Abraham Lincoln did great things, greater than anything done by Woodrow Wilson or Franklin Roosevelt. He freed the slaves and saved the Union, and because he saved the Union he was able to free the slaves. Beyond this, however, our extraordinary interest in him, and esteem for him, has to do with what he said and how he said it. And much of this had to do with the Union--what it was and why it was worth the saving.
He saved it by fighting and winning the war, of course. But his initial step in this was the decision to go to war. Not a popular decision, and certainly not an easy one. His predecessor, the incompetent fool James Buchanan, believed that the states had no right to secede from the Union, but that there was nothing he could do about it if they did. Thus, by the time Lincoln took office, seven Southern states had seceded, and nothing had been done about it. Led by South Carolina, they claimed to be doing only what they and the other colonies had done in 1776. To oppose them might bring on the war, and Buchanan had no stomach for this.
Lincoln knew that the time had come when the only way to save the Union was to go to war. But could he say so and retain the support of the people who had voted for him? The abolitionists, for example. For them, slavery was a sin, and the slaveholders sinners. But their leading spokesman, William Lloyd Garrison, was no friend of the Union. He said the Constitution was "a covenant with death and an agreement with hell." During the Fort Sumter crisis, Garrison said "all Union saving efforts are simply idiotic."
The country's leading antislavery editor, Horace Greeley of the New York Tribune, said much the same thing. As he put it, "if the Cotton States shall become satisfied they can do better out of the Union than in it, we insist on letting them go." But suppose we had let them go. How, then, would Greeley free the slaves, except by going to war with them? The self-righteous journalist did not say -- perhaps he would have had us enter into "real" negotiations with the Confederates--but it was his desire to avoid war that led him to say what he said.
Another problem facing Lincoln was that the people of the North were almost all antislavery, but they were also almost all anti-Negro.
Then--I'm speaking here of the situation Lincoln faced before taking office--there was the question of those slave states that had not yet seceded. What would they do if he used force against the others? Later on, he reportedly said, "I hope to have God on my side, but I must have Kentucky."
And, finally, there was the effort, a desperate or last-chance effort, to avoid the war by way of compromise. On Jan. 16, 1861, the Kentuckian John Crittenden, on behalf of a Senate committee that included the Democrats Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois and Jefferson Davis of Mississippi, as well as Republicans Benjamin Wade of Ohio and William Seward of New York, proposed a set of six constitutional amendments that, among other provisions, prohibited slavery in the territories north of the Missouri Compromise line but protected it south of the line "in all territories now held, or hereafter acquired."
Obviously, this was not much of a compromise, but it had the support even of some important Republicans. Lincoln, however, said no. "Let there be no compromise on the question of extending slavery," he wrote his Republican friends in Congress. "The tug has to come and better now than later." That tug came, and with it came the war.
Would Lincoln have taken so hard a line, or refused all compromise, had he anticipated that the war would take the lives of--the number is appalling--some 620,000 Americans? Probably not. (Nor, I suspect, would the Southern states have seceded had they anticipated the price they would pay.) Intransigent Lincoln surely was, but before blaming him for this, consider the alternative to war, or going to war. What was at stake?
In 1857, the Supreme Court of the United States handed down the decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford, holding that Congress, under the Constitution, could not prohibit slavery in any of the territories, thereby opening them all to slavery. But Chief Justice Roger Taney did more than that in his Dred Scott opinion. Although only dicta--not part of the holding in the case--Taney said this: "The right of property in a slave is distinctly and expressly affirmed in the Constitution."
If the right of property in a slave is distinctly and expressly affirmed in the Constitution of the United States, then nothing in the Constitution or laws of any state can destroy the right of property in a slave. Assuming Taney spoke for them, the Southerners wanted slavery nationalized. And beyond that, assuming Sens. Crittenden and Davis also spoke for them, they wanted slavery to be extended throughout the length and breadth of the Americas; the only limits being the slaveholders' appetite and the military power of the United States.
This, I suggest, is why Lincoln said no to the Crittenden compromise, or so-called compromise. And who can blame him?
Once again employing faint-hearted Horace Greeley as a foil, suppose Lincoln had heeded his advice and entered into peace negotiations with the Confederates in the spring or summer of 1864, without insisting, as he always did, that the Confederate states agree to abolish slavery. The Confederates would surely have jumped at the chance, and the Northern people were yearning for peace. They obviously had reason to think it a cruel war. In the six weeks beginning May 3, 1864, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant's Army of the Potomac had lost some 65,000 men, killed, wounded, or missing in action--and 7,000 in one afternoon at Cold Harbor. As Greeley wrote to Lincoln, "Our bleeding, bankrupt, almost dying country, yearns for peace . . . I entreat you to submit overtures for peace to the Southern insurgents." But Lincoln refused to do so. By making abolition a condition for peace, Greeley said, Lincoln gave "new strength to the Democrats." So he did. The situation was such that Lincoln expected to be beaten (and, he said, "unless some great change takes place, badly beaten"). Even the abolitionists were against him.
It is not by chance that his best and most celebrated speech was delivered on a battlefield, on the occasion of dedicating a cemetery filled with the graves of patriots. I speak, of course, of the Gettysburg Address.
It is brief, a mere 272 words, and could not have taken much more than five minutes to deliver. In its central passage, Lincoln says, "The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here." Well, what little do we remember?
We remember he said that this nation was founded in 1776 with the Declaration of Independence and its principles. We remember this because of the unusual way he said it. Not 87 years ago, but "four score and seven." His Bible-reading audience assembled there (and afterwards) would surely have remembered what he said because in what he said they would have heard echoes of the 90th Psalm, where the psalmist says, "three score and ten," our years on this earth. They might also have thought--as they probably were expected to think--that our founding, if not sacred, was surely not profane.
This, too, we remember: Lincoln goes on to say that the brave men, living and dead, who struggled on this ground, this battlefield, had "consecrated" it better than he or anyone else could. Consecrated? Had made it sacred, a battlefield? As if they--presumably the Union soldiers--were fighting for the Lord? No, but their cause was great and noble.
We also remember Lincoln saying that their work was "unfinished," and that we, the living, should highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain and that this nation, "under God, shall have a new birth of freedom," and that government of, by and for the people shall not perish from the earth.
What little do we remember? In a word, and despite what he said, we remember everything he said. And we remember it because he took great pains to say it beautifully.
We also remember his second inaugural address, especially the concluding paragraph--the poignant beauty of it:
With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan--to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.
Six weeks later he was murdered. We say that a man can be known by the company he keeps. So I say that a nation, a people, can be known and be judged by its heroes, by whom it honors above all others. We pay ourselves the greatest compliment when we say that Abraham Lincoln is that man for us.
Walter Berns is a resident scholar at AEI.