As many others before me, I have struggled with what to make of Abraham Lincoln. Was he one of the greatest presidents ever or was he a man who trod roughly on the Constitution and changed this great nation in a federal quagmire. Of course, the answer is, both!
Before Lincoln took the oath as president, the word came to him that he should capitulate for the sake of the Union, that, if he were to become president, war and succession were inevitable. The majority had not elected him, and he narrowly defeated Breckenridge, who took the entire South. Lincoln neither had a mandate to push the cause of the radical abolitionists to which he did not subscribe but that drove him to election, nor did he have the trust of the South that he would, in any way, uphold their property rights where it pertained to human property. By all rights, he was stuck between a rock and a hard place. Perhaps Lincoln could have avoided war at that moment if he would have retired from the office in favor of a compromiser such as Stephen Douglas. But, with radical pro and anti-slavery voices strengthening on every side, the inevitable clash would have been shortly postponed if at all.
There are those who believe the Lincoln goaded the South into a war by refusing to peacefully hand over Fort Sumter. But Lincoln was not in a position to allow Federal property to be ceded to another country, as it was his duty as commander-in-chief to prevent any loss of Union assets. That the people of Charleston were the instigators of the rebellion, the chief antagonists and the ones who prodded the other states into rebellion becomes quite apparent in the book. There could hardly have been any other outcome, given that the rabid Union-haters of the city were far from inclined to negotiations for a non-violent solution to the situation. Overarching suspicion caused them to preempt any attempt by the Union to show good faith in a mission to supply food provisions to the surrounded fort.
Then there are those, such as I, who have claimed that the southern states should have the right to secede from the Union. But, as I have come better to understand what Thomas Jefferson actually said on the matter, and as I understand Lincoln’s view of recent history and vision of a house divided against itself, I would no longer hold that view. Since the time that the Articles of Confederation were scrapped in favor of the Constitution, it was apparent to most that The United States of America represented a model to the world, especially Europe, that, if spoiled, would have resulted in the end of the democratic experiment. Jefferson railed against federal strong-arming. But, as he and the rest of the early framers understood, without strong and unified central philosophy and a cohesive unity in defense, the great democratic experiment was destined to spiral out of control. This fact comes home toward the end of the war, when Lee begins to realize that the confederate states can’t work together well enough to keep up with the unified Union effort. It becomes painfully obvious to Lee when he is forced to leave Richmond with a starving and ill-equipped army, only to stumble upon massive stored provisions that would have made a crucial difference in his ability to meet Grant’s final push. These had not been given to Lee, commander of Virginian forces, by Jefferson Davis, Confederate president, because of the disconnect that states’ rights created from the confederate central government, even though the actual distance between them was barely a dozen miles and the defense of the confederate capitol was entirely dependent upon it.
There are those, such as I, who have claimed that Lincoln overstepped his constitutional bounds in the prosecution of the war. We have seen in him the dangerous precedents set that have lead us to ruin in the hands of less conservative and more progressively minded men. But, from Lincoln’s perspective, it doesn’t do much good to strictly observe the laws of a nation that, by doing so, or by acquiescing to a break up of such nation, would cause it to cease to exist. Yes, he suspended habeus corpus. But it cannot really be shown that, in doing so, he used his dictatorial powers in any tyrannical way, but merely to further to prosecution of the war. And, yes, there was suppression of the press on several occasions. But closer scrutiny reveals that his cabinet undertook most of these actions and that he himself actually countermanded those order. In one particular case of a treasonous publishing of a fake proclamation in his name, he did censure and close two newspapers, which eventually reopened. Two weeks later he pardoned the perpetrator.
There are many more who sling arrows at Lincoln for his prosecution of the war. Most of these come from descendants of factions that were rebuffed in Lincolns time for their efforts to undermine his war authority. From the Missouri Fremontians incensed that their man had been censured for disobeying orders on several occasions to those of McClellan and other generals who were cast aside for failure to execute their duty, and, of course, from Democrats in general, came the cries that Lincoln was wasting time, wasting money, should sue for peace, should declare an immediate emancipation proclamation, and the like. All from the fringes, knowing nothing of the truth of war, felt themselves inclined to quarterback it from the rear and to believe the nattering nabobs of negativism on one side who felt the war would not be won at all costs or the idealists on the other who knew that only blunders could keep the war from being over in a few weeks. Lincoln himself hoped for a swift end. And only when he finally had his geniuses of Grant, Sherman and Sheridan at the helm of the armed forces did he and they finally realize that there would be no victory until the South was broken. (It resembles, to a great degree, what is discovered about Japan at the end of WWII, that, even with the atomic blasts, she came a hair’s width from fighting on to the last man.)
What will never be known of Lincoln, as it was known about others who attempted to steer the country back from wartime deviations from a constitutional course, was whether he would have succeeded in finally cementing the nation, now truly united, to the ideals of a constitutional republic, with freedom and justice for all. Certainly all early indicators are that he would have. But, an assassin’s bullet, barely a day since the last surrender of southern troops, prevented us from ever knowing.
As Lincoln most probably would have said, this was somehow the providence of God almighty. Perhaps it was for our good that others were given the responsibility of creating the course forward to our new destiny. Perhaps Lincoln would not have been the uniting force in peace that he was in war. Perhaps Lincoln really was a dictatorial devil that must be eliminated. Or perhaps the Devil needed to eliminate him for his own nefarious purposes, and God needed to start this great nation into decline for his own grand design and end game. These are not questions that mere mortals can answer. But, as Sandburg began our little treatise into those chaotic times, he points us to forces at work behind the scenes, forces of industry and expansionism, of mercantilism and banking, that were to make this land, and the world, over in their own image. It is likely that, had Lincoln not been president, had the war never happened, the manifest destiny would still have played out. And the model of slavery, already well on its way to extinction, would have not stood in the way of a land united and free, from sea to shining sea. Without Lincoln and the War, the country may never have been galvanized enough to sustain its unity in the wake of such rapid expansion and the Union may have been irreparably blown apart.
We can all play the game of what if. But here we have what did. Lincoln saved the Union. Lincoln made us a union as never before. Lincoln, in his own words, might not have been a great man. In the words of his peers, he might not have always done the very best. But, in the words of those very same peers, given the task that was handed to him, who could have done better?