Lessons From Lincoln


Bear with me, friends, for this will be an unusual Impromptus. I am coming off the high of reading Benjamin P. Thomas’s classic 1952 biography of Lincoln. This is not only one of the great works on that president, it is also one of the great works of American history, and one of the great works of biography. Thomas is staggering in his scholarship, understanding, and literary power.

Anyway, as I went through, I marked certain passages of current interest. I would like to share some of those with you now. Of course, Lincoln’s entire life is of current interest–perpetually.

We are in a presidential-election year in which the military records of the two major candidates seem to be of supreme importance. Funny, that. In 1992, this really wasn’t an issue. One candidate, the incumbent, had performed heroically in World War II; he had been a very young pilot in the Navy. The other candidate had dodged the draft–and then flagrantly lied about it.

Four years later, the latter man was the incumbent, and his opponent was another hero of World War II, someone who was shot up in the Po Valley and who could not use his arm for many of the normal, daily activities of life. And yet, military records were not an issue.

This year, however, one of the candidates spent four months in Vietnam and the other merely–merely–flew jet fighters in the National Guard for several years–and those respective military records are all the rage.

Wonder why.

Anyway, here is what Lincoln had to say, while in Congress, about the puffing up of military careers. (Lincoln, especially when he was younger, could be strongly sarcastic, and playful.)

“By the way, Mr. Speaker, did you know I am a military hero? Yes, sir: In the days of the Black Hawk War, I fought, bled, and came away. Speaking of General Cass’s career reminds me of my own. I was not at Stillman’s defeat, but I was about as near it as Cass was to Hull’s surrender. And, like him, I saw the place very soon afterwards. It is quite certain I did not break my sword, for I had none to break; but I bent a musket pretty badly on one occasion. If Cass broke his sword, the idea is, he broke it in desperation; I bent the musket by accident. If General Cass went in advance of me in picking huckleberries, I guess I surpassed him in charges upon wild onions. If he saw any live, fighting Indians, it was more than I did; but I had a good many bloody struggles with the mosquitoes; and, although I never fainted from loss of blood, I can truly say I was often very hungry.

“Mr. Speaker, if I should ever conclude to doff whatever our Democratic friends may suppose there is of black cockade federalism about me, and therefore they shall take me up as their candidate for the presidency, I protest they shall not make fun of me, as they have of General Cass, by attempting to write me into a military hero.”

Here is Thomas writing about the Mexican War, and you will see the current relevance of these lines without any commentary from me:

“At the beginning of the war many persons besides Lincoln had doubted its justness and necessity, but few of them cared to risk an accusation of disloyalty by objecting openly. In Congress only two members of the Senate and fourteen in the House had voted against the bill authorizing the president to call volunteers, appropriating ten million dollars for the conduct of the war, and declaring in its preamble that war existed ‘by the act of the Republic of Mexico.’ With the subsidence of the first surge of enthusiasm, however, opposition to the war became outspoken. Looking to the presidential election of 1848, Whig leaders found it difficult to resist the political opportunities in a situation where they could place the war guilt on the President, find fault with the way the Democratic administration waged the war, and at the same time demonstrate their own patriotism by voting supplies to see it through.”

And here is Henry Clay: “This is no war of defense, but one of unnecessary and of offensive aggression. It is Mexico that is defending her firesides, her castles, and her altars, not we.”

More Thomas: “Throughout the session, until the treaty of peace was ratified on May 30, 1848, Lincoln voted with the Whigs on all resolutions designed to put the administration in the wrong on the origin of the war, and to capitalize on its mistakes in waging it. When George Ashmun moved to add the amendment: ‘in a war unconstitutionally and unnecessarily begun by the President,’ to a resolution of thanks to General Taylor for his victory at Buena Vista, Lincoln’s vote helped to force its adoption. But whenever supply bills for the army came before the House, Lincoln, like most other Whigs, supported them.”

And here is Lincoln, in a letter: “The Locos are untiring in their effort to make the impression that all who vote supplies, or take part in the war, do, of necessity, approve the President’s conduct in the beginning of it; but the Whigs have, from the beginning, made and kept the distinction between the two.”

Quite recently, I was asked how I, a Republican and a conservative, and supposedly a champion of individual liberty, could justify an anti-abortion position. Was this not an infringement on liberty? I replied that it depended entirely on one’s conception (pardon that word) of the unborn child.

