Thursday, February 12, 2015

Happy Birthday, Abraham Lincoln

Today is Abraham Lincoln's 206th birthday. Those of my grandparent's generation celebrated this holiday with unflinching loyalty. Now, the day goes by scarcely noticed. Wall calendars neglect to note the holiday. Businesses fail to enshrine and validate the day as only they can, with a big sale. Since the tide began to turn in the 1980's, we are now inclined to observe a catch-all holiday in February devoted to all Presidents, regardless of their effectiveness in office.

This is very unfortunate. My two favorite Presidents are Franklin Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln, and I cannot decide upon a favorite. As for Honest Abe, scholarship has remained consistently favorable since the assassination, which is more than can be said for other strong executives like Woodrow Wilson once held in high esteem. This is not to say that Lincoln escaped scorn from every corner during his time in office.

Black Americans have long remembered the rail-splitter from Illinois as the man who freed the slaves. This is a deserved accolade, but Lincoln began his first term as a moderate on the slavery question, not an abolitionist. He became a war President due to circumstances beyond his control. The South needed no excuse to secede and read exactly into Lincoln's election what they wanted to see. The paranoia present in what would become the Southern Confederacy was firmly in place before the Presidential Election of 1860.

History is full of ironies. The South's worst fears would be realized not during the war itself, but following it during Reconstruction. Radical Republicans, the true enemy of the South, would divide the defeated region into military districts and forcibly occupy them for years. Lincoln, to his credit, never formally acknowledged the states in rebellion as a nation of its own standing. Lincoln was willing to forgive and forget and offer generous terms to the defeated enemy, but his death prevented full implementation.

As a Quaker, I have long respected Lincoln for his skill at oratory. Our ministry is supposed to speak with as many words as necessary, but as few as possible. I've taken this to heart when I feel the stirrings of God and the Holy Spirit to rise and give ministry during Worship. The Second Inaugural Address is as well-known for its eloquence as its brevity. I consider it a masterstroke of rhetoric, and appreciate its economy of language.

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.

Since then, in some corners it has become fashionable to say that the Civil War was not fought over slavery, rather it was waged on the crucial issue of state's rights. This is an untruth, but some untruths have a way of standing the test of time. States' Rights as a political cause has never gone away. One sees it today in the rhetoric of the Tea Party and the conservative veneration of the Tenth Amendment. The phobia of big government inevitably leads to the same fear of Washington, DC, and with it abusive centralized power, whether real or imagined.

Lincoln leaves himself open for justified criticism for circumventing Congress and suspending habeaus corpus. But as he saw it, concentrating power in his hands alone was absolutely necessary. Americans are peculiar in that they deify strong executives after the fact, but resist them while they are in office. And yet, even with this blight on his Presidency, Lincoln's greatness has never been questioned.

It is unfortunate that it took not one, but two Reconstructions (the second being Civil Rights) to give blacks the franchise to vote. We will never know what a Lincoln Reconstruction would have looked like and whether it would have succeeded. Some have argued that a defeated, but defiant South would only have changed its mindset for good during a lengthy occupation, one that would have lasted years. By then, the North was weary of war and impatient to see its soldiers come home.

Lincoln's legacy as a great President was cemented by the dismal failure of those who held the office after him. Andrew Johnson, who as Vice-President took the oath of office following Lincoln's April 1865 assassination, was more concerned with punishing the wealthy landowners who had put him down as a rural Tennessee poor white. War Hero and Lincoln favorite Ulysses S. Grant's two terms were blighted by massive government corruption, though Grant was far too honest a man to indulge in graft and greed.

War is a paradox. When hostilities are declared, everyone rallies behind a common cause. But as battles rage and soldiers are killed and wounded, they quickly lose favor. Peace has its time in the sun as well, especially following war, until we forget the horrors of combat and summon the troops once again. Abraham Lincoln rose to the occasion in the way only God and fate in tandem can provide. Sometimes the right person at the right time appears before us, though it may take us years to realize how good we had it.

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