He comes to us in the mists of legend as a kind of homespun Socrates, brimming withprarie wit and folk wisdom.
There is a counterlegend of Lincoln, one shared ironicallyenough by many white Southerners and certain black Americans of our time. Neither ofthese views, of course, reveals much about the man who really lived–legend and politicalAs a man, Lincoln was complex, many-sided, and richly human. He was anintense, brooding person, he was plagued with chronic depression most of his life. At thetime he even doubted his ability to please or even care about his wife.
Lincoln remained amoody, melancholy man, given to long introspection about things like death and mortality. Preoccupied with death, he was also afraid to insanity. Lincoln was a teetotaler becauseliquor left him flabby and undone, blurring his mind and threatening his self-control. One side of Lincoln was always Supremely logical and analytical, he was intrigued by theclarity of mathematics. As a self-made man, Lincoln felt embarrassed about his log-cabinorigins and never liked to talk about them.
By the 1850s, Lincoln was one of the mostsought after attorney in Illinois, with a reputation as a lawyers lawyer. Though a man ofstatus and influence, Lincoln was as honest in real life as in legend. Politically, Lincolnwas always a nationalist in outlook , an outlook that began when he was an Indiana farmboy tilling his farther mundane wheat field. Lincoln always maintained that he had always hated human bondage, as much asany abolitionist. He realized how wrong it was that slavery should exist at all in aself-proclaimed free Republic. He opposed slavery, too, because he had witnessed someof its evils firsthand.
What could be done’so went Lincolns argument before 1854. Tosolve the ensuing problem of racial adjustment, Lincoln insisted that the federalgovernment should colonize all blacks in Africa, an idea he got from his political idol,Then came 1854 and the momentous Kansas-Nebraska Act , brainchild ofLincolns archrival Stephen A. Douglas. At once a storm of free-soil protest broke acrossthe North, and scores of political leaders branded the Kansas-Nebraska Act as part of asinister Southern plot to extend slavery and augment Southern political power inWashington. The train of ominous events from Kansas-Nebraska to Dred Scott shookLincoln to his foundations. Lincoln waded into the middle of the antiextension fight.
By1858, Lincoln, like a lot of other Republicans, began to see a grim proslavery conspiracyat work in the United States. The next step in the conspiracy would be to nationalizeslavery: the Taney Court, Lincoln feared, would hand down another decision, onedeclaring that states could not prohibit slavery. For Lincoln and his Republicancolleagues, it was imperative that the conspiracy be blocked in its initial stage – theexpansion of slavery into the West. Douglas fighting for his political life in free-soilIllinois, lashed back at Lincoln with unadulterated racebaiting. Forced to take a standagainst Douglas ruin him with his allegations, Lincoln conceded that he was not for Negropolitical or social equality.
Exasperated with Douglas and white Negrophobia in general,Lincoln begged American whites to discard all this quibbling about this man and the otherman—this race and that race and the other race as being inferior. Lincoln lost the 1857Senate contest to Douglas. Yet for the benefit of the Southerners, he repeated that he andhis party would nor hurt slavery in the South. But Southerns refused to believe anythingAt the outset of the war, Lincoln strove to be consistent with all that he and hisparty had said about slavery: his purpose in the struggle was strictly to save the Union. There were other reasons for Lincolns hands-off policy about slavery.
He was alsowaging a bipartisan war effort, with Northern Democrats and Republicans alike enlistingin his armies to save the Union. But the pressures and problems of civil war causedLincoln to change his mind and abandon his hands policy about slavery and hurl anexecutive fist at slavery in the rebel states. Sumner, Lincolns personal friend wasespecially persistent in advocating the freeing of the slaves. Sumner, as a major Lincolnadviser on foreign affairs, also linked emancipation to foreign policy. Black and Whiteabolitionists belabored that point too. The pressure on Lincoln to strike at slavery wasunrelenting.
On that score slaves themselves were contributing to the pressures onLincoln to emancipate them. Lincoln however stubbornly rejected a presidential moveagainst slavery. Nevertheless he was sympathetic to the entire rage of arguments Sumnerand his associates rehearsed for him. In March 1862, he proposed a plan to Congress hethought might work: a gradual, compensated emancipation program to commence in theloyal border states.
At the same time, the federal government would sponsor acolonization program, which was to be entirely voluntary. If his gradual state-guided planwere adopted, Lincoln contended that a presidential decree—federally enforcedemancipation—would never be necessary. The plan failed. Most of the border menHe had given this a lot of grave and painful thought, he said, and had concludedthat a presidential declaration of emancipation was the alternative, that is was a militarynecessity absolutely essential to the preservation of the Union. On July 22, 1862,Lincoln summoned his cabinet members and read them a draft of a preliminaryEmancipation Proclamation.
Contrary to what many historians have said Lincolnsprojected Proclamation went further than anything Congress had done. But Seward andother cabinet secretaries dissuaded him from issuing his Proclamation in July. Lincolnfinally agreed to wait, but he was not happy about it: the way George B. McClellan andhis other generals had been fighting in the Eastern theater, Lincoln had no idea that hewould have a victory.
One of the great ironies of the war was that McClellan presentedLincoln with the triumph he needed. As in turned out, the preliminary Proclamationignited racial discontent in much of the lower North, escpecially the Midwest. Republicananalysists, Lincoln included, conceded that the preliminary Proclamation was a majorfactor in the Republican losses. In the final Proclamation Lincoln temporarily exemptedoccupied Tennessee and certain occupied places in Louisiana and Virginia. Out theProclamation went to an anxious and dissident nation.
Lincolns Proclamation was the most revolutionary measure ever to come from anAmerican president up to that time. Moreover, word of the Proclamation hummed acrossthe slave grapevine in the Confederacy; and as Union armies grew near, more slaves thanever ran away. The Proclamation also opened the army to the black volunteers, and theNorthern free Negros and Southern ex-slaves now enlisted as Union soldiers. Unhappily,the blacks fought in segregated units and until late in the war received less pay thanwhites. After the Proclamation Lincoln had to confront the problem of race adjustment, ofwhat to do with all the blacks liberated in the South. As a consequence, Lincoln had justabout concluded that whites and liberated blacks must somehow learn to live together inthis country.
Even so, emancipation remained the most explosive and unpopular act ofLincoln s presidency. When he won the election of 1864, Lincoln interpreted it as apopular mandate for him and his emancipation policy. As it happened , the Senate in May1864 had already passed an emancipation amendment – the present 13th amendment – butthe House failed to approve it. Lincoln pronounced the amendment a great moralvictory and a Kings cure for the evils of slavery.
Lincoln concede that he had not controlled the events of the war, but that theevents of the war controlled him instead, that God controlled him. In the past paragraphof his address, Lincoln said he would bind the nations wounds with malice toward noneand charity for all. Moreover, in a cabinet meeting on Good Friday, 1865, Lincoln andall his Secretaries endorsed the military approach to the reconstruction and conceded thatan army of occupation would be necessary to control the rebellious white majority in theHe had come a long distance from the young Lincoln who entered politics, quieton slavery lest he be branded an abolitionist, opposed to Negro political rights lest hispolitical career be jeopardized, convinced that only the future could remove slavery inAmerica. But perhaps it was Lincoln himself who summed up his journey to theemancipation – his own as well as that of the slaves. Fellow-citizens, we cannot escapehistory…The fiery trail through which we pass, will light us down, in honor or dishonor, toBibliography: