Remembering Lincoln

· Political

Yesterday was Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. In these dark times we find ourselves in, a day like that prompts a useful reminder that Lincoln should not just be celebrated for his idealistic qualities, his speeches, or his being the leader of the North. He should be celebrated, respected, and even admired for his darker deeds. No great nation, especially ours, can survive for long without the fortitude to perform them, and the great Civil War he led our Union through called for nothing less.

Here are just a few examples of what Lincoln did just in the border states during the first year of the war.

In April, 1861, after the 6th Massachusetts regiment, while traveling to secure D.C., was ambushed in Baltimore, resulting in the first actual casualties of the Civil War, Lincoln suspended habeas corpus between Philadelphia and D.C., allowing his opponents to be imprisoned without trial, and subjecting Maryland to military occupation. When the Chief Justice of the United States reprimanded Lincoln and ordered him to release one of the members of that Baltimore mob, Lincoln ignored it.

Later that same year, Lincoln had his Secretary of State William Seward order a series of lightning raids that jailed 31 members of Maryland’s state assembly, the Baltimore mayor George William Brown, one of Maryland’s U.S. Congressmen, and members of the press who were unfavorable to the Union, including the grandson of Francis Scott Key. During Maryland’s next election, federal provost marshals arrested any known anti-union person who tried to vote. The new elected Maryland legislature was full of Lincoln’s loyal puppets who supported just about everything else he would do throughout the war.

In Missouri, after an incident at Camp Jackson that left several dead, the secessionist governor, Claiborne Jackson, with newfound support among the previously pro Union state legislature, tried to rally his state guard against cooperating with Lincoln and his call for troops. Lincoln had his Secretary of War authorize General Nathaniel Lyon to effectively dismantle the entire Missouri government, and to create a shadow government to operate without elections and with a pro-Union governor. The Union military put the state under martial law for the rest of the war.

In Kentucky, Lincoln’s birthplace, the state legislature had split into two shadow governments after initially declaring neutrality. Over the rest of the war, under the martial law imposed by the Union Army, loyalty oaths were required of people as a prerequisite to trading, books, journals, and even pieces of sheet music were censored, and eventually elections were being rigged with bayonet-enforced voter suppression and the Democratic Party conventions were being dispersed by force.

Lincoln’s administration also created the state of West Virginia out of the groups of disaffected farmers and plantation owners in northern and western Virginia, mainly as a piece of strategic territory for the railroad. The secession of West Virginia from the rest of Virginia was declared and implemented by a sham legislature that Lincoln helped to create there.

Try imagining something like this happening today. A little baby riot at the United States Capitol two years ago, in which a group of fat, cardiac-arrested howler monkeys were allowed to trample themselves in the course of vandalizing Congress, made the country panic as though it was somehow on the verge of complete undoing. But during the Civil War, several state governments and their democratic votes were overrun by outright military force under the command of a United States President who either ignored or consciously disregarded every check there was against his power to do so.

At the time Lincoln was doing all this, there was no precedent for it. It was Napoleonic, despotic, and absolute. Lincoln has very little in common with any other American president, and far more in common with people like Frederick the Great before him, and people like Francisco Franco, Chiang Kai-shek, and Augusto Pinochet after him. These are not the kinds of people democracies tend to look favorably upon.

It’s easy to adopt a black and white moral position on a political issue, and thereby declare yourself a good person for it. Certainly at the time, the Copperhead Democrats believed that that was exactly what they were doing by objecting to the War. In the abstract, opposing a war against half of your country that promises to kill potentially tens to hundreds of thousands of people, ruin and destroy valuable land and property, and potentially result in economic ruin is not an unreasonable position to take. But these people look stupid today not because it was in any way obvious that they were so wrong in 1861, but because of Lincoln’s tenacity at the time, and the victory that resulted because of his and his team’s willingness to win that war by any means necessary.

Winning a conflict by any means necessary is itself a tricky position to take. The Civil War was being fought in multiple theaters of the country at the same time, consuming the lives of millions of people north and south of the Mason-Dixon Line. It split family lineages and turned brother against brother, neighbor against neighbor. There wasn’t a single American anywhere who was not in some profound way affected by those four years of absolute misery. In early 1861, it was not widely believed that there would be so vast a conflict, and if people had known then what they would know by November, 1863 when Lincoln was delivering the Gettysburg Address, there would almost certainly have been far greater resistance in the north. With every setback, every misstep, failed military commander, and every lost battle, the Union would be forced to reconsider its commitments to keeping the war going. And indeed, by the summer of 1864, when the Army of the Potomac was being cut to pieces in Virginia, public opinion had turned against Lincoln and the War. Lincoln’s reelection opponent was one of his former military leaders, General George McClellan, who promised “peace by any means.” How does a country marred by war, having lost over 360,000 men to it, and where hundreds of thousands more have been gravely injured or are coming home mangled and deformed, continue voting to keep it going?

They don’t unless they see in their leader(s) a resolve and reason to win it anyway.

At any point in time, Lincoln could have relented. He could have found an excuse, a platitude – an easy reason to throw up his hands and declare that events had spiraled too far, and embrace a new imperative to either allow secession or re-integrate the seceding states with new and expanded terms for the slave trade. He could have taken a way out, restored his reputation, and walked away. I do not admire Abraham Lincoln merely for having delivered the greatest speech in American history – maybe the history of civilization – on the battlegrounds of Gettysburg. I do not admire Lincoln for merely opposing slavery and eventually proclaiming it abolished. These were wonderful, necessary deeds, and they were paid for over years of blood, horror, and sacrifice in places like Shiloh, Sharpsburg, Gettysburg, Vicksburg, and so many other places. I admire Lincoln for his will to break the law for the greater good, to violate every otherwise sacred constitutional and democratic principle in the name of keeping a great nation intact and eradicating a horrific human tradition that was as old as civilization itself and practiced by nearly everyone.

Abraham Lincoln was not just a figure of light, but a dark man who led nation through a great civil war and committed violence and punishment upon that nation’s enemies in order to win it. To what he did in his day, and what the men who fought and died for the Union did in theirs, we owe everything.

Happy Belated Birthday, Mr. President.

– Vivek

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: