Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Abraham Lincoln

The last photograph of Abraham Lincoln made by Alexander Gardner in 1865 a few weeks before Lincoln's assassination.

Happy Birthday Mr. Lincoln!

He would be an impossible figure today. He was born and raised in wretched poverty, a manic depressive who used séances to try to talk to his dead sons. He was largely self taught. His favorite books were Shakespeare’s plays (he could recite most of the soliloquies from memory) and Euclid’s Geometry. This self taught man from a poor and broken home became one of the greatest orators of the 19th century. He was a very strange looking man, six feet four inches tall, gangly with big ears and hollow cheeks; not at all telegenic even by the standards of his own day. He led the USA through the bloodiest war in its history, a civil war over slavery that cost the lives of around 750,000 people in combat and twice that number to disease and accident.

Lincoln saw as few others at the time did that the abolition of slavery and the preservation of the union of the states were closely bound up together. The Union would not be preserved without finally abolishing slavery, and slavery would not finally be abolished from North America without preserving the Union. He could be dictatorial, suspending the right of habeas corpus during the war, imprisoning people whose loyalties were suspect. He concentrated power in the executive in ways that were unprecedented and continue to the present day. And yet, he insisted that the normal functions of government continued despite the emergency. Construction of the new capitol dome continued despite the sight of Confederate camp fires across the Potomac river. Courts and legislatures continued to meet regularly. The Civil War Congress was among the most productive ever passing the Homestead Act, the Land Grant College Act, and the Transcontinental Railroad Act, all of them long opposed by Southern states who were now in rebellion. The scheduled Election of 1864 took place despite mounting casualties on the battlefield. Throughout the war, Lincoln refused to wear military uniform setting the precedent for later Presidents; a symbol that the military remains subordinate to civilian authority even in times of war.

Frederick Douglass the great Abolitionist leader criticized Lincoln ferociously – and rightly – over the President’s ambivalence toward the humanity and rights of African American slaves and free people, and over his willingness to trade away their rights when it was politically expedient. And yet, as early as the 1850s, Lincoln read Douglass’ writings and incorporated many of his arguments into his own anti-slavery speeches. Douglass was among the first Abolitionist leaders to notice that Lincoln’s views on slavery and African Americans evolved, and that the nature of the war evolved, after the Emancipation Proclamation. The war to preserve the Union became a crusade to abolish slavery and a second American Revolution, “a new birth of freedom.” Even more remarkable, Lincoln persuaded an always reluctant and hostile northern white population to support this new revolution to liberate and enfranchise African Americans. In the end, Lincoln paid for the preservation of the Union and the abolition of slavery with his own life, one of the last casualties of the war.

Alexander Gardner, Battlefield Dead, Gettysburg, 1863

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