Thanksgiving: Celebrate It or Cancel It?

As Americans have celebrated Thanksgiving in recent years, they have increasingly been subjected to unsettling questions about the holiday’s origins and purpose (not to mention adverse consequences such as global warming due to all that travel).  They’ve been told that it’s time to “re-imagine” Thanksgiving, or perhaps get rid of it entirely.

These calls come in large part from the prevailing idea that the Thanksgiving holiday came about as a way to commemorate the so-called first Thanksgiving in 1621 at Plymouth in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, when the pilgrims who had arrived on the Mayflower the year before – the half of them who were still alive, that is – held a shared feast with the native American Wampanoag people.  Since the relationship between native Americans and white European colonists would later become less friendly and more complex and eventually result in tragic consequences, especially for the native Americans, it is now suggested that we need to “re-brand” Thanksgiving, if not cancel it altogether.  [E.g., it is pointed out that on some later occasions the colonists gave thanks for victory in battle over native foes; but are we really to suppose that native American tribes were different from all other cultures in the history of the world and did not give thanks for their own victories?]

But what if that idea of the origin of the Thanksgiving holiday is itself a huge misconception?  What if the people primarily responsible for the creation of the American Thanksgiving tradition – most notably Sarah Josepha Hale and Abraham Lincoln in the 19th century – weren’t thinking of pilgrims and Indians but rather of something entirely different?

Lincoln you’ve no doubt heard of, although perhaps you don’t know that he declared Thursday, November 26, 1863 (159 years ago today) to be “a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens”, the first in an uninterrupted run of Thanksgiving proclamations from our Presidents down to our present day.  [For the record, George Washington also issued a Thanksgiving proclamation in 1789 for that same date of November 26!]

Sarah Hale you might not know of, but she was a very influential woman of Lincoln’s time, among other things the editor – or “editress” as she preferred – of Godey’s Lady’s Book.  She advocated for many years for the establishment of a national Thanksgiving observance.  Lincoln was the fifth President she petitioned on this subject, but the first to respond favorably.

The vital question, then, is what motivated Sarah Hale and Abraham Lincoln and others of their time to establish this tradition of an annual, national, Thanksgiving holiday.  Was it to commemorate that “first Thanksgiving” back in 1621?  Should we blindly accept bold claims such as this one which appeared in the December 2-9, 2019 edition of Time magazine in an article entitled “The Way American Kids Are Learning About the ‘First Thanksgiving’ Is Changing”? []:

“Crucially, Hale’s campaign for the Thanksgiving holiday was explicitly linked to the story of Plymouth.”

Or how about this one which appeared in The Boston Globe on November 18, 2007?:

“During the bloody Civil War, Abraham Lincoln blended the sentimental myth of Pilgrims and Indians sharing a harvest feast with the public need for a celebration of national unity.”

Really?  I have read all of Sarah Hale’s editorials on the subject of Thanksgiving which I can find, as well as her description of the holiday in her novel Northwood.  I have read all of the proclamations by our early Presidents for days of Thanksgiving (Washington in 1789 and 1795, Adams in 1798 and 1799, and Madison in 1815).  I have read Sarah Hale’s letter to Lincoln.  And I have read Lincoln’s Thanksgiving proclamations in 1863 and 1864 (as well as two others related to specific military victories).  In not a single instance have I found a reference to the “first Thanksgiving” in 1621.  Perhaps that is why the authors of the aforementioned claims do not provide sources for them?

But if Hale, Lincoln, and their compatriots weren’t commemorating that long-ago event, what was the purpose of Thanksgiving?  Quite simply, it was to give thanks to God for the blessings he had bestowed on them in their own times, blessings which they themselves had actually experienced.

Sarah Hale did explicitly link the idea of the American Thanksgiving to something: not to Plymouth in 1621, but rather to two of the Jewish pilgrimage festivals, the Feast of Weeks (also known as the Feast of Harvest or the Feast of Pentecost) and the Feast of Ingathering (also known as the Feast of Tabernacles or the Feast of Booths), both of which give thanks for God’s (current!) provision.  She also made the case that having a Day of Thanksgiving on the same day in all of the states and territories would serve to bring greater unity to the nation.

