Lincoln’s Gracious Letter to a Tiny, but Admiring, Republic

On this date (May 7) in the year 1861, the President of the world’s largest republic responded to a curious letter sent to him by the leaders of perhaps the world’s smallest republic.

At the time, the modern republican form of government, which had seemed to hold so much promise during the early part of the century, now seemed doomed to failure.  Numerous republics in Europe and the Americas had proved short-lived and had slid into political chaos or reverted to monarchies, empires, or dictatorships.  In fact, for many people all around the world, the crisis in the United States would ultimately decide the question of whether a people could govern themselves, whether popular government was a viable option.

A few weeks after Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration, the government of “the Most Serene Republic of San Marino” sent him a letter, written in both Italian and English.  San Marino, which claims to be the oldest republic in the world, is located in the northern part of the Italian peninsula, about ten miles inland from the Adriatic Sea.  Its area is only 24 square miles – less than half the size of Washington, DC – and it had only about 7,000 inhabitants in 1861.

The letter from the “Regent Captains of the Republic of San Marino” to Lincoln read as follows:

… It is a some while since the Republic of San Marino wishes to make alliance with the United States of America in that manner as it is possible between a great Potency and a very small country.

As we think not extension of territories but conformity of opinions to procure friendly relations, so we are sure you will be glad to shake hands with a people who in its smallness and poverty can exhibit to you an antiquity from fourteen centuries of its free government.

Now we must inform you, that to give to the United States of America a mark of high consideration and sincere fraternity … the citizenship of the Republic of San Marino was conferred for ever to the President … of the United States of America and we are very happy to send you the diploma of it.

We are acquainted from newspapers with political griefs, which you are now suffering therefore we pray to God to grant you a peaceful solution of your questions.  Nevertheless we hope our letter will not reach you disagreeable, and we shall expect anxiously an answer which proves us your kind acceptance.

By the time Lincoln received the letter – it was delayed because they sent it to New York, apparently thinking that city was the capital – the Civil War had already begun, and the President and his administration were surely quite busy.  Yet something about the letter prompted Lincoln and his Secretary of State William H. Seward to send back an equally gracious reply, dated May 7:

Great and Good Friends

I have received and read with great sensibility the letter which as Regent Captains of the Republic of San Marino you addressed to me on the 29th of March last.  I thank the Council of San Marino for the honor of citizenship they have conferred upon me.

Although your dominion is small, your State is nevertheless one of the most honored, in all history.  It has by its experience demonstrated the truth, so full of encouragement to the friends of Humanity, that Government founded on Republican principles is capable of being so administered as to be secure and enduring.

You have kindly adverted to the trial through which this Republic is now passing.  It is one of deep import.  It involves the question whether a Representative republic, extended and aggrandized so much as to be safe against foreign enemies can save itself from the dangers of domestic faction.  I have faith in a good result.

Wishing that your interesting State may endure and flourish forever, and that you may live long and enjoy the confidence and secure the gratitude of your fellow citizens, I pray God to have you in his holy keeping.  Your Good Friend

Abraham Lincoln

By the President

William H. Seward, Secretary of State

It’s possible, of course, that this letter was written entirely by Seward or even one of his staff, and that Lincoln had little or nothing to do with it.  But when one considers that Lincoln’s message to Congress just two months later would include some of these same ideas, and that they would come up again later in others of his speeches and writings, most notably in a little address at Gettysburg, it would not be at all surprising if he did have a hand in it.

In any event, the long and continued existence of perhaps the world’s smallest republic was an encouragement “that Government founded on Republican principles is capable of being so administered as to be secure and enduring”.  Yet, it’s one thing for San Marino and her 7,000 inhabitants, isolated in a mountain enclave, to endure.  Would it – could it – also prove true for the world’s largest republic, one stretching over an entire continent and containing 32 million people?  Only time, and a great struggle, would tell.

Kevin J. Wood

May 7, 2019

Lincoln and the Supreme Court: Little Drama, Much Impact

During his four-year, one-month Presidency, Abraham Lincoln nominated five judges to the U.S. Supreme Court, including one Chief Justice.  All five were approved within one week.  That’s right: no drama, no meticulous background investigations, no rancorous and divisive hearings, no grandstanding politicians, and no endless media coverage!

But this is not to say that the topic of the Supreme Court didn’t generate controversy in Lincoln’s day.  Just the opposite!  Lincoln himself had even claimed – in response to the 1857 Dred Scott v. Sandford decision – that the Court was part of a vast conspiracy to nationalize the institution of slavery [see my June 27, 2015 blog for more on that].  And there was a huge ongoing debate about how to restructure the entire federal court system, which was outdated and overburdened due to the growth of the country in both size and population.  Would it surprise you to learn that for decades Congress had been slow to modify the court system, in large part due to partisan and sectional bickering?

It should be noted that back then, Supreme Court justices also presided over the federal circuit courts; they actually travelled twice each year to their assigned regions to hear cases.  In fact, they spent more time “riding the circuit” than in Washington.  Lincoln himself had argued cases at Chicago before Justice John McLean, whose circuit included Illinois.  And although in most cases there was not an explicit residency requirement, the justices were generally chosen from the regions they would serve, thus preserving a geographic diversity on the Court.

By the time Lincoln became President in 1861, the federal court system was badly in need of restructuring.  In addition, one justice had died in 1860 and another did so just one month after Lincoln’s inauguration (McLean), and still another had resigned in order to join the Confederate government as Assistant Secretary of War (John A. Campbell, the only southern justice to resign).

In his first Annual Message to Congress on December 3, 1861, Lincoln explained that he had not yet made nominations for the three vacancies in part because two of the seats had traditionally been held by southerners and this presented obvious difficulties:

Two of the outgoing judges resided within the States now overrun by revolt; so that if successors were appointed in the same localities, they could not now serve upon their circuits; and many of the most competent men there, probably would not take the personal hazard of accepting to serve, even here, upon the supreme bench.  I have been unwilling to throw all the appointments northward, thus disabling myself from doing justice to the south on the return of peace; although I may remark that to transfer to the north one which has heretofore been in the south, would not, with reference to territory and population, be unjust.

Lincoln then described the great need for a restructuring, noting the very large population now contained in McLean’s circuit – “his circuit grew into an empire” – and the fact that “besides this, the country generally has outgrown our present judicial system”.  He was especially critical of the lack of uniformity, as the last eight states admitted to the Union were excluded entirely from the circuit court system (they were attended by district courts instead), and concluded: “Circuit courts are useful, or they are not useful.  If useful, no State should be denied them; if not useful, no State should have them.  Let them be provided for all, or abolished as to all.

In all this we see Lincoln’s overriding concern that fairness and justice be the goals of any changes to the court system.  He then offered three proposals for fixing the problems:

Three modifications occur to me, either of which, I think, would be an improvement upon our present system.  Let the Supreme Court be of convenient number in every event.  Then, first, let the whole country be divided into circuits of convenient size, the supreme judges to serve in a number of them corresponding to their own number, and independent circuit judges be provided for all the rest.  Or, secondly, let the supreme judges be relieved from circuit duties, and circuit judges provided for all the circuits.  Or, thirdly, dispense with circuit courts altogether, leaving the judicial functions wholly to the district courts and an independent Supreme Court.

Lincoln decided to fill McLean’s seat in January 1862, nominating Noah Haynes Swayne, who like McLean was from Ohio, and whom the Senate confirmed just three days later.  But then he waited on Congress.

Congress finally responded in July 1862 by redrawing the nine circuits to include all the states except California and Oregon in the far west, also making them more equitable in terms of population served.  Since the north had grown much more than the south in population since the last restructuring in 1837, this had the effect of – to use Lincoln’s earlier quaint phrase – “throwing the appointments northward”.  Southerners had previously outnumbered northerners on the Court 5-4; now northerners would outnumber southerners 6-3.

