The Lasting Impact of Abraham Lincoln

In this temple
As in the hearts of the people for
whom he saved the Union
The memory of Abraham
Is enshrined forever 

Inscription above the Lincoln Memorial

Something for the weekend.  Lincoln and Liberty, Too.  The mortal remains of Abraham Lincoln were laid to rest in Springfield, Illinois a century and a half ago this week.  This is a good time to look at the impact of his life, a life more consequential for his country and the world than that of any other American except for George Washington.

1.  Lincoln ended slavery.  That is a simple three word sentence but what an accomplishment it was.  Slavery, a world wide institution, had existed in the American colonies since their foundation.  By the time of the Civil War the institution was two hundred and fifty years old and had tainted American history from its inception.  It tainted everything it touched, and, in the ringing words of Lincoln:

I hate [indifference to slavery] because of the monstrous injustice of slavery itself. I hate it because it deprives our republican example of its just influence in the world-enables the enemies of free institutions, with plausibility, to taunt us as hypocrites-causes the real friends of freedom to doubt our sincerity, and especially because it forces so many really good men amongst ourselves into an open war with the very fundamental principles of civil liberty-criticizing the Declaration of Independence, and insisting that there is no right principle of action but self-interest.

Slavery was such an entrenched institution in the South that only a mammoth Civil War, with atrocious blood-letting, brought about the conditions that ended it.  In four short years Lincoln lanced the boil of slavery, and if that were his only accomplishment that alone should ensure that his name will be honored by endless generations of Americans.  Critics of Lincoln often pretend that the South would have abolished slavery.  There is no evidence to support that belief, and much evidence to support the contention that slavery was an immensely strong institution and getting a new lease on life by having slaves work in factories.  Vast slave empires arose in the twentieth century, and the Confederacy, if it had won the Civil War, might now be regarded as a harbinger of the future on the issue of slavery, rather than as a rear guard defense of the past.  There is nothing inevitable about history, which is a human creation, and Lincoln ending slavery had global ramifications, and if he had failed opposite global ramifications might likely have occurred, which would have reverberated to this day.

2.  Lincoln preserved the Union.  There would be no United States today but for Lincoln.  There would be two or more nations where the United States of America now is.  Daniel Webster, in his immortal reply to Hayne in 1830 stated:  “Union and liberty, now and forever, one and inseparable.”  For this country and this world I believe his comment was prophetic.  Without a united America I suspect that this nation would not have successfully led the fight against Nazi Germany and then prevailed in the Cold War over the Soviet Union.  I think it all too likely that in addition to the United States and the Confederate States, there would have been other successor states to the original United States.  Allow secession once, and in times of national stress it would have been a “remedy” trumpeted by ambitious demagogues.  The founders of the Confederacy feared this, the drafters of the Confederate Constitution voting down South Carolina’s proposal that a right of secession be set forth in the Confederate Constitution and instead included in the preamble of the Constitution that they were forming a permanent federal government.

3.  Lincoln, the last Founding Father– Lincoln ensured that the Founding Fathers were not mere figures in history books, but rather the beginners of a powerful movement for human liberty.  He concisely, and eloquently, put this belief forward in this speech:

These communities, by their representatives in old Independence Hall, said to the whole world of men: “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.” This was their majestic interpretation of the economy of the Universe. This was their lofty, and wise, and noble understanding of the justice of the Creator to His creatures. [Applause.] Yes, gentlemen, to all His creatures, to the whole great family of man. In their enlightened belief, nothing stamped with the Divine image and likeness was sent into the world to be trodden on, and degraded, and imbruted by its fellows. They grasped not only the whole race of man then living, but they reached forward and seized upon the farthest posterity. They erected a beacon to guide their children and their children’s children, and the countless myriads who should inhabit the earth in other ages. Wise statesmen as they were, they knew the tendency of prosperity to breed tyrants, and so they established these great self-evident truths, that when in the distant future some man, some faction, some interest, should set up the doctrine that none but rich men, or none but white men, were entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, their posterity might look up again to the Declaration of Independence and take courage to renew the battle which their fathers began — so that truth, and justice, and mercy, and all the humane and Christian virtues might not be extinguished from the land; so that no man would hereafter dare to limit and circumscribe the great principles on which the temple of liberty was being built.

Lincoln continued the work of the Founding Fathers and ensured that the principles of the Declaration of Independence would be a living inheritance for all Americans rather than patriotic sentiments trotted out on the Fourth of July and then swiftly forgotten the rest of the year.

4.  Lincoln and God-No president, and few rulers, have better enunciated the fact that we are all, and always, in the hands of a just God:

Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.” If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

If a people are very, very lucky they have a leader of the caliber of Washington or Lincoln once in 500 years.  America had two within 87 years and we had them when we most needed them.

Published in: on May 9, 2015 at 5:30 am  Comments (4)  
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  1. Another thing that Lincoln can be credited with is to help establish that democratic government is actually workable over the long term. In 1863 he wrote: “Peace does not appear so distant as it did. I hope it will come soon, and come to stay; and so come as to be worth the keeping in all future time. It will then have been proved that, among free men, there can be no successful appeal from the ballot to the bullet; and that they who take such appeal are sure to lose their case, and pay the cost.”

    There have been plenty of cases after 1860 where many people have been unhappy with the outcome of a presidential election, but the losers have accepted the outcome rather than start a civil war.

    (Source for quote:

    • Quite right Kenneth. In Lincoln’s day, except in the United States and Great Britain, democratic styles of government tended to have an abysmal track record for longevity, before lapsing into military dictatorships.

      • I intend to writ an essay on this. It is no coincidence that certain dates – 1848-9, 1859-60 – are so closely gathered at hinge points in Europe and America. The impact of the Union triumph of 1865 may be seen in the change of mind across Europe that followed; in 1867, Britain passed the Second Reform Bill, which opened the franchise to large popular strata was universally understood to be the last step before full universal male suffrage, and Austria-Hungary revived the suppressed Constitution of 1848 and gave Hungary equal status within the empire; one year later, Napoleon III turned his government into a genuine parliamentary and constitutional state, admitting a vigorous opposition into the hitherto rubber-stamp Assembly. The most significant thing about these reforms is that they were carried out by the very forces most identified with reaction – Disraeli’s Tories in Britain, Franz Joseph in Austria and Napoleon in France. The rise of these two emperors to the throne in 1848 and 1851 respectively had marked teh triumph of reaction and the suppression of the revolutionary movements in their countries; now they themselves endorsed liberal, constitutional, parliamentary government. And in my view this was directly due to the fact that Lincoln – and to a lesser extent the authorities of the new Italy, faced with a similar insurgency in their own south – had shown that a parliamentary government was at least as capable as any absolute ruler to defend law, order, and national unity.

      • I look forward to reading your essay Fabio after you have written it.

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