Likewise, when she discussed the origin of the custom of Thanksgiving observances in New England in her novel Northwood, the focus was on the “here and now”, and although she mentions the pilgrims, she doesn’t mention the Indians.  She refers to a time when the pilgrims residing in the new settlement of Boston had nearly run out of food and their leaders called for a fast, but then “a vessel from London arrived laden with provisions, and so the fast was changed into a Thanksgiving”.  But then she goes out of her way to explain that the modern (in her time) custom is:

Not with any purpose of celebrating that event.  It is considered as an appropriate tribute of gratitude to God to set apart one day of Thanksgiving in each year; and autumn is the time when the overflowing garners of America call for this expression of joyful gratitude.” [emphasis added]

We see again that the focus was not on some long-ago event – whether a shared meal between pilgrims and Indians or the providential arrival of a ship laden with provisions – but rather on the more recent blessings actually experienced by the people.

And this is precisely the focus of President Lincoln’s 1863 Thanksgiving proclamation, too, which begins with the words: “The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies.” [emphasis added]

He continues by enumerating various “extraordinary” bounties:

“In the midst of a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union.  Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle, or the ship; the axe had enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines … have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore.

“Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom.”

There’s absolutely nothing about 1621 in there; instead, it’s all about their own time.  Lincoln continues by noting that these blessings were not the result of human effort, but “are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.”

He concludes by calling on all Americans, both at home and abroad, to acknowledge these blessings and “to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens”, while

“they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.”

Lincoln’s 1864 Thanksgiving proclamation is more of the same, beginning with the telling line: “It has pleased Almighty God to prolong our national life another year …”, followed by an enumeration of the blessings of the past year and a call on the people to respond by giving thanks to God, humbling themselves before him, and praying “for a return of the inestimable blessings of Peace, Union and Harmony throughout the land”.

[You can read the full text of Lincoln’s two Thanksgiving proclamations here.]

Thus we see that Sarah Hale, Abraham Lincoln and others primarily responsible for the creation of our annual, national observance of Thanksgiving were not motivated by commemorating some distant (and controversial) event, but instead by a desire to give thanks to God for the blessings they themselves had actually experienced in their own times.  If the latter is also our desire, then there is no reason to “cancel” Thanksgiving.

This is not to say that we shouldn’t broaden our understanding of history bringing in other perspectives.  After all, what appears a “blessing” by one person may not be viewed as such by another.  At the same time, those other perspectives should be based on historical facts, not presumptions or imaginings.  Only this way will our history help us to discover truth and to unify us as a people, rather than bring about confusion, ignorance, and disunity.

One final note: If Lincoln and the people of his day were able to acknowledge the ample blessings received from God in the midst of the dark days of the Civil War, it follows that we too should be able to find things for which we are thankful despite our own trials and difficulties, whether as a nation, a community, a family, or an individual.

May you have a truly blessed Thanksgiving holiday as you remember God’s many blessings from the past year.

Kevin J. Wood

November 26, 2022

Juneteenth: A Worthy Holiday, but the Wrong Date and Name

This past week the U.S. Congress quickly passed, and President Biden signed, a law to establish June 19 as “Juneteenth Independence Day”, a new Federal holiday.  As you’ve probably heard, it commemorates the issuance of an order by Union General Gordon Granger in Galveston, Texas on June 19, 1865, making known President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, issued nearly two and a half years earlier, to all those in Texas who had not yet heard of it, in particular to the enslaved.

On the one hand, I believe that it’s very appropriate for our nation to have a holiday to mark the end of slavery.  Slavery was our “original sin” and the root cause of our greatest trial, the Civil War, and its after-effects are still felt today.  If having a national holiday commemorating slavery’s abolition contributes to our racial reckoning as a nation, that can be a good thing.

On the other hand, from a historical perspective, I believe that they got both the date and the name wrong!

