Two Minutes to Change the World

Presidents during their presidencies make hundreds of speeches.  Most are utterly forgotten soon after they are delivered.  Even most of the speeches by a president who is also a skilled orator, as Lincoln was, are recalled only by historians and trivia buffs.  Yet the Gettysburg address has achieved immortality.

 

 

 

 

Lincoln was invited to say a few words at the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg on November 19, 1863.  The featured speaker was Edward Everett, one of the most accomplished men in American public life, who gave a two hour oration.  It is a fine example of nineteenth century oratory, full of learning, argument and passion.  It may seem very odd to contemplate in our sound bite age, but audiences in America in Lincoln’s time expected these type of lengthy excursions into eloquence and felt cheated when a speaker skimped on either length or ornateness in his efforts.

Lincoln then got up and spoke for two minutes.

We are not really sure what Lincoln said.  There are two drafts of the speech in Lincoln’s hand, and they differ from each other.  It is quite likely that neither reflects precisely the words that Lincoln used in the Gettysburg Address.  For the sake of simplicity, and because it is the version people usually think of when reference is made to the Gettysburg address, the text used here is the version carved on the walls of the Lincoln Memorial.

Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle- field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting-place for those who here gave their lives that this nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate…we cannot consecrate…we cannot hallow…this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us, the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us…that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion; that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain; that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom; and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Here was the masterpiece of Lincoln’s passion for concise, almost terse, argument.  No doubt many in the audience were amazed when Lincoln sat down, probably assuming that this was a preamble to his main speech.

“Fourscore and seven years ago”

Lincoln starts out with an attention grabber.  Rather than the prosaic eighty-seven years, he treats his listeners to a poetic line that causes them to think and follow Lincoln back in time to the founding. (more…)

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Published in: on February 16, 2018 at 5:30 am  Leave a Comment  
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February 15, 1861: Lincoln Downplays the Crisis

On his way to Washington in 1861 to be sworn in as President, Abraham Lincoln made a number of speeches in the cities and towns his train passed through.  Most of them were short and rather forgettable.  However the speech in Cleveland on February 15, 1861 is interesting.  It is part of Lincoln’s efforts to reassure the nation that the crisis wasn’t as bad as it seemed and that all will be well.  Lincoln throughout most of his life had lived in a nation that seemed to be on the point of dividing North and South:  The compromise of 1820;  the Nullification Crisis of 1828-33;  the conflict over the admission of Texas into the Union as a slave state;  the Compromise of 1850.  In each of these prior political conflicts cooler heads had prevailed and the Union had been preserved.  Lincoln, and much of the North, at this point thought that the South was bluffing and that after yet another compromise was patched together, the Union would go on as it had until the next round of crisis and compromise.  After he became President, Lincoln would swiftly learn that this time things were very different, and the time of talk and compromise was now a thing of the past.  Lincoln’s speech in Cleveland: (more…)

Published in: on February 15, 2018 at 5:30 am  Leave a Comment  
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What If Abraham Lincoln Had Died Young?

 

 

On his 209th birthday it is perhaps appropriate to consider how the world would have changed if Abraham Lincoln had died young.  Unlike many great figures in history, Lincoln did not matter in a historical sense until around the last decade of his life.  Up to that time his political career had been mostly undistinguished and he had attracted little national notice.  If he had died in 1855 his name would now be unknown except in the pages of the most comprehensive histories of Illinois in the middle of the Nineteenth Century.  With his birth in the harsh conditions of a pioneer family, death was certainly not a stranger.  His brother Thomas died before he was three days old.  His mother died at the age of 34.  His sister died at age 20 in childbirth.  Lincoln came close to death when he was kicked by a horse in the head at 9 years of age in 1818.  He was clubbed in the head during a robbery attempt in 1828.  He contracted malaria in Illinois and had two bouts of it in 1830 and 1835.  He suffered from bouts of depression and some of his friends feared on at least one occasion that he might try to commit suicide.  Lincoln in 1838 may have published a poem,  authorship is still debated, called The Suicide’s Soliloquy:

 

Here, where the lonely hooting owl
Sends forth his midnight moans,
Fierce wolves shall o’er my carcase growl,
Or buzzards pick my bones.

