Yesterday for my day off, I went to Borders, ordered a large coffee, and, in connection with my recent interest in biographies, read James M. McPherson’s Abraham Lincoln. There are a host of books on Lincoln being published this year (because it is the 200th anniversary of his birth), but McPherson’s stood out to me because it is concise – at 65 pages, it can be read in one sitting. But despite its brevity I found it very informative, and I found more joy and fascination in reading it than I can express. At the risk of sounding overly praising of Lincoln, I would like to list several things that stood out to me while reading:
(1) The fact of historical contingency. Things did not have to play out the way they did. We tend to view the events of the past as inexorable and fixed, because to us – looking back in time – they are. But the preservation of the Union and the abolition of slavery was, to human eyes, anything but fixed and determined during the constant ebb and flow of Lincoln’s presidency. At many points, success must have seen desperately improbable. Reading this book was a powerful reminder that many of the celebrated events in our history – events which shape our world almost as much as the rising of the sun – were effected only by the narrowest of straits, and the strenuous effort of good people. The largest and most momentous events in history are unalterably annexed to the smallest and most apparently random details which surround them.
One example would be the timing of General Sherman’s capture of Atlanta on September 3, 1864, which turned the tide of the 1864 election in Lincoln’s favor. Would Lincoln have been re-elected if the taking of Atlanta had gone differently? So much often seems to have turned upon the head of a pin. I can understand how people can love the study of history – it is so interesting. All of this gives a new appreciation for divine sovereignty, a concept which Lincoln seems to have grown in his appreciation of throughout his presidency.
(2) Lincoln’s political courage. Today, of course, Lincoln is revered, and thus it is easy to forget how initially obscure, frequently misunderstood, and throughout controversial he was in his own day. While he was loved by many Americans, he was fiercely despised by many others, both within and without his party, both in the North and South, both radical abolitionists and opponents of abolitionism. Some in his very own cabinet, McPherson noted at one point in the book, thought themselves better fit for the presidency! The pressures and anxieties he must have faced are difficult to imagine, and on top of it all he had to deal with incompetent generals for the first half of the war.
Had he caved into popular demand, against his convictions and his wisdom, on any one of a number of occasions when it would have been easy to do so, all would have been lost. He then would have gone down in the history books as the President who failed to preserve the Union, not the President who saved it. But he didn’t. He made the right decisions and stuck with them – even when they were extremely unpopular. For example, McPherson records how in the summer of 1864 Lincoln faced enormous pressure to make peace with the South by dropping the issue of slavery. Although he firmly believed it would cost him the upcoming election, Lincoln stayed the course, claiming, “I should be damned in time and eternity for so doing. The world shall know that I will keep my faith to friends and enemies, come what may” (57).
According to McPherson, America could not have survived the Civil War without Lincoln’s wisdom and courage. Wisdom in knowing the right course, and courage in taking that course (often in the face of much opposition). “It seems quite likely that without (Lincoln’s) determined leadership America would have ceased to be” (62). His fame is deserved.
(3) Lincoln’s rhetorical eloquence. His speeches and letters were beautiful. How fascinating it would have been to watch this gangly, awkward, ill-dressed, no-name Westerner hold huge audiences spell-bound. I liked the concluding line from his speech in New York City in February 1860, which earned a thundering ovation:
“Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it.”
(4) Lincoln’s military genius. He spent much time reading military strategy, conferring with his generals, and visiting the troops. He summed up his strategy for achieving victory in these words:
“I state my general idea of this war to be that we have greater numbers, and the enemy has the greater facility of concentrating forces upon points of collision; that we must fail, unless we can find some way of making our advantage an overmatch for his; and that this can only be done by menacing him with superior forces, at different points, at the same time.”
According to McPherson, this was the strategy, employed by General Ulysses Grant, that ultimately won the war.
(5) Lincoln’s wisdom in leadership. Objections like, “why didn’t he free the slaves sooner?” or “why did he initially say he was not going to free the slaves?” usually fail to appreciate the delicacy of his situation. If he was too rash, he could have lost support for the war. If he was too passive, he could have weakened their position. He had to rally all different kinds of people with different perspectives to the common cause, and he had to do this at just the right time. Somehow he managed to walk this fine line without compromising his values.
(6) The importance of Lincoln in American history. He did not merely preserve the Union – by ending slavery he improved it and enabled it to finally realize the dream it had been founded upon – the dream of a nation built upon equality: “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
What was dreamed in 1776, and was written in 1787, was not merely tested in 1861-1865: it was completed. Whatever respect we pay the founding fathers for the dream of a nation founded on the principle of equality, we must pay also to Lincoln, not only for preserving this dream in its severest trial, but for finishing it.
In other words, Lincoln didn’t merely save America: he completed it.