The Gettysburg Address: Memorable Words, Memorable Deeds

On this date in 1863, Abraham Lincoln delivered in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania what would become his most famous speech, destined to be memorized and/or recited by innumerable schoolchildren and others.  This is supremely ironic considering that the speech itself contains the words: “the world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here”.

There would also grow up around the speech a mythical story of how it came about, namely that Lincoln wrote it on the back of an envelope on the train en route to Gettysburg.  While is it certainly possible that Lincoln worked a little on his speech during the trip – he often continued refining his words right up to the time of delivery – he had likely written the bulk of it before leaving Washington.

Lincoln’s custom was to begin composing major speeches several weeks or even months ahead of time, and to draw upon themes and ideas about which he had been thinking for some time.  Although his address at the Gettysburg battlefield would be short – just “a few appropriate remarks” to dedicate a national military cemetery – it would be a very important one.  During the first two and a half years of his presidency, Lincoln had spoken publicly outside of Washington, DC on only three occasions, each one spontaneous and brief.  The address at Gettysburg would be his opportunity to speak to the American people about the significance of the Civil War in the context of the nation’s past, present, and future.  The President wanted, and needed, to get it right.

Some proof of this is found in Lincoln’s famous opening line.  Earlier that summer, in response to a serenade following news of the Confederate surrender of Vicksburg, which had come directly on the heels of the great Union victory at Gettysburg, Lincoln had said: “How long ago is it? – eighty odd years – since on the Fourth of July for the first time in the history of the world a nation by its representatives, assembled and declared as a self-evident truth that ‘all men are created equal’”.

Speaking at Gettysburg, this “eighty odd years …” now became:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

After this summary look back to the past – specifically to the Declaration of Independence and the founding of our nation on the bases of liberty and equality – Lincoln turned his attention to the present:

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.

Events of the previous decades indeed suggested that modern nations established as republics or democracies were destined to fail.  One needed only to look to central and South America, where nation after nation had secured its independence in the early 19th century only to later fall into political chaos and instability.  Neighboring Mexico was a prime example, having been taken over by French Emperor Napoleon III less than two years before.

Lincoln next directed the attention of his audience to the main objective of the ceremony that day: to honor those Union soldiers who had made the ultimate sacrifice during the terrible battle of July 1-3:

We are met on a great battle-field of that war.  We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live.  It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

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 consecrated 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.

Whether Lincoln really felt that his words would not be remembered – this is probably just his characteristic understatement and humility – he no doubt believed that the soldiers’ deeds were more important than his words.  The war might have been won without his words, but it could never have been won without their deeds.

Having looked to the past and considered the present, Lincoln concluded by looking to the future: how should we who remain respond?

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 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.

Lincoln’s hope was that just as we had had a birth of freedom in 1776 – “four score and seven years” before – now, out of something so terrible as a bloody civil war, we might have a “new birth of freedom”.  And he again reminded the people that the struggle wasn’t just for the survival of the Union, but for the survival of democracy throughout the world: “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth”.

That last phrase was not entirely Lincoln’s; most people listening that day would have recognized that he was reformulating Daniel Webster’s famous description of the US government in 1830 as “the people’s government, made for the people, made by the people, and answerable to the people.”  But Lincoln’s more concise phrasing has contributed to its now-universal impact.  As just one example, when the people of France adopted a new Constitution in 1958 for their Fifth Republic, they included the following statement: “The principle (of the Republic) shall be: government of the people, by the people, and for the people”. [“Son principe est : gouvernement du peuple, par le peuple et pour le peuple.”]

Lincoln’s eloquent and memorable words at Gettysburg live on today, more than 150 years later.  While they may have helped to rouse and inspire the people of his day, let us not forget that it was the soldiers’ courageous deeds which ultimately won the war and preserved the Union.  As is said, after all, actions speak louder than words, or as the motto of the naval ship USS Gettysburg puts it: “Deeds Not Words”.  May we remember Lincoln’s words and be willing to speak up for the causes of liberty, equality, and democracy in our own day, but may we also remember the soldiers’ deeds and likewise be willing to act when called upon.

Kevin J. Wood

November 19, 2017


Abraham Lincoln, White Supremacist?

Much of what Abraham Lincoln said and wrote in his own day still resonates with us today because it comports with our ideas of liberty, equality, democracy, etc.  But then there are those few disturbing statements such as the following:

I have no purpose to introduce political and social equality between the white and the black races.  There is a physical difference between the two, which in my judgment will probably forever forbid their living together upon the footing of perfect equality, and inasmuch as it becomes a necessity that there must be a difference, I, as well as Judge Douglas, am in favor of the race to which I belong, having the superior position.  I have never said anything to the contrary…

Does this statement, made by Lincoln during the first of his great debates with Stephen Douglas in 1858, and which he later repeated and defended, mean that Lincoln was a white supremacist?

To answer this question, we must consider the statement itself and its context, as well as the entire body of Lincoln’s speeches and writings.

In regards to the statement itself, to prefer that one race hold a superior position in society is not the same as saying that that race is actually superior in any particular quality, and it would seem to fall short of what is usually meant today by “white supremacy”.  And we will later see that when it came time for him to compare the races, Lincoln would speak more tentatively.

In regards to the context, Lincoln was attempting to unseat Douglas as one of Illinois’ two Senators in the U.S. Congress.  He was the candidate of the newly-formed Republican Party, a diverse group of people whose unifying cause was their opposition to the spread of slavery into the west and the north of the country.  Some of the Republicans were abolitionists, advocating for the immediate emancipation of the slaves with no compensation paid to their owners, while others, such as Lincoln, were more in favor of gradual, voluntary, compensated emancipation.

Douglas and the Democrats had resorted to race-baiting by making the case that the ‘Black Republican party’ was in favor not only of immediate emancipation, but also of amalgamation, i.e., a mixing of the races, even intermarriage.  Lincoln’s statement cited above was in response to these provocative words by Douglas:

Do you desire to … allow the free negroes to flow in, and cover your prairies with black settlements?  Do you desire to turn this beautiful State into a free negro colony, in order that when Missouri abolishes slavery she can send one hundred thousand emancipated slaves into Illinois, to become citizens and voters, on an equality with yourselves?  If you desire negro citizenship, if you desire to allow them to come into the State and settle with the white man, if you desire them to vote on an equality with yourselves, and to make them eligible to office, to serve on juries, and to adjudge your rights, then support Mr. Lincoln and the Black Republican party.

In a state like Illinois, which didn’t allow slavery but which also greatly discouraged settlement by free blacks, this played well.  No abolitionist could have won a statewide election in Illinois at that time, and an ‘amalgamationist’ would have been run out of town, if not worse.  Lincoln, therefore, who was neither abolitionist nor ‘amalgamationist’, naturally defended himself against these kinds of charges.  Thus his previous statement and others such as: “I do not understand that because I do not want a negro woman for a slave I must necessarily want her for a wife.  My understanding is that I can just let her alone.

When Lincoln spoke of a physical difference between the races which “will probably forever forbid their living together upon the footing of perfect equality”, and of one race having a superior position, he was likely simply stating what an honest review of world history would have taught him.  History is replete of conflicts between peoples of different ethnicities, religions, classes, etc., which inevitably seem to result in the domination by one group over the other; it is likewise nearly devoid of examples of peaceful, equitable coexistence.  Lincoln therefore concluded quite rationally that “inasmuch as it becomes a necessity that there must be a difference, I … am in favor of the race to which I belong, having the superior position”.

But did that mean that the black race must serve the white race as slaves?  That would be the conclusion of the leaders of the future Confederacy, clearly stated by Alexander Stephens in his “Cornerstone Speech”.  But it was not the conclusion of Lincoln, who continued as follows:

… but I hold that notwithstanding all this, there is no reason in the world why the negro is not entitled to all the natural rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence, the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  I hold that he is as much entitled to these as the white man.  I agree with Judge Douglas he is not my equal in many respects – certainly not in color, perhaps not in moral or intellectual endowment.  But in the right to eat the bread, without leave of anybody else, which his own hand earns, he is my equal and the equal of Judge Douglas, and the equal of every living man.

As alluded to earlier, we see here that when Lincoln had a clear opportunity to make a case for “white supremacy”, he spoke cautiously and tentatively.  He could say definitively only that the black race was not equal to the white in color, and just perhaps not equal in morality or intelligence.

But where did this kind of thinking lead Lincoln in terms of finding a solution to the “race problem”?  Given that slavery was not an acceptable solution, and living alongside one another in equality seemed an impossibility, Lincoln, following Henry Clay and others, was led to conclude that the best solution was colonization: send the slaves and free blacks somewhere else to live, where they could govern themselves.  This might be back to Africa, or it might be a new colony somewhere in central or South America or the Caribbean.  To Lincoln, only this would be truly consistent with the American ideal of self-government.  As he had said in a speech a few years earlier: “When the white man governs himself that is self-government; but when he governs himself, and also governs another man, that is more than self-government – that is despotism.

Colonization would allow the black man to govern himself, and Lincoln would cling stubbornly to it well into his Presidency.  Thankfully, however, he was a man who was humble enough to change his views; as he wrote to Horace Greeley on the subject of emancipation: “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”.  Remarkably, it was Frederick Douglass and other black leaders who finally convinced Lincoln that colonization wasn’t a practicable solution, and so he turned his attention to figuring out how the two races could live side-by-side.  In his last speech, for example, delivered just three days before his assassination, he advocated publicly for the first time giving the right to vote, and therefore also citizenship, to at least certain blacks.

By this time Lincoln had no doubt also given up any notion he might previously have had about the inferiority of the black race.  Frederick Douglass, who discussed the war and emancipation with Lincoln on at least two occasions in the White House, noted that he was received with dignity, “just as you have seen one gentleman receive another … I was never more quickly or more completely put at ease in the presence of a great man”.  Lincoln would later call Douglass his friend, and many years later Douglass would write in his memoirs: “Mr. Lincoln was not only a great president, but a great man – too great to be small in anything.  In his company I was never in any way reminded of my humble origin, or of my unpopular color.

Abraham Lincoln, white supremacist?  Perhaps he was at one point in his life, in a limited sense, but it would be far more accurate to consider him a “human supremacist”, one who believed in and sought to elevate all of humankind to reach their inherent and God-given potential.

Kevin J. Wood

August 17, 2017

Lincoln’s Eulogy on President Taylor: An Example to Others, Lincoln Himself Included

It was on this date – July 25 – in the year 1850 that Abraham Lincoln pronounced in Chicago a eulogy for President Zachary Taylor, who had died two weeks earlier at age 65, having served only one year and four months of his term.

The choice of Lincoln for this task was understandable since he had campaigned on behalf of Taylor in 1848 following his own one term in the U.S. Congress.  Yet it also seems somewhat ironic given some of the vast differences between Taylor’s life and his own.  Until Taylor was recruited by the Whig Party to run for President, for example, he expressed little interest in politics and held vague political beliefs.  Lincoln, by contrast, had been intrigued by politics since young adulthood and had very defined beliefs.

Even more striking was the difference in their military careers.  Much of Lincoln’s eulogy on Taylor covered his long and distinguished career as an army officer, from the War of 1812 to the Indian wars and finally the Mexican-American War, in which as a major general he became a national hero.  Lincoln’s own military service consisted of three uneventful months as a young man in the Black Hawk War, an experience which he once jokingly described as follows: “I had a good many bloody struggles with the musquetoes [sic]”.  In fact, Congressman Lincoln had opposed the initiation of the war with Mexico, viewing it as an unjustified land grab by President Polk with the sole goal of claiming more territory for the expansion of slavery.

