Lincoln's test of time
There has been a very recent revival in interest in Abraham Lincoln's presidency, just in time for his 200th birthday. The new president from Illinois has commonly invoked the legacy of his predecessor. During the speculation of President Barack Obama's Cabinet appointees, there was talk about how Lincoln successfully assembled his "Team of Rivals," as specifically described in Doris Kearns Goodwin's book. Clearly, Lincoln is one of our country's revered leaders.
Naturally, a revisionist interpretation of the 16th president's actions exists and survives. It points to the triumph of federal supremacy and the massive bloodshed that occurred because of Lincoln's view that secession was illegal. Some would suggest that Lincoln's actions like the Emancipation Proclamation were spin and rational actions rather than sincere reaffirmations of a rebirth of freedom. There are those who believe Lincoln's actions in suspending civil liberties during the war served as a dangerous precedent which legacy continues to this day.
With the manufactured retrospective ambiguity, for those who will not go as far to criticize Lincoln, it could still be easy to dismiss his greatness as merely another example of history being written by the winners. The subscribers to these ideas are wrong. Lincoln was rightfully exonerated, unlike other historical figures.
Even many of Lincoln's admirers often lose sight when they appraise the president's political skill and success as commander in chief. They frame Lincoln's actions on slavery often within the context of the politics of the Civil War, losing sight of the broader moral reasoning that certainly stayed in the president's mind in those long years. While there is well-deserved praise for Lincoln's wartime leadership, oratory skill and his capacity to learn from mistakes, it is often at the cost of highlighting his personal idealism.
Most middle and high school textbooks do try to show the nuances of Lincoln's position on slavery by quoting his 1862 letter, "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," with emphasis on the former half. The false implication is that Lincoln was morally indifferent about slavery, which hundreds of letters and speeches clearly contradict. Unlike timid compromisers, Lincoln ultimately acted upon his ideals. The same letter later explicitly stated the author's wish that all men be free. Lincoln rejected the Crittenden Compromise, the final attempt to "save" the Union by guaranteeing the preservation and expansion of slavery.
The disservice to Lincoln's idealism is no more apparent when textbooks describe the context of the Emancipation Proclamation. They all mention the president's desire to take the morally appealing position in the judging eyes of world powers that flirted with allying with the Confederacy. The president is portrayed as skeptical or reluctant of emancipation, when previous statements consistently confirmed he would welcome it. Some high school textbooks suggest the executive order only freed slaves in theory, when it immediately affected the military's policy toward slaves in the war. It was even suggested that the proclamation was an act of hypocrisy on Lincoln's part since some loyal Union states still permitted slavery. The president could not issue orders that superceded laws of states not in rebellion, even if he desired to.
Yet the president, even without an official role, was intimately responsible of the Thirteenth Amendment's passage in Congress. Lincoln ensured that the amendment was on the Republican Party's platform in 1864 and helped its passage in the House of Representatives after some of its initial resistance. Abraham Lincoln did not live to see it ratified by the states.
There are still those who challenge the morality of the manner in which Lincoln waged the Civil War. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman's campaign through the South has commonly been portrayed as a brutal destruction, which it was, for it reinsured the eventual victory of the Union. Yet it was also the liberation of tens of thousands of slaves, many who joined the Union forces to continue breaking the backbone of secession. It also fed on the sentiments of resentful southern whites that saw the Confederacy's war as one fought on behalf of slave owners.
Yes, Abraham Lincoln exerted executive power beyond what the Constitution explicitly permitted during the war. In light of actions of a recent presidential administration, civil libertarians often see Lincoln's actions as an unfortunate precedent. The nation's capital city lay along the border of a commonwealth that openly challenged that government. There would have been a political erosion of the Union itself had the war been lost, and the promise that the country would continue reaffirming the ideals of the Declaration of Independence would dissolve with it. Any use of executive privilege since, with claims of historical precedence, were devoid of the same urgency and lacked a clear bookend for the relinquishment of such power. This is another sad example of how future generations claimed to look at history for guidance but only selectively sought confirmation.
When perceived to not move forward on the slavery issue quickly enough by abolitionists, Lincoln encouraged criticism of himself. "We shall need all the anti-slavery feeling in the country and more. You can go home and try to bring the people to your views, and you may say anything you like about me, if that will help. Don't spare me!"
Within his careful political maneuvering, a hint of his personal idealism came through. He followed, "When the hour comes for dealing with slavery, I trust I will be willing to do my duty though it cost my life."
An assassin's bullet turned him into a martyr for the cause of justice and equality. It devastated the freed men and women who then face an uncertain future under President Andrew Johnson. By the end of the year, the end of slavery was enshrined into the Constitution with the force of law.
Paradoxically, it is the fear of offending nostalgic citizens of the South and our eagerness to reject total veneration of any individual that often makes history turn a blind eye to our country's greatest ideals. Certainly, we must keep addressing criticisms of past leaders, but Lincoln's actions still stand the test of time. While I have warned previously about learning the wrong lessons from history, the Civil War often remains that one neglected lesson we ought to remember.
Of course, it was not the actions of Lincoln alone. The triumph of his worldview involved the sacrifices of hundreds of thousands of Union troops, as well the efforts of abolitionists who did not wait for civil war. Yet, no person was more responsible for stirring the anti-slavery emotions of the entire country. The civil rights movement that followed would not have invoked Lincoln if he was merely just an effective and intelligent politician.
Roger Sheng is a Rutgers College senior majoring in political science and journalism and media studies. His column, "The Echo Chamber," runs on alternate Mondays.