First, the date.  Over the past several years, I as “Mr. Lincoln” have participated in two or three Juneteenth observances each year.  In nearly every instance, a historical inaccuracy has been proclaimed which I have attempted to correct, to little or no avail.  The inaccuracy stubbornly persists with the announcement of the new Federal holiday as well as similar state and local holidays.  Read any article about it, and it will contain a statement such as:

“The United States will soon have a new federal holiday commemorating the end of slavery in the nation … Juneteenth commemorates when the last enslaved African Americans learned they were free.” (Fox News); or

“June 19 marks the date that news of the Confederate surrender reached the last enslaved Black people.” (People)

And the Encyclopaedia Britannica describes Juneteenth as a “holiday commemorating the end of slavery in the United States, observed annually on June 19”.

We are being told over and over again that slavery in the United States ended on June 19, 1865, and that Juneteenth is therefore the most appropriate date on which to celebrate that event.  The problem?  Slavery did not end on June 19, 1865, not any more than the Civil War ended when General Lee surrendered to General Grant on April 9 of that year (it didn’t)!

I would challenge anyone who believes that slavery ended on June 19, 1865 to travel back in time to that date to Kentucky or Delaware.  Tell the 225,000 enslaved people in Kentucky and the 2,000 in Delaware that they were now free, and they would laugh in your face.  And a slave owner would likely shoot you on the spot for spreading such a lie.

The fact is that slavery would still be perfectly legal for another six months in Kentucky and Delaware, as well as in parts of other states.  This is because President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation did not apply to the border states, the four slave states which were still loyal to the Union, nor to all or part of those Confederate states under control of the Union army at the time, most notably Tennessee and large parts of Louisiana and Virginia.

The Lincoln administration was encouraging the border states to voluntarily abolish slavery, something Maryland would do in November 1864 and Missouri in January 1865.  But as of June 19, 1865 – “Juneteenth” – neither Delaware nor Kentucky had abolished slavery and as a result it was still legal in those states.

The actual end of slavery came with the adoption of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution.  This was passed by Congress on January 31, 1865, ratified by the requisite 3/4 of the states (27 of 36) by December 6 of that year, and formally proclaimed by Congress on December 18.  Therefore, any of those dates would be a more historically relevant and accurate date on which to celebrate the end of slavery.  But, of course, January and December are no match for June when it comes to picnics, parades, and pool parties.

Another good date would be April 16, marking the date in 1862 when slavery was abolished in Washington, DC, the first step toward abolishing slavery nationwide.  In fact, April 16 has been a local holiday in the nation’s capital (“Emancipation Day”) since 2005.  Now Washingtonians will get to celebrate the end of slavery twice each year!

The choice of any of these other dates as the date to commemorate the end of slavery would also serve to remind people that the normal means for making laws in our democratic republic is by the people expressing their will through Congress and their state legislatures or conventions.  The choice of “Juneteenth” instead reinforces the false impression, already prevalent given our modern Presidents’ penchant for issuing executive orders, that orders and proclamations are the normal means for making laws.

But if it is to be a proclamation or order, why not those associated with the Emancipation Proclamation, for General Granger’s order means nothing without the original proclamation.  In fact, starting in 1863, Gallia County, Ohio has observed the oldest continual celebration of the end of slavery on September 22 of each year, the date of Lincoln’s preliminary proclamation.  And black churches have long held “Watch Night” services on New Year’s Eve, in remembrance of enslaved people staying up all night to watch and pray that Lincoln would indeed sign the final proclamation on January 1 (he would).

I think Juneteenth is a fine holiday for the state of Texas.  But as even Chicago Tribune columnist Dahleen Glanton recently acknowledged: “There is no historical reason to make June 19 a federal holiday or even a state holiday anywhere other than in Texas.”  This is especially true when it turns out that other former Confederate states already have their own holidays based on when their own enslaved populations learned of their freedom: May 8 in Mississippi, May 20 in Florida, etc.

Besides, if Texas gets a national holiday, shouldn’t every other state get to propose one, too?  Why, for example, should not Casimir Pulaski Day, celebrated on the first Monday in March in Illinois, become a Federal holiday?  Aren’t there people of Polish descent in all fifty states?