While talking at length about General Taylor’s military accomplishments, Lincoln’s recitation was mostly plain and factual, but he allowed himself some poetic license when talking about one tense moment early in the Mexican-American War.  The general and his men were desperately trying to reach a besieged fort on the Rio Grande (near the modern Brownsville), not knowing whether their compatriots inside were dead or alive, and those inside likewise fearing for those outside.  Lincoln concluded the scene as follows:

And now the din of battle nears the fort and sweeps obliquely by; a gleam of hope flies through the half imprisoned few; they fly to the wall; every eye is strained – it is – it is – the stars and stripes are still aloft!  Anon the anxious brethren meet; and while hand strikes hand, the heavens are rent with a loud, long, glorious, gushing cry of victory! victory!! victory!!!

Later, when discussing General Taylor’s final battle, against the great Santa Anna at Buena Vista, deep in Mexican territory, outnumbered three or four to one, Lincoln recalled the apprehension felt by those back in the United States, fearing the worst.  When the truth finally came, it was of both “glory and grief.  A bright and glowing page was added to our Nation’s history; but then too, in eternal silence, lay Clay, and Mc’Kee, and Yell, and Lincoln, and our own beloved Hardin” (these names being some of the officers killed at Buena Vista, including Henry Clay’s son, Henry Clay, Jr.; Lincoln’s friend John J. Hardin; and interestingly, an officer named George Lincoln, apparently no relation).

While all this military history reveals a great difference between the lives of Taylor and Lincoln, however, Lincoln’s eulogy also suggests some remarkable commonalities between the two men.  They were both shaped, for example, by having spent their early years on the frontier in Kentucky.  Perhaps most interesting of all, the character traits, ambitions, priorities, etc. which Lincoln exalts in Taylor are ones which we would easily apply to Lincoln himself.  And they are the same ones which Lincoln would later appreciate in others when he had his second military stint, that of Commander-in-Chief, in particular in men such as General Grant.  Lincoln might just as well have been pronouncing the eulogy he hoped others would pronounce on his own life when his own time came to depart this world.

The following words, for example, might just as easily express the feelings which Lincoln would have toward Grant 15 years later:

Gen. Taylor’s battles were not distinguished for brilliant military manoeuvers; but in all, he seems rather to have conquered by the exercise of a sober and steady judgment, coupled with a dogged incapacity to understand that defeat was possible.  His rarest military trait, was a combination of negatives – absence of excitement and absence of fear.  He could not be flurried, and he could not be scared.

Lincoln also took time to carefully relate one notable incident which showed that Taylor was averse to seeking revenge.  During the Mexican-American War, Colonel William Worth, greatly offended when Taylor selected another officer over him, returned to Washington to tender his resignation, where “in his passionate feeling, he hesitated not to speak harshly and disparagingly of Gen. Taylor.  He was an officer of the highest character; and his word, on military subjects, and about military men, could not, with the country, pass for nothing.”

Worth soon regretted his words and actions, however, and his resignation having been declined, he returned to the field of battle, where, Lincoln relates:

Then came Gen. Taylor’s opportunity for revenge.  The battle of Monterey was approaching, and even at hand.  Taylor could if he would, so place Worth in that battle, that his name would scarcely be noticed in the report.  But no.  He felt it was due to the service, to assign the real post of honor to some one of the best officers; he knew Worth was one of the best, and he felt that it was generous to allow him, then and there, to retrieve his secret loss.  Accordingly he assigned to Col. Worth in that assault, what was par excellence, the post of honor; and, the duties of which, he executed so well, and so brilliantly, as to eclipse, in that battle, even Gen. Taylor himself.

To anyone familiar with Lincoln’s own life and career, these words will immediately recall to mind some of the notable incidents when he would likewise refuse to hold grudges against those who did him harm or spoke ill of him, even naming them to posts of honor for the sake of the country if he felt that they were the best people for the job.  The case of Edwin Stanton is just one example of this.

Given that Taylor’s political career was rather short and also recent, Lincoln’s eulogy is understandably brief on this point, noting that “the incidents of his administration up to the time of his death, are too familiar and too fresh to require any direct repetition”.  He was more concerned about what effect the President’s death would have politically on the country, but called for trust in God on this matter:

I fear the one great question of the day [slavery], is not now so likely to be partially acquiesced in by the different sections of the Union, as it would have been, could Gen. Taylor have been spared to us.  Yet, under all circumstances, trusting to our Maker, and through his wisdom and beneficence, to the great body of our people, we will not despair, nor despond.

Lincoln held that Taylor would be remembered for “his unostentatious, self-sacrificing, long enduring devotion to his duty”, and moralized that this should serve as an example to young Americans “that treading the hard path of duty, as he trod it, will be noticed, and will lead to high places”.

Lincoln concluded his thoughts on Taylor’s life as follows, including a citation from the gospels and another from an Isaac Watts hymn:

But he is gone.  The conqueror at last is conquered.  The fruits of his labor, his name, his memory and example, are all that is left us – his example, verifying the great truth, that “he that humbleth himself, shall be exalted” teaching, that to serve one’s country with a singleness of purpose, gives assurance of that country’s gratitude, secures its best honors, and makes “a dying bed, soft as downy pillows are”.

But Lincoln was not quite done, noting that the death of such a great and well-known person inevitably reminds all people of their own mortality.  He then finished his eulogy by citing several stanzas of his favorite poem, William Knox’s “Oh, why should the spirit of mortal be proud”, on the brevity and uncertainty of life, ending with the final stanza:

‘Tis the wink of an eye, ‘tis the draught of a breath,

From the blossoms of health, to the paleness of death.

