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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LinkedIn-LogoSquareKevin J. Wood

November 16, 2016