Misreading history

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That was something else they never understood: Lincoln himself. Some might praise him for being flexible, while others called him slippery, when in truth they were two words for just one thing. To argue the point was to insist on a distinction that did not exist. Lincoln was out to win the war; and that was all he was out to do, for the present. Unfettered by any need for being or not being a gentleman, he would keep his word to any man only so long as keeping it would help to win the war. If keeping it meant otherwise, he broke it.” –An analysis of Abraham Lincoln by author Shelby Foote from “The Civil War: A Narrative