Aroused As Never Before: Nebraska, Peoria, and Lincoln’s Revival

When Abraham Lincoln turned 45 years old in February of 1854, he was a successful and contented man with no great political aspirations. He had previously served for eight years as a State legislator and later for two more in the U.S. House of Representatives, but for the past five years he had focused almost exclusively on his legal career. In his own words, he “was losing interest in politics”, but then something happened which “aroused him as he had never been before”.

That ‘something’ was known in his day simply as ‘Nebraska’. This was not the State – which did not yet exist – nor even the Territory of Nebraska, but rather the shorthand form of referring to the Kansas-Nebraska Act. This law, proposed by Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas and finally passed by Congress in May 1854 following a contentious debate, overturned the provision in the Missouri Compromise of 1820 which had prohibited slavery in the northern half of the vast territory acquired in the Louisiana Purchase. Congress was essentially renouncing its right to regulate slavery in the territories and future states. This meant that slavery, instead of being contained in the South with the hope that it would eventually die out, was now being given new life and would likely extend much further than it could have otherwise.

As already noted, the passage of ‘Nebraska’ aroused Lincoln – as well as many others in the north – from his slumber regarding the slavery question. The political world was swiftly divided into ‘Nebraska men’ and ‘anti-Nebraska men’, with the latter soon coalescing around the brand-new Republican Party, formed to oppose the further extension of slavery.

Lincoln’s return to the fray, as a decidedly anti-Nebraska man, was marked by a speech he delivered in at least three central Illinois cities in the fall of 1854, but which came to be known as his ‘Peoria speech’ (photo taken last weekend of me with the John McClarey statue entitled “Lincoln Draws the Line”, which commemorates this speech). It is one of my favorite Lincoln speeches, as it clearly demonstrates his political convictions, logical thought, eloquence, and persuasivness. In fact, when I participated in the ‘Lincoln Days’ Celebration Look-Alike Contest last month in Hodgenville, Kentucky, I pronounced the following brief selection from the speech:

“The doctrine of self-government is right – absolutely and eternally right – but it has no just application, as here attempted. Or perhaps I should rather say that whether it has such just application depends upon whether a negro is not or is a man. If he is not a man, why in that case, he who is a man may, as a matter of self-government, do just as he pleases with him. But if the negro is a man, is it not to that extent, a total destruction of self-government, to say that he too shall not govern himself? 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. If the negro is a man, why then my ancient faith teaches me that ‘all men are created equal’; and that there can be no moral right in connection with one man’s making a slave of another.

“… Little by little, but steadily as man’s march to the grave, we have been giving up the old for the new faith. Near eighty years ago we began by declaring that all men are created equal; but now from that beginning we have run down to the other declaration, that for some men to enslave others is a ‘sacred right of self-government’. These principles can not stand together. They are as opposite as God and mammon; and whoever holds to the one, must despise the other…

“Let no one be deceived. The spirit of seventy-six and the spirit of Nebraska, are utter antagonisms; and the former is being rapidly displaced by the latter.

“Fellow countrymen – Americans south, as well as north, shall we make no effort to arrest this? … Is there no danger to liberty itself, in discarding the earliest practice, and first precept of our ancient faith? …

“Let us turn slavery from its claims of ‘moral right’, back upon its existing legal rights, and its arguments of ‘necessity’. Let us return it to the position our fathers gave it; and there let it rest in peace. Let us re-adopt the Declaration of Independence, and with it, the practices, and policy, which harmonize with it. Let north and south – let all Americans – let all lovers of liberty everywhere – join in the great and good work. If we do this, we shall not only have saved the Union; but we shall have so saved it, as to make, and to keep it, forever worthy of the saving. We shall have so saved it, that the succeeding millions of free happy people, the world over, shall rise up, and call us blessed, to the latest generations.”

Did Lincoln’s three-hour-long speech “play in Peoria”? (i.e., was it well received?) Most definitely! It launched him on a path which would quickly make him the leading ‘anti-Nebraska’ voice in Illinois, and which would gradually increase his national prominence over the next six years, culminating in his stunning nomination by the Republican Party for the Presidential election of 1860.

We can be thankful that ‘Nebraska’ aroused Lincoln as never before, and enticed him back into politics and the fight against the extension of slavery. We can also be thankful that he would have many further opportunities to inspire the people of his day through his speeches and writings over the next eleven years. We cannot help but to be inspired still today by his words.

LinkedIn-LogoSquareKevin J. Wood

November 1, 2015

“Land of Opportunity”: Lincoln on Immigration

The issue of immigration has been getting a lot of attention recently, both in North America and in Europe.  It was also a hot topic back in Abraham Lincoln’s day!

From a young age, Lincoln would have been well aware of the fact that the United States was a country of immigrants.  His own family was descended from Samuel Lincoln who emigrated from England to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1637.  He would also have realized that the only people who could truly call themselves natives of the land were the Indians, one of whom had shot and killed Lincoln’s own grandfather – and namesake – on the frontier of Kentucky long before young Abe was born.

