Lincoln and History

By John C. Fazio
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2007, All Rights Reserved

I am of the opinion that major historical events, and some minor ones too, occur only in the fullness of time, which is to say that they occur only when conditions are ripe for their happening. Attempts to accomplish them in non-conducive circumstances, or at inappropriate times, will fail. Examples are endless and superfluous, but I shall give one because it is especially relevant to our area of interest.

Abraham Lincoln

The Northwest Ordinance, passed by the Continental Congress on July 13, 1787, under the Articles of Confederation (which created the Northwest Territory as the first organized territory of the United States out of the region south of the Great Lakes, north and west of the Ohio River and east of the Mississippi River), contained the following language: “There shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in the said territory, otherwise than in the punishment of crime, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” Observe that the language is virtually identical to that of Section 1 of the Thirteenth Amendment, adopted 78 years later. Clearly, the former was the template for the latter. In 1787, four years after the successful conclusion of the Revolutionary War by thirteen united colonies, circumstances were such that the inclusion of this language in a document that was applicable north of the Ohio River made sense, but 78 years had to pass before its inclusion in another document that was applicable south of that river would make sense.

This is not to say (to plunge into a time-honored debate) that men (the word used herein to mean both men and women) are driven totally by historical circumstances rather than the other way around, because there can be no historical circumstances without men. To put the matter plainly: History makes men, yes, but men also make history. And occasionally, very occasionally, certain men make much and very profound history. The record of our species is replete with the names and deeds of such men – Pericles, Caesar, Jesus, Justinian, Theodora, Mohammed, Charlemagne, Leonardo, Columbus, Luther, Elizabeth I, Louis XIV, Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, Voltaire, Rousseau, Washington, Napoleon — and Lincoln, to name but a tiny number and not to mention post-Lincoln individuals who, for better or worse, left their mark.

Institutionalized slavery had largely run its historical course in the western world by 1860, the year of Lincoln’s election. In England the slave trade was prohibited in 1807 and made a capital crime in 1827. In 1833 and 1834, Parliament outlawed slavery and emancipated all slaves in the Empire, and in 1838 it abolished indentured servitude. Twenty million pounds was paid in compensation to plantation owners in the Caribbean, an example that might have been followed in the United States, but wasn’t. France finally abolished the institution in its Empire in 1848, after prior repeals and re-establishment in some of its colonies. In Russia, slavery was abolished by Peter the Great and serfs were emancipated in 1861 by Tsar Alexander II.

In addition to these major powers, some 17 other nations had formally abolished slavery by 1860 and another dozen or so would do so in the century following the Civil War, though the practice persists secretly in many countries, for labor and for sex. Its existence in the American South, therefore, was anachronistic, and it was thus only a matter of time before it would come to an end, peacefully, as in England, France, Russia, etc., or violently. It ended violently because the regions had grown very far apart economically and culturally; because slaveholders had invested hundreds of millions of dollars in their slaves and felt that they could not weather such an economic loss; and because Southern leadership and citizenry could not imagine what they would do with 4,000,000 suddenly free blacks in their midst.

This was the history, then, that would make men. Now let us talk about the man who would make history.

Was Lincoln a truly great man? Yes. Was he a truly great President? Yes. Was he a complex man, both good and bad, with strengths and weaknesses? No, there was nothing bad about him and he had no weaknesses worth talking about. Was he, then, a perfect human being? No, because he made mistakes, but to make mistakes is not necessarily to be weak. Was he forced into glory? No, he earned it and paid the ultimate price for it.

Lincoln, and at times it appears that only Lincoln, during his period, realized that goals had to be not only praiseworthy, but accomplished gradually, in stages, in the fullness of time. Without that acumen and foresight, it is likely that the Rebellion would have succeeded, that the United States would have ceased to exist as one nation and that human bondage would have continued in a country whose organic law, i.e., its Constitution, guaranteed it, and this despite the fact that it was anachronistic in the world even at that time. Even with the acumen and foresight, this scenario came perilously close to reality. The North, the Federal Government, the United States, was truly not out of the woods until 1863 and even then might have lost the war if Gettysburg had gone the other way. No one who knows anything about the war can doubt the fighting qualities of the Southern man, the superb generalship the South brought to the conflict and the tenacity of the people of the South in the face of an adversary that substantially outnumbered them and that had substantially more of virtually everything — gold, railroads, ships, armaments, manufactured goods, lumber, food, etc. — than they had. Despite this lopsided balance in resources, Lincoln would say, in late 1862, that if there was a place worse than hell, he was in it. Any why not, after Union disasters on the Peninsula and at Second Bull Run and Fredericksburg and with one commander who had a chronic case of “the slows,” another whose braggadocio and cruelty made Lincoln cringe and another who did not hesitate to admit that he was unfit to command an army.

Lincoln knew that he could not get too far ahead of public opinion and that to try to accomplish too much too quickly would lose the whole game. Thus it was that he could entertain the notion of colonization of blacks, despite, or perhaps because of, his profound sympathy for black Americans and his loathing of slavery. Under the then prevailing circumstances and taking account of the attitudes of most whites toward blacks at that time, colonization was not such an outrageous idea. But Lincoln had the good sense to withdraw the suggestion when it was made clear to him by black leaders that they had no interest in it.