Enough about the date; what about the name?  I find “Juneteenth Independence Day” to be misleading and confusing.  Did the former slaves in Texas become “independent” on June 19?  They were liberated from bondage and gained their freedom, but they most certainly did not become independent.  Both Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and General Granger’s order advised them to become hired labor, to work for wages.  As any employee knows, he or she is not independent, but rather dependent on an employer for his or her income.  Furthermore, as the former slaves knew very well, they were also dependent on the Federal government and the military to protect them, to maintain their freedom.

“Juneteenth Independence Day” is a misnomer at best, and a cynical attempt to create division rather than unity at worst, for it encourages the idea that different groups have to have their own holidays.  Why not call it “Juneteenth National Freedom Day”, like many states do, or “Juneteenth Emancipation Day”?

Otherwise, why not have “Hispanic Independence Day”, too?  I would suggest May 5 – “el cinco de mayo” – which although it took place in another country (Mexico), at least was directly related to an attempt to maintain national independence (from France).  And then we’d also need “Asian-American Independence Day” and so on.  Wouldn’t that be a wonderful way to fulfill our motto of “E pluribus unum”, “Out of many, one”?

In conclusion: our new Federal holiday is a worthy one, but they could have chosen a better date and a better name.  But is it any wonder that inaccuracies about our history abound, given the de-emphasis on teaching history in our schools, along with our tendency to sacrifice historical accuracy on the altar of political expedience?

And how’s this for irony?  Senator John Cornyn of Texas, one of the co-sponsors of the Juneteenth bill, said this about its passage: “It seems to me that this is the most propitious time for us to recognize our history and learn from it”.  How ironic that a historically inaccurate name and a historically inaccurate date were chosen in order to “teach us our history”.  Be careful what you “learn” from politicians, the media, and social activists.  We’ll be better off learning history on our own, thank you.

Kevin J. Wood

June 19, 2021

Election Fraud – Real and Imagined – in Lincoln’s Day

Lest you think that concerns about election fraud – whether founded or unfounded – are a peculiarity of our own times, I invite you to read what Abraham Lincoln had to say on the subject!

Groundless Accusations?

In the fall of 1840, at the beginning of Lincoln’s fourth and final term as a Whig representative in the Illinois General Assembly (the state legislature), Democratic governor Thomas Carlin made accusations of fraud in the recent elections.  In response, Lincoln introduced a resolution requesting that the committee on elections come up with a bill to “afford the greatest possible protection of the elective franchise, against all frauds of all sorts whatever”.

There ensued a friendly but serious interchange between Lincoln and his friend John A. McClernand, a Democratic representative and future Civil War general.  Although Lincoln was very willing that an investigation of the election take place, he didn’t think that it would amount to much.  As a newspaper reported, “he had every reason to believe that all this hue and cry about frauds, was entirely groundless, and raised for other than honest purposes”.  Among other things, McClernand asserted that a steamboat had gone up and down the Wabash River collecting a large number of votes at various towns.  Lincoln replied that “he was near the Wabash at the time and place mentioned by the gentleman, and after making diligent inquiry for a Steam Boat, could hear of none”.

Secrecy vs. Transparency

The fact is, there was probably less potential for fraud in Lincoln’s day – at least until the Civil War – than in ours.  Many of the concerns about fraud in our day stem from our attempts to ensure secrecy in voting, which tends to diminish transparency.  In Lincoln’s day, secrecy took a back seat to transparency.

In short, there was nothing secret about voting back then.  You approached the bar in the election room and told the election judges and clerks the names of the persons you wished to vote for, and the clerks wrote down your name and selections.  This made it very easy for election observers to make their own tabulations and to keep track of who had already voted.  There was little chance of a dead person successfully voting back then!

In presidential elections, a voter also turned in a ballot listing the presidential electors for their preferred candidate.  Since they signed the back of the ballot (again: no secrecy), this made it easy to amend the results if it was later determined that a voter was not eligible to vote.

