I suppose the temptation to weigh in at least a little bit on Lincoln’s assassination, 150 years ago today, is just too great.
Even the Europeans, who can find little good to say about the U.S. except for the fact that we elected Dear Leader twice — but perversely refuse to close ranks behind him and gratefully bow our heads beneath his yoke (a continent of atheists and agnostic whispers in our ear: “His yoke is easy, and His burden is light”; have they no sense of irony?) — relax their rules about envy and scorn, for example, here, under the headline “Death of a Savior“.
Among the numerous navel-gazing questions about Lincoln and his life, the question of what would have happened to his reputation had he lived remains right up there with the most popular. The City Point conference, between Lincoln, Grant, Sherman, and Porter formed the basis for both Grant’s surrender terms to Lee and Sherman’s to Johnston. Grant’s have been — rightly, as I think — hailed as the first step towards restoring the U.S. to a single country. Sherman’s, which were repudiated immediately upon their becoming known, were and remain condemned as handing the farm back over to the foxes. In truth Sherman’s terms, at least to the extent that they addressed themselves to the political reconstitution of the nation, were beyond what he was authorized to offer.
So why did Sherman, who according to a recent biography was self-admittedly most comfortable in the No. 2 Role, even when that No. 2 Role involved vast, largely-independently-exercised authority, go so far into what he must have known was forbidden territory? Well, between Grant on April 9 and Sherman on April 18 Lincoln had been shot.
While Sherman must have known he was exceeding his authority, let us not, 150 years after the fact, and with the experiences of all that has come during that time to inform our thinking, be too eager to excoriate Sherman. The simple fact is that in April, 1865 everyone was facing a universe of facts that had never in recorded human history converged. For the first time — ever — a republic had successfully weathered a full-blown civil war. The Roman republic weathered a slave insurrection, but its civil war shattered it, and in fact the next successful republic of any size, Venice, did not arise for another thousand-odd years. The next geographically extensive republic did not arise until 1789, with the United States.
No one knew in April, 1865 how the Union was to be restored, or even whether it would be in its former form. Certainly there were not a few voices in the North who vocally opposed re-admission of the Southern states, on any terms. When I wrote “successfully” in the paragraph above, I said that in the sense that there was still a republic in its pre-war form . . . in the North. That republic had not been destroyed, but no one had ever re-grafted geographically-defined rebels back onto the body politic of a subsisting republic. The war was also “successful” in the sense that the rebellious areas had been recovered; they would not form any part of a foreign country. But beyond that much, no one knew or could know when or if we could once again have a United States of America, covering the continent and constituted as it had been.
Moreover, we’d just shot a president. That had never happened before, either. The Army of Northern Virginia had laid down its arms and was in the process of disbanding. But there were still large numbers of armed Southerners out there. Sherman must have viewed as among his very highest priorities transforming them into formerly-armed Southerners. Was it so unreasonable to fear that Lincoln’s killing might be used as the occasion for renewed combat, either by Southerners thinking they were back in the game or by Northerners seeking the kind of scorched-earth victory urged by dimwits like the author over at The New Republic whose article I excoriated the other day?
In any event, Sherman’s terms were rejected by the new administration and by Congress, as doubtless they would have been by Lincoln had he not been shot (of course, in that event it’s unlikely that Sherman would have offered the terms in the first place).
There are two schools of thought about how, in terms of reconstruction, a second Lincoln administration would have played out. The first takes the saintly view that Lincoln would have multiplied the fishes and loaves and all would have come aright, with nine million illiterate, unskilled, destitute former slaves seamlessly integrated as full participants in the socio-political fabric of a society in which they’d been, a very few years before, the chattel property of the majority group. This is a species of the same thinking that ordinary Germans and Soviets, caught up in the grinding mechanisms of their respective hells on earth, used to exclaim at the most recent outrage observed or experienced by them: “If only the Führer knew!” “If only Stalin knew!”
The second view — more realistic, I think — holds that Lincoln would have run aground on the shoals of a Congress which was packed with people who wanted vengeance, neither more nor less. While the North had not experienced the demographic devastation the South did — fully one-quarter of all Southern males of military service age were dead or wounded, many maimed with arms and/or legs missing, eyes shot out, festering abscesses where bullets remained lodged in their bodies — there were full many towns across the North who could engrave the names of a large proportion of their sons on the monument out on courthouse square. The North had to pay for its war as well, and that can’t have sat very well with the electorate. What kind of chance would Lincoln’s overall notion to “let ’em up easy” have stood in that Congress? Recall that Lincoln was emphatically not viewed at the time with any kind of the same reverence we hold for him. For many people he was just another politician temporarily holding office. Everyone who counted in the North knew that on March 4, 1869, Abe Lincoln was going back to Springfield. In contrast, the political machine run by Simon Cameron, Lincoln’s first secretary of war and a man of whom it was said that the only thing he wouldn’t steal was a red-hot stove, lasted for years and years after the war, longer than reconstruction itself.