In Lincoln’s day, our young country was growing quickly – a doubling of the population every 25 years or less – in large part due to immigration.  Given the ever-expanding size of our territory and economy, we were needing more and more workers, but some of our citizens were concerned because many of the newer immigrants were from Ireland or Germany.  Nearly all of the former and many of the latter were Roman Catholic, raising suspicions about whether they would be loyal to our democratic republican form of government.  This led to the rise of nativist political parties, including the so-called “Know Nothings”, who wanted to make it more difficult for immigrants to become citizens and to vote, and also to exclude foreign-born persons from holding any public office.  [Interestingly, exactly 100 years after Lincoln’s election as President, the great-grandson of eight of these Irish immigrants would become our first Catholic President.]

Lincoln’s good friend Joshua Speed wrote to him in 1855 to ask whether he had joined the Know-Nothing camp, as some of his political allies had done.  Lincoln responded as follows: “I am not a Know-Nothing.  That is certain.  How could I be?  How can anyone who abhors the oppression of negroes, be in favor of degrading classes of white people?  Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid.  As a nation, we began by declaring that ‘all men are created equal’.  We now practically read it ‘all men are created equal, except negroes’.  When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read ‘all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics’.  When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty – to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.”

Then when Lincoln was running against Stephen Douglas for the U.S. Senate in 1858, both of them spoke in Chicago shortly after the Fourth of July holiday.  Noting that about half of our population had either come from Europe themselves or were descended from people who had come after our country’s founding, Lincoln said that these people should not feel that they were any less a part of our country than those descended from people present at its founding.  “When they look through that old Declaration of Independence they find that those old men say that ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,’ and then they feel that that moral sentiment taught in that day evidences their relation to those men, that it is the father of all moral principle in them, and that they have a right to claim it as though they were blood of the blood, and flesh of the men who wrote that Declaration, and so they are.  That is the electric cord in that Declaration that links the hearts of patriotic and liberty-loving men together, that will link those patriotic hearts as long as the love of freedom exists in the minds of men throughout the world.”

Lincoln’s actions back up his words.  Many German immigrants had moved to Illinois, and they were naturally drawn to the newly established Republican Party due to its opposition to the spread of slavery.  Lincoln courted their vote, even purchasing a German-language newspaper to ensure that his message reached this vital constituency.

As President, Lincoln advocated for the recruitment of Catholic priests – and later, Jewish rabbis – to serve as chaplains.  And in his annual message to Congress in December, 1863, he asked that body to again consider “the expediency of establishing a system for the encouragement of immigration” given the increased demand for workers in our ever-expanding country coupled with the fact that “tens of thousands of persons, destitute of remunerative occupation, are thronging our foreign consulates, and offering to emigrate to the United States if essential, but very cheap, assistance can be afforded them.  It is easy to see that, under the sharp discipline of civil war, the nation is beginning a new life.”  Congress responded by passing an act to encourage immigration on the following July 4 and appropriated $25,000 to that end.

That same summer, the Republican (National Union) Party re-nominated Lincoln for President and included in its platform a resolution “that foreign immigration, which in the past has added so much to the wealth, development of resources and increase of power to this nation, the asylum of the oppressed of all nations, should be fostered and encouraged by a liberal and just policy.”

The new act was apparently successful, because that fall, Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Proclamation counted the increase in population due to immigration as one of the blessings of God of the previous year.  However, a new problem soon arose: frauds being perpetrated against the immigrants in their journey and settlement here.  Lincoln would have none of that, and requested in his next annual message (December, 1864) that the act be amended to provide the necessary protections by the national government.  He also wished to make it clear that the new immigrants would not be involuntarily subjected to military service.

All of this is not to say that Lincoln would necessarily be in favor of every pro-immigration proposal which has been suggested in our time.  The context and issues are entirely different.  But I believe that it does give us an accurate picture of what Lincoln’s general attitude toward immigrants and refugees would be, even toward those who are different from the majority population in ethnicity or religion.  As his law partner and friend Billy Herndon testified, Lincoln “had no prejudices against any class… tolerating – as I never could – even the Irish”, even though this group was disliked by many and voted overwhelmingly for the Democratic Party and therefore against Lincoln.

LinkedIn-LogoSquareKevin J. Wood

September 26, 2015

The Supreme Court: The Final Word? (Also, Lincoln Talks Housebuilding)

The US Supreme Court normally receives far less attention than the other two branches of the Federal government, except of course when it issues highly significant or controversial decisions. Such was certainly the case this week with the Court’s rulings on the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) and, most especially, same-sex marriage.

Now that the Supreme Court has spoken on these issues, this means that they’ve been settled forever, right? Yes and no!

On the one hand, a Supreme Court decision cannot be appealed to a higher court, and so in this sense its rulings are final. On the other hand, Supreme Court decisions are not always the final word, mostly because the power ultimately resides in the will of the people, not in the government. The legislative body could pass a new law which addresses the issues that the Court found unconstitutional, a constitutional amendment could change the underlying basis of the decision, or the Supreme Court itself could reverse the decision in a later case. While not common, each of these has happened in the past.

In fact, the XIV Amendment to the Constitution, which was the basis for the Supreme Court’s same-sex marriage decision yesterday, is itself a prime example of how a Court ruling is sometimes not the final word!

