Lincoln’s Eulogy on President Taylor: An Example to Others, Lincoln Himself Included

It was on this date – July 25 – in the year 1850 that Abraham Lincoln pronounced in Chicago a eulogy for President Zachary Taylor, who had died two weeks earlier at age 65, having served only one year and four months of his term.

The choice of Lincoln for this task was understandable since he had campaigned on behalf of Taylor in 1848 following his own one term in the U.S. Congress.  Yet it also seems somewhat ironic given some of the vast differences between Taylor’s life and his own.  Until Taylor was recruited by the Whig Party to run for President, for example, he expressed little interest in politics and held vague political beliefs.  Lincoln, by contrast, had been intrigued by politics since young adulthood and had very defined beliefs.

Even more striking was the difference in their military careers.  Much of Lincoln’s eulogy on Taylor covered his long and distinguished career as an army officer, from the War of 1812 to the Indian wars and finally the Mexican-American War, in which as a major general he became a national hero.  Lincoln’s own military service consisted of three uneventful months as a young man in the Black Hawk War, an experience which he once jokingly described as follows: “I had a good many bloody struggles with the musquetoes [sic]”.  In fact, Congressman Lincoln had opposed the initiation of the war with Mexico, viewing it as an unjustified land grab by President Polk with the sole goal of claiming more territory for the expansion of slavery.

While talking at length about General Taylor’s military accomplishments, Lincoln’s recitation was mostly plain and factual, but he allowed himself some poetic license when talking about one tense moment early in the Mexican-American War.  The general and his men were desperately trying to reach a besieged fort on the Rio Grande (near the modern Brownsville), not knowing whether their compatriots inside were dead or alive, and those inside likewise fearing for those outside.  Lincoln concluded the scene as follows:

And now the din of battle nears the fort and sweeps obliquely by; a gleam of hope flies through the half imprisoned few; they fly to the wall; every eye is strained – it is – it is – the stars and stripes are still aloft!  Anon the anxious brethren meet; and while hand strikes hand, the heavens are rent with a loud, long, glorious, gushing cry of victory! victory!! victory!!!

Later, when discussing General Taylor’s final battle, against the great Santa Anna at Buena Vista, deep in Mexican territory, outnumbered three or four to one, Lincoln recalled the apprehension felt by those back in the United States, fearing the worst.  When the truth finally came, it was of both “glory and grief.  A bright and glowing page was added to our Nation’s history; but then too, in eternal silence, lay Clay, and Mc’Kee, and Yell, and Lincoln, and our own beloved Hardin” (these names being some of the officers killed at Buena Vista, including Henry Clay’s son, Henry Clay, Jr.; Lincoln’s friend John J. Hardin; and interestingly, an officer named George Lincoln, apparently no relation).

While all this military history reveals a great difference between the lives of Taylor and Lincoln, however, Lincoln’s eulogy also suggests some remarkable commonalities between the two men.  They were both shaped, for example, by having spent their early years on the frontier in Kentucky.  Perhaps most interesting of all, the character traits, ambitions, priorities, etc. which Lincoln exalts in Taylor are ones which we would easily apply to Lincoln himself.  And they are the same ones which Lincoln would later appreciate in others when he had his second military stint, that of Commander-in-Chief, in particular in men such as General Grant.  Lincoln might just as well have been pronouncing the eulogy he hoped others would pronounce on his own life when his own time came to depart this world.

The following words, for example, might just as easily express the feelings which Lincoln would have toward Grant 15 years later:

Gen. Taylor’s battles were not distinguished for brilliant military manoeuvers; but in all, he seems rather to have conquered by the exercise of a sober and steady judgment, coupled with a dogged incapacity to understand that defeat was possible.  His rarest military trait, was a combination of negatives – absence of excitement and absence of fear.  He could not be flurried, and he could not be scared.

Lincoln also took time to carefully relate one notable incident which showed that Taylor was averse to seeking revenge.  During the Mexican-American War, Colonel William Worth, greatly offended when Taylor selected another officer over him, returned to Washington to tender his resignation, where “in his passionate feeling, he hesitated not to speak harshly and disparagingly of Gen. Taylor.  He was an officer of the highest character; and his word, on military subjects, and about military men, could not, with the country, pass for nothing.”

Worth soon regretted his words and actions, however, and his resignation having been declined, he returned to the field of battle, where, Lincoln relates:

Then came Gen. Taylor’s opportunity for revenge.  The battle of Monterey was approaching, and even at hand.  Taylor could if he would, so place Worth in that battle, that his name would scarcely be noticed in the report.  But no.  He felt it was due to the service, to assign the real post of honor to some one of the best officers; he knew Worth was one of the best, and he felt that it was generous to allow him, then and there, to retrieve his secret loss.  Accordingly he assigned to Col. Worth in that assault, what was par excellence, the post of honor; and, the duties of which, he executed so well, and so brilliantly, as to eclipse, in that battle, even Gen. Taylor himself.

To anyone familiar with Lincoln’s own life and career, these words will immediately recall to mind some of the notable incidents when he would likewise refuse to hold grudges against those who did him harm or spoke ill of him, even naming them to posts of honor for the sake of the country if he felt that they were the best people for the job.  The case of Edwin Stanton is just one example of this.

Given that Taylor’s political career was rather short and also recent, Lincoln’s eulogy is understandably brief on this point, noting that “the incidents of his administration up to the time of his death, are too familiar and too fresh to require any direct repetition”.  He was more concerned about what effect the President’s death would have politically on the country, but called for trust in God on this matter:

I fear the one great question of the day [slavery], is not now so likely to be partially acquiesced in by the different sections of the Union, as it would have been, could Gen. Taylor have been spared to us.  Yet, under all circumstances, trusting to our Maker, and through his wisdom and beneficence, to the great body of our people, we will not despair, nor despond.

Lincoln held that Taylor would be remembered for “his unostentatious, self-sacrificing, long enduring devotion to his duty”, and moralized that this should serve as an example to young Americans “that treading the hard path of duty, as he trod it, will be noticed, and will lead to high places”.

Lincoln concluded his thoughts on Taylor’s life as follows, including a citation from the gospels and another from an Isaac Watts hymn:

But he is gone.  The conqueror at last is conquered.  The fruits of his labor, his name, his memory and example, are all that is left us – his example, verifying the great truth, that “he that humbleth himself, shall be exalted” teaching, that to serve one’s country with a singleness of purpose, gives assurance of that country’s gratitude, secures its best honors, and makes “a dying bed, soft as downy pillows are”.

But Lincoln was not quite done, noting that the death of such a great and well-known person inevitably reminds all people of their own mortality.  He then finished his eulogy by citing several stanzas of his favorite poem, William Knox’s “Oh, why should the spirit of mortal be proud”, on the brevity and uncertainty of life, ending with the final stanza:

‘Tis the wink of an eye, ‘tis the draught of a breath,

From the blossoms of health, to the paleness of death.

From the gilded saloon, to the bier and the shroud.

Oh, why should the spirit of mortal be proud!

Reading Lincoln’s eulogy on President Taylor, and comparing it to how Lincoln lived his own life, suggests that he tried to emulate the positive characteristics of those he admired.  We might do well to do the same, beginning with the example of Lincoln himself.

Kevin J. Wood

July 25, 2017

On Sacrifice and Suffering: Lincoln’s Preview of Memorial Day

Our national holiday of Memorial Day, on which we remember those who died while serving in our armed forces, had its origins in the aftermath of the Civil War.  Back then it was called Decoration Day, so named because people in both the North and the South decorated the soldiers’ graves with flowers.

The observance of such a day serves to honor the memory of those who made the supreme sacrifice, but it also serves to express our condolences and gratitude to those left behind: the family members and friends who have suffered the terrible loss of a loved one.

