Tuesday, December 20, 2005

“The Last Best Hope of Earth”

I have always believed that when a president is inaugurated, swears that oath and enters the Oval office for the first time, he undergoes a sea change. Suddenly, he becomes wise, and just (there have been some few exceptions, one of whom was from Pennsylvania), and this is because when they swear that oath, they don the Mantle of Constitution. It can sometimes wear very heavily, as it did with Lincoln, and as it is with our current President.

I believe Lincoln stands out as perhaps our wisest, if not greatest Chief Executive (close call among Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, and the two Roosevelts). To me, his wisdom was on so much a higher plane than the others, that it is almost supernatural.

When you look at the hand he was dealt, the slavery issue, secession before he even entered office, the seizure of Southern forts and arsenals by secessionist mobs -- and he never complained, never excused, just quietly went about his work, formulating his plans, and devising a path to ultimate victory. It would not be easy, would require his most skilled persuasions, and above all, would take patience, and consistency.

He had to look into the morass of issues and divine where the vulnerabilities lay. He had to deal with those vulnerabilities, and he did so, offering reconciliation with the South for a year and a half at the start of the war. He made promises that must have galled him personally, but were agreeable Constitutionally. He became a president locked into enforcing the Constitution’s protections of slavery, at the cost of his personal beliefs.

Horace Greeley, the Radical Republican editor and owner of the New York Tribune chastised Lincoln in an editorial for not having a clear policy on the secession issue and with emancipation. Lincoln responded with a letter essentially saying he would do almost anything to re-unite the nation, no matter what effect it would have on slavery. He wrote:

I would save the Union. I would save it the shortest way under the Constitution. The sooner the national authority can be restored; the neared the Union will be "the Union as it was". If there be those who would not save the Union, unless they could at the same time save slavery, I do not agree with them. If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time destroy slavery, I do not agree with them. My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and it is not either to save or destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union. I shall do less whenever I shall believe what I am doing hurts the cause, and I shall do more whenever I shall believe doing more will help the cause. I shall try to correct errors when shown to be errors; and I shall adopt new views so fast as they shall appear to be true views.

Many of Lincoln’s modern detractors seize on this to declare him a closet pro-slavery politician, and a racist to boot. [Lincoln, indeed, was as much a racist as most Northern white men were in the era. They were anti-slavery, but against accepting the Blacks into society as full partners. Lincoln’s stance on race was softened over time, by his relationship with Frederick Douglass, and the work of the many Blacks in uniform, who fought bravely for the Union during the Civil War.] What those detractors miss, as did many who read his printed response to Greeley, is the closing paragraph of Lincoln’s letter.

I have here stated my purpose according to my view of official duty; and I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men everywhere could be free.

A. Lincoln

Here, Lincoln clearly enunciates the difference between Lincoln the man and Lincoln the President, and clearly draws the line between what he personally desires, and what he is legally, Constitutionally bound to do as President.

When this strategy did not achieve the reunification with the seceded states, he took a harder line. He got to the heart of secession by going directly at slavery with the Emancipation Proclamation. His strategic thinking that early in the war showed a foresight and confidence that would have failed lesser men. The confidence that the North would prevail, and would do so completely is clearly part of his thinking when issuing that document. To go along with that, the war declaration (the Emancipation Proclamation was a Presidential War Aim Proclamation) that freed the slaves in territory then under non-US control was a masterstroke of social, military, and political strategy. In so doing, he essentially removed the slavery issue from the reconciliation/reconstruction track at the end of the war. It was delivered in a document that is layered with meaning, and cause and effect, both immediate and long term, militarily, politically and socially. In so doing, he not only created the appearance of causing labor problems at home in the South, but he also softly, indirectly began to bring his Northern constituency around to the view that the war wasn't just about the Union, it was also about slavery.

He mollified northern abolitionists, and emancipationists, and took those who were less than against slavery and began to move them toward that end. He leaked it to his cabinet in the summer of 1862, and then the issued a preliminary release after Antietam, giving the South 100 days to return to the fold WITH slavery, or do so without when forced to return later. This carefully crafted document put no direct pressure on slavery in the non-Confederate states where it was legally protected by the Constitution, yet it hit the heart of slavery, the deep South.