From the gilded saloon, to the bier and the shroud.

Oh, why should the spirit of mortal be proud!

Reading Lincoln’s eulogy on President Taylor, and comparing it to how Lincoln lived his own life, suggests that he tried to emulate the positive characteristics of those he admired.  We might do well to do the same, beginning with the example of Lincoln himself.

Kevin J. Wood

July 25, 2017

On Sacrifice and Suffering: Lincoln’s Preview of Memorial Day

Our national holiday of Memorial Day, on which we remember those who died while serving in our armed forces, had its origins in the aftermath of the Civil War.  Back then it was called Decoration Day, so named because people in both the North and the South decorated the soldiers’ graves with flowers.

The observance of such a day serves to honor the memory of those who made the supreme sacrifice, but it also serves to express our condolences and gratitude to those left behind: the family members and friends who have suffered the terrible loss of a loved one.

Abraham Lincoln had tragic occasion to demonstrate this in late May of 1861, with the Civil War barely underway and long before the establishment of any such official day of remembrance.

The Lincolns counted among their friends a young man from New York State by the name of Elmer Ellsworth.  Ellsworth had moved to Illinois in the mid-1850s when he was 17 years old, eventually settling in Springfield in 1860 in order to join Lincoln’s law office as a clerk and continue his study of the law.  He later campaigned for Lincoln in the Presidential election of 1860 and then helped to manage the President-elect’s journey to Washington.  He became a close friend of the whole family, and almost like another son to Lincoln.

After the Confederate takeover of Fort Sumter in South Carolina in mid-April 1861, Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteer soldiers to put down the rebellion.  His young friend Ellsworth was among the first to join the cause, traveling to New York City to raise the 11th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment from among that city’s volunteer firefighting companies.  Ellsworth then returned to Washington as the colonel of these famous “Fire Zouaves”, who were soon dispatched across the Potomac River to occupy Alexandria, Virginia.  They were the first Union troops to occupy Confederate territory, and they accomplished this task with little trouble except for one terribly tragic incident.  There was a large Confederate flag atop the Marshall House, a small inn, which for weeks had been visible from Washington, including from Lincoln’s office in the White House.  Young Ellsworth entered the inn with several of his men and he himself went upstairs to remove the flag.  On his way back down the stairs, he was shot and killed by the innkeeper.

Lincoln grieved for his young friend as if he had been his own son, and the next day wrote a letter of condolence to his parents, Ephraim and Phoebe Ellsworth.  The President did not know it at the time, but this would be just one of many hundreds of letters of condolence which he would write to grieving parents, children, siblings, and other kin and friends over the next four years.

Washington, D.C. – May 25, 1861

To the Father and Mother of Col. Elmer E. Ellsworth:

My dear Sir and Madam,

In the untimely loss of your noble son, our affliction here, is scarcely less than your own.  So much of promised usefulness to one’s country, and of bright hopes for one’s self and friends, have rarely been so suddenly dashed, as in his fall.  In size, in years, and in youthful appearance, a boy only, his power to command men, was surpassingly great.  This power, combined with a fine intellect, an indomitable energy, and a taste altogether military, constituted in him, as seemed to me, the best natural talent, in that department, I ever knew.  And yet he was singularly modest and deferential in social intercourse.  My acquaintance with him began less than two years ago; yet through the latter half of the intervening period, it was as intimate as the disparity of our ages, and my engrossing engagements, would permit.  To me, he appeared to have no indulgences or pastimes; and I never heard him utter a profane, or intemperate word.  What was conclusive of his good heart, he never forgot his parents.  The honors he labored for so laudably, and, in the sad end, so gallantly gave his life, he meant for them, no less than for himself.

In the hope that it may be no intrusion upon the sacredness of your sorrow, I have ventured to address you this tribute to the memory of my young friend, and your brave and early fallen child.

May God give you that consolation which is beyond all earthly power.  Sincerely your friend in a common affliction –

A. Lincoln

At Lincoln’s request, the body of Elmer Ellsworth, one of the first martyrs for the cause of the Union, was brought by an honor guard to the White House and lay in state in the East Room.  His death would serve as a rallying cry in the North over the coming weeks and months, but this would not dim the intensity of the Lincoln family’s great feeling of loss.  It would serve as a reminder, however, that the price of peace is often very costly, requiring sacrifices and suffering by the members of our armed forces and by their families and friends.

Kevin J. Wood

May 28, 2017

A President-Elect to a Divided Nation: Be Nice and Do Good!

bloglink_2016-11-16During and after the most vitriolic and divisive presidential election the United States has experienced in recent years, you have no doubt heard comments such as “our nation has never been so divided”.  Really?!  As any of the four major candidates facing each other on November 6, 1860 might conclude – each of whom received at least one-eighth of the popular vote, – this really means that our nation has never been so ignorant of her own history!

You know, of course, that Abraham Lincoln won that election.  But did you know that he received only 40% of the popular vote, and didn’t carry a single state in the South?  As a result, the election served to fracture even further an already divided nation.  Not only was there the great divide generally between the northern, free states and the southern, slave states, but there were also significant divisions within each of those regions, especially about how to respond to the crisis at hand, in the midst of increasing cries for disunion and even civil war.

How did the inexperienced and not-so-popular President-elect react in 1860?  He did so extremely carefully, aiming for consistency and not giving in at all on core principles, while also attempting not to provoke anyone to any rash actions and appealing for unity.

There were repeated calls for Lincoln to make public statements about his intentions.  To these, he stubbornly refused to respond, telling people that they needed only to refer to his past statements and the platform on which he had been elected; to all this he would be true (most importantly, that he would not interfere with slavery in the southern states where it already existed, but he would oppose its extension into the western territories and into the North).

As he wrote in a private letter four days after the election, “I feel constrained, for the present, at least, to make no declaration for the public.  First, I could say nothing which I have not already said, and which is in print, and open for the inspection of all.  To press a repetition of this upon those who have listened, is useless; to press it upon those who have refused to listen, and still refuse, would be wanting in self-respect, and would have an appearance of sycophancy and timidity, which would excite the contempt of good men, and encourage bad ones to clamor the more loudly.

Ten days later, a Republican victory celebration was held in Springfield.  When a parade of Republican faithful passed by Lincoln’s home on their way to the celebration, the President-elect addressed them.  He thanked them for their support, but also cautioned them against speaking ill of their opponents, striving instead for unity:

Friends and fellow citizens: Please excuse me, on this occasion, from making a speech.  I thank you for the kindness and compliment of this call.  I thank you, in common with all others, who have thought fit, by their votes, to indorse the Republican cause.  I rejoice with you in the success which has, so far, attended that cause.  Yet in all our rejoicing let us neither express, nor cherish, any harsh feeling towards any citizen who, by his vote, has differed with us.  Let us at all times remember that all American citizens are brothers of a common country, and should dwell together in the bonds of fraternal feeling.

The very next day, during a trip to Chicago to meet with Vice President-elect Hannibal Hamlin and others, he repeated the same theme by way of a story while addressing a crowd in the Republican stronghold of Bloomington:

I think very much of the people, as an old friend said he thought of woman.  He said when he lost his first wife, who had been a great help to him in his business, he thought he was ruined – that he could never find another to fill her place.  At length, however, he married another, who he found did quite as well as the first, and that his opinion now was that any woman would do well who was well done by.  So I think of the whole people of this nation – they will ever do well if well done by.  We will try to do well by them in all parts of the country, North and South, with entire confidence that all will be well with all of us.

Lincoln’s desire for unity, however, would not lead him to waver on his pledges as a candidate.  He wrote to several leading politicians in the weeks following the election to urge them to do likewise, such as this note to Senator Lyman Trumbull:

My dear Sir: Let there be no compromise on the question of extending slavery.  If there be, all our labor is lost, and, ere long, must be done again.  The dangerous ground – that into which some of our friends have a hankering to run – is Popular Sovereignty [letting the people of each state vote whether to allow slavery in their state].  Have none of it.  Stand firm.  The tug has to come, and better now, than any time hereafter.

These same themes – a consistent message and not giving in on core principles, while also attempting to provoke no one and appealing for unity – would be repeated by Lincoln on selected occasions over the next few months.  And they would all be fully developed when he was finally able to address the people as their new President in his first inaugural address.

Lincoln ultimately would not be able to prevent the Civil War, of course, in large part because a majority in the South rejected his conciliatory message.  But he would somehow find a way to keep the fractured North sufficiently united over the next four years to see the war through to its end.  And that would bring about not only the preservation of the Union, but also the abolishment of slavery.

In our own divided nation of today, perhaps our best hope is to pray that our newly elected President will “do well by the people”, which might go a long way to helping the people to once again “dwell together in the bonds of fraternal feeling”.

LinkedIn-LogoSquareKevin J. Wood

November 16, 2016

The Cleveland Convention (of 1864): Discontented Republicans Nominate a Brash Self-Promoter

Things were not going very well for President Abraham Lincoln in the spring of 1864.  The Civil War had been dragging on for three years, with no end in sight.  The northern populace, already very tired of the war, were horrified by General Grant’s heavy losses in early May in the Battle of the Wilderness and by the prospect of continued such losses in a bloody war of attrition.

In addition, the Republican Party was by no means united behind Lincoln, with the so-called Radical Republicans especially keen on finding an alternative candidate for the 1864 Presidential election.  These hardline abolitionists didn’t think Lincoln was moving quickly enough on emancipation, and they thought his plan for post-war reunification with the South was too conciliatory.  Lincoln’s overly ambitious Secretary of Treasury Salmon Chase had been the Radical Republicans’ first choice to replace him, but this plan was thwarted in early spring when Chase’s duplicity was exposed.

With Chase out of the way, it soon became clear that Lincoln had enough support to be re-nominated at the Republican convention scheduled for early June in Baltimore (at the convention, the party would be re-named the “National Union Party” due to the inclusion of some of the Democrats who supported the war).  With time running out, a splinter group of about four hundred Radical Republicans held an alternate convention on May 31 in order to nominate a different candidate more to their liking.  They settled on John C. Frémont, the famed western explorer (the “Pathfinder”), Republican presidential nominee in 1856 (when he was defeated by Democrat James Buchanan), and Civil War general.  The new party was dubbed the “Radical Democracy Party”.

When Lincoln was informed of the results of this alternate convention, he picked his Bible up from his desk and began looking for a particular passage, which he soon found.  He then read aloud from 1 Samuel 22 – that would be “First Samuel” – the story of David and the company of men which gathered about him in a cave when he was being pursued by King Saul.  The passage concludes as follows: “And everyone that was in distress, and everyone that was in debt, and everyone that was discontented, gathered themselves unto him; and he became a captain over them; and there were with him about four hundred men.”

Without saying any more, Lincoln had provided his opinion on the four hundred men who had gathered about Frémont, namely that they were desperate malcontents.  Harper’s Weekly seemed to agree, observing that the convention “was the work partly of angry and intriguing, partly of impracticable men.”  By the way, this convention of discontented Republicans who wanted to throw out the “establishment” – Lincoln in particular, but also Secretary of State William Seward and others – took place in Cleveland, Ohio.