The downside to this lack of secrecy, of course, is that there was a greater likelihood for community pressure, intimidation, or bribery to enter into a voter’s decisions, and these were real and very serious problems.  Since campaigning was permitted at the polling place, voters could be bombarded with all sorts of promises and requests right up to the moment of voting.  Of course, one might make the case that a promise in our day for a $2,000 check if their candidates win isn’t far removed from bribery (just sayin’).

Protecting the Immigrant Vote

During Lincoln’s famous campaign against Stephen Douglas for U.S. Senator from Illinois in 1858, he was alarmed by a colleague’s claim that some of the German-Americans living in Madison County, across from St. Louis, had been unfairly disenfranchised in past elections.  Many were recently arrived and probably not familiar with America’s political process.  Lincoln wrote to his friend and political colleague Gustave Koerner to request that he and other influential German-Americans in that region see to it “that, at the election, none are cheated in their ballots”.

The Advent of In-Absentia Voting …

The Civil War presented a huge problem for the nation’s election system.  With hundreds of thousands of men serving in the military far from home, how could they vote?  At the time, only one state – Pennsylvania – permitted any kind of in-absentia voting.

For the 1862 mid-term elections, Lincoln encouraged states to amend their laws, but very few did (Missouri, a border state, was one which did; interestingly, six Confederate states did permit in-absentia voting by this time).  Two years later, however, with the 1864 state and national elections approaching, many of the northern states did finally provide means for soldiers to vote from the field.  Methods included designating a proxy to vote in their stead at home; voting at improvised polling places at military camps and hospitals; and mailing in their ballots.

Some of the northern states under Democratic control, however – such as Indiana – chose not to make such allowances, knowing full well that they would benefit Lincoln and other Republicans more than their own candidates.  This meant that many tens of thousands of Union soldiers would be disenfranchised unless they could return home to vote.  The Lincoln administration encouraged Union generals to furlough such soldiers for the necessary period of time if they could do so without jeopardizing the war effort.  Still, the end result was that many soldiers who were literally risking their lives for their country were indeed disenfranchised in the state and/or national elections in 1864.

… and the Resultant Advent of Voter Fraud?

Not surprisingly, it was the Democrats who protested against all this voting in absentia, claiming that it would lead to widespread fraud.  New York’s Governor Horatio Seymour, for example, said that if proxy votes were the deciding factor in the election, there would be “a well founded doubt as to the person rightfully entitled to the Presidential office”.  Democrats also thought, with good reason, that soldiers would feel pressure to vote Republican even if they were Democrats at heart.

It turns out, however, that the most celebrated instance of voter fraud in the 1864 election was perpetrated not by Republicans but by Democrats, and it involved some of the agents appointed by that same Governor Seymour to oversee the in-absentia vote of the New York soldiers.

Two of the Democratic agents, Edward Donahoe and Moses Ferry, were arrested in Baltimore by an Army Provost Marshal and charged with forging the ballots of New York soldiers.  They had apparently sent several boxes full of forged ballots supporting Democratic candidates to New York.  Ferry ratted on Donohoe, who eventually confessed to having signed an imaginary officer’s name on the ballots, but he made the case that no crime was committed because there was no officer by that name in the military service.  The military commission, chaired by General Abner Doubleday (of baseball fame), ruled otherwise and both men were convicted of forgery shortly before the national election.  They were sentenced to prison, in Donohoe’s case for life, and although Lincoln himself inquired about his case in February 1865, he apparently didn’t intervene before his own untimely death in April.  Three years later, however, Donohoe’s sentence would be remitted.

Vote Early, Vote Often?

Lincoln’s own concern for the potential of voter fraud in the 1864 elections is evident in a humorous note he wrote on a letter which his Secretary of State William Seward had received.  The letter, from New York, included the following statement: “I am told by a gentleman to whose statements I attach Credit, that the opposition Policy for the Presidential Campaign will be to ‘abstain from voting’.”  Lincoln wrote in response: “More likely to abstain from stopping once they get at it, until they shall have voted several times each”.


