Thursday, February 12, 2009

Revising revisionist history (Apologies, long-winded)

While I'm on the topic of Lincoln--

I have seen a lot of revisionist history lately, deconstructing Lincoln the myth and legend. Their criticisms? That he was not aggressive enough on emancipation, that he was not committed to racial equality, that he said things such as in the debates with Douglas and his famous letter to (batsh*t crazy) Horace Greeley that paint him in an unflattering light with regard to race and equality. That he abused his power in office, for example, by suspending habeas corpus.

They are completely right on those particular allegations, yet they completely miss the point.

First of all, let us remember that this is his 200th birthday. 1809, folks. We have to judge him by the standards of his time, not ours. Slavery and race bedeviled great men such as Adams and Jefferson, yet its end came down to his Indiana-raised small town lawyer.

Can we find people of his time with a more pure and consistent commitment to abolition and racial equality? Of course. And what was the likelihood that any of those ideological purists could have been elected president. ZERO.

So number one, he was born in 1809, and number two, he was a POLITICIAN. Did he say racially negative things on the campaign trail? Yes. Why? Well, in large part, he needed the votes of racists! It is interesting to track his language in the debates with Douglas. Lincoln in downstate Illinois (today still an enclave of racism--I know, I grew up there) is very different from the Lincoln of the north. I also think that some of his comments on the races living together, and his dabbling in colonization reflected his pessimism about his fellow white Americans rather than his view of blacks.

Number three, he was president in a federal system that greatly constrained the power of the government to act against slavery. Lincoln was outraged by the Dredd Scott decision, and he was dedicated to containing slavery and prohibiting its expansion. However, he was keenly aware of the limitations of his own authority.

And number four, his presidency was defined by war. He entered office with seven states seceded, and died with Confederate forces still active in the field. From the White House he could see enemy territory, and with a hostile Maryland, the capital was basically surrounded. His goal was to end the insurrection and restore the authority of the federal government. Regardless of his personal moral view of slavery, he was confined by his constitutional role and duty. As he said in 1865, with barely a month left to live, "both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish, and the war came. One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war, while the Government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it. 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."

Fundamental and astounding indeed. Emancipation was a political and military act, done under his authority as commander-in-chief. The measure all but precluded European support of the south,once the end of slavery was made an official war aim. It is true that the Emancipation Proclamation freed no slaves, as it was only effective in areas beyond the reach of federal authority. The preliminary proclamation was the last offer made to restore the old union, if the states in rebellion ceased hostilities. December 31, 1862, was Humpty Dumpty's last day, the last day of the old America. On January 1, 1863, when he issued the final proclamation, Lincoln initiated the second American revolution. No matter what happened on the battlefield, America would never be the same. It would either be two nations sharing the space that had been one, or one nation profoundly changed forever. On that day, Abraham Lincoln committed the full faith and credit of the United States to the destruction of slavery and the re-shaping of the Union. There was no turning back.

Was he perfect, did he lack flaws and failings? Of course not. Was he a product of his times? Certainly. Yet this man from humble origins transcended the times he lived in. He understood his nation and his people better perhaps than any president before or since. While it is fair to criticize and question, in doing so, we must not lose sight of the one fundamental truth, that as has been said of Washington in his time, Lincoln was the indispensable man. The nation we know, for better or worse, would not exist without him.

Happy birthday, Father Abraham. You do indeed belong to the ages.

1 comment:

Lula O said...

I watched the last half of this program. I found it very interesting, especially the narrator and how he's come to terms with Lincoln, the hero he idolized as a child and Lincoln, the man with flaws, he'd come to recognize as an adult.

History is alot like labor pains. You forget the agony of it over a period of time. You remember only the product, the good stuff. Maybe that's why historians always seem to be a cantankerous bunch. They know it all, the good and the bad.