Their candidate, John C. Frémont, has been described as, among other things: controversial, impetuous, contradictory, and a brash self-promoter.  He acquired massive wealth but also experienced spectacular business failures, and was subject to many lawsuits.  Prior to joining the new Republican Party, he had been more aligned with the Democrats, having married the daughter of powerful Democratic Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri.  Benton and Frémont crusaded together for “Manifest Destiny”, the expansionist movement which might just as easily have been called “America First”.

Oh, and Frémont didn’t like Mexicans, having fought against them in the Mexican-American War.  In an infamous incident in California, Kit Carson asked Frémont whether three unarmed Mexicans should be taken prisoner, and Frémont replied, “I have got no room for prisoners.”  The subsequent murder of the three men, all members of respected families, was widely publicized during the 1856 Presidential campaign, damaging Frémont’s image.  It didn’t help that Frémont had also once been convicted of mutiny, disobedience, and military misconduct for having proclaimed himself military Governor of California (these charges were later commuted to a dishonorable discharge).  It perhaps comes as no surprise that years later during the Civil War, General Frémont was accused of acting autocratically and was eventually dismissed by Lincoln for insubordination – among other things, for unilaterally emancipating the slaves in his jurisdiction (this well before Lincoln’s proclamation of emancipation) – and for issues of corruption in acquiring supplies.

For the record, all this is not to say that Frémont didn’t have his good points, nor that a particular more recent nominee doesn’t have his own good points.  The items mentioned just seem to be particularly intriguing.

By the way, Frémont abandoned his campaign in September 1864, when Lincoln’s chances suddenly improved following the fall of Atlanta.  But true to form, he did so in a manner that gave him revenge on a political enemy, as Lincoln reluctantly agreed to remove Postmaster General Montgomery Blair from office.  With Frémont out of the way, Lincoln easily defeated another famous Civil War general, George B. McClellan, to become the first president to be re-elected in more than thirty years.

LinkedIn-LogoSquareKevin J. Wood

July 20, 2016

Horse Sense: Abraham Lincoln as Storyteller, Part II

In my last blog article, I shared one of the many stories told by Abraham Lincoln.  That one was about a dog, but the animal which was the subject of a great many of Lincoln’s stories and jokes was the horse, of vital importance in 19th-century America.

In fact, the horse’s importance is revealed in one of Lincoln’s jokes.  In March 1863 the famed Confederate battalion known as Mosby’s Rangers raided Fairfax, Virginia and captured a Union brigadier general, two captains and number of soldiers and horses.  Upon learning the news, the president supposedly commented: “Well, I am sorry for the horses.”  He then explained: “I can make a brigadier general in five minutes, but it is not easy to replace a hundred and ten horses.”

Here are a few other stories and jokes in which Lincoln exhibited his own peculiar ‘horse sense’:

Horse Trade: While a young lawyer in Illinois, Lincoln got to joking with a judge about making a trade of horses.  They finally agreed to do so at a predetermined time and place, stipulating that the horses would not be seen beforehand and that if either man backed out of the trade at that point he would have to pay $25.  At the appointed time and place, the judge appeared with the sorriest-looking horse ever seen in those parts.  The crowd soon broke out in laughter as Lincoln arrived carrying a wooden sawhorse upon his shoulders.  The laughter only grew when Lincoln, after surveying the judge’s horse, put down the sawhorse and exclaimed: “Well, Judge, this is the first time I ever got the worst of it in a horse trade.”

Horse Chestnut: During the first Lincoln-Douglas debate, at Ottawa, Lincoln accused Stephen Douglas of misrepresenting his position through “a specious and fantastic arrangement of words, by which a man can prove a horse chestnut to be a chestnut horse”.  [A horse chestnut is a kind of tree more closely related to the buckeye than to other chestnut trees.]

McClellan’s Fatigued Horses: Although General George B. McClellan proved himself a remarkably fine organizer of the troops, he exasperated Lincoln and many others by his reluctance to engage the confederates in combat.  When McClellan gave the excuse that he couldn’t take action because half of his horses were fatigued, lame, ill, undernourished, etc., and this more than a month after the last fighting, Lincoln sent him a somewhat sarcastic telegram asking: “Will you pardon me for asking what the horses of your army have done since the battle of Antietam that fatigue anything?

The Horse as Rider: A few months earlier, McClellan had written Lincoln a letter offering him advice on how to carry out the affairs of the nation.  Lincoln didn’t reply directly to McClellan, but supposedly remarked that it made him think of the man whose horse kicked up and stuck his foot through the stirrup; the man said to the horse, “If you are going to get on, then I will get off.”  Lincoln had no intention of ‘getting off’, but wished that McClellan would understand that he was only a general, not a dictator.

Swapping Horses Mid-Stream: Two years later, Lincoln and McClellan were facing off in the 1864 Presidential election and Lincoln made use of another horse and rider allusion.  He made the case for his re-election while the country was still at war by noting: “I have not permitted myself … to conclude that I am the best man in the country; but I am reminded, in this connection, of a story of an old Dutch farmer who remarked to a companion once that ‘it was not best to swap horses while crossing streams’.

We can be thankful that the people agreed with Lincoln and reelected him, for had McClellan won, the Union would not have been preserved.  Lamentably, the great story-teller would soon fall forever silent, the victim of assassination.  Interestingly, however, his body would be accompanied on its final voyage from the Springfield train station to the cemetery by none other than Old Bob, his favorite horse, now sadly riderless.

LinkedIn-LogoSquareKevin J. Wood

June 30, 2016

The Wrong End of the Dog: Abraham Lincoln as Storyteller

You’ve probably heard that Abraham Lincoln was rather fond of telling stories and jokes.  He sometimes told these simply to entertain, but there were often other reasons as well: to illustrate a point; to relieve tension or lighten the mood; to communicate a hard-to-accept lesson or rebuke in a more indirect, ‘softer’ manner; or to distract from the difficulties and hard realities of life, especially in the midst of the Civil War.