And thus it was, too, that Lincoln would resist — because he had to resist — the demands of the abolitionists and the radicals and the unauthorized liberation of slaves by overly zealous commanders in the field who knew their departments well enough, but did not have the comprehensive overview of the big picture that only the Commander in Chief in the White House had. Had he not so resisted when he did and to the degree that he did, one or more and very likely all four of the border states would have joined the Rebellion, and the cause of Union would then have been lost. Indeed, Lincoln felt that the loss of even one of them – Kentucky – would have been fatal to the cause. It’s a good thing he knew this, because it appears that no one else of consequence knew it.

So Lincoln was sagacious, more so than any of his contemporaries. He was also perceptive and patient. He also knew a great deal about human nature, no less than Shakespeare. He knew what he wanted and he knew how to get it. He would be forceful only when he absolutely had to be, when the success or failure of the cause was in the balance, which is to say when the continuation of the United States as one nation demanded it. Thus it was, for example, that he would suspend the writ of habeas corpus for a period without Congress’s constitutionally mandated authority. Thus it was, as another example, that he would order the arrest and incarceration in Fort McHenry of the Mayor and the City Council of the City of Baltimore, as well as several Maryland legislators who were preparing to vote to recognize the Confederacy, as well as Congressman Henry May, rather than allow the nation’s capital to be geographically cut off from the states that supported it. And thus it was, too, that there was some interference with free speech and other civil liberties during his administration. But these measures were taken not with alacrity, but with much pain, because they offended his love of justice, of liberty and of the rule of law, as well as his finely tuned sense of right and wrong.

For the rest, he was the soul of kindness, of gentleness, of thoughtfulness, of generosity, material and spiritual. His Bixby letter is a splendid example of it, but so are his major addresses as President – the First Inaugural, the Gettysburg Address and especially his Second Inaugural, which David Lloyd George, a great admirer of Lincoln, is said to have described as the finest thing ever written with a pen. His love and sympathy for humanity was so great, in fact, that it even extended to slaveholders, whom, he knew, had inherited a system not of their making.

His capacity for mercy was legendary even in his own time. Time and time again he intervened to save the lives of soldiers who had run afoul of military discipline, who were charged with criminal negligence, cowardice or desertion. With a heavy heart, he would defer to the executioners only in the severest cases (e.g., multiple offenders, those who had already received clemency more than once and those who ignored repeated warnings). And time and time again he would make himself available to the lowly, to those without status, power or influence, to those who had only a need. So pervasive and well known were these attributes of Lincoln’s character, in fact, that Robert E. Lee is said to have said that he surrendered as much to Lincoln’s kindness as he did to Grant’s cannons. No greater tragedy ever befell the South, before or after the war, than the half inch of lead that John Wilkes Booth’s derringer sent into Lincoln’s brain.

He was a man, too, who knew what pain, suffering and grief were about. He had experienced much, before as well as during the war, which no doubt had a lot to do with his gentle and merciful spirit. In 1850, he and his wife, Mary Todd, were devastated by the loss of their not quite four-year old son, Eddie Baker Lincoln, whom his parents called “a tender boy,” to pulmonary tuberculosis. Having weathered that and much else by 1862, the Lincoln’s were again driven to the edge by the loss of their eleven-year old son, William (Willie), on February 20 of that year, to a typhoid-like disease. Willie, who was probably his parents’ favorite, had been described by Elizabeth Todd Grimsley, Mary’s cousin, as a “noble, beautiful boy…of great mental activity, unusual intelligence, wonderful memory, methodical, frank and loving, a counterpart of his father, save that he was handsome.” His death plunged both of his parents into inconsolable grief. But grief of a different kind was to follow in that terrible year for the North, with one lost battle following another, culminating in the debacle at Fredericksburg and the Mud March of January 1863. Lincoln would at least be spared the loss of his third son, Thomas (Tad), who died on July 16, 1871, at the age of 18, a death that pushed Mary over the edge into insanity.

Lastly, a word about one other feature of his personality. It is said that there are only three things in life: God, human folly and laughter; that we can’t understand the first, that we can’t do anything about the second, and that we must therefore make the most of the third. Lincoln would probably agree that God is unknowable. He would not agree that we can do nothing about human folly; he did a great deal about it. But he most assuredly would agree with the value of laughter, which is why, when he wasn’t grieving or despairing, he did a lot of it and tried to get other people to do a lot of it and often. His sense of humor was as much a part of him as his height and his stovepipe hat. He loved a good joke and a good story and told both often. Sometimes his humor was a bit too earthy or ribald for some ears, but if he didn’t always amuse his audience, he certainly had no problem amusing himself. When retiring, he was as likely — perhaps more so — to facilitate sleep with Artemus Ward and Petroleum V. Nasby than with government reports.

So what do we have? A very intelligent man, a self-taught man who rose from the humblest beginnings to the highest office in the land, a perceptive man, a patient man, a man who could be forceful but who preferred to be, and therefore most often was, a compassionate man. A kind, gentle, thoughtful and generous man. A merciful man, a humble man. A man who loved to laugh and to make others laugh. In a word, a man who had all the tools necessary to shepherd his country from a largely agrarian and loosely joined federation of semi-autonomous states to an industrial and commercial giant that would think of itself and present itself to the world as one nation, indivisible.

It seems probable that no other man of his time could have succeeded in holding the country together, so great were the forces tearing it apart. Indeed, even with the qualities that he brought to the task, he came perilously close to failing. When we think of the long train of mediocre Presidents (not to say mediocre men) who followed him, that probability does not appear to be overstated: Johnson, Grant, Hayes, Garfield, Arthur, Cleveland, Harrison, McKinley. To a degree, therefore, history made Lincoln. But to an even greater degree, Lincoln made history as only a few others have made it.