A President’s Day Plea
So, you think you know Abraham Lincoln? Your teachers told you about him. You read one of more of the hundreds of books written about him or maybe you watched a documentary about the man known as “Honest Abe.” There is no one who is really the same person all the time. Ol’ Abe said it best, “You can fool all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.”
The question remains, “Will the real Abraham Lincoln please stand up?” I know, that would be quite impossible since the irrepressible Illinoisan was assassinated, dead, buried, and moved or removed more than a dozen times. But, on this President’s day, let us look behind the beard of the rail splitter from Springfield, Illinois.
First of all, let me tell you that most of my people did not care too much for Mr. Lincoln. Some of them did. While Lincoln was beginning the practice of law in Springfield, he met and became intimate friends with Joshua Fry Speed, my great- great-grandfather Scott’s second cousin. When President Lincoln won reelection in 1864, he chose James Speed, Joshua’s younger brother, to serve as Attorney General of the United States. Whether or not Lincoln and Joshua Speed had any other relationship other than being best friends is not up for discussion. I will focus on the actual words and factual deeds in the last decade of Lincoln’s life.
Abraham Lincoln has been called “the Great Emancipator.” He freed many slaves, but not all of them. Even his own top two generals, Grant and Sherman, owned slaves until after the end of the Civil War. It is important to note that Confederate General Robert E. Lee freed all slaves he inherited or acquired by marriage and never publicly spoke negatively against blacks as his Union counterparts did.
Lincoln’s rise to political greatness came in 1858 during his campaign for a seat in the United States senate. During the debates with his opponent Stephen Douglas, the divisive issue of slavery simmered and then boiled over. Lincoln stated, “I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races, that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of Negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And in as much as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior.” Lincoln later commented, “The authors of the Declaration of Independence intended to include all men, but they did not mean to declare all men equal in all respects.”
On March 4, 1861, Abraham Lincoln took the oath of office as the nation’s 16th president. In his inaugural address Lincoln said, “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the states where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.” Lincoln vowed to follow the Republican party platform and to maintain the rights of states to provide for slavery inviolate. Lincoln further vowed against any invasion of any state nor any use of force against any people anywhere. At the moment of his address, there were nearly as many slaves in the United States of America than there were in the newly formed Confederate States of America, albeit that Lincoln was sworn into office before the secession of Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Kentucky left the Union.
Just a week before the warring armies slugged it out for the second time at Manassas, Lincoln, in a letter to Horace Greeley, wrote, “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.”
Abraham Lincoln is known as a man who proclaimed liberty and justice for all. Lincoln suspended the constitutionally guaranteed right of habeas corpus in parts of the country, the first and only widespread ban of the people’s most sacred rights. Many claim that he arrested his political enemies and held them without cause.
On January 1, 1863, Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed only slaves in the Confederacy and not those in the United States. Slavery was not outlawed in the United States until December 6, 1865 with the adoption of the 13th Amendment some eight months after the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia. Most scholars generally agree that Lincoln and his cabinet issued the order to prevent the theretofore neutral England and France from joining with the Confederacy since until that time, the issue of slavery was never acknowledged by Lincoln as a justifiable cause for the war.
During the pivotal and crucial year of 1864, Lincoln repeatedly refused the requests of the Confederacy to exchange prisoners who were dying in tortuous conditions and horrific styes of filth, disease, and rotting flesh, both in the South and North. Lincoln critics condemn the President’s hapless nonaggressive generals and his refusal to remove them, a fault which led to the prolongation of the war beyond 1862 and the resulting carnage of Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, The Wilderness, Spotsylvania, and Cold Harbor.
When the fighting ended, Abraham Lincoln’s goal of preserving the Union was achieved. Lincoln supporters argued and still argue that the ends justified the means. The means led to the death of more than a half million souls, the shattered lives of millions more, and the near destruction of an entire nation. Political and social equality in different forms continued throughout the country for decades. Some argue that inequities still exist today.
Was this the same Lincoln, who penned such wise proverbs as, “A house divided against itself cannot stand,” and “I like to see a man proud of the place in which he lives. I like to see a man live so that his place will be proud of him.”? Is he the man who wisely said, “It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open one’s mouth and remove all doubt,” or “whatever you are, be a good one.”?
With all of the tumult in our nation following the election of another politically controversial Illinoisan as president, let us all take time to count our blessings that we are the United States of America, if in name only, just as Abraham Lincoln dreamed.
Now is the time that we sheathe our terrible swift swords, pick up our olive branches, and civilly sweep out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored. Then we will see who among us will stand up and become the Abraham Lincoln we thought we knew, the one our third grade teacher taught us about, the one who dreamed “of a place and time where America will once again be the last great hope of earth.”