Judge H.W. Beckwith recalled a particularly memorable tale told by Lincoln while the latter was serving as a lawyer in the Circuit Court at Danville, Illinois, a tale which was “a good example of Lincoln’s skill in condensing the law and the facts of an issue in a story”.

Lincoln was defending a man who had been charged with assault and battery.  It happened that his client had only acted in self-defense, the other man having first provoked and then physically attacked him.  Rather than simply relate the facts of the case according to his client, however, Lincoln determined that the jury would better understand their plea if he explained it by way of a story.

The judge explained: “Mr. Lincoln … told the jury that his client was in the fix of a man who, in going along the highway with a pitchfork on his shoulder, was attacked by a fierce dog that ran out at him from a farmer’s dooryard.  In parrying off the brute with his fork, its prongs stuck into the brute and killed him.

“‘What made you kill my dog?’, said the farmer.

“‘What made him try to bite me?’

“‘But why did you not go at him with the other end of the pitchfork?’

“‘Why did he not come after me with his other end?’

“At this Mr. Lincoln whirled about in his long arms an imaginary dog, and pushed its tail end toward the jury.  This was the defensive plea of … ‘the other fellow brought on the fight,’ quickly told, and in a way the dullest mind would grasp and retain.

One can easily see how Abraham Lincoln became one of the most successful lawyers of his day while also acquiring a reputation for his wit and humor.  One can also suppose that when Lincoln was scheduled for a session of court, there was no shortage of men willing to serve on the jury!

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April 30, 2016

The Cause Is to Be Preferred to Men: A Lesson on Selflessness from Lincoln

Today’s Republican Party appears on the way to the curious situation of nominating for President a person with questionable conservative, Republican credentials, who also has the highest unfavorability rating among the general population of any candidate of both major parties (60% unfavorable according to a Gallup poll in late January).  This has primarily been the result of a large number of other more traditional Republican candidates dividing the remaining vote, each unwilling to yield his or her personal ambition for the sake of the party until finally forced out of the race for financial reasons.  And that doesn’t happen nearly as quickly as it used to thanks to the 2010 Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, as well as to changes in how delegates are allocated.

These other candidates might learn a lesson from Abraham Lincoln’s actions in the 1855 US Senate election, which by the way contributed to the establishment and growth of the Republican Party.  That year, in the midst of a tumultuous reshaping of the entire political system, the major dividing line was between those who opposed the Kansas-Nebraska Act and those who favored it.  The ‘anti-Nebraska’ side wished to prevent slavery from extending into new areas of the country, while the ‘Nebraska’ side either desired its extension or didn’t concern themselves with the issue.

Lincoln, who still hadn’t officially made the switch from the waning Whig Party to the nascent Republican Party, was one of three leading candidates for the US Senate seat from Illinois.  The Democratic incumbent James Shields was a ‘Nebraska’ man, while Lincoln and Democratic Representative Lyman Trumbull were decidedly ‘anti-Nebraska’.  There were also a few other minor candidates, and for an extra dose of intrigue, a behind-the-scenes effort by Democratic Governor Joel Matteson to secure the seat for himself.

The Illinois General Assembly, whose 100 members were to choose the new Senator, was about evenly split between the ‘Nebraska’ and ‘anti-Nebraska’ factions, but there were also other issues and loyalties which complicated the situation.  Lincoln and Trumbull together, however, appeared to have just enough support to give the victory to the ‘anti-Nebraska’ side.  In fact, on the first ballot, Lincoln got 44 votes and Trumbull five, for a total of 49, just one short of the number needed by a single candidate to win (50 votes, since only 99 members were present that day), while Shields got only 41.  As subsequent ballots were taken, a few other men indicated a willingness to support Lincoln, which could have given him the election except that none of the five Trumbull men would budge.  These five were all staunch Democrats who refused to vote for a Whig.  Since Trumbull’s supporters, led by Norman Judd, wouldn’t give in, those who preferred Lincoln began to gradually switch their votes over to Trumbull, even as on the ‘Nebraska’ side the votes were being switched from Shields to Matteson.

In the ninth round of balloting, Matteson reached 47 votes, just three short of victory.  Lincoln knew that the governor had been selling himself as an ‘anti-Nebraska’ man even though that wasn’t consistent with his past affiliations and actions.  Sensing that Matteson would win on the tenth ballot unless the ‘anti-Nebraska’ men coalesced around a single true ‘anti-Nebraska’ candidate, Lincoln instructed his followers to vote en bloc for Trumbull.  When they protested the injustice of the candidate who had held 90% of the ‘anti-Nebraska’ vote in the early ballots gifting the election to the one who had held only 10%, Lincoln replied, “You will lose both Trumbull and myself and I think the cause in this case is to be preferred to men”.  Lincoln’s men ceded and Trumbull was elected Senator with the necessary 50 votes on the tenth ballot.

The result was clearly unfair to Lincoln.  In fact, Mary Todd Lincoln, who watched it all from the gallery, never forgave neither Trumbull nor Judd.  She even forever severed her relationship with Trumbull’s wife Julia, who had been her very close friend, each of them having been a bridesmaid at the other’s wedding.

Lincoln himself took a longer view of the situation.  He was severely disappointed, of course, but took satisfaction in the fact that Illinois had elected a committed ‘anti-Nebraska’ Senator to counterbalance Senator Stephen Douglas, author of the hated Kansas-Nebraska Act.  He had also thwarted the machinations of Matteson, whom he didn’t trust to stay true to the ‘anti-Nebraska’ cause.  Perhaps most significantly, the whole exercise also served to strengthen the growing ‘anti-Nebraska’ coalition at both the state and national levels, as Trumbull’s inclusion opened the way for other anti-slavery Democrats to join the cause.  In fact, this was an important step in the Republican Party becoming a viable and powerful political force.