Abraham Lincoln had tragic occasion to demonstrate this in late May of 1861, with the Civil War barely underway and long before the establishment of any such official day of remembrance.

The Lincolns counted among their friends a young man from New York State by the name of Elmer Ellsworth.  Ellsworth had moved to Illinois in the mid-1850s when he was 17 years old, eventually settling in Springfield in 1860 in order to join Lincoln’s law office as a clerk and continue his study of the law.  He later campaigned for Lincoln in the Presidential election of 1860 and then helped to manage the President-elect’s journey to Washington.  He became a close friend of the whole family, and almost like another son to Lincoln.

After the Confederate takeover of Fort Sumter in South Carolina in mid-April 1861, Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteer soldiers to put down the rebellion.  His young friend Ellsworth was among the first to join the cause, traveling to New York City to raise the 11th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment from among that city’s volunteer firefighting companies.  Ellsworth then returned to Washington as the colonel of these famous “Fire Zouaves”, who were soon dispatched across the Potomac River to occupy Alexandria, Virginia.  They were the first Union troops to occupy Confederate territory, and they accomplished this task with little trouble except for one terribly tragic incident.  There was a large Confederate flag atop the Marshall House, a small inn, which for weeks had been visible from Washington, including from Lincoln’s office in the White House.  Young Ellsworth entered the inn with several of his men and he himself went upstairs to remove the flag.  On his way back down the stairs, he was shot and killed by the innkeeper.

Lincoln grieved for his young friend as if he had been his own son, and the next day wrote a letter of condolence to his parents, Ephraim and Phoebe Ellsworth.  The President did not know it at the time, but this would be just one of many hundreds of letters of condolence which he would write to grieving parents, children, siblings, and other kin and friends over the next four years.

Washington, D.C. – May 25, 1861

To the Father and Mother of Col. Elmer E. Ellsworth:

My dear Sir and Madam,

In the untimely loss of your noble son, our affliction here, is scarcely less than your own.  So much of promised usefulness to one’s country, and of bright hopes for one’s self and friends, have rarely been so suddenly dashed, as in his fall.  In size, in years, and in youthful appearance, a boy only, his power to command men, was surpassingly great.  This power, combined with a fine intellect, an indomitable energy, and a taste altogether military, constituted in him, as seemed to me, the best natural talent, in that department, I ever knew.  And yet he was singularly modest and deferential in social intercourse.  My acquaintance with him began less than two years ago; yet through the latter half of the intervening period, it was as intimate as the disparity of our ages, and my engrossing engagements, would permit.  To me, he appeared to have no indulgences or pastimes; and I never heard him utter a profane, or intemperate word.  What was conclusive of his good heart, he never forgot his parents.  The honors he labored for so laudably, and, in the sad end, so gallantly gave his life, he meant for them, no less than for himself.

In the hope that it may be no intrusion upon the sacredness of your sorrow, I have ventured to address you this tribute to the memory of my young friend, and your brave and early fallen child.

May God give you that consolation which is beyond all earthly power.  Sincerely your friend in a common affliction –

A. Lincoln

At Lincoln’s request, the body of Elmer Ellsworth, one of the first martyrs for the cause of the Union, was brought by an honor guard to the White House and lay in state in the East Room.  His death would serve as a rallying cry in the North over the coming weeks and months, but this would not dim the intensity of the Lincoln family’s great feeling of loss.  It would serve as a reminder, however, that the price of peace is often very costly, requiring sacrifices and suffering by the members of our armed forces and by their families and friends.

Kevin J. Wood

May 28, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LinkedIn-LogoSquareKevin J. Wood

November 16, 2016

The Cleveland Convention (of 1864): Discontented Republicans Nominate a Brash Self-Promoter

Things were not going very well for President Abraham Lincoln in the spring of 1864.  The Civil War had been dragging on for three years, with no end in sight.  The northern populace, already very tired of the war, were horrified by General Grant’s heavy losses in early May in the Battle of the Wilderness and by the prospect of continued such losses in a bloody war of attrition.