Among the many factors contributing to the Civil War, one was the feeling among northerners that a “slave conspiracy” had infiltrated the Federal government with the intention of making slavery legal nationwide. This was fueled especially by the southern-dominated Supreme Court, which in 1857 decided in Dred Scott v. Sandford that Congress had no authority to exclude slavery from the territories, and also that blacks, even free ones, were not citizens and were therefore not afforded the protections of the Constitution. The next logical step of the Court would be to rule that no state could prohibit slavery within its boundaries. Before that could happen, however, the Civil War would break out.

Abraham Lincoln gave a humorous illustration of how pro-slavery forces had intentionally and concertedly enacted a framework of laws in order to extend slavery into the territories in his famous “House Divided” speech in 1858, when he was facing incumbent Senator Stephen Douglas:

“We cannot absolutely know that all these exact adaptations are the result of preconcert. But when we see a lot of framed timbers, different portions of which we know have been gotten out at different times and places, and by different workmen – Stephen, Franklin, Roger, and James, for instance – and when we see these timbers joined together, and see they exactly matte the frame of a house or a mill, all the tenons and mortices exactly fitting, and all the lengths and proportions of the different pieces exactly adapted to their respective places, and not a piece too many or too few, – not omitting even scaffolding – or, if a single piece be lacking, we see the place in the frame exactly fitted and prepared yet to bring such piece in – in such a case we find it impossible not to believe that Stephen and Franklin and Roger and James all understood one another from the beginning and all worked upon a common plan or draft drawn up before the first blow was struck.”

By using just first names, Lincoln was by no means trying to protect the guilty: ‘Stephen’ was quite obviously his rival Stephen Douglas, while ‘Franklin’ was former President Franklin Pierce, ‘Roger’ was Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Taney, and ‘James’ was current President James Buchanan. As just one example of how they apparently conspired together, Buchanan stated in his inaugural address that he would abide by whatever ruling the Supreme Court gave in Dred Scott v. Sandford, and just two days later Taney announced the decision.

But what a difference a few years, and a great and terrible war, brought about! After the Civil War, three “Reconstruction Amendments” were passed. The XIII Amendment (1865) abolished slavery and involuntary servitude nationwide, except as punishment for a crime. The XIV Amendment (1868) provided for, among other things, citizenship rights (thus overturning Dred Scott v. Sandford), due process of law (the basis for the 1973 Roe v. Wade abortion decision), and equal protection under the law (the basis for the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision against “separate but equal” facilities for whites and blacks, as well as for yesterday’s same-sex marriage decision). Finally, the XV Amendment (1870) prohibited denying a citizen the right to vote based on race, skin color, or previous condition of servitude.

So is the same-sex marriage issue decided forever in the USA? Maybe, or maybe not. It took just 11 years to completely overturn the Supreme Court’s transcendental and apparently permanent decision (by a 7-2 vote, no less) on whether black Americans could be citizens. As with northerners’ concerns in those days that the Court would rule that no state could prohibit slavery, perhaps thoughtful consideration by the American people today about the logical next steps on the definition of marriage will play a part. For example, if no law can limit marriage to people of opposite genders, how can a law limit it to just two people, and not three or more?

Whatever comes to pass with same-sex marriage in the coming years, let us hope and pray that we will not have to go through another civil war, whether literal or figurative, as part of that process.

LinkedIn-LogoSquareKevin J. Wood

June 27, 2015

An Unpopular Truth: Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address

Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address is likely his most well-known speech with the exception of his Gettysburg Address. Not surprisingly, these are the two speeches which are engraved in marble in the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC.

Lincoln had used his First Inaugural Address four years earlier to analyze what the Constitution had to say about the crisis facing our nation at that time. He had attempted to persuade the South to voluntarily turn back from the path it had taken without compromising the integrity of the Constitution and system of government. That did not happen, and instead, as Lincoln would now say in his Second Inaugural, “Both parties deprecated war; but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive; and the other would accept war rather than let it perish. And the war came.

The war had come, and finally, four long years later, it was apparently nearing its end. After so many setbacks and deceptions, the President could now confidently express “high hope for the future”. Facing a dramatically different situation, Lincoln’s speech was also entirely different. It was much shorter than the first, and did not mention the Constitution at all. Curiously, Lincoln spoke very little about the future, and devoted the bulk of his speech to the past, and in a way surely not expected by his audience that day. It’s as if he wanted to say, “Hold on a minute. Before we leave behind this terrible experience, let’s reflect upon it to discover what we are supposed to learn from it.”

Looking back on the past four years, Lincoln didn’t do the expected, i.e., defend his administration’s record. Instead, he offered a theological treatise on the reasons for the war. He first noted that the issue of slavery “was, somehow, the cause of the war” (another topic I have already addressed), and that neither side had expected such a long, difficult, and momentous struggle. He then observed that both sides “read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other”. At this point he took his only swipe at the South – “It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces” (a reference to Genesis 3:19) – but then he quickly added, “but let us judge not that we be not judged” (a quotation from Matthew 7:1).

Lincoln then noted that the ultimate purpose for the war could only be found in God, who must have had a purpose which far outweighed those of either North or South: “The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has his own purposes.” And what were God’s purposes for the Civil War? Nothing short of a punishment on our nation for the sin of human slavery, as Lincoln asserted in the defining passage of his speech, starting with a direct quotation from Matthew 18:7 and ending with another from Psalm 19:9:

‘Woe unto the world because of offences! for it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh!’ If we shall suppose that American Slavery is one of those offences which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South, this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offence came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a Living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope – fervently do we pray – that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether’.

With that, Lincoln turned from the past to the future. His audience was surely expecting to learn what the administration planned to do once the war was over in order to reunite the country and re-build the South. Yet on this point, Lincoln was extremely brief and not very specific, appealing to the people to be forgiving and magnanimous: “With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan – to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.

Any doubt about Lincoln’s own religious beliefs at this point in his life should be unequivocally squashed by this profoundly theological speech. He referenced God thirteen times, prayer four times, and the Bible once, while also citing Scripture four times. It was an unapologetic defense of traditional Judeo-Christian beliefs regarding the sovereignty and providence of God and of humankind’s responsibility before Him. Furthermore, these were not new ideas; Lincoln had made similar claims in other writings during the previous three years. Finally, it was not a speech he had to make; he chose to make it, even knowing that it would be uncomfortable for the people to hear. When long-time New York political boss Thurlow Weed wrote to him afterwards to compliment him on the speech, Lincoln responded:

I expect [it] to wear as well as – perhaps better than – any thing I have produced; but I believe it is not immediately popular. Men are not flattered by being shown that there has been a difference of purpose between the Almighty and them. To deny it, however, in this case, is to deny that there is a God governing the world. It is a truth which I thought needed to be told; and as whatever of humiliation there is in it, falls most directly on myself, I thought others might afford for me to tell it.

This was not the speech of a skeptic, nor a deist. Lincoln may have been either or both of those earlier in his life, but he was most certainly not at the end of his life. This was the speech of a man who accepted the Scriptures as truth, and who saw God as very much at work in the events and circumstances of the world and his own life.

LinkedIn-LogoSquareKevin J. Wood

May 17, 2015

The Baltimore Riots of April … 1861!

It’s April and the people of Baltimore – some of them, that is – are rioting. No, I’m not talking about the recent riots, nor those of April 1968 following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. I’m talking about the riots of April 1861!

On April 18 of that year, Abraham Lincoln had been President for only a month and a half, and the nation was in complete turmoil. In just the last week, Fort Sumter had fallen to the rebels, Lincoln had called for 75,000 volunteer soldiers to defend federal property, and the all-important state of Virginia had voted to secede from the Union and join the original seven southern states in the Confederacy. The other southern states were threatening to secede as well, among them another very strategic one: Maryland.

If Maryland had joined the Confederacy at that moment, it might have struck a fatal blow to the North. Washington, DC would have been cut off from the rest of the North, and would have easily fallen to the Confederates as it had no troops to defend itself. If the nation’s capital were controlled by the South, England and France would have been much more likely to recognize the South and come to her aid.

The situation was dire and tense. All of Washington – southern sympathizers excluded – anxiously awaited the arrival of the first northern troops. Finally, on April 18, several hundred Pennsylvania volunteers reached Baltimore, only 40 miles away. Baltimore presented a complication, however, as it had separate train stations for the lines arriving from different directions, meaning that travelers needed to have their railcars pulled a mile by horses through the center of the city, or they had to cover that distance on foot or by stagecoach. In addition, Baltimore was a secessionist hotbed. In fact, two months earlier, these two factors had coalesced in a plot to assassinate Lincoln while he changed trains in Baltimore, which was only thwarted by disguising him and sneaking him through the city in the middle of the night.

As the Pennsylvania troops proceeded from one train station to another, an angry mob of southern sympathizers confronted them, throwing bricks and stones and causing some serious injuries. The next day, a Massachusetts regiment arrived and was also confronted by a mob, this time armed with pistols and knives. The situation escalated, and four soldiers and a dozen civilians were killed, the first fatalities of the Civil War. The mob also looted and destroyed properties such as the office of a German pro-Union newspaper.

How would the new President, still inexperienced and perhaps unprepared for the demands of the office, respond to the Baltimore riots? His response gives us a glimpse of something of the thought processes, temperament, and character which later would be recognized for what made him an effective leader.

  1. He gave his opponents the opportunity to be heard

Lincoln summoned Maryland Governor Thomas Hicks and Baltimore Mayor George Brown to the White House to consult with them, and he also received another rather hostile delegation from Baltimore. He gave them the opportunity to air their grievances and to make their case that no more northern troops should be allowed to pass through not only Baltimore, but also no part of the entire state.

  1. He consulted with others

Lincoln consulted with his Cabinet, which by his own design was split evenly between the two major groups which made up the still-new Republican Party. Although they would not be of one accord on this, nor many other issues, their frank discussion would allow Lincoln to consider the merits of conflicting points of view as he deliberated on the best course of action.

  1. He made a decision consistent with his obligations and with justice

Although Lincoln still desperately needed to keep Maryland in the Union, he could not accept the demands of her officials and still meet his own obligation to defend Washington. As he explained to them: “I must have troops to defend this Capital. Geographically it lies surrounded by the soil of Maryland; and mathematically the necessity exists that they should come over her territory…

  1. He used humor to help explain his reasoning and to alleviate tension

Lincoln’s explanation continued as follows: “…Our men are not moles, and can’t dig under the earth; they are not birds, and can’t fly through the air. There is no way but to march across, and that they must do.”

  1. He made concessions when possible

Lincoln directed subsequent troops to come by ship to Annapolis and then continue by train or on foot to Washington, in order to avoid Baltimore. He also appealed to the Maryland officials to do their part in reducing the tension: “Keep your rowdies in Baltimore, and there will be no bloodshed. Go home and tell your people that if they will not attack us, we will not attack them; but if they do attack us, we will return it, and that severely.”

  1. He didn’t act out of vengeance or pettiness

When Governor Hicks called the state legislature to a special session a week later, General Benjamin Butler asked Lincoln to allow him to “bag [arrest] the whole nest of traitorous Maryland legislators”, who were expected to vote for secession. Lincoln chose instead to allow them to meet, and his gamble paid off when they adopted a neutral position in the conflict while overwhelmingly rejecting secession.

  1. He didn’t allow inflammatory criticism to influence him

The Baltimore riots were immediately memorialized in a poem by James Randall, “Maryland, My Maryland” – later to become the official state song –, which urges the people to “Avenge the patriotic gore that flecked the streets of Baltimore”, and which calls Lincoln a despot and tyrant. Lincoln didn’t allow these nor many other vituperative and inflammatory comments to influence him or his decisions.

  1. He held firm to his decision

Over the next few years, Lincoln would make many controversial and heavy-handed decisions in order to keep Maryland in the Union, including suspending the writ of habeas corpus and imprisoning Mayor Brown and other pro-Confederate officials. But these were always done with the understanding that they were only warranted by the extraordinary conditions of civil rebellion, and he still opted for a softer approach whenever possible.

Perhaps those responsible for responding to the recent Baltimore riots would do well to study Lincoln’s response in 1861, in hopes of preventing her streets from being ‘flecked’ even more.

LinkedIn-LogoSquareKevin J. Wood

May 1, 2015

Now He Belongs to the Ages: Lincoln’s Legacy as He Would Have It

Today marks the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s untimely death at the hands of an assassin. “Now he belongs to the ages”, as Secretary of War Edwin Stanton uttered, and indeed quite a Lincoln legacy has arisen. He is routinely cited as one the most influential as well as one of the most beloved of our Presidents; there are countless towns, streets, schools, companies, products, etc. named after him; he is quoted – and sometimes misquoted – by politicians, preachers, and the like; his likeness appears on both a coin and a bill; and there are memorials to him all over the country (well, at least in the North). Over the years, Abraham Lincoln has been remembered for many things:

  • his improbable rise from obscurity to the highest office in the land, giving hope to others that they too might improve their situation through hard work, education, and perseverance;
  • his commitment to the ideals for which our country stands: liberty, democracy, equality, and opportunity;
  • his unique combination of common, unpretentious storyteller, and eloquent writer and orator;
  • his role in preserving the Union and freeing the slaves during our nation’s greatest crisis; and
  • his strong personal and moral character, including his honesty, humility, compassion, and faith.

But what did Lincoln himself most wish for in regard to his legacy? He was just 23 years old and had been a resident of the town of New Salem for only about six months when he decided to run for the Illinois State Legislature.   In order to introduce himself to the voters, he prepared a handbill which outlined his political positions, concluding with a statement which included these words:

Every man is said to have his peculiar ambition.   Whether it be true or not, I can say for one that I have no other so great as that of being truly esteemed of my fellow men, by rendering myself worthy of their esteem. How far I shall succeed in gratifying this ambition, is yet to be developed…

[The young Lincoln would not win that election, although he would receive 92% of the votes cast in his own town. Two years later, he would try again and would win, going on to serve four consecutive terms.]

There is often a great divide between ambition and legacy. My previous blog post quoted Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens’ prophecy that one day the entire “civilized and enlightened world” would acknowledge that the South had been right, that enslavement of the African race was not an evil, but a good, ordained by God Himself. Thankfully that ambition did not become the legacy!

This might also have been Lincoln’s fate if he had died earlier in his Presidency, or if the Civil War had not turned out as it did. Had this been the case, today Lincoln might very well be regarded as one of our worst Presidents ever: unqualified and unprepared for the great task he faced, a weak leader, and a traitor to the Constitution. As it was, however, we see that Lincoln’s stated ambition was overwhelmingly gratified, at least after his death. His ambition has been fully realized in his legacy.

Throughout Lincoln’s adult life, he repeated and restated this ambition to prove himself worthy of the esteem and respect of his contemporaries. While suffering a severe case of depression at age 32, for example – his political career was faltering, he had broken off his engagement with Mary Todd, and his best friend Joshua Speed had moved away –, Lincoln wrote to Speed saying that he was more than willing to die, except that he had “done nothing to make any human being remember that he had lived” and that “to link his name with something that would redound to the interest of his fellow man was what he desired to live for”.

It would be another 22 years before Lincoln could feel absolutely certain that he had truly done something on behalf of his fellow man which would cause people to remember him. That day would come on January 1, 1863, when he signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Some had doubted that Lincoln would follow through on his pledge to sign such a controversial measure, and so when he twice picked up the pen to sign it, and then set it down again, the three men with him began to wonder.

But then the President explained that because he had been shaking hands for several hours at the annual White House New Year’s Day reception, his right arm was almost paralyzed. “If my name ever goes into history it will be for this act, and my whole soul is in it. If my hand trembles when I sign the Proclamation, all who examine the document hereafter will say, ‘He hesitated’.” Therefore he massaged his hands together until he felt sure that he could sign his name with confidence to this document which he called “the central act of my administration”.

Of course, Lincoln also recognized that since the Emancipation Proclamation was technically a war measure, others might come along after him, after the Civil War was over, and attempt to overturn it.   This is why he put such great effort into getting the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution passed, outlawing slavery once and for all from the entire land.

Young Abe Lincoln’s expression of his ambition – “I have no other so great as that of being truly esteemed of my fellow men…” – no doubt reflects a universal human longing to be esteemed, valued, respected, etc. by others. But as Lincoln already knew at such a young age, this wouldn’t come to him by entitlement or chance; he must endeavor to make himself into a person deserving of such feelings: “…by rendering myself worthy of their esteem”. Today, we live in a world where respect and value are often demanded, as if they were rights. Perhaps we would be better off if instead we followed Abraham Lincoln’s example and strove to make ourselves truly deserving of them?

LinkedIn-LogoSquareKevin J. Wood

April 15, 2015

The Confederacy’s (Not-So-) “Great Truth”

My previous blog post dealt with Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address, with the North and South on the verge of civil war. At that moment, our great experiment of a modern democratic republic appeared doomed to failure, after less than a century of existence. What had gone wrong?

The cause of the Civil War has been one of the most controversial questions of US history ever since. Most notably, some have held that it ultimately had more to do with the issue of States’ rights than with slavery. While it is true that States’ rights was sharply debated in the early decades of our history, it was nearly always discussed in the context of some other issue, and the most common of these was unquestionably slavery (the most notable exception being South Carolina’s attempt to nullify Federal tariffs in 1832-33).

In fact, for the first 85 years of our country’s existence, it was the issue of slavery which repeatedly and forcefully threatened to break us apart. This was especially true in the decade immediately preceding the Civil War as political and social tensions escalated. From the Compromise of 1850 to the Presidential Election of 1860, slavery’s place in our nation was the predominant political and social issue. It even resulted in the break-up and realignment of great national institutions such as political parties and religious denominations, the last time this has happened on such a large scale in our history.

But what about the fact that the authors of the Confederacy’s Constitution, adopted just one week after President Lincoln’s inauguration, inserted pro-States’-rights language in the very first line?: “We, the people of the Confederate States, each State acting in its sovereign and independent character, in order to form a permanent federal government, …” (note also that there’s no forming of a “more perfect Union” here!). This certainly suggests a greater emphasis on States’ rights, but this is just the preamble, an introductory statement of purposes and principles. An examination of the rest of the document as compared to the US Constitution reveals mixed results: in certain aspects it granted greater rights to the individual States, while in others it actually took rights away from them. The most notable difference between the two constitutions is not States’ rights but the treatment of slavery: while the US Constitution grudgingly protected slavery where it already existed, not even mentioning it by name, the Confederate Constitution explicitly protected it (no “law denying or impairing the right of property in negro slaves shall be passed”).

The intentions of the Confederate leaders become all the more clear when one considers a fascinating speech given by their Vice President ten days later. Speaking extemporaneously in Savannah, Georgia, Alexander Stephens explained the fundamental differences between the two constitutions, as well as the ideologies and beliefs behind them. He did talk about States’ rights – explaining the Confederacy’s elimination of the tariff and the prohibition on the national government funding large public works – but it is his last “change for the better” which is especially revealing: the final settlement of “all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution – African slavery as it exists amongst us – the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization”. Stephens acknowledged that “this was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution” (not States’ rights), and noted quite correctly that when the US Constitution was adopted back in 1787, some of the Founding Fathers from southern States struggled in their minds over the place of slavery. There may have been a few outright apologists, i.e., defenders of slavery, but many others, including Thomas Jefferson, instead almost apologized for slavery. Stephens summed up the founders’ views as follows:

The prevailing ideas entertained by him [Jefferson] and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old constitution, were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically. It was an evil they knew not well how to deal with, but the general opinion of the men of that day was that, somehow or other in the order of Providence, the institution would be evanescent and pass away.

Then Stephens dropped the bombshell: on this point, the founders were fundamentally wrong; the enslavement of the African race was not an evil, but a good, ordained by God Himself. And it was the founders of the Confederacy, the present generation (himself included), who were the first people to be truly enlightened to this fact!:

Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery – subordination to the superior race – is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.