In light of all this, Lincoln’s humiliating personal defeat was of little significance.  As he wrote to a friend: “I could not … let the whole political result go to ruin, on a point merely personal to myself”.

In addition, Trumbull and Judd would forever remember Lincoln’s generous and self-sacrificing gesture, and would support him in 1858 when he ran for Illinois’ other US Senate seat against his arch-rival Stephen Douglas.  Judd would also play an important role in Lincoln’s run for the presidency in 1860, and Trumbull would later co-author the Thirteenth Amendment to Constitution, which would be Lincoln’s greatest legislative victory.

By humbling himself and putting the greater cause ahead of his personal ambition, Abraham Lincoln demonstrated a selflessness and generosity seldom found in public life, neither in his time nor in ours.  Some of today’s Republican candidates might do a service to their own ‘greater cause’ if they would be willing to follow Lincoln’s example.

LinkedIn-LogoSquareKevin J. Wood

February 20, 2016

P.S.  The first paragraph of this article should not be interpreted to mean that I believe that the potential Republican nominee discussed therein has no qualifications to be President, rather only that he would not appear to be an appropriate candidate for the Republican Party.  I’m just sayin’…

A Kiss of Death or a King’s Cure: An Unlucky vs. Lucky Thirteenth Amendment

On January 31, 1865, the U.S. House of Representatives passed what would become the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, abolishing slavery and involuntary servitude except as a punishment for crime.  As vividly portrayed in Steven Spielberg’s 2012 movie, it was Abraham Lincoln’s greatest legislative victory.  Once ratified by the requisite number of states, it would bring the nation’s policies and practices one huge step closer to matching the ideals of liberty and equality espoused in the Declaration of Independence; to borrow the President’s language at Gettysburg, it would signal a “new birth of freedom”.  Ratification would in fact happen quickly, by the end of the year, but unfortunately for Lincoln, this would be eight months after his untimely death.

That the Constitutional Amendment bearing the number thirteen turned out to be such a ‘lucky’ one for the future of the country is all the more remarkable given that it very well could have been just the opposite!  Just four years earlier, with the threat of civil war hanging in the air, a very different 13th Amendment was passed by Congress in a final attempt to pacify the South and avert war.  If it had been ratified by the states, it would likely have turned out to have been a rather unlucky occurrence in the nation’s history, a ‘kiss of death’ to liberty and equality.

This earlier proposed amendment, passed by Congress just two days before Lincoln was sworn in as President, stated: “No amendment shall be made to the Constitution which will authorize or give to Congress the power to abolish or interfere, within any State, with the domestic institutions thereof, including that of persons held to labor or service by the laws of said State.”  Of course, in 1861 everyone understood perfectly that this referred specifically to the South’s ‘peculiar institution’ of human slavery.

Lincoln actually gave his tacit approval to this proposed amendment in his inaugural address: “holding such a provision to now be implied constitutional law, I have no objection to its being made express and irrevocable”.  The new President was undoubtedly hoping that it might avert bloodshed, and further hoping that the South would someday still abolish slavery on its own.  But this and all other attempts at a peaceful solution to the slavery issue would soon be swept away by the start of the Civil War.

Curiously, this earlier proposed 13th Amendment – the unlucky one which would have further entrenched slavery in the American system – is technically still pending before the states, as that was before Congress put ‘expiration dates’ on proposed amendments.  Of course, it is pretty much a moot point now since it would conflict with the actual 13th amendment, the lucky one which abolished slavery.

The actual 13th Amendment, by the way, was noteworthy for being the first to radically change some aspect of the Constitution.  In fact, some had opposed it for that very reason, arguing that it was more revolution than amendment!  It completely overturned a very important provision in the Constitution: instead of protecting slavery, the Constitution now outlawed it.  In stark contrast, the first ten amendments, the Bill of Rights, simply made explicit certain rights which many of the framers of the Constitution felt were already implicitly guaranteed, and the 11th and 12th Amendments served mostly to clarify or refine certain provisions in the light of practical issues and judicial decisions.

Others had opposed the 13th Amendment, or any new amendments for that matter, because by that time the Constitution was increasingly being viewed as a sacred and already perfect text.  There hadn’t been a successful amendment in over sixty years, still the longest-ever interval between amendments.  In addition, the number twelve is considered to denote completeness and perfection, while the number thirteen destroys that completeness and perfection.

The proposed 13th Amendment therefore had a lot going against it, and so Lincoln took no chances.  He actually signed the amendment, something which is not required, just as President Buchanan had signed the earlier proposal four years before; in fact, the 13th Amendment remains the only ratified amendment ever signed by a President.  More significantly, even though it might have endangered the amendment’s survival, Lincoln insisted that the southern states be a part of the ratification process so that it would be “unquestioned and unquestionable”.

Lincoln knew that the complete abolition of slavery, if finally accomplished, would be his legacy to history.  His Emancipation Proclamation two years before had been a good start, but it was a war measure and might easily be overturned in the future.  This constitutional amendment would be the permanent solution.  As he told a crowd on the very day it was sent to the states for ratification: “This amendment is a King’s cure for all the evils.  It winds the whole thing up.”  We can be thankful for the Great Emancipator’s vital role in ‘winding the whole thing up’ and finally ridding the nation of the scourge of slavery.

One final note: For the record, the first state to ratify the lucky 13th Amendment – and on the very day it was submitted to the states for consideration – was none other than Lincoln’s adopted home state of Illinois.  Perhaps her people felt a little guilty that they had been one of just three states to ratify the earlier unlucky amendment, and the only one of these three to not have rescinded it!

LinkedIn-LogoSquareKevin J. Wood

January 31, 2016