In July of 1862, two months before Lincoln made public his momentous decision to issue an Emancipation Proclamation, Lyman Trumbull of Illinois, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, admitted bluntly, ‘Our people want nothing to do with the Negro.’
Wednesday, October 28, 2015
According to Lincoln’s dazzling 1860 Cooper Union speech, Blacks in colonial America were far more influential than is commonly supposed. According to Lincoln, in five of the original thirteen states – Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, New Jersey and North Carolina - free Negroes had the right to vote. They undoubtedly played a part in the ratification of the Constitution and certainly were included in the preamble 'we the people.'
Monday, October 26, 2015
In those early days of the Civil War the bumbling, fumbling giant known as the North hardly seemed capable of mounting anything like a victory against the dazzling military talent of the South. This was particularly true in 1862 – Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia seemed able to walk on water. In May of that year Lee, although outnumbered two to one, had divided his army and struck General Joseph Hooker with frontal and flank assaults and a titanic battle roared around Chancellorsville, Virginia. On May 6, 1862 came the awful news that Hooker had quit fighting. Another defeat. Fighting Joe Hooker, as he was known, had let the Rebel force run rings around him suffering 17,000 casualties in the process. How was this war ever to be won?
Saturday, October 24, 2015
With what looked very much like the advent of war in those first few weeks of the Lincoln administration the government over which he presided was embroiled in a huge bureaucratic mess. The army didn't seem to know what it was doing, but then neither did the various government departments, or Congress. In short, the benign chaos that dominated the sleepy little two-man law firm of Lincoln & Herndon for the previous 17 years seemed to apply to the White House in particular and the entire federal apparatus in general. [It's a good thing the Rebel government across the way was also embroiled in similar problems of needed rapid growth and did not have the wherewithal, or foresight, to send a moderately sized force across the Potomac in those early, early days of the war to a virtually undefended Washington, DC and bag the lot!]
Thursday, October 22, 2015
Lincoln's death was an unparalleled international phenomenon. Of course heads of state, like his great and good friend Queen Victoria, sent condolences. But what was astonishing was that, according to one historian, condolences also came from the Working Class Improvement Association of Lisbon, the Students in the Faculty of Theology in Strasbourg, the Teachers of the Ragged School in Bristol, the Vestry of the Parish of Chelsea, the Cotton Brokers' Association of Liverpool, the Men's Gymnastic Union of Berne, Switzerland [all 44 members]. As if moved inexorably by some powerful if unseen gravitational pull, people thousands of miles away all made it their business to express their profound sorrow at the passing of this most enigmatic of men. For somehow Lincoln had managed to capture their imaginations, this man carved from the granite of the great American heartland, who had clambered through the dense entangling undergrowth of misunderstanding and greed, of violence and stupidity, to burst forth onto God's very own broad, sunlit uplands.
Tuesday, October 20, 2015
Long-term reactions to Lincoln's death came from as far away as Russia in the early 20th century. In the eyes of the great Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy Lincoln was a kind of world folk legend through 'peculiar moral powers and greatness of character... He was what Beethoven was in music, Dante in poetry, Raphael in painting and Christ in the philosophy of life. If he had failed to become President, he would be no doubt just as great, but only God could appreciate it. We are still too near his greatness, and so can hardly appreciate his power; but after a few centuries more our posterity will find him considerably bigger than we do.'
