Friday, April 08, 2011

The methodical mind of Lincoln

{Photo by rocketlass.}

The sesquicentennial of the Civil War, which begins next week with the anniversary of the firing on Fort Sumter, has sent me back once again to that inexhaustibly fascinating conflict. This time, I'm reading Bruce Catton's three-volume history that was published on the war's centennial, which I'd recommend to any general reader. James M. McPherson's one-volume Battle Cry of Freedom may be a better introduction to the subject--his descriptions and explanations of battles are as good as any I've encountered, offering just as much detail and assistance as a nonspecialist needs--but Catton bests him in prose style and, more important, in analysis of character.

This passage, from near the end of the second volume, Terrible Swift Sword (1963), just after Lincoln has made the Emancipation Proclamation public, combines both qualities:
[T]he President had committed himself to an idea rather than to a specific program. The war would be a revolution from now on, and if revolutionary means were needed to win it they would be used. This, to be sure, had been inherent in the situation from the beginning. The overshadowing fact now was that when he issued his proclamation Mr. Lincoln did in his field exactly what General Lee did in his when he struck the Army of the Potomac at Mechanicsville: he took the initiative, and he would never give it up. All of the Americans who followed this hard road of war would sooner or later have to keep step with him: both those who went with him and those who went against him.
Which is fitting, because, for me at least, it all comes back to Lincoln. I don't think I'll ever tire of trying to fathom his mind, so agile and complicated and, for the most part, admirable.

The months leading up to the above passage from Terrible Swift Sword offer the clearest, most straightforward example I know of just what I find so fascinating about Lincoln as a thinker, politician, and leader. In the summer of 1862, having just written the Emancipation Proclamation he called a meeting of his cabinet and said, in the words of Treasury Secretary Samuel P. Chase, from a postwar letter,
I have considered every thing that has been said to me about the expediency of Emancipation & have made up my mind to issue THIS PROCLAMATION: and I have invited you together to discuss not what is to be done; but to have you hear what I have written & to get your suggestions about form & style. . . . I have thought it all over & have made a promise that this thing shall be done--to myself & to God.
The Cabinet took him at his word, but ultimately they urged him to table the proclamation until the Union Army should win a victory, lest it seem like an act of desperation rather than a call to freedom. Lincoln took their advice, and the proclamation went into a drawer.

A month later, Horace Greeley took to the pages of his New York Tribune to lambaste Lincoln for having neither direction nor resolve in his prosecution of the war or his handling of the issue of slavery. Lincoln replied:
Executive Mansion,
Washington, August 22, 1862.

Hon. Horace Greeley:
Dear Sir.

I have just read yours of the 19th. addressed to myself through the New-York Tribune. If there be in it any statements, or assumptions of fact, which I may know to be erroneous, I do not, now and here, controvert them. If there be in it any inferences which I may believe to be falsely drawn, I do not now and here, argue against them. If there be perceptable in it an impatient and dictatorial tone, I waive it in deference to an old friend, whose heart I have always supposed to be right.

As to the policy I "seem to be pursuing" as you say, I have not meant to leave any one in doubt.

I would save the Union. I would save it the shortest way under the Constitution. The sooner the national authority can be restored; the nearer the Union will be "the Union as it was." If there be those who would not save the Union, unless they could at the same time save slavery, I do not agree with them. If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time destroy slavery, I do not agree with them. My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union. I shall do less whenever I shall believe what I am doing hurts the cause, and I shall do more whenever I shall believe doing more will help the cause. I shall try to correct errors when shown to be errors; and I shall adopt new views so fast as they shall appear to be true views.

I have here stated my purpose according to my view of official duty; and I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men every where could be free.

A. Lincoln.
There, displayed, is the mind that I find so fascinating: methodical, even mathematical in its laying out of an argument, fitting every piece into its place while making sure that no permutation of the argument is left to be assumed or ignored. Lincoln, as always seemed to be the case, knew exactly what his foremost goal was--and, unlike many involved in the war, never deluded himself about what it might take to get there. At the same time, even as he's deadly serious, I see a glimmer of his trademark gentle sarcasm there, too, as if the very act of being so elaborately explicit is a way of saying, "Good god, Horace, haven't you listened to a word I've said this past year?"

Looking back, it's hard not to be uncomfortable about Lincoln's willingness to countenance the continuation of slavery should that be necessary. The abolitionists, for all their frequent impracticality, unquestionably had honor (and justice) on their side. But at the same time, Lincoln knew better than anyone the constrictions under which he labored--and the earthshaking change he was about to introduce. Eric Foner, in The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery (2010) argues that we shouldn't read that last line about Lincoln's "personal wish that all men everywhere could be free" as weasely or self-protecting, or even as a statement of his long-standing position that the personal and the official should be distinct. Rather, we should read the whole letter
as a way of preparing Northern public opinion for a change in policy on which he had already decided. Certainly, it suggested that freeing all the slaves was now a real option, something that had not been the case a year or even six months earlier. But perhaps the most telling comment came from the Springfield Republican. The editors praised Lincoln's position but pointed out that the very notion of "saving" the Union required rethinking: the prewar Union was gone forever.
No one knew that better than Lincoln; even as he methodically protested otherwise, he was leading the way to the new Union--and, as Catton put it, everyone was going to have to keep step.

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