No fellow-man shall learn my fate,
Or where my ashes lie;
Unless by beasts drawn round their bait,
Or by the ravens’ cry.

Yes! I’ve resolved the deed to do,
And this the place to do it:
This heart I’ll rush a dagger through,
Though I in hell should rue it!

Hell! What is hell to one like me
Who pleasures never knew;
By friends consigned to misery,
By hope deserted too?

To ease me of this power to think,
That through my bosom raves,
I’ll headlong leap from hell’s high brink,
And wallow in its waves.

Though devils yell, and burning chains
May waken long regret;
Their frightful screams, and piercing pains,
Will help me to forget.

Yes! I’m prepared, through endless night,
To take that fiery berth!
Think not with tales of hell to fright
Me, who am damn’d on earth!

Sweet steel! come forth from your sheath,
And glist’ning, speak your powers;
Rip up the organs of my breath,
And draw my blood in showers!

I strike! It quivers in that heart
Which drives me to this end;
I draw and kiss the bloody dart,
My last—my only friend!

 

Lincoln was a remarkable man, and perhaps not the least remarkable feature about him is that he survived long enough to become a national figure and President.

Now let us assume that fate was not so kind, and Lincoln departed this Veil of Tears circa 1855 or earlier.  What would have been different in 1860?  The Democrats would still have been facing a party split.  Southern Democrats were unwilling to support a nominee who was not a forthright no compromise advocate of slavery.  The Northern Democrats, facing the rising Republican Party, realized this was political suicide and would still have rallied around Douglas as their political standard bearer.  On the Republican side, Seward of New York would likely have won the nomination unless a dark horse moderate on the slavery issue had arisen.  That of course is how Lincoln ultimately won the nomination, Republican party leaders viewing Seward as too radical on the slavery issue and potentially scaring away moderate Northerners and costing the Republicans their first win at the White House.  However, in the absence of Lincoln, who was a moderate on slavery but who gained a good deal of support from abolitionists due to confronting Douglas on the slavery issue in the Lincoln-Douglas debates in 1858, I think it likely that Seward would have gained the nomination.  Seward would have gone on almost certainly to win the general election, the Democrat split making a Republican victory in 1860 almost a foregone conclusion.

If Seward had been elected would the South have seceded?  Almost certainly.  Lincoln was largely an unknown quantity in the South while Seward had been in the anti-slavery vanguard for many years.  Seward had been a devil figure in the South since his maiden speech in the Senate on March 11, 1850 with this passage:

I deem it established, then, that the Constitution does not recognize property in man, but leaves that question, as between the states, to the law of nature and of nations. That law, as expounded by Vattel, is founded on the reason of things. When God had created the earth, with its wonderful adaptations, He gave dominion over it to man, absolute human dominion. The title of that dominion, thus bestowed, would have been incomplete, if the lord of all terrestrial things could himself have been the property of his fellow- man.

With this appeal to natural law, Seward ever after in the South was viewed as an anti-slavery radical who regarded a higher law demanding freedom as putting the safeguards of the Constitution, that the South relied upon to protect their Peculiar Institution, as mere parchment barricades that could be breached instantly.  Secession likely would have been swifter under a President Elect Seward than it was under a President Elect Lincoln.

This of course would have been immensely ironic since Seward was quite willing to give the South virtually everything it wanted to avoid secession historically in early 1861.  Of course his vantage point would have been quite different as incoming President than as the incoming Secretary of State, but the urge to avert splitting the nation by surrender on the slavery issue would have been the same.  Would it have worked?  Almost certainly not.  Lincoln gave half-hearted support to a Thirteenth Amendment that would have enshrined slavery in the Constitution and that had zero impact on the desire of the South to form the Confederacy.  The South was not in a mood to accept anything short of independence.

Once compromise failed would Seward have fought to preserve the Union?  Likely no.  Seward historically was in favor of evacuating Fort Sumter.  He also thought that starting a foreign war with France or England would cause the Confederates to rejoin the Union.  That last idea was so divorced from reality, I suspect that Seward viewed a war to preserve the Union prior to the firing on Fort Sumter as being unthinkable.  A President Seward may well have evacuated federal installations in the South and adopted a policy of watchful waiting to see if the South would have come back voluntarily.  This policy would have ended in de facto recognition of the independence of the Confederacy, and probably a bitter civil war within the Republican party that would have led to Democrat victories at the polls in 1862 and 1864.  There would have been many areas where a Confederate States and United States would have come into conflict, including territories in the West, the border states, runaway slaves and further efforts at foreign expansion by both countries, but they are beyond the scope of the present exercise in musing on alternate history.  Thus we leave President Seward presiding over a rump United States and return to our reality.

 

Published in: on February 12, 2018 at 5:30 am  Leave a Comment  
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Lincoln and Liberty Too

 

 

The low clown out of the prairies, the ape-buffoon,

The small-town lawyer, the crude small-time politician,

State-character but comparative failure at forty

In spite of ambition enough for twenty Caesars,

Honesty rare as a man without self-pity,

Kindness as large and plain as a prairie wind,

And a self-confidence like an iron-bar:

This Lincoln, President now by the grace of luck,

Disunion, politics, Douglas and a few speeches

Which make the monumental booming of Webster

Sound empty as the belly of a burst drum.

Stephen Vincent Benet, John Brown’s Body

Something for the weekend.  Lincoln and Liberty Too, the most stirring campaign song in American history.  Mr. Lincoln’s birthday, his 209th, is on Monday which this year coincides with the state holiday in Illinois.  I always close down the law mines on that day.  Lincoln used to say that Henry Clay was his ideal of a statesman and for me Abraham Lincoln has always filled that role.  Presidents come and Presidents go, but Washington and Lincoln remain, the fixed stars of the better angels of our natures.

 

 

HURRAH for the choice of the nation!
Our chieftain so brave and so true;
We’ll go for the great Reformation—
For Lincoln and Liberty too!

We’ll go for the son of Kentucky—
The hero of Hoosierdom through;
The pride of the Suckers so lucky—
For Lincoln and Liberty too!

Our David’s good sling is unerring,
The Slaveocrats’ giant he slew;
Then shout for the Freedom-preferring—
For Lincoln and Liberty too!

They’ll find what, by felling and mauling,
Our rail-maker statesman can do;
For the People are everywhere calling
For Lincoln and Liberty too.

Then up with our banner so glorious,
The star-spangled red-white-and-blue,
We’ll fight till our flag is victorious,
For Lincoln and Liberty too!

Published in: on February 10, 2018 at 5:30 am  Leave a Comment  
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Justice Clarence Thomas on Abraham Lincoln

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas on Abraham Lincoln.  One of the more interesting figures in contemporary American public life Thomas brings a strong sense of history, both his history and the nation’s history, in regard to the application of the Constitution to the cases that come before the Court.

Thomas spent his childhood in a place and time in which businesses and government services were legally segregated. In his 2007 memoir, “My Grandfather’s Son,” he described his experience growing up as an African-American Catholic in Georgia during the Jim Crow era. “I was a two-fer for the Klan,” he said.

Thomas moved north from Georgia and graduated from Yale Law School in 1974. He went on to a successful judicial career that took him all the way to the Supreme Court. Thomas’ views on constitutional issues usually put him on the conservative side of the court, where he has penned opinions intended to rein in affirmative-action laws and overhaul a section of the Civil Rights Act that requires states with histories of discrimination to seek approval from the federal government before altering voting policies.

Throughout his career, Thomas said, he has experienced more instances of discrimination and poor treatment in the North than the South.

“The worst I have been treated was by northern liberal elites. The absolute worst I have ever been treated,” Thomas said. “The worst things that have been done to me, the worst things that have been said about me, by northern liberal elites, not by the people of Savannah, Georgia.”

As one of six Catholics on the court, Thomas also addressed the role his faith plays in his work as a justice.

“I quite frankly don’t know how you do these hard jobs without some faith. I don’t know. Other people can come to you and explain it to you. I have no idea,” he said. “I don’t know how an oath becomes meaningful unless you have faith. Because at the end you say, ‘So help me God.’ And a promise to God is different from a promise to anyone else.”

Go here to read the rest.  Thomas was raised by his cantankerous maternal grandfather Myers Anderson, a man with little education but who through hard work built a thriving business selling fuel oil and ice.  He worked Clarence and his brother liked rented mules, and imprinted on them the value of hard work, promising them that if they worked hard enough, and got an education, they could be anything they wanted to be, having nothing but scorn for the idea that white racism could stop them.  Thomas has said simply that his grandfather is the greatest man he has ever known.

In the case of Grutter v. Bollinger the Supreme Court voted 5-4 to uphold the use of race as a factor in law school admissions.  Justice Thomas wrote a ringing dissent in which he explained why the Court was wrong: (more…)

Published in: on January 14, 2018 at 5:30 am  Comments (1)  
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Union Christmas Dinner

Published on December 31, 1864, and drawn by Thomas Nast,  the above picture has Lincoln inviting the starving Confederate states to join the Christmas dinner of the Union States.  The print brings  to mind the phrase that  Lincoln would make immortal in his Second Inaugural in a few short months:  “With malice towards none, with charity for all”.  Not a bad sentiment to recall at Christmas time, or any time.

Published in: on December 17, 2017 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on Union Christmas Dinner  
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December 8, 1863: Lincoln Issues Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction

 

robert_e_lee_amnesty_oath_1865

 

By the end of 1863 Abraham Lincoln could look back on a year in which the Union had made some progress in its goal of defeating the Confederacy.  Although barren of results, the Union had won the largest battle of the War at Gettysburg, a huge boost for Union morale.  In the West results were more tangible, with the Union seizing control of the Mississippi, and rooting Confederate forces from Tennessee.  The Union certainly had not yet won the War, but the signs were encouraging.  This allowed Lincoln to turn his attention to the vexing questions of what to do with former Confederates who wished to pledge their loyalty to the Union and how to re-establish pro-Union civilian governments throughout the Confederacy.  Lincoln had always been clear in his view that the Confederate states had never left the Union, and that once the rebels who had seized control of these states were suppressed, that these states could resume their rightful places in the Union.  His policy thus favored leniency both to individuals and to states, to ensure that the military victory of the Union would be followed by a lasting peace.  It is a great tragedy that Lincoln did not live to attempt to implement the policy.  On December 8, 1863 Lincoln issued a Proclamation that set forth his policy regarding amnesty for individuals and the re-establishment of pro-Union civil governments in defeated Confederate states.  Here is the proclamation: (more…)

Published in: on December 8, 2017 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on December 8, 1863: Lincoln Issues Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction  
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Lincoln and the Creation of Thanksgiving

In the midst of this, however, He, from Whom all blessings flow, must not be forgotten. A call for a national thanksgiving is being prepared, and will be duly promulgated.

Abraham Lincoln, from his last public address, April 11, 1865

Abraham Lincoln frequently throughout the Civil War called for Thanksgiving for Union victories and for prayers and repentance for national sins.  The idea however of an annual Thanksgiving did not spring from him but from Sarah Josepha Hale, a noted literary figure who, among other accomplishments wrote the child’s poem Mary Had a Little Lamb.  Born in 1788, for years she had led a movement for a national day of Thanksgiving to be observed annually.

Sir.–

Permit me, as Editress of the “Lady’s Book”, to request a few minutes of your precious time, while laying before you a subject of deep interest to myself and — as I trust — even to the President of our Republic, of some importance. This subject is to have the day of our annual Thanksgiving made a National and fixed Union Festival.

You may have observed that, for some years past, there has been an increasing interest felt in our land to have the Thanksgiving held on the same day, in all the States; it now needs National recognition and authoritive fixation, only, to become permanently, an American custom and institution.

Enclosed are three papers (being printed these are easily read) which will make the idea and its progress clear and show also the popularity of the plan.