According to Stephens, those who disagreed with this startling assessment were illogical and insane, and they would ultimately be defeated because they were fighting against a principle of nature, against truth, and against God. Someday, Stephens prophesied, this would be acknowledged “throughout the civilized and enlightened world”.

Lest you think that this was the rambling of a crazed man, keep in mind that Alexander Stephens was a well-respected politician and a self-made man known for his wisdom and generosity. He was a former ally of Lincoln’s, generally held moderate views, and initially opposed secession and extremist elements in the South. Thus his frank words that day likely reflect the views of the majority of white Southerners toward slavery at that time. It is also revealing that those who recorded his speech noted that Stephens was often interrupted by the applause of his listeners. [For the full text and more information about Stephens’ speech, see this Wikipedia article.]

All this is not to say that all white Northerners at the time believed in the equality of the races. The majority, in fact, Lincoln included, did not think that the races could or would ever be equal in all respects, especially socially and politically. But they generally did believe – and Lincoln most certainly did – in equal treatment in terms of the ideals of the Declaration of Independence (“life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”) and the basic protections of the Constitution. It would appear that white Southerners were heading in just the opposite direction, becoming more radicalized and entrenched in their views.

Living as we do today in a world greatly affected by extremist elements, it would behoove us to consider how the South arrived at this point. I would submit that all of the following played a part: inward-focused attitudes and policies; racial prejudices based on misunderstandings and arrogance; resentment over perceived northern aggression and domination; fear of future effects of losing political influence on the national level (losing their way of life, and the economic uncertainty of transitioning from a slave labor system to a free labor system); and a willingness to blindly use religion to justify actions and beliefs. It is easy to allow fear, prejudice, resentment, a feeling of powerlessness, etc. to be one’s guide – whether as a person or as a nation –, but these generally do not ultimately lead to truth, justice, or goodness.

LinkedIn-LogoSquareKevin J. Wood

April 1, 2015

Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address: Constitution and Union

I inaugurated my blog two weeks ago on March 4, pointing out the now mostly forgotten historical significance of that date in US history: it was on that date in the year 1789 that our Constitution went into effect and our government took on the form it still has today, and it was also the date on which our Presidential inaugurations took place until the year 1933.

It is therefore not at all surprising that when President-elect Abraham Lincoln took the oath of office on March 4, 1861 – seven of the 15 southern States having recently seceded from the Union to form the Confederate States of America and the other eight threatening to leave as well – the Constitution was first and foremost in his mind. He referred to the Constitution itself or to constitutional rights, questions, etc. 34 times in his speech (the only inaugural address with more constitutional references was William Harrison’s in 1841, with 39, but his speech was more than twice as long).

Lincoln’s theme that day was essentially the following: in light of the Constitution and laws of our country, what was he going to do in response to the current crisis? He attempted to strike a seemingly impossible balance: persuade the South to voluntarily turn back from the path it had taken without compromising the integrity of the Constitution and system of government. The Constitution turned 72 years old that day, approximately the human lifespan. Was this great document, and the country it governed, also nearing its end? It certainly seemed so.

Lincoln first carefully repeated his new administration’s very clear stance on the slavery issue, in order to reassure the South. He would not interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it already existed and was protected by the Constitution – “I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so” – including upholding the controversial fugitive slave law (returning escaped slaves to their masters).

Lincoln then laid out his case that the Union was perpetual, that no State could leave the Union without the consent of the others. This would be true whether viewed from the perspective of a national government (“It is safe to assert that no government proper, ever had a provision in its organic law for its own termination”) or as a contract (“One party to a contract may violate it – break it, so to speak; but does it not require all to lawfully rescind it?”). And since the Union was actually older than the Constitution, it would certainly be true when viewed from the perspective of that document, one of whose objectives was ‘to form a more perfect union’:

But if destruction of the Union, by one, or by a part only, of the States, be lawfully possible, the Union is less perfect than before the Constitution, having lost the vital element of perpetuity. It follows from these views that no State, upon its own mere motion, can lawfully get out of the Union … I therefore consider that, in view of the Constitution and the laws, the Union is unbroken …”.

The remainder of Lincoln’s address that day laid out further arguments against secession mixed with further appeals to reason and self-restraint. He noted that both secession and minority rule lead down the path to anarchy. He spoke of the benefits, memories, and hopes of ‘our national fabric’, and about ‘the restoration of fraternal sympathies and affections’. The present crisis could still be overcome, he claimed, through ‘intelligence, patriotism, Christianity, and a firm reliance on Him, who has never yet forsaken this favored land’. He reasoned that if the South did go to war, they could not fight forever, and after great losses on both sides, they would still have to deal with the same questions as before.

On some points, Lincoln did take a firm stand; the Constitution, after all, required him to ensure that the laws were respected in all of the States. Specifically, he said that the Federal government would use its power to maintain possession of government installations in the South (read: Fort Sumter), and to collect taxes; yet it would do nothing else which might provoke any feelings of an invasion.

