slavery in the United States.

Lincoln retired from federal politics after his term as U. S. Representative ended in 1849. He left the Whig party after what he considered to be the disaster of the Compromise of 1850, which introduced the idea of popular sovereignty, wherein the people of a territory or state could determine the legality of slavery. After the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act, which confirmed the idea of popular sovereignty, and which was introduced by Illinois senator Stephen Douglas, a Democrat, Lincoln re-emerged on the political scene. When he ran for the U. S. Senate against Douglas in 1858, Lincoln was a member of a new political party, the Free Soil Republicans, the platform for which was that Congress had the right to decide on the spread of slavery to U. S. territories. Most Republicans, like Lincoln, were opposed to slavery, but most did not think that Congress or President could end slavery, so they believed the way to end slavery was by stopping its spread to other territories or states.

Lincoln ran as a Republican for the Presidency in 1860; he won without gaining a majority of the votes, nor by winning any southern votes. Indeed, Southerners declared that they would not stay in a United States with an abolitionist for a president, which led to the secession of seven states, forming the Confederate States of America, by January, 1861. When Lincoln was inaugurated in March, 1861, eight slave border states had not seceded from the Union. Then in April, South Carolina attacked Fort Sumter, and Lincoln responded by calling up 70,000 militia troops, and the Civil War began. Four of the border states seceded.

In April, 1861, the nation was split into two countries, the Union (U. S. A., governed by the Constitution) and the Confederate States of America (governed by their own constitution). The country was so badly split, that many families split, communities split, states split. When the war began in April, the North had the industrial power, factories, steel, armaments, more weapons, more money, more population than the South, which had some factories, but not as many as the North, and was bankrupt for most of the war.

The new President was against slavery. He thought slavery was immoral and wrong. But he believed the Constitution would have to be amended to end slavery. Further, he believed that the Civil War was not about slavery, rather about maintaining the union of the states. Lincoln believed the United States was perpetual, and the South had no right to secede from the Union. He never recognized the Confederacy, and only referred to the secessionists as rebels.

Lincoln embraced a broad interpretation of the Constitution when war came to America. When Fort Sumter was attacked, Congress was not in session, nor did Lincoln call Congress into session until July. The President embraced Congressional powers for a time: he called the militia out; he engaged in war; he provided for the army and navy; he suspended the writ of Habeas Corpus (the right of all citizens to be charged after arrest); he declared martial law; he repressed newspapers; he proclaimed the emancipation of slaves; he put in motion Reconstruction: Lincoln assumed that all of these powers fell under his rights as President to take care that the laws are faithfully executed and administered, and to serve as Commander in Chief.

In short, Lincoln embraced during wartime the ethical standard of moral exigency: “the end justifies the means.” Questions: Should war provide the justification for a President to embrace and use unusual power? Should war be the reason to abandon traditional moral standards to embrace moral expediency?


About theamericanplutarch

Writer, thinker, historian.
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4 Responses to Images of Lincoln

  1. Brad says:

    As long-time student of Lincoln, I find your comments are spot-on. His politics were either center or even slightly progressive, but not so much as to make him un-electable as was the case with Seward. The genius of Lincoln was his ability to lead the nation not by being well out in front of what he called the “public mind”, but being slightly out in front and carefully refining and redefining the conversation as events allowed and his own views matured. In the debates with Douglas, he made statements that would instantly remove him from office in today’s environment. But we must, and I think you have, evaluate him as a mid-19th century politician. And at that time, he was a man in the middle. But it was not what we would refer to as a “mushy” middle. He had firm convictions center and policies that were not negotiable. The bottom line is that he led us to emancipation, walked a tightrope of political potholes to arrive at an eventual military solution, and even embraced civil rights in his last public speech. His accomplishments were mind boggling. My respect for Lincoln is even a major factor in my returning to school ( I am a engineer with Carrier Corp), to pursue what is now, close to a full BS in History.

  2. Gerald D. Swick says:

    Well thought-out and well-written. Many years ago I started researching Lincoln’s in-laws, the Todds, and by extension had to greatly expand my reading about Lincoln. I have an un-Reconstructed Southern friend who loves to tell me he regards Lincoln as a tyrant and puts him in the same category as Hitler and Stalin. Whenever he says this to me I reply, “You can prove absolutely anything you want to about Abraham Lincoln, good or bad. All you have to do is ignore all the evidence that contradicts your position–whatever that position may be.” Lincoln was extremely complex, and some of his attitudes seem to have changed with time and experience, as happens with any thinking person. But he was also a shrewd politician who played his cards close to the vest, and it is, I think, impossible to fully evaluate how much he used the war to end slavery vs. how much he used chipping away at slavery to end the war. It is wrong, however, to say his Emancipation Proclamation “didn’t free a single slave,” as Confederate partisans are fond of saying. As word about this new policy–which ended the practice of Union officers having to return runaway slaves to their masters–spread along the slaves’ grapevine thousands and thousands of slaves abandoned their owners and made their way behind Union lines, where they were now officially free.

  3. Thanks for your comment.

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