For the last fifteen years I have set forth this idea in the “Lady’s Book”, and placed the papers before the Governors of all the States and Territories — also I have sent these to our Ministers abroad, and our Missionaries to the heathen — and commanders in the Navy. From the recipients I have received, uniformly the most kind approval. Two of these letters, one from Governor (now General) Banks and one from Governor Morgan are enclosed; both gentlemen as you will see, have nobly aided to bring about the desired Thanksgiving Union.

But I find there are obstacles not possible to be overcome without legislative aid — that each State should, by statute, make it obligatory on the Governor to appoint the last Thursday of November, annually, as Thanksgiving Day; — or, as this way would require years to be realized, it has ocurred to me that a proclamation from the President of the United States would be the best, surest and most fitting method of National appointment.

I have written to my friend, Hon. Wm. H. Seward, and requested him to confer with President Lincoln on this subject As the President of the United States has the power of appointments for the District of Columbia and the Territories; also for the Army and Navy and all American citizens abroad who claim protection from the U. S. Flag — could he not, with right as well as duty, issue his proclamation for a Day of National Thanksgiving for all the above classes of persons? And would it not be fitting and

patriotic for him to appeal to the Governors of all the States, inviting and commending these to unite in issuing proclamations for the last Thursday in November as the Day of Thanksgiving for the people of each State? Thus the great Union Festival of America would be established.

Now the purpose of this letter is to entreat President Lincoln to put forth his Proclamation, appointing the last Thursday in November (which falls this year on the 26th) as the National Thanksgiving for all those classes of people who are under the National Government particularly, and commending this Union Thanksgiving to each State Executive: thus, by the noble example and action of the President of the United States, the permanency and unity of our Great American Festival of Thanksgiving would be forever secured.

An immediate proclamation would be necessary, so as to reach all the States in season for State appointments, also to anticipate the early appointments by Governors.

Excuse the liberty I have taken

With profound respect

Yrs truly

Sarah Josepha Hale,

Editress of the “Ladys Book”

There is no evidence that Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Proclamation was issued in response to this letter, but it is probable.  Here is the proclamation on October 3, 1863 by President Lincoln that established Thanksgiving as an annual event:

The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God. In the midst of a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle, or the ship; the axe had enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years, with large increase of freedom.

No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. (more…)

Published in: on November 23, 2017 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on Lincoln and the Creation of Thanksgiving  
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November 6, 1860: Lincoln Elected

One hundred and fifty-seven years ago Abraham Lincoln was elected President.  Even though he got only 39.8% of the popular vote, his election came as no surprise.  With the Democrats split, Lincoln was a shoo-in to win the North which dominated the electoral college.  In ten slave states Lincoln’s name did not appear on the ballot.  Lincoln won a grand total of two counties in the fourteen slave states.  Secession fever was in the air in the South and many shrewd observers at the time thought that the United States of America, as then constituted, had elected its last president.  For four decades there had been wrangling between the North and the South over slavery, and now an avowed opponent of slavery had finally been elected president, entirely by Northern votes.  Although Lincoln was pledged not to interfere with slavery in the States, the election of 1860 was a demonstration of the growing political power of the North and the waning of the political strength of the South.  Losing the political battle, the South now looked for other avenues to protect its Peculiar Instituion.

Published in: on November 6, 2017 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on November 6, 1860: Lincoln Elected  
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November 2, 1864: Saving Private Wilson

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During the Civil War Abraham Lincoln commuted, as did Jefferson Davis, almost every military sentence of death for desertion or cowardice that reached his desk.  One of his last acts before his own death was to pardon a soldier on April 13, 1865.   As Lincoln put it,”I don’t believe it will make a man any better to shoot him, while if we keep him alive, we just may get some work out of him.”  

On November 2, 1864 he telegramed General Grant ordering him to suspend the pending execution of Nathan Wilson, who had been found guilty of desertion from the 22nd Massachusetts.  Unlike most men Lincoln pardoned, Private Wilson was politically connected.  His uncle was New York State Senator Albert Hobbs, a Republican, who had interceded with Lincoln on behalf of his nephew.  (more…)

Published in: on November 2, 2017 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on November 2, 1864: Saving Private Wilson  
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