I thought of this when listening to Lincoln, debating several years before the onset of the War:

“The doctrine of self-government is right, absolutely and eternally right–but it has no just application, as here attempted. Or perhaps I should rather say that whether it has such just application depends upon whether a Negro is not or is a man. If he is not a man, why, in that case, he who is a man may, as a matter of self-government, do just as he pleases with him. But if the Negro is a man, is it not to that extent a total destruction of self-government to say that he too shall not govern himself? When the white man governs himself, that is self-government; but when he governs himself, and also governs another man, that is more than self-government–that is despotism. If the Negro is a man, why then my ancient faith teaches me that ‘all men are created equal,’ and that there can be no moral right in connection with one man’s making a slave of another.”

You know that, when the Gipper died, I described myself as a “Reaganite”–that is a very effective shorthand (if it is true, as it is in my case). I am also a “Lincoln man,” as the phrase used to go. (When Lincoln’s political fortunes were at their direst in a particular region, someone remarked, “There are no Lincoln men here”–and that is the title of one of Thomas’s chapters.) Some people question whether the modern Republican party has any connection to its first president. Oh, yes it does.

Writes Thomas, “In a later day Lincoln himself would be regarded as the pre-eminent example of the self-made man so much admired by Americans, and already he saw himself as living proof of the chance for personal improvement offered by a system of free enterprise. . . . The period in which Lincoln grew up offered opportunities for self-betterment seldom equaled in American history, and among all places such opportunities were greatest in the Northwest. All about him, at home and on the [judicial] circuit, Lincoln saw men who, starting life as farmhands, clerks, mechanics, or flatboat men, had become lawyers, merchants, doctors, landed farmers, and successful politicians. ‘There is no permanent class of hired laborers among us,’ he had declared in his speech at Cincinnati. ‘Twenty-five years ago, I was a hired laborer. The hired laborer of yesterday labors on his own account today, and will hire others to labor for him tomorrow. Advancement–improvement in condition–is the order of things in a society of equals.’”

Writes Thomas, “The basic tenet of Lincoln’s economic thinking was equal opportunity for all.”

And here is Lincoln: “I don’t believe in a law to prevent a man from getting rich; it would do more harm than good. So while we do not propose any war upon capital, we do wish to allow the humblest man an equal chance to get rich with everybody else. When one starts poor, as most do in the race of life, free society is such that he knows he can better his condition; he knows that there is no fixed condition of labor, for his whole life.”

And, “I have never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence. . . . I have often inquired of myself what great principle or idea it was that kept this Confederacy [the United States!] so long together. It was not the mere matter of the separation of the colonies from the mother land, but that something in the Declaration giving liberty, not alone to the people of this country, but hope to the world for all future time. It was that which gave promise that in due time the weights should be lifted from the shoulders of all men, and that all should have an equal chance.”

This is a platform on which to stand, is it not?

In 1860, Lincoln won a plurality in a four-man race. The other three, together, outpolled him by a million votes. But if those three had been one man–still outpolling him by a million votes–Lincoln would nonetheless have won in the Electoral College, and by a very comfortable margin. Such were the states in which he prevailed, and such is the Founders’ system.

At a critical juncture, Lincoln made an appeal to the border states (regarding slavery and Union, of course). His biographer writes, “The border states had it in their power to relieve the country of . . . disruptive pressure.” Lincoln said, “Once [America is thus] relieved, its form of government is saved to the world; its beloved history and cherished memories are vindicated; and its happy future fully assured, and rendered inconceivably grand. To you, more than to any others, the privilege is given to assure that happiness, and swell that grandeur, and to link your names therewith forever.”

Why do I give you this? Oh, merely for the beauty of the prose.

And listen to Lincoln the pragmatist, not at his most idealistic–probably not at his best–but certainly at his most politically pragmatic, and clear. He is responding to Horace Greeley, who was pestering him for not doing more, more quickly, to extinguish slavery altogether.

“My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or 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. I shall try to correct errors when shown to be errors, and I shall adopt new views so fast as they shall appear to be true views.”

Lest he leave any doubt, the president appended the following at the bottom of his letter: “and I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men everywhere could be free.”

Might the sentiments and convictions expressed in the body of the letter be applied to other struggles, with clear objectives, such as the removal of the “Islamofascist” threat to the United States and its allies? I believe that President Bush rises and asks himself, “What can I do to beat back and wipe out the Islamofascists today?”

More Lincoln: “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise–with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.”

Amen, amen, amen.

Benjamin P. Thomas: “Faced by the paradox that always confronts a democratic government in time of war–the necessity of curbing civil liberties as a means of ultimately preserving them–Lincoln took the position that the people had entrusted him to preserve the democratic government they had reared, and that to be faithful to that trust he must use any power, not clearly illegal, which would enable him to cope with the emergency.