Sunday, October 18, 2015
Up until Lincoln’s nomination in 1860 the heir apparent to the Republican Presidential nomination was New York’s Senator William Seward. Lincoln appointed him Secretary of State, but Seward took a while to figure out who was really in charge; initially he took the attitude that he was prime minister with Lincoln as a kind of figurehead president. In those first few weeks he even conducted secret negotiations with Confederate emissaries without his boss even knowing! He also submitted to Lincoln a most curious document blandly entitled ‘Some Thoughts for the President’s Consideration,’ a document based on the assumption that the administration had no stated policy or strategy for coping with the looming constitutional crisis that came to be the Civil War. Lincoln, who remarked to his private secretary, ‘I can’t let Seward take the first trick,’ held a private meeting with Seward at which he politely but firmly rejected his advice [for example, Seward had suggested that a war with England would unite the country, North and South; Lincoln countered, ‘one war at a time’]. Lincoln pointed out that his policy was to hold Forts Pickins and Sumter as stated in the Inaugural Address, a document Seward himself had read in advance, edited and approved. Finally, if there were to be any change or modification in the administration’s policy, the president had said, ‘I must do it.’ When all the dust was settled Seward wrote his wife, ‘Executive force and vigor are rare qualities. The President is the best of us.’ Curiously, Lincoln’s putting Seward in his place was the basis for this initial sense of respect – which in turn was the basis for a friendship unparalleled perhaps in all of American presidential history, a friendship that was to last until the day Lincoln died.
Friday, October 16, 2015
Early on Lincoln took to writing letters for the illiterate among his family and friends. In this way he combined two urges that never left him: to help those who needed what he could do with consummate ease, and to express himself both clearly and concisely in writing.
Sunday, October 11, 2015
At a spontaneous, celebratory White House serenade on the day Lee surrendered - and the Civil War all but ended - Lincoln said, 'I have always thought “Dixie” one of the best tunes I have ever heard. Our adversaries over the way attempted to appropriate it but I insisted that we fairly captured it. I presented it to the Attorney General and he gave it as his legal opinion that it is our lawful prize. I now request the band to favor me with its performance
Friday, October 9, 2015
'I have been shown in the files of the War Department a statement of the Adjutant General of Massachusetts that you are the mother of five sons who have died gloriously on the field of battle. I feel how weak and fruitless must be any words of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming. But I cannot refrain from tendering to you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save. I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours, to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of Freedom.’
- Abraham Lincoln, Letter to Mrs. Lydia Bixby, November 21, 1864
Wednesday, October 7, 2015
It seems that everyone wrote off Lincoln’s chances for re-election in 1864 including The London Post which wrote this scathing dismissal a few days before the election: ‘Mr. Lincoln will go down to posterity as a man who could not read signs of the times nor understand the circumstances and interests of his own country, could not calculate his own resources nor appreciate those of his enemy, who had no political aptitude, who plunged his country into a great war without a plan, who failed without excuse and fell without a friend.’
[Was the author of that piece more fascinated with the mesmerizing flow of that sentence than with its accuracy, or what?]
Monday, October 5, 2015
Lincoln’s wit, his leadership, are all the more impressive since he was starting out standing in a deep hole, as it were. He was troubled by a proneness to depression, a fascination with madness. He was afraid that it could happen to him. He did not drink because whiskey left him, as he said, feeling ‘flabby and undone,’ out of control. Arguably one of his personal 3 AM demons [we all have 3 AM demons, don't we?] would threaten the destruction of his own reason, leaving him spinning in a mindless vortex without the power either to know or gainsay.
Saturday, October 3, 2015
Lincoln's cabinet was a team of egos as well as rivals. Each of them was ambitious, opinionated, strong-willed. A goodly number of them believed the presidency was rightfully theirs and only by an accident of fate did it belong to the gangly prairie lawyer they each - initially - thought they could manipulate. They each came to find out otherwise. Even so, they made up a balanced Cabinet, representing all the discordant elements not just in the party but also in the country.
Thursday, October 1, 2015
Once Mary Todd's relatives learned of her engagement to Lincoln they pressured the couple to call the wedding off. The reason, clearly, was Lincoln’s lack of family respectability - he had an illiterate father and a mother of dubious origins. So he asked Mary to release him, which she did. She understood, but was obviously hurt. Although they eventually did marry later, at this time Lincoln was arguably more depressed than at any time in his life. 'I am now the most miserable man living. If what I feel were equally distributed to the whole human family, there would not be one cheerful face on the earth.