Despite the actual and potential issues of fraud created by in-absentia voting, Lincoln was undoubtedly in favor of it.  Many of the soldiers who voted were only able to do so because of in-absentia voting.  Lincoln received close to 80% of the military vote, as compared to 55% overall, and this made the difference in New York and some other states, too.

We can surmise that Lincoln would support any measure which would enable greater participation by eligible voters without creating an undue risk of widespread fraud.  At the same time, he would likely support the adoption of strong election laws to counteract fraudulent voting on the one hand, and voter suppression on the other, as well as supporting the vigorous enforcement of such laws.

Kevin J. Wood

January 6, 2021

Lincoln and the Supreme Court (II): The Right Thing to Do

On this date in 1864, U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Taney died.  Only 27 days remained until the presidential election on November 8.  President Lincoln’s Republican Party had a majority in the Senate, which must approve Supreme Court nominations.  Does the situation sound familiar?

Kamala Harris offered her own interpretation of the situation during last week’s Vice-Presidential debate by giving a “history lesson”:

“Abraham Lincoln was up for reelection.  And it was 27 days before the election.  And a seat became open on the United States Supreme Court.  Abraham Lincoln’s party was in charge not only of the White House but the Senate.  But Honest Abe said, ‘It’s not the right thing to do.  The American people deserve to make the decision about who will be the next president of the United States, and then that person will be able to select who will serve on the highest court of the land.’”

Did Abraham Lincoln actually say that?  Perhaps more importantly, if he had lost the election, would he have allowed his successor to choose the nominee?

It is true that Lincoln did not submit a nomination to the Senate until after the election.  But the reason that he delayed was not so that whomever the people elected could choose the nominee, nor did he ever utter the statement attributed to him by Ms. Harris.  Instead, the reason that he did not submit a nomination was most likely simply because Congress wasn’t in session.  Congress reconvened on December 5, and Lincoln – by this time re-elected – sent over the nomination for Salmon Chase the very next day.

In fact, on the same day on which Taney passed away, Lincoln was asked whether he was going to nominate a replacement for a district judge who had passed away a few weeks earlier (Albert S. White).  Lincoln’s reply?  “I now incline to defer the appointment of Judge until the meeting of Congress” (emphasis added).  His other option wasn’t to defer so that the winner of the election could decide; it was to make a recess appointment in Congress’s absence, something he actually did in filling a prior Supreme Court vacancy (that filled by David Davis, later confirmed by the Senate via a regular appointment, sent over, we might add, on the very day the Senate reconvened).

The most that might be said is that Lincoln delayed making known a nominee until after the election so as to not unnecessarily alienate the potential nominees and their followers.  He wanted Chase, as well as Montgomery Blair and others, to campaign for him to help ensure his re-election. Some have suggested that Lincoln’s re-election was inevitable given the results of certain State elections which took place in mid-October.  But Lincoln didn’t see it that way; he made his own calculation at the time, perhaps a worst-case scenario, giving him 117 electoral votes and his opponent 114.

But what if Lincoln had lost the election?  Isn’t it possible that he would have, in the words of Ms. Harris, “done the right thing” and refrained from making a nomination, allowing the winner of the election to make that choice?

Lincoln’s opponent was the Democrat George B. McClellan.  The platform of the Democratic Party for the 1864 election lambasted the Lincoln administration’s “failure to restore the Union by the experiment of war, during which, under the pretense of a military necessity of war-power higher than the Constitution, the Constitution itself has been disregarded in every part, and public liberty and private right alike trodden down”.  They didn’t enumerate the ways in which the administration had supposedly disregarded the Constitution, but chief among them was undoubtedly the Emancipation Proclamation, a self-described “fit and necessary war measure” and “an act of justice, warranted by the Constitution, upon military necessity”.

The Democratic platform went on to demand the restoration of peace on the basis of the Federal Union of the States, further resolving “that the aim and object of the Democratic party is to preserve the Federal Union and the rights of the States unimpaired”.  Was there any State right under greater threat than that of slavery?

