Abraham Lincoln: The 16th Retrospective
“Whatcha got ain’t nothin new. This country’s hard on people, you can’t stop what’s coming, it ain’t all waiting on you. That’s vanity.” – Ellis, No Country for Old Men (2007)
As the leader of the newly formed Republican party, Abraham Lincoln was Conservative in the sense that he wanted to preserve and restore the union as it existed before secession. The events of the war pushed Lincoln to the left step by step which eventually became revolutionary. In other words, Lincoln was not born the great emancipator but became the great emancipator.
Lincoln drew young people, and particularly men to politics. He was called “Honest Abe” for his compulsion to seek the truth. He was also called “The Rail Splitter” which was more of a political marketing invention in the Jacksonian tradition alluding to his working class roots to appeal to the common man. Lincoln chose a cabinet of intellectual equals in the mold of JFK. Four of his secretaries were his political rivals. Lincoln was a judicious delegator of authority who reserved the final decision to be made by himself.
Preserving The Union
Lincoln’s election was disastrous for the South; however, his priority was only to save the union as it was before secession. If he could have done this without freeing any slaves or only freeing some slaves, he would have. While Lincoln was morally outraged by slavery, he thought like many others at the time, that the best strategy was to contain slavery and it would suffocate within itself.
Bait and Switch
Lincoln received a letter from Commander Robert Anderson on March 2nd, 1861 at Fort Sumter stating that without provisions, he would have to surrender to rebels. Lincoln’s three options were to order a surrender, attack or provisions. He chose the latter. Lincoln was implicitly stating to Jefferson Davis that if you let this food go in peacefully, it will be a symbolic manifestation of U.S. sovereignty over this fort. Stopping it would put the burden of war on his shoulders. Before Lincoln’s supply ships arrived, Davis ordered attack on Fort Sumter April 12, 1861.
The Confederate victory at Fort Sumter motivated four more states to join the Confederacy and four others remained on the fence. Anderson saved the torn and tattered U.S. flag at Sumter and displayed it in New York City. This inspired flag mania and patriotic fever at the time. Without Sumter, Lincoln may not have stirred up the union to a mood that was necessary to fight to restore it.
Abraham Lincoln was the first and only presidency completely defined by war. In the spring of 1861, he becomes the commander in chief with no military expertise. Lincoln gave himself a crash course on military strategy and administration, and was himself fascinated with war technology. Within a year, he was well versed on military tactics and strategy.
In August of 1861, Lincoln was furious that General John C Fremont issued an emancipation proclamation in the border state of Missouri becoming the first to free slaves in the Confederacy. Fearing slaveowners in border states would join the confederacy, Lincoln nullified Fremont’s proclamation. Over a year later on September 22, 1862, Lincoln would issue his own Emancipation Proclamation.
The Every Man
Abraham Lincoln was one of nine Presidents that did not attend college. The others were Washington, Jackson, Van Buren, Taylor, Fillmore, Jackson, Cleveland and Truman. Lincoln’s son Willie died from typhoid in February of 1862. In order to grieve, the Lincolns decided to leave the White House and move to the soldiers home. They found themselves at peace with the soldiers there. They adapted the house as a summer home and Lincoln would be a commuter to the White House for a quarter of his presidency.
In April of 1862, the Union won an important victory at Shiloh; however, 24,000 men were killed, wounded or missing. The carnage triggered a turning point as Lincoln realized he would have to wage a total war. He privately recognized the need to refocus the purpose of the war from merely preserving the union to the moral issue of slavery.
In July of 1862, Lincoln told his cabinet that he was prepared to surpass the legal powers of the presidency and exploit his unique war time power as commander in chief. His intention was to abolish slavery not only to undermine the economic strength of the South, but to end slavery in America forever. The war which had began as a conservative effort to restore the status quo antebellum evolved into a revolutionary war to destroy the old south and its social and economic system.
1862 and 1863 saw success for the Union in the west overshadowed by devastating defeats in the east. By July of 1863, the military situation in Virginia was desperate. General Robert E. Lee was on a winning streak marching towards Pennsylvania. Gettysburg was supposed to end the civil war as photographers produced morbid images of the carnage exposing the entire nation to the costs of war.
In November of 1863, Lincoln commemorated the battlefield as a national military cemetery, While he only spoke for 2 minutes, his eulogy redefined the commitment of America to the declaration of independence and its principles that all men are created equal. He said the soldiers gave their lives as sacrifice to the nation. America was fighting for the promise of today being all should “have an equal chance and an unfettered start in the race of life.”
Reelection of 1864 and Assassination
Americans were war weary by 1864 and wanted to see an end. Lincoln ran for reelection against George McClellan (who he appointed asa the first general of the union in 1861) in 1864 who ran on a platform that promised to negotiate the end of the war by repealing the Emancipation Proclamation, and agreeing to an armistice with the south by recognizing a southern confederacy. Lincoln refused to back away from his stance and looked to be on the verge of losing.
Two months before the election, the tide turned for Lincoln. Sherman burned Atlanta and began his march to the sea. The union gained momentum and so did Lincoln. He won 56% of the vote in the loyal states in 1864, despite the negativity and carnage. Four years to the day he was first elected, he took the oath on March 4th, 1865.
Visits to the front lines and living with wounded soldiers had brought Lincoln face to face with contriband slaves and average Americans. He laid out a roadmap for peace and construction of the nation with malice towards none and peace towards all in his 2nd term. He emphasized the necessity with coming to terms with the legacy of slavery for American History.
Lee surrendered to Grant in April 1865 and soon after in what would be his last speech, Abraham Lincoln showed no signs of vindictiveness as he called upon the nation to heal itself. He called for favorable terms for the south and granting the black man the right to vote. Lincoln would then be assassinated a couple of evenings later on April 14, 1865 by John Wilkes Booth..
Everyone revered the founding fathers and the American democratic experiment which allowed them to enjoy political freedom and equal opportunity. Some refused to extend this right to all Americans, As Abraham Lincoln tried to save the republic, he transformed it and himself to the dismay of many Americans. Slavery was the greatest crisis the country had ever seen, but in spite of stern opposition, Lincoln stood by the notion that everyone had a right to live the American dream. What America is at its best is a reflection of the steps Lincoln took to preserve the union and eradicate slavery. Enjoying the opportunity to bitch while having one national spirit is the result of Lincoln’s achievements and it cost him his life.
It all started with George Washington.