In addition, the Republican Party was by no means united behind Lincoln, with the so-called Radical Republicans especially keen on finding an alternative candidate for the 1864 Presidential election.  These hardline abolitionists didn’t think Lincoln was moving quickly enough on emancipation, and they thought his plan for post-war reunification with the South was too conciliatory.  Lincoln’s overly ambitious Secretary of Treasury Salmon Chase had been the Radical Republicans’ first choice to replace him, but this plan was thwarted in early spring when Chase’s duplicity was exposed.

With Chase out of the way, it soon became clear that Lincoln had enough support to be re-nominated at the Republican convention scheduled for early June in Baltimore (at the convention, the party would be re-named the “National Union Party” due to the inclusion of some of the Democrats who supported the war).  With time running out, a splinter group of about four hundred Radical Republicans held an alternate convention on May 31 in order to nominate a different candidate more to their liking.  They settled on John C. Frémont, the famed western explorer (the “Pathfinder”), Republican presidential nominee in 1856 (when he was defeated by Democrat James Buchanan), and Civil War general.  The new party was dubbed the “Radical Democracy Party”.

When Lincoln was informed of the results of this alternate convention, he picked his Bible up from his desk and began looking for a particular passage, which he soon found.  He then read aloud from 1 Samuel 22 – that would be “First Samuel” – the story of David and the company of men which gathered about him in a cave when he was being pursued by King Saul.  The passage concludes as follows: “And everyone that was in distress, and everyone that was in debt, and everyone that was discontented, gathered themselves unto him; and he became a captain over them; and there were with him about four hundred men.”

Without saying any more, Lincoln had provided his opinion on the four hundred men who had gathered about Frémont, namely that they were desperate malcontents.  Harper’s Weekly seemed to agree, observing that the convention “was the work partly of angry and intriguing, partly of impracticable men.”  By the way, this convention of discontented Republicans who wanted to throw out the “establishment” – Lincoln in particular, but also Secretary of State William Seward and others – took place in Cleveland, Ohio.

Their candidate, John C. Frémont, has been described as, among other things: controversial, impetuous, contradictory, and a brash self-promoter.  He acquired massive wealth but also experienced spectacular business failures, and was subject to many lawsuits.  Prior to joining the new Republican Party, he had been more aligned with the Democrats, having married the daughter of powerful Democratic Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri.  Benton and Frémont crusaded together for “Manifest Destiny”, the expansionist movement which might just as easily have been called “America First”.

Oh, and Frémont didn’t like Mexicans, having fought against them in the Mexican-American War.  In an infamous incident in California, Kit Carson asked Frémont whether three unarmed Mexicans should be taken prisoner, and Frémont replied, “I have got no room for prisoners.”  The subsequent murder of the three men, all members of respected families, was widely publicized during the 1856 Presidential campaign, damaging Frémont’s image.  It didn’t help that Frémont had also once been convicted of mutiny, disobedience, and military misconduct for having proclaimed himself military Governor of California (these charges were later commuted to a dishonorable discharge).  It perhaps comes as no surprise that years later during the Civil War, General Frémont was accused of acting autocratically and was eventually dismissed by Lincoln for insubordination – among other things, for unilaterally emancipating the slaves in his jurisdiction (this well before Lincoln’s proclamation of emancipation) – and for issues of corruption in acquiring supplies.

For the record, all this is not to say that Frémont didn’t have his good points, nor that a particular more recent nominee doesn’t have his own good points.  The items mentioned just seem to be particularly intriguing.