In McClellan’s letter accepting the nomination, he noted: “The preservation of our Union was the sole avowed object for which the war was commenced.  It should have been conducted for that object only.”  He said that once it was clear that the rebels were ready for peace, we should strive “to secure such peace, re-establish the Union, and guarantee for the future the constitutional rights of every State.  The Union is the one condition of peace – we ask no more.”

It was the Emancipation Proclamation which had marked the addition of a second objective to the war, that of abolishing slavery.  McClellan and the Democrats wanted a return to the sole objective of preservation of the Union, and nothing more.

The Democrats in general, and McClellan in particular, believed the Emancipation Proclamation to be unconstitutional.  If McClellan had been elected President on November 8, would Lincoln’s “right thing to do” have been to refrain from nominating someone so that McClellan could do so?  McClellan would have nominated someone who believed as he did, that the Emancipation Proclamation was unconstitutional, or if that were not possible given the composition of the Senate, at least someone far less radical than Chase on the subjects of emancipation, abolition, and equality for black Americans.

Lincoln considered the Emancipation Proclamation to be his most important act, reportedly saying: “I never, in my life, felt more certain that I was doing right, than I do in signing this paper”.  If he had lost the 1864 election to McClellan, is there any doubt that he would have gone ahead and nominated Chase for Chief Justice anyway, knowing that Chase would uphold not only the Emancipation Proclamation but also the pending 13th amendment to the Constitution, which would abolish slavery once and for all?  For Abraham Lincoln, that would have been the “right thing to do”!

For more on Lincoln’s Supreme Court nominations – five in all – and his great impact on the court, see this blog post from two years ago: “Lincoln and the Supreme Court: Little Drama, Much Impact”.

Kevin J. Wood

October 12, 2020

Addressing Our Imperfect History

What is the best way for a nation or a society to reconcile its imperfect history with its desire to do better in the future?  Is it to attack, disparage, or try to forget its history, or is it to build upon it?

Abraham Lincoln had an idea which we can apply to this question … unless we toss him out, too.

As the Civil War raged on the battlefield, a debate raged in Congress and in Northern society over reconstruction: if the Union forces prevailed, how should the Federal government then go about bringing the rebellious states back into the Union?  Some wanted to punish the South; others, including Lincoln, wanted a more lenient policy, perhaps best summed up in these words from his Second Inaugural Address: “with malice toward none, with charity for all”.

Already in December 1863, Lincoln included in his Annual Message to Congress – the equivalent of our day’s State of the Union Address – a “Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction”.  By this time, the Union forces were in control of significant portions of a few Confederate states.

Under Lincoln’s plan, if in any state ten percent of the number of people who voted in the 1860 election would now take an oath of allegiance to the United States and pledge to pursue the emancipation of that state’s slaves, then its state government could be reconstituted.  With the exception of high-ranking Confederate army officers and government officials, all citizens of the state would be granted a full pardon and would have their private property protected, except for their slaves.  Over the next year, fully functioning Unionist governments were reconstituted under Lincoln’s plan in Louisiana, Arkansas, and Tennessee.

The Radical Republicans in Congress, however, strongly objected to this so-called ten-percent plan, considering it too lenient.  In the summer of 1864, they passed their own reconstruction bill (the Wade-Davis Bill), which stipulated that a majority – fifty percent, not ten percent – had to take an oath of allegiance, and an “iron-clad oath” at that.  This meant that they had to swear or affirm that they had never voluntarily taken up arms against the United States nor otherwise supported the Confederacy.

Lincoln refused to sign this bill, much to the displeasure of the Radicals, and therefore it did not take effect as Congress had recessed in the meantime (a “pocket veto”).  He explained his reasoning: it was “inflexibly committed to [a] single plan of restoration”, and he also did not wish to “set aside the already adopted and installed governments in Arkansas and Louisiana”.

The following spring, General Lee surrendered to General Grant on Palm Sunday, April 9.  Two days later, a large crowd gathered on the White House lawn to celebrate.  Lincoln gave a speech – what turned out to be his last public address – to explain how he thought we should go about reuniting our divided nation.  He mentioned his ten-percent plan, noting how a new government had been established in Louisiana to which objections were now being raised:

Some twelve thousand voters in the heretofore slave-state of Louisiana have sworn allegiance to the Union, assumed to be the rightful political power of the State, held elections, organized a State government, [and] adopted a free-state constitution, giving the benefit of public schools equally to black and white, and empowering the Legislature to confer the elective franchise upon the colored man.  Their Legislature has already voted to ratify the constitutional amendment recently passed by Congress, abolishing slavery throughout the nation.  These twelve thousand persons are thus fully committed to the Union, and to perpetual freedom in the state – committed to the very things, and nearly all the things the nation wants – and they ask the nations recognition, and it’s assistance to make good their committal.

Now, if we reject, and spurn them, we do our utmost to disorganize and disperse them.  We in effect say to the white men “You are worthless, or worse – we will neither help you, nor be helped by you.”  To the blacks we say “This cup of liberty which these, your old masters, hold to your lips, we will dash from you, and leave you to the chances of gathering the spilled and scattered contents in some vague and undefined when, where, and how.”  If this course, discouraging and paralyzing both white and black, has any tendency to bring Louisiana into proper practical relations with the Union, I have, so far, been unable to perceive it.

If, on the contrary, we recognize, and sustain the new government of Louisiana the converse of all this is made true.  We encourage the hearts, and nerve the arms of the twelve thousand to adhere to their work, and argue for it, and proselyte for it, and fight for it, and feed it, and grow it, and ripen it to a complete success.  The colored man too, in seeing all united for him, is inspired with vigilance, and energy, and daring, to the same end.  Grant that he desires the elective franchise, will he not attain it sooner by saving the already advanced steps toward it, than by running backward over them?  Concede that the new government of Louisiana is only to what it should be as the egg is to the fowl, we shall sooner have the fowl by hatching the egg than by smashing it? …

I repeat the question.  “Can Louisiana be brought into proper practical relation with the Union sooner by sustaining or by discarding her new State Government?”

And I repeat my question: What is the best way for a nation or a society to reconcile its imperfect history with its desire to do better in the future?  Is it to attack, disparage, or try to forget its history, or is it to build upon it?  Is it to sustain it or discard it?  Is it to hatch the egg or smash it?

Despite all its imperfections, the United States of America was and is a remarkable and unique government in the history of the world.  It was admittedly an experiment – an audacious attempt to create a more democratic form of government than any that existed at that time – an experiment which very easily could have failed.  Are not those who risked their lives to conceive and carry out the experiment deserving of our remembrance and admiration for what they accomplished?  Without them, this nation would never have existed.  This does not mean that we condone all that they believed or did, but neither should we judge them strictly according to our own standards and our own context.

The great nation born in 1776 was far from perfect; the Founders themselves were painfully aware of that.  The Civil War gave us an opportunity, to quote Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, for a “new birth of freedom” which would be a significant improvement.  If the “new birth” was still less than perfect, would that have been a reason to reject it?  Or was it another building block upon which to continue to build in the future?

When others who came before us took steps – giant, important steps –, but we wish that they would have, or could have, taken even greater steps, how should we respond?  Should we disparage their efforts as not having gone far enough, or should we remember and honor them for what they did accomplish, and then take a further step ourselves from where they have already brought us?  Should we smash the egg … or hatch it?

Kevin J. Wood

August 8, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Great and Good Friends

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

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

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

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

Abraham Lincoln

By the President

William H. Seward, Secretary of State

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

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

Kevin J. Wood

May 7, 2019

Lincoln and the Supreme Court: Little Drama, Much Impact

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kevin J. Wood

October 5, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Abraham Lincoln is my nam[e]

And with my pen I wrote the same

I wrote in both hast[e] and speed

and left it here for fools to read

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kevin J. Wood

September 5, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kevin J. Wood

July 28, 2018

The Gettysburg Address: Memorable Words, Memorable Deeds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But in a larger sense, we can not dedicate – we can not consecrate – we can not hallow – this ground.  The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.  The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.

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

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

It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.  It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us – that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion – that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain – that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom – and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

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

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

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

Kevin J. Wood

November 19, 2017