The Wrong End of the Dog: Abraham Lincoln as Storyteller

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

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

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

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

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

“‘What made him try to bite me?’

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

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

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

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

LinkedIn-LogoSquareKevin J. Wood

April 30, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LinkedIn-LogoSquareKevin J. Wood

February 20, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LinkedIn-LogoSquareKevin J. Wood

January 31, 2016

Lincoln’s Best Christmas Gift: The City of Savannah and a Great Light

On December 22, 1864, Union General William T. Sherman wrote out the following now-famous note to President Lincoln: “I beg to present you as a Christmas gift the city of Savannah with 150 heavy guns & plenty of ammunition & also about 25000 bales of cotton”.  The note was sent by boat to Fort Monroe in Virginia and then telegraphed to the War Department in Washington, D.C. on Christmas Day.  It was written out and delivered to the President that same day.

Lincoln was elated to hear the news.  Responding the following day, he began: “My dear General Sherman.  Many, many, thanks for your Christmas-gift – the capture of Savannah”.  The President was likewise extremely relieved, given that Sherman had cut himself off from his supply lines and lines of communication when he undertook his risky “March to the Sea” more than a month earlier: “When you were about leaving Atlanta for the Atlantic coast, I was anxious if not fearful; but feeling that you were the better judge, and remembering that ‘nothing risked, nothing gained’ I did not interfere”.

Lincoln may have also had doubts about Sherman’s “scorched earth” policy – making Southern citizens who supported the rebellion “feel the hard hand of war” – but he didn’t mention that now.  Instead, he wrote about the significance of the victory: “Now, the undertaking being a success, the honor is all yours; for I believe none of us went farther than to acquiesce.  And, taking the work of Gen. Thomas into the count, as it should be taken, it is indeed a great success.  Not only does it afford the obvious and immediate military advantages; but, in showing to the world that your army could be divided, putting the stronger part to an important new service, and yet leaving enough to vanquish the old opposing force of the whole – Hood’s army – it brings those who sat in darkness, to see a great light.” [Union General George Henry Thomas had recently defeated Confederate General John Bell Hood in the battle of Nashville.]

This last phrase, written at a time when the general population – and no doubt the General himself – was biblically literate, would have brought immediately to mind a passage from the gospels.  The beginning of Jesus’ earthly ministry is said to have fulfilled a prophesy by Isaiah regarding the land of Galilee, and regarding gentiles in general: “The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and upon those who sat in the region and shadow of death a light has dawned” (Matthew 4:16).

Lincoln’s choice of this particular biblical reference, in the context of the Christmas season, was presumably intentional and certainly appropriate.  Christmas does mark, after all, the coming into the world of that great light, the Messiah, He who would later refer both to Himself as to his disciples as “the light of the world”.

In the immediate context, however, whom did Lincoln mean by “those who sat in darkness”?  It would seem to be all those in the North and indeed the rest of the world who had been “in the dark” about whether Grant, Sherman, Thomas, and company would ever be in a position to deliver that final, fatal blow to the resilient Confederacy.  This great victory allowed all “to see the light at the end of the tunnel”; the end of the war was finally in sight!

This also concords well with Lincoln’s gracious conclusion to his reply to Sherman: “But what next?  I suppose it will be safer if I leave Gen. Grant and yourself to decide.  Please make my grateful acknowledgments to your whole army, officers and men.  Yours very truly, A. Lincoln.”

May the same sensation of great light and hope which characterized Lincoln’s 1864 Christmas be ours as well in 2015.

LinkedIn-LogoSquareKevin J. Wood

December 23, 2015

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