For that matter, how would Lincoln have reacted when his overtures toward the South were rejected, when his generosity was abused? What would he have made of the Black Codes that swept across the landscape in the war’s aftermath? We know for a fact that Lincoln could be, when he saw the need, just as brutal a politician as anyone who’s ever practiced the craft. Witness how Maryland got treated at the war’s outset. Lincoln wasn’t about to take a chance on having Washington isolated by enemy territory from the rest of the country, and so Maryland got to feel the weight of Lincoln’s boot on its neck. Lincoln also fully approved of Sherman’s march to the sea, the sole objective of which was the civilian population and its means of support. Is there any reason to suppose that a victorious Lincoln, having let ’em up easy only to get kicked smartly in his shins for his trouble, would have reacted with any greater forbearance towards those who kicked him? It’s not at all inconceivable that, so far from burning his political capital to ram-rod a gentle settlement down the Congressional throat, Lincoln would have in response to the South’s continued resistance embraced every last single measure of what we know today as Reconstruction.
But John Wilkes Booth saw to it that we were spared the spectacle of a tarnished hero. Every society must have its saints; it is an illusion to suppose that humans can do without figures of divinity. We already had Washington, but Washington belongs to another world, a world in which the U.S. was a feeble string of recent colonies whose very existence as a nation the rest of the world wasn’t going to accept and didn’t accept fully until 1815. Washington is also tainted by the very sin — slavery — which Lincoln excised. Lincoln, struck down in the hour of his triumph, a figure unmarred by the inevitable filth of having to pick up pieces and re-assemble them, is a figure so dramatic that if he hadn’t actually existed, we would still be seeking to invent him.
One more set of thoughts on Lincoln. It is fashionable these days — from a remove of 150 years, of course, and from people who will bear neither moral nor political responsibility for having been wrong — to execrate Lincoln for not coming to office pledged to do whatever it took to end slavery. The argument goes something like this: Slavery was recognized as a wickedness by wide segments of the population. There was and could be no good-faith disagreement whether it must end. So to say that Lincoln approached it with the attitude of his time is a bullshit cop-out excuse. He should have made the extirpation of slavery the center-point of his administration from the first day and never deviated from it in the slightest degree. That he didn’t is justly an indictment of him.
How trite. People whose putative, hypothetical choices — 150 years later — can carry no moral responsibility for the blood, horrors, and death of civil war, for the destruction of the world’s only functioning republic (which was the first truly representative republic in, you know, fucking forever), for the splintering and crashing to rubble of what actually then was “the last, best hope of the earth,” can safely sit upon their moral thrones and hurl scorn at the man whose real-world choices would and did bear that responsibility. People today can build into their “well I would have done thus-and-such” proclamations the unspoken knowledge that the country did survive, that government of the people, by the people, and for the people did not perish from the earth. The people whose decisions would make the difference between survival and destruction of that nation had no such luxury. They had no idea whether a republic could survive a civil war. Remember that the entire knock on republics as a form of government was that they must inevitably fly apart, riven by faction. It’s why everyone, from Washington on down, described the United States as an experiment.
Today’s moralizers overlook that the most crucial outcome of the war was not the abolition of slavery, but rather the once-and-for-all-time determination that the United States was a permanent union. If the answer had been anything other than that, then abolition would never have happened. The Civil War amendments to the constitutions, with the possible exception of the 13th, would never have come about. Instead of the world’s most vibrant, flexible, potent economy ready and willing to act as the arsenal of democracy, we’d have squabbling little penny-ante states, all divided by mutual suspicion and seeking nothing so much as their neighbors’ undermining.
Lincoln anticipated as much in his House Divided speech. He was right: A house divided against itself cannot stand. He did not expect the house to fall, but he did expect it to cease to be divided; it would become all one thing or all the other. What happened over the course of 1862 is that Lincoln came to the conclusion that the abolition of slavery had become necessary to save the union now, without which saving the eventual abolition of slavery would have been a vanished hope (at least for his time). Without saving the union now — in 1862 — none of the reasons for which the union’s preservation was sought — including the abolition of slavery — could be hoped for. Once the union was lost, it could never be re-established, north or south. And so in the crucible of war the eventual political objective — destruction of slavery — became a political predicate for its own enabling circumstance — union. A result truly “fundamental and astounding,” to borrow Lincoln’s own words.
And those people who claim that Lincoln should have campaigned in 1860 and come to office in 1861 on a platform of immediate abolition? They demonstrate only their own foolishness, and their own cavalier disregard for what remains the last, best hope of the earth.
Thus today we observe the passing of our only unblemished secular saint. It is intriguing, but ultimately unproductive, to speculate on what would have happened had he not died when he did. It is morally contemptible to damn him for not acting as we — safely removed from responsibility and with the solid rock of indissoluble union beneath our feet — in our moral purity claim he should have.
Although his Gettysburg Address is the more widely quoted (in fact it is, by a wide margin, the longest single entry in my mother’s 1953 edition of The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, and the only speech given in full), I have long felt much more deeply moved by the peroration of his Second Inaugural:
“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 lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
More than which cannot be said, and better than which has never been said.