“But the policy of arbitrary arrests, the Emancipation Proclamation, the prolongation of the war with mounting casualties, the threat of a draft of manpower, and the general war-weariness of the people, all offered tempting targets to the Democrats.”

Continues Thomas, “Most venomous of the malcontents was Clement L. Vallandigham,” of Ohio. Cried Vallandigham in Congress, when he was a lame duck, “Defeat, debt, taxation, sepulchers, are your trophies. In vain the people gave you treasure, and the soldier yielded up his life. War for the Union has been abandoned and war for the slave begun. With what success? Let the dead at Fredericksburg and Vicksburg answer. Ought this war to continue? I answer no–not a day, not an hour. What then? Shall we separate? Again I answer no, no, no. Stop fighting. Make an armistice. Accept at once foreign mediation.”

I pause here for something smallish, but not insignificant. I learned from Thomas that Lincoln wrote a lot of telegrams–that he did not send. That he thought better of sending.

Oh, how this applies–probably doubly–in our age of e-mail!

People like Condi Rice and, well, me are always complaining that what we’re after in the Middle East–certainly Iraq–is not so much democracy as democratic, or liberal, institutions, which are fundamental to decent society, election days aside. So my eyes widened particularly at the following sentences from the Bostonian John Murray Forbes, written to the 16th president:

“People at a distance have discovered [the overarching truth] better than most of us who are in the midst of [the conflict]. Our friends abroad see it! John Bright and his glorious band of European Republicans see that we are fighting for Democracy or (to get rid of the technical name) for liberal institutions. The Democrats and liberals of the old world are as much and as heartily with us as any supporters we have on this side.”

As in the first decade of the 21st century, critics of the president in the first half of the 1860s were deeply concerned about what the Europeans might think. What a rustic, yahoo idiot, that president! Democratic editors–such as that of the Chicago Times–laid into him: “The cheek of every American must tingle with shame as he reads the silly, flat, and dishwatery utterances of the man who has to be pointed out to intelligent foreigners as the President of the United States.”

The speech to which this Democratic editor referred was the Gettysburg Address.

Writes Thomas, “Lincoln wanted to achieve a peace worth keeping, not the sort that breeds another war.”

And here is something about Lincoln in general: “As the hectic year of 1863 closed on a note of hopefulness and party harmony, long months of hard thought, cautious advance, and sometimes fruitless experiment seemed to offer results at last. Out of the turmoil and the heartache of the war Lincoln was emerging as a strong, sure leader. Fumbling and uncertain at the start, and still plagued by problems of deficient military leadership that deferred the peace for which he yearned, he was showing more markedly than ever his capacity to grow in mind and character. The qualities of patience, tolerance, and forgiveness, with which hard experience, domestic trials, and personal affliction had endowed him, proved wonderfully helpful to him now. The long practical training in politics, which acquainted him with the ways and wiles of politicians, made it difficult to outmaneuver or outwit him. Knowledge of the people gave him faith in their basic virtues and a sure sense of when to coax, when to demand, when and how far he could lead, when he must wait or forbear.

“John Hay saw Lincoln sitting like a backwoods Jupiter, hurling the thunderbolts of war and guiding the machinery of government with a firm, steady hand. His powers were constantly expanding. He was managing the war, the draft, and foreign relations and planning a reconstruction of the Union, all at once. Hay had never known anyone so wise, so gentle, and so strong. He seemed called of God for his place.”

When Reagan died, it was said that he consistently “trusted the people.” This is a quality I often overlooked, or slighted, in Reagan. Also, however, Reagan constantly explained to the people what he was doing, and why–even, and especially, when they were inclined to disagree. He never left them in the dark. And he reasoned with them.

Says Thomas, “The people’s trust in Lincoln had been born of his faith in them, for whenever a strong opposition developed in any quarter, he had explained in a public letter what he sought to do and why. . . . His straightforward arguments, void of partisan deceptions, cutting through nonessentials to the nub of the matter, and presented in plain language clarified by homely analogies, had proved as effective with the people of the nation as they had with the humble jurymen of the Eighth Circuit [on which, as a lawyer, he had ridden].”

This is what George W. Bush must do, constantly–explain to the people what he is doing, and why. He has excellent cases to make; he must make them, earnestly, and repeatedly. “You hear a lot of negative things about the Patriot Act. Here’s why I think we need it.” “They’re saying we shouldn’t be in Iraq–here’s why I judge it necessary.” And so on. Lincoln had an awful press to overcome too, you know. (So did Reagan!)