The very next day, Lincoln asked his Attorney General Edward Bates to prepare the nomination of Samuel Freeman Miller of Iowa for one of the newly redrawn circuits.  Lincoln’s hand-written note to Bates was remarkably brief and informal:

Please send me nominations, of Samuel F. Miller, of Iowa, as a Justice of the Supreme Court, for the Circuit in which Iowa is included; and of ________ Trigg (you have his first name) for District Judge in Tennessee.

That same day, Bates provided Lincoln with Miller’s nomination and Lincoln sent it to the Senate: “I nominate Samuel F. Miller of Iowa to be Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States.”  The Senate confirmed Miller in just half an hour.

Later that fall, with Congress not in session, Lincoln appointed his old Illinois friend David Davis to the final vacancy by way of a recess appointment.  When Congress reconvened on December 1, Lincoln nominated Davis for a regular appointment, and the Senate confirmed him exactly one week later.

Congress made a further change in March 1863, adding a tenth circuit for California and Oregon, which therefore increased the number of justices on the court from nine to ten.  Lincoln immediately nominated Stephen Johnson Field of California for the new position, and he was approved just four days later.

Then in October 1864, Chief Justice Roger Taney, author of the despised Dred Scott decision, did Lincoln a great favor by passing away.  Not only was the Court rid of Taney, but now Lincoln had a convenient solution to his problem of finding a new post for his former Secretary of Treasury, and Presidential wannabe, Salmon P. Chase.

Lincoln’s nomination of Chase as Chief Justice on December 6 was approved by the Senate on the very same day.  Whereas Taney had declared that black slaves and their descendants could never be citizens of the United States, one of Chase’s first actions was to accept the application of John Rock, a black lawyer, to practice before the Court.

Lincoln’s five appointments, including his appointment of Chase as Chief Justice, along with the redrawing of the circuits done by Congress, totally remade the Supreme Court.  It is probably no exaggeration to say that Lincoln’s impact on the Court was greater than that of all of our other presidents except for Washington (who named the entire first Court), John Adams (who appointed John Marshall as Chief Justice), Andrew Jackson (who appointed six justices, including Taney as Chief Justice), and Franklin D. Roosevelt (who appointed eight justices, although he failed in his attempt to “pack the court”).

And, as already noted, Lincoln’s five nominees were approved by the Senate in three, zero, seven, four, and zero days, an average of less than three days (and one in just half an hour).  One wonders what Lincoln would think of the current confirmation process!

Kevin J. Wood

October 5, 2018

Readin’, Writin’, and Cipherin’: Young Abraham Lincoln at School

Among the many original manuscripts in existence today which were written by Abraham Lincoln, only one dates from his boyhood.  It consists of 11 leaves (22 pages) from one of his school notebooks, likely written when he was between 13 and 17 years old.  The leaves are housed at 12 different locations (one of the leaves is cut in half): the Library of Congress, six university libraries, three museums, and two private collections.

While growing up on the frontier in Kentucky and Indiana, young Abraham Lincoln only attended five sessions of school, most of these lasting only about two months in the middle of winter.  As Lincoln would recall many years later in a brief autobiographical account provided to newspaper editor John Locke Scripps in June 1860, writing about himself in the third person: “[Abraham] went to A.B.C. schools by littles … [he] now thinks that the agregate of all his schooling did not amount to one year.

In those frontier schools, the students did not have textbooks.  Instead, each student made for himself a copybook, which in the case of mathematics was called a ciphering (cyphering) book or a sum book.  This was made by taking several sheets of paper, folding them in half, and then sewing or tying them together.  The teacher would dictate quotations, mathematical rules, problems, etc. which the students would write down in their copybooks, or in the case of the youngest students, the teacher might write them down himself.

At some point, Lincoln apparently gave this ciphering book – which included his last session of formal schooling – to his stepmother, because it was she who presented it to Lincoln’s friend and law partner William Herndon after Lincoln’s death, and he in turn gifted the various leaves to different people.