Would all of this be sufficient to avert war? Lincoln left that up to the South, while still maintaining a firm stance on his own obligations:

In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. The government will not assail you. You can have no conflict, without being yourselves the aggressors. You have no oath registered in Heaven to destroy the government, while I shall have the most solemn one to ‘preserve, protect and defend’ it.

Lincoln’s drafts had ended with a dramatic question for the South: “Shall it be peace or sword?” On the suggestion of Secretary of State William Seward, however, Lincoln dropped this combative ending in favor of one last conciliatory appeal to their shared history and experiences:

“I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

Why was Lincoln so ‘loath to close’? It would seem to be that he believed this was his last, best chance to save the Union without war. One senses that he felt that as long as he continued talking, they would presumably be listening, and possibly open to turn back. Yet as soon as he closed his remarks, there would be an ominous finality to the whole dreadful situation. If he hadn’t persuaded them by that time, it would then be too late. Unfortunately for our country – as fate, or providence, would have it – this would prove to be the case.

Kevin J. Wood

March 18, 2015

The Fourth of March: A Most Fitting Day to Inaugurate My Blog

For today’s average US citizen, even a decidedly patriotic one, the date of March 4 probably holds little meaning, especially in comparison to July 4. Yet this wasn’t always the case.

While July 4, 1776 – the date of the first public reading of the Declaration of Independence – is deservedly regarded as the birthdate of our nation, the date of March 4, 1789 was just as significant. On that day, the US Constitution went into effect, the former Congress under the Articles of Confederation dissolved itself, and the first session of the very first new US Congress began in New York City (although without a quorum of members). No longer were we simply a loosely-linked confederation of independent States; now we were truly the United States, a “more perfect union”. In short, March 4, 1789 marks the beginning of our country with our form of government as we know it today. If July 4 was our birthday, perhaps March 4 marks our confirmation or bat mitzvah: our coming of age and formal introduction to an inquisitive world still not sure what to make of us.

In addition, March 4 would be the Inauguration Day for our Presidents for the next 150 years, from George Washington’s second term in 1793 all the way until Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s first term in 1933. As a result, March 4 has seen more than its share of significant moments, such as the year 1797 when a remarkable (for that time) transition of power took place. On that day, an immensely popular President Washington, who likely could have remained in that position for the rest of his life had he wanted to, instead stepped aside as John Adams became our second President. Washington would not be king, nor even the permanent head of government; he would not be corrupted by power. And it would not require a coup, war, or political intrigue in order to pass the reins of power from one common citizen to another. We take such peaceful transitions of power for granted today; back then it was truly revolutionary. What’s more, in a highly symbolic gesture, once Adams and new Vice President Thomas Jefferson were inaugurated, Washington also stepped aside literally to allow the new leaders to leave the room first; he was, after all, now just a private citizen.

Over the next century and a half, many more March 4 inaugurations would come and go, some marking other important – or not-so-important – firsts. There was the first inauguration in our brand new capital city of Washington, DC (Jefferson in 1801); the first to be followed by a ball (Madison in 1809; tickets: $4); the first to take place while the country was at war (Madison in 1813); the first in which the President wore long trousers instead of knee breeches (J. Q. Adams in 1825); the first in which a “man of the people” would ascend to the presidency (Jackson in 1829); the first in which African-Americans participated (Lincoln in 1865); the first to be recorded on a movie camera (McKinley in 1897); the first in which the President-elect arrived by automobile (Harding in 1921); and the first to be broadcast nationwide by radio (Coolidge in 1925).

The highlight of every inauguration is, of course, the inaugural speech. Some of these would defend past actions, such as Jefferson in 1805 explaining his controversial decision to double the size of the country in one fell swoop by purchasing the vast Louisiana Territory from France. Others would lay out bold new policies, such as Monroe in 1821 telling the European colonial powers that the various peoples of America could and would govern themselves just fine without any more help from across the pond, thank you very much (for the record, the 1821 inauguration wasn’t actually held until March 5 since the fourth was a Sunday).

The tradition of March 4 inaugurations went out in style as the last one to take place on that date was a very memorable one. The country was in the grips of the Great Depression when Franklin D. Roosevelt strove to both calm and embolden the people in 1933: “Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself …”. In the same speech, FDR would outline his “good neighbor” policy for foreign relations with Latin America.

The 1933 inauguration would be the last to take place on March 4 because after that the 20th Amendment to the Constitution took effect, changing its date to the now-familiar January 20. And with that, the historical importance of March 4 would begin to slowly recede from our nation’s collective memory.

With this context and history of the date of March 4 in mind, one can better understand the import of two of Abraham Lincoln’s best-known speeches, his first and second inaugurals. Both took place on momentous occasions, the first with the nation on the verge of civil war, and the second (150 years ago today) as the nation prepared itself for the difficult task of reuniting after a terribly divisive war. I will turn my attention to those two speeches in subsequent blogs.

Now you will also understand why I felt that March 4 would be a particularly fitting day to inaugurate my new Lincoln blog, “Loath to Close … Still!

LinkedIn-LogoSquareKevin J. Wood (“Mr. Lincoln”)

March 4, 2015