By the way, Frémont abandoned his campaign in September 1864, when Lincoln’s chances suddenly improved following the fall of Atlanta.  But true to form, he did so in a manner that gave him revenge on a political enemy, as Lincoln reluctantly agreed to remove Postmaster General Montgomery Blair from office.  With Frémont out of the way, Lincoln easily defeated another famous Civil War general, George B. McClellan, to become the first president to be re-elected in more than thirty years.

LinkedIn-LogoSquareKevin J. Wood

July 20, 2016

Horse Sense: Abraham Lincoln as Storyteller, Part II

In my last blog article, I shared one of the many stories told by Abraham Lincoln.  That one was about a dog, but the animal which was the subject of a great many of Lincoln’s stories and jokes was the horse, of vital importance in 19th-century America.

In fact, the horse’s importance is revealed in one of Lincoln’s jokes.  In March 1863 the famed Confederate battalion known as Mosby’s Rangers raided Fairfax, Virginia and captured a Union brigadier general, two captains and number of soldiers and horses.  Upon learning the news, the president supposedly commented: “Well, I am sorry for the horses.”  He then explained: “I can make a brigadier general in five minutes, but it is not easy to replace a hundred and ten horses.”

Here are a few other stories and jokes in which Lincoln exhibited his own peculiar ‘horse sense’:

Horse Trade: While a young lawyer in Illinois, Lincoln got to joking with a judge about making a trade of horses.  They finally agreed to do so at a predetermined time and place, stipulating that the horses would not be seen beforehand and that if either man backed out of the trade at that point he would have to pay $25.  At the appointed time and place, the judge appeared with the sorriest-looking horse ever seen in those parts.  The crowd soon broke out in laughter as Lincoln arrived carrying a wooden sawhorse upon his shoulders.  The laughter only grew when Lincoln, after surveying the judge’s horse, put down the sawhorse and exclaimed: “Well, Judge, this is the first time I ever got the worst of it in a horse trade.”

Horse Chestnut: During the first Lincoln-Douglas debate, at Ottawa, Lincoln accused Stephen Douglas of misrepresenting his position through “a specious and fantastic arrangement of words, by which a man can prove a horse chestnut to be a chestnut horse”.  [A horse chestnut is a kind of tree more closely related to the buckeye than to other chestnut trees.]

McClellan’s Fatigued Horses: Although General George B. McClellan proved himself a remarkably fine organizer of the troops, he exasperated Lincoln and many others by his reluctance to engage the confederates in combat.  When McClellan gave the excuse that he couldn’t take action because half of his horses were fatigued, lame, ill, undernourished, etc., and this more than a month after the last fighting, Lincoln sent him a somewhat sarcastic telegram asking: “Will you pardon me for asking what the horses of your army have done since the battle of Antietam that fatigue anything?

The Horse as Rider: A few months earlier, McClellan had written Lincoln a letter offering him advice on how to carry out the affairs of the nation.  Lincoln didn’t reply directly to McClellan, but supposedly remarked that it made him think of the man whose horse kicked up and stuck his foot through the stirrup; the man said to the horse, “If you are going to get on, then I will get off.”  Lincoln had no intention of ‘getting off’, but wished that McClellan would understand that he was only a general, not a dictator.

Swapping Horses Mid-Stream: Two years later, Lincoln and McClellan were facing off in the 1864 Presidential election and Lincoln made use of another horse and rider allusion.  He made the case for his re-election while the country was still at war by noting: “I have not permitted myself … to conclude that I am the best man in the country; but I am reminded, in this connection, of a story of an old Dutch farmer who remarked to a companion once that ‘it was not best to swap horses while crossing streams’.

We can be thankful that the people agreed with Lincoln and reelected him, for had McClellan won, the Union would not have been preserved.  Lamentably, the great story-teller would soon fall forever silent, the victim of assassination.  Interestingly, however, his body would be accompanied on its final voyage from the Springfield train station to the cemetery by none other than Old Bob, his favorite horse, now sadly riderless.

LinkedIn-LogoSquareKevin J. Wood

June 30, 2016

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.

Kevin 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