(Another dram of the novel in progress, A Republic of Books, to be found growing elsewhere on this ethereal site)
Abraham Lincoln, whom I love as if he had been an actual character in my life and a member of my family, is one of the great villains of our history. How did a man as introspective and wise as he was make so great a fundamental error as to go to war as a means to control the political disaster he faced in 1861? This is a mystery only more clouded by the thousand biographies written since. Unfortunately, what is commonly known of Lincoln is hagiography. He has been made a saint of the secular state, yet, he was a deeply religious man and what he did was very much tied to his beliefs. What is made clear by those thousand biographies is that we still do not understand the most important aspects of his thinking, and the questions that remain still beg for more illumination. Too much has not been explained.
It is easily argued that war was inevitable after the many political failures of the proceeding eighty years, and that the seeds of destruction that blossomed then were not his fault, nor can they be blamed on any of the quarter million men who died in the mortal conflict Lincoln initiated. For the soldiers, both Blue and Gray, their thought was for country, and family, and glory as they understood it. War may only be politics by other means, as von Clausewitz suggested. But because of the loss and ruin of lives that cannot be reclaimed, war must be the last resort, and I think it can easily be argued that there were alternatives. Many alternatives. It is the sadder and truer history that Lincoln, the great man, was not up to the task of managing that Deep State of his time. The team of rivals he set in place tore his legacy to shreds.
The politics of three generations had by then entrenched many evils, of which slavery was the greatest, but these were only made possible by other practices that were far more tractable. His task as President would have been to work at those wrongs that could have set the ship of state aright. For instance, the Supreme Court had already assumed powers not granted by the Constitution, and it was through those that slavery as an institution antithetical to the ideals of the American founding were furthered. And closer still, the power of the presidency itself had been abused by many—Adams, Jefferson, Jackson, and Polk among them. Lincoln might have used his pulpit to bully the Congress into taking care of its responsibilities at last. As President, he might have made direct overtures to those Southern politicians who had made it clear that they were willing to risk their own lives, fortunes, and sacred honor to uphold states rights. Instead, Lincoln the man, assumed greater power unto himself and turned to making war and the great repeated tragedy of human history was set loose once more. We still live with those false prerogatives a hundred and fifty years later, entrenched by twice again as much time as Lincoln had faced.
In spite of what is taught in public schools to this day, the issue upon which the Civil War was fought was the right of any State to succeed from the Union. There can be no doubt that the right existed or that this was then the cause spoken of from the floor of Congress and written about in hundreds of books. It is a foundation stone of the Constitution that brought the states together to begin with. The issue of slavery was the flashpoint. The much vaunted Emancipation Proclamation only freed slaves in the rebellious states and was done for avowed strategic reasons. That the average man today believes the Civil War was fought over slavery is only an excellent example of the power of miseducation and political propaganda. In fact, only a handful of Senators and Congressman—-maybe a quarter of Congress to be generous—then saw that slavery was the greater wrong. Lincoln was not among them. He was not even their man at the Republican Convention prior to the election that was to put him into the seat of power with only 40% of the popular vote—William H. Seward was. But in the end, Lincoln managed a majority of the electoral votes.
To say that the righteousness of the Presidency itself sobered Lincoln to the reality of the greater wrong of slavery would be to ignore his own writings and speeches. He certainly did not like slavery, but had long been among those who accepted the institution as a necessary evil of the time. And that was his failed political record as well. But it was his good nature as a political man that made him a wily fighter in the brawl of the moment.
Why do I love him? Because he was a man in full, as Tom Wolfe has so well described in fiction—all virtues and faults engaged—not a Hamlet of doubts and ambiguities. And, Lincoln’s life itself is the stuff of novels. A poet. (There is poetry in everything he wrote.) A philosopher. A politician. A farmer. A soldier. A lawyer. A father and a husband. But living in full is the greater matter, and often unappreciated. The pale hued Hollow Men are always more numerous and ready to disparage the technicolor of such characters. But I think first, I love him for his writing. I am partial to that. And because I don’t believe he intentionally did wrong. He simply failed to do right. Something I have personal sympathies for. Given the context of his time, it can be understood that his practice of politics up to the moment of his Presidency was canny. Even genius. And if you look as closely at his opponents, you can also appreciate that he might have believed himself to be the better man. And he was. As a Westerner, he offered a new understanding for the Nation. But unfortunately, by succeeding, he failed.
I think all of his many flaws can be brought into focus in one single act. At the Republican Convention of 1864, Lincoln agreed to taking Andrew Johnson, Democrat from Tennessee, as his running mate. Read the arguments you can and you are left with the fact of it. To secure the power of the Presidency he bargained the future away. In order to satisfy the power brokers, he compromised. Had Hannibal Hamlin, his previous running mate, been vice president when Lincoln was shot, a decent man would have succeeded Lincoln and the good that Lincoln wanted to secure would have been done—or at least attempted. Instead we have the aftermath—an entrenching of the tragedy of war, corruption of a government managed reconstruction, the wholesale magnification of Federal power, and all the judicial management of our lives without representation that followed, as well as the modern assumption and acceptance of Presidential hubris in the hands of lesser men—all of it begun with that one compromise.
Compromise is a political act, just as war can be. Yet, Lincoln might have saved the Union had he made better compromises four years earlier. But that’s history. He gave us war. And what have we now?