Have a sampling of the Democratic press, when Lincoln instituted a fresh draft: “Lincoln has called for five hundred thousand more victims! . . . Let the women buy mourning goods now. . . . Only half a million more! Oh, that is nothing. We are bound to free the n*g*ers or die. . . . Continue this administration in power and we can all go to war, to Canada, or to hell before 1868.” (That was from La Crosse, Wis.)

In 1864, as in 1860, Lincoln really didn’t campaign–did not give speeches. But he did speak to some soldiers as they came through Washington. These were the men of the 166th Ohio Regiment:

“I almost always feel inclined, when I happen to say anything to soldiers, to impress upon them, in a few brief remarks, the importance of success in this contest. It is not merely for today, but for all time to come, that we should perpetuate for our children’s children that great and free government which we have enjoyed all our lives. I beg you to remember this, not merely for my sake, but for yours. I happen, temporarily, to occupy this White House. I am a living witness that any one of your children may look to come here as my father’s child has. It is in order that each of you may have, through this free government which we have enjoyed, an open field and a fair chance for your industry, enterprise, and intelligence; that you all may have equal privileges in the race of life, with all its desirable human aspirations. It is for this the struggle should be maintained, that we may not lose our birthright. . . . The nation is worth fighting for, to secure such an inestimable jewel.”

Lincoln, overwhelmingly, won the votes of soldiers. Contrary to some later myth, they knew what they were fighting for, even in that ghastliest of wars, and they supported their commander-in-chief.

This is what the president said after the balloting:

“The election was a necessity. We cannot have free government without elections; and if the rebellion could force us to forego, or postpone, a national election, it might fairly claim to have already conquered and ruined us. ["If such-and-such occurs, the terrorists will have won!"] . . . But the election, along with its incidental and undesirable strife, has done us good too. It has demonstrated that a people’s government can sustain a national election in the midst of a great civil war. Until now it has not been known to the world that this was a possibility.”

Lincoln wrote to a Shakespearean actor, noting his own favorite plays and hazarding some opinions about high art. The letter found its way into the press–where it was made sport of–which the recipient of the letter, James H. Hackett, greatly regretted. Lincoln wrote back to him that he must not worry: “I have endured a great deal of ridicule without much malice, and have received a great deal of kindness, not quite free from ridicule. I am used to it.”

This is what the great journalist Charles A. Dana–editor of the New York Sun, and hero of the Sun’s present editor, Seth Lipsky — wrote about Lincoln, after his assassination: “Lincoln was a supreme politician. He understood politics because he understood human nature. . . . There was no flabby philanthropy about Abraham Lincoln. He was all solid, hard, keen intelligence combined with goodness.”

Wouldn’t you like that said about you–that you were “all solid, hard, keen intelligence combined with goodness”? And isn’t such a makeup ideal in a war president in particular?

Thomas adds, “So deft had been Lincoln’s leadership that people often failed to recognize it. Few persons thought him great. His strength was flexible, like fine-spun wire, sensitive to every need and pressure, yielding but never breaking. Forced to adopt hard measures, he had tempered them with clemency. He exercised stern powers leniently, with regard for personal feelings and respect for human rights.

“Some had thought him weak because he did not ram things through; others thought him dull and obstinate because they could not move him. Essentially he had embodied the easygoing, sentimental, kindly spirit of America, which revolts at extreme measures but moves steadily, if sometimes haltingly, toward lofty goals.”

Recently, some critics of President Bush got all bothered because it was reported that the president kept some mementoes in his private study off the Oval Office (this is the room that Clinton and Monica made infamous): Saddam’s revolver, a brick from Mullah Omar’s place, etc. Democrats sneered at these items as “trophies,” saying it was unseemly of Bush to keep them around. (They were presented to him by American troops themselves, eager that their president should have them.) A woman–a Democratic operative–with whom I was on television snorted, “Does he have his Little League trophies back there too?”

As it happened, Lincoln was presented–all at once–with several Confederate battle flags, captured by suddenly victorious Union troops. He felt an onrush of gratitude and relief. He said, “Here is something material, something I can see, feel, and understand. This means victory. This is victory.”

One of his two surviving boys, Tad, waved one of those flags out a White House window, after the surrender at Appomattox, the securing of the Union, and the coming of peace at last. This was the same hour in which the supremely magnanimous president requested that the band play “Dixie.”

Friends, I’ll stop now. Thank you for bearing with me. I have attempted nothing systematic or fancy here, and one may accuse me of superficiality or manipulation. I do not mean to enlist Lincoln or his admirers in every one of my concerns, opinions, or biases. I just noted what struck me as particularly interesting in this very great biography, treating a very great subject, and decided to share it with you, my favorite readers.