It was a true stroke of genius. And it is still greatly misunderstood today.

What a pity. The man had perhaps the greatest mind of any president. And to be faced with such adversity, both that of disunion and civil war, and the personal losses he faced in his family, yet he maintained his humble humanity, again and again. (After someone publicly commented that he was two-faced, Lincoln self-deprecatingly replied, “Madam, if I were two-faced, would I be wearing this one?”) That escapes public knowledge these days. The many nights he and Mary spent tending to the wounded at the hospitals in Washington, is a story seldom told. Neither is the fact that he spent many a late night...often until the wee hours of the morning sitting in the War Department’s telegraphic office reading stacks of daily dispatches from the armies in the field, writing responses, getting the picture of what was going on, so he could intelligently give orders to Halleck, and later to Grant. Neither is the story told that during his days, he spent hours greeting visitors to the White House (a presidential tradition long since gone), and listening to every Tom, Dick, and Harry who came to "call on the President".

When did the man sleep? When did he have time to craft these great strategies that worked? When did he have time to write those magnificent speeches, and letters? When did he even have time to mourn the death of his young son, or console his wife, or care for her in her grief and madness?

He was not just a genius, he was a great man who was also a genius, and one of our greatest communicators ever.

Witness the words of the Gettysburg Address, and try to tell me that he was not including the Confederate fallen, even though they were not included in the National Cemetery he was dedicating.

But in a larger sense, we can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow -- this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have onsecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we may take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

After four years of hard war, he gave his second inaugural address in March of 1865. The war was almost over. He knew the North had prevailed, and mightily so, and that the Confederate surrender was weeks, if not days away. His thoughts were beyond that point. 600,000 dead from both sides.

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.

People argue that he was, or was not a Christian. It has been my personal belief that Lincoln was a Deist, like many of our Founders and Framers. I also believe that he espoused a personal philosophy with which he faced daily life, that was the embodiment of Christianity. In other words, officially he was a Deist, but by example a Christian, and one of the greatest that ever walked the earth.

Certainly, his transformation of the United States during the period when western civilization was nationalizing, is as important to us as our founding. This Great Emancipator, this Great President, this Great Man shook a tired, worn national blanket that was rent from sectional strife, and made it whole and smooth again.

Look at his words concluding his annual message to Congress on December 1, 1862. Note that he had issued the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation in September, just after the Union victory at Antietam. The Emancipation Proclamation’s offer of restoration to the Union with guarantees for slavery and compensation for eventual emancipation was about to expire in a month, when the proclamation would become official on January 1, 1863.

Fellow-citizens, we cannot escape history. We of this Congress and this administration, will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance, or insignificance, can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation. We say we are for the Union. The world will not forget that we say this. We know how to save the Union. The world knows we do know how to save it. We -- even we here -- hold the power, and bear the responsibility. In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free -- honorable alike in what we give, and what we preserve. We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth. Other means may succeed; this could not fail. The way is plain, peaceful, generous, just -- a way which, if followed, the world will forever applaud, and God must forever bless.

The “last best hope of earth”. What a remarkable phrase, and so accurate. It is a measure of the value he placed on the cause of Union, and emancipation, and the liberties extolled in the Declaration of Independence. “In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free."
Abraham Lincoln did just that.

Novus Livy

Fellow-citizens, we cannot escape history.” – Abraham Lincoln

Copyright © 2005, Novus Livy and The History of the World Blog. All Rights Reserved.


  1. Novus:
    {Response to "The Last Best Hope ..."} Your eloquent treatment of the Emancipation and Lincoln's reasons leaves out only one thought: the "why." By declaring slaves in the unoccupied territories to be hereby free, he deprived the South of any viable economic basis they may have relied upon, should they have been recognized by the European powers. Slaves were regarded as an asset, like a horse or a house or a tree; if they were no longer property, they had no monetary value to their "owner," and hence the South, as a politically independent entity, had no possible means to survive. It's economic viability was erased with the stroke of a pen. I don't think this in any way detracts from Lincoln's profound aversion to the "curious institution," but as you correctly point out, he is able to separate the moral from the political issue of slavery, and procedes to pursue the one, by means of the other. An outstanding essay. My compliments.

    1. http://www.historynet.com/emancipation-proclamation