Monday, February 12, 2007
On this day:

Happy Birthday, Mr. Lincoln

Today marks the 198th anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln's birth. While President Lincoln remains a controversial figure in some quarters - especially on this side of the Mason-Dixon line - I think that most Southerners today, myself included, would agree with the commonly-held view that he was one of our greatest Presidents.

It goes without saying that whenever you start a discussion of President Lincoln or the Civil War, you're practically begging for a fight. Or at least an animated debate. Seeing as how I'd much rather have an animated debate about the Civil War than about the Dixie Chicks, here goes.

1) President Lincoln was not an abolitionist. Lots of people - friend and foe - have tried to make him into one, but the man himself just won't cooperate. As he stated in a letter to Horace Greely in 1862:

If there be those who would not save the Union, unless they could at the same time save slavery, I do not agree with them. If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time destroy slavery, I do not agree with them. 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. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union. I shall do less whenever I shall believe what I am doing hurts the cause, and I shall do more whenever I shall believe doing more will help the cause.
2) President Lincoln was against the expansion of slavery into the territories, and he and his party fully intended to exercise the federal government's sovereign authority over the territories to prevent it. Whether they were motivated by economic considerations or moral ones is largely irrelevant. Under the Constitution, Congress was granted the "power to dispose of and make all needful rules and regulations respecting the territory or other property belonging to the United States." The issue of slavery in the territories involved the rights of the national government, not those of the states or of individuals. At least that was the case until one dreadful Supreme Court decision in 1857.

3) In Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857), the Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, created a federal constitutional right to own slaves. Although a thorough search of the Constitution will uncover no such right, Justice Taney and those who concurred in his decision found one in the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment. The Dred Scott decision meant that Congress could no longer regulate slavery in the territories. More ominously, it meant that a political compromise was no longer possible. Perhaps more than any other single event, it set the stage for the rise of the Republican Party, secession, and the Civil War. (I'll note - for good measure - the similarity between the Court's reasoning in Dred Scott to that of at least two of the Twentieth Century's most noteworthy decisions - Griswold v. Connecticut and Roe v. Wade.)

4) The relevance of "states' rights" to the debate over Southern secession, at least with respect to the slavery question, is often exaggerated. No one, save a few radical abolitionists (and certainly not President Lincoln), ever proposed that the federal government could or should have acted to abolish slavery in those states where it then existed. The focus of debate at the time concerned the right of the federal government to restrict the introduction of slavery into the territories, lands which fell under the sovereign authority of Congress.
It is essential to consider the ramifications of Dred Scott to this debate. That case established a new constitutional order in which Congress was completely powerless with regard to the slavery question. The Republican Party rose in defense of the old order. The Southern secessionists would fight to uphold the new one. And both sides could legitimately accuse the other of violating the principles of the Constitution.

5) The secessionist appeal to "states' rights" becomes even more suspect once you consider that it was the Southern secessionists who demanded the exercise of federal power in enforcing the Fugitive Slave Act.

6) The tariff issue was undoubtedly a concern for the South. The Republicans had proposed a protective tariff to insulate Northern businesses from foreign competition. The South objected to increased tariffs because it was both a large consumer of foreign manufactured goods and an exporter of raw materials (especially cotton). Again, though, this was not an issue of "states' rights," nor was it an abuse of federal authority. The Constitution places the power to regulate foreign trade exclusively with the U.S. Congress. That the South wanted freer trade and the North wanted to protect home-grown industries presented an opportunity for compromise, not a cause for war.

7) In my opinion, the blame for secession and Civil War rests much more heavily on the Southern fire eaters than it does on President Lincoln or the Republicans. The Republican Party platform of 1860 explicitly recognized the "right of each State to order and control its own domestic institutions according to its own judgment exclusively." There was no reason to suspect that anything more was intended, or could be enforced, even if it were. Nonetheless, Southern politicians weren't satisfied. They insisted upon a federally guaranteed right to carry their peculiar institution into any territory they chose, regardless of whether a constitutional majority in the U.S. Congress agreed.

8) Southern secession is easily the greatest political miscalculation in American history.

9) Upon taking office, President Lincoln was justified in supplying and defending those properties that belonged to the people of the United States, in the absence of a negotiated settlement. That includes Ft. Sumter.

10) Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation was more an act calculated to win the sympathies of foreign powers than it was an act of moral righteousness.

11) It's interesting to think about how different things would have been had Lincoln had the opportunity to serve his full term in office. Would the Southern states have been treated as conquered territories, and Southern citizens as subjects, as they were under the Radical Republicans? Or would Lincoln have provided a moderating influence?

12) Right or wrong, had I been around during the Civil War era, there's little doubt as to which side I would have been on. Oh, I might have remarked that "all these rabble-rousers just need to keep their mouths shut, before they get us and them into a big ol' wa-ah." And I might've said how "that damned William Yancey is just blowin' smoke." But once war came, I'm sure that I - like so many others - would have had no choice but to defend my family, my home, and my way of life.

In war, it's sometimes impossible for mere humans to figure out who is right and who is wrong. President Lincoln acknowledged as much in his second inaugural address, when he said:
Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. "Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh." If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."
Faced with such an awful prospect, the only certainty for a young man in doubt may have rested entirely on what seemed to him to be little more than mere sentiment: that it is more honorable to die on the wrong side of an ill-conceived war than to die a traitor. And so:

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.