As for the teachers in those frontier schools and what Lincoln learned from them, this is what he himself had to say in another autobiographical account, this one written for his friend Jesse Fell in December 1859:

There were some schools, so called; but no qualification was ever required of a teacher, beyond “readin, writin, and cipherin,” to the Rule of Three.  If a straggler supposed to understand latin, happened to so-journ in the neighborhood, he was looked upon as a wizzard.  There was absolutely nothing to excite ambition for education.  Of course when I came of age I did not know much.  Still somehow, I could read, write, and cipher to the Rule of Three; but that was all.

You’ve probably already figured out that “ciphering” refers to arithmetic and perhaps other branches of mathematics.  But you probably have no clue about “the Rule of Three”; you can discover what that was by looking through Lincoln’s own ciphering book.

The first three pages contain problems of simple subtraction, multiplication, and division.  Note that simple – as opposed to compound – does not necessarily mean easy!  Here is one of the problems which young Abe worked out correctly: 20,254 x 4,433 = 89,785,982.

One gets the idea that Abe must have completed his work more quickly than some of his classmates, because these first few pages are also interspersed with little poems such as:

Abraham Lincoln his hand and pen he will be good but god knows When


Abraham Lincoln is my nam[e]

And with my pen I wrote the same

I wrote in both hast[e] and speed

and left it here for fools to read

The next two pages of Lincoln’s ciphering book address compound addition and multiplication, in which the quantities consist of mixed (non-decimal) denominations.  For example, distance is measured in miles, furlongs, yards, feet, inches, etc.; dry goods are measured in bushels, pecks, etc.; the old English monetary system used pounds, shillings, and pence; and so on.  In early 19th-century America, being able to perform arithmetic on such compound units was essential to commerce and industry.  And as the primary function of schools was to prepare children for their future work, this was an important part of the curriculum.

Here’s a problem for dry measure worked out by young Abe in his copybook; to solve this you need to know that there are four pecks in a bushel, and eight bushels in a quarter: [19 quarters, 1 bushel, 1 peck] – [12 quarters, 7 bushels, 2 pecks] = [6 quarters, 1 bushel, 3 pecks].

It was after these topics of simple and compound arithmetic that a student might advance to the “Rule of Three”.  An 1821 text explains the “Direct Rule of Three” as follows: “Teacheth, by three numbers given, to find out a fourth, in such proportion to the third as the second is to the first”.  Thus, this is what we would call a ratio, and brings us to basic algebra.  [By the way, my daughters, who went to school in Spain, knew exactly what the “Rule of Three” was when I mentioned it to them; they had been taught “la regla de tres” as the way to solve ratios!]

Here’s a problem which Lincoln worked out on the sixth page of his ciphering book: “If 3 oz. of silver cost 17 shillings, what will 48 oz. cost?”  He correctly calculated the solution to be 272 shillings, or 13 pounds and 12 shillings (there were 20 shillings in a pound).

In the direct rule of three, the proportions are directly related, i.e., move in the same direction: more of one means more of the other.  There was also the inverse rule of three, involving an inverse proportion, where more requires less and less requires more.

The seventh page of Lincoln’s ciphering book deals with the “double rule of three”, in which there are three instead of just two factors which vary.  Here is one of the problems he solved: “If 4 men in 5 days eat 7 lb. of bread how much will be suficient for 16 men 15 days”; the answer, as he correctly worked out, is 84 lb.

Although Lincoln later claimed that he had learned to “read, write, and cipher to the Rule of Three; but that was all”, this was either a conscious or unconscious underestimate of what he had actually learned.  The final four pages of his ciphering book cover the additional topics of simple interest, compound interest, and discount.  Here is one of the problems on simple interest which young Abe worked out correctly: “what is the interest of £216 – 5s for one year at 5½ percent per annum?”  The answer in pounds, shillings, and pence is: £11 – 17s – 10½p.

Although Lincoln’s formal education was most definitely deficient even by the standards of his day, the topics and problems in his ciphering book demonstrate that he learned as much about mathematics as some high-school graduates today.  He did so without calculators, computers, or even textbooks.  And most importantly, as everyone knows, he never let his lack of schooling hold him back.  In the first of the autobiographical accounts cited earlier, Lincoln went on to modestly explain how he continued his education through self-study during the rest of his life:

He was never in a college or Academy as a student; and never inside of a college or accademy building till since he had a law-license.  What he has in the way of education, he has picked up.  After he was twentythree, and had separated from his father, he studied English grammar, imperfectly of course, but so as to speak and write as well as he now does.  He studied and nearly mastered the Six-books of Euclid, since he was a member of Congress.  He regrets his want of education, and does what he can to supply the want.

In this, as in so many ways, Abraham Lincoln is an example for all of us, whether we are heading back to a formal school setting this fall or not.  May we all make an effort to “supply the want” in our education throughout our lives.

Kevin J. Wood

September 5, 2018

Lincoln’s “Lost Speech”: His Greatest Speech Ever?

You’ve heard of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, maybe even memorized it.  You might also know about his “House Divided” speech, his Cooper Union speech, and his two inaugural addresses.  Yet some claim that Lincoln’s greatest speech wasn’t any of these, but rather one you’ve never read nor recited, for the simple reason that it was lost to history.

It is known simply as the “Lost Speech”, and it was delivered at Bloomington, IL on May 29, 1856 at an exceedingly tense and tumultuous time.  Two years previous, the great slavery debate had exploded in greater furor than ever before due to Senator Stephen Douglas’s Kansas-Nebraska Act.  Up to that point, slavery had been contained in just one part of the country with the hope, and the expectation, that one day the nation might be rid of it entirely; now slavery would be allowed to spread into the west and even into the north, and we might never be rid of it.

This prompted an entire re-ordering of the political landscape.  Prior differences between Democrats and Whigs over other issues moved to the background as the defining issue now became whether one was for or against Douglas’s bill.  The Whig Party soon collapsed under the weight of the situation, and there emerged a movement to gather all the “anti-Nebraska” forces – i.e., all those who were opposed to the extension of slavery – into one political force, if not one entirely new political party.

By early 1856, a presidential election year, this movement was coalescing under the name “Republican”.  The new party would hold its first-ever national convention in the middle of June in Philadelphia to nominate candidates and adopt a platform.  State conventions were likewise called in many of the northern states; in Illinois, it was decided to hold the convention in Bloomington on May 29.

During the week leading up to the Bloomington convention, the tensions suddenly escalated significantly.  Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts was brutally beaten on the Senate floor by South Carolina Congressman Preston Brooks in retaliation for Sumner’s speech denouncing the Kansas-Nebraska Act, in which he also mocked Brooks’ cousin, Senator Andrew Butler; the outrage in the North was loud and strong, while in the South, Brooks was praised.  Meanwhile, out in Kansas, the anti-slavery stronghold of Lawrence was ransacked by pro-slavery ruffians, and three days later a group of men led by John Brown retaliated by killing five pro-slavery settlers north of Pottawatomie Creek; “Bleeding Kansas” was well underway.  And right here in Illinois, an anti-slavery editor named Paul Selby, who would have been one of the leaders of the Bloomington convention, was viciously attacked by pro-slavery sympathizers and now lay at home recovering from his injuries.

Amid all this tension, the Bloomington convention did its work, hearing speeches, nominating candidates, and adopting resolutions.  Lincoln chaired the nominating committee for state offices and was named a delegate to the upcoming national convention – an honor he would have to decline because he had neither the time nor the money to attend – as well as a statewide elector-at-large for the Presidential election.  But he was passed over for what he would have most desired: an opportunity to address the crowd.

As the convention drew to a close around 5:30 pm, however, many of the delegates and visitors were in no mood to leave, and a crowd of over a thousand men was still gathered in and around the hall.  It was then that some of them started calling out for Lincoln.  They may have only wanted some of his funny stories, but what he gave them instead was a rousing, hour-and-a-half-long speech.

The traditional story is that the speech was ‘lost’ because the newspapermen and others were so enthralled that they stopped taking notes.  William Herndon, Lincoln’s friend and law partner, claimed that he “attempted for about fifteen minutes … to take notes, but at the end of that time I threw pen and paper away and lived only in the inspiration of the hour.  If Mr. Lincoln was six feet, four inches high usually, at Bloomington that day he was seven feet, and inspired at that.

It is just as likely, however, that Lincoln and other party leaders deliberately suppressed its publication, given that he directed his words to a highly partisan crowd.  In an election year, it wasn’t the kind of message that would have been politically expedient to share with a broader audience.

But this doesn’t mean that the newspapers, as well as individuals, didn’t report on Lincoln’s speech.  Herndon called it “full of fire and energy and force: it was logic; it was pathos; it was enthusiasm; it was justice, equity, truth, and right set ablaze by the divine fires of a soul maddened by the wrong; it was hard, heavy, knotty, gnarly, backed with wrath”.  Editor ‘Long John’ Wentworth of the Chicago Democrat reported that “Abraham Lincoln for an hour and a half held the assemblage spellbound by the power of his argument, the intense irony of his invective, the brilliancy of his eloquence.  I shall not mar any of its fine proportions by attempting even a synopsis of it.

The only paper that did attempt a synopsis appears to be the Alton Weekly Courier, which reported: “Abraham Lincoln, of Sangamon, came upon the platform amid deafening applause.  He enumerated the pressing reasons of the present movement.  He was here ready to fuse with anyone who would unite with him to oppose slave power; spoke of the bugbear disunion which was so vaguely threatened.  It was to be remembered that the Union must be preserved in the purity of its principles as well as in the integrity of its territorial parts.  It must be ‘Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable’.  The sentiment in favor of white slavery now prevailed in all the slave state papers, except those of Kentucky, Tennessee and Missouri and Maryland.  Such was the progress of the National Democracy.  Douglas once claimed against him that Democracy favored more than his principles, the individual rights of man.  Was it not strange that he must stand there now to defend those rights against their former eulogist?  The Black Democracy were endeavoring to cite Henry Clay to reconcile old Whigs to their doctrine, and repaid them with the very cheap compliment of National Whigs.

Lincoln’s primary objective seems to have been to unite all the disparate elements then coalescing into the new Republican Party, inspiring them to put aside their differences and commit wholeheartedly to the movement to fight against the extension of slavery.  The increasingly violent slave power must be resisted, Kansas must be free, republican principles must be preserved, and the Union must be maintained.

In the judgment of Elwell Crissey, who wrote the definitive book on the speech in 1967, appropriately entitled Lincoln’s Lost Speech, only two brief quotes are unmistakably preserved.  The first came near the beginning, when Lincoln was responding to an alarming appeal made by James Emery of Kansas, the final speaker at the convention, who had called for armed men to go to Kansas.  Lincoln urged moderation and a different approach: “No, my friends, I’ll tell you what we will do.  We will wait until November, and then we will shoot paper ballots at them.”  Lincoln would return to this theme of “ballots, not bullets” in later speeches, including his July 4, 1861 message to Congress.  The second well-documented quote came near the end, when Lincoln was speaking against the ‘bugbear’ of dissolution: “We say to our Southern brethren: ‘We won’t go out of the Union, and you shan’t!’

Although Lincoln’s original speech was ‘lost’, I’m pleased to report that an audience at “Lincoln’s Festival on Route 66” in that very same city of Bloomington was treated to a re-creation of it this past Sunday!  That’s right, I found everything I could about it and pieced together what I think is a reasonable facsimile, although abridged to about half an hour.  With the introductory and concluding material, it made a nice hour-long program, which I am now offering to whomever wants to see it so that they might decide for themselves whether it really was Lincoln’s greatest speech ever.

Kevin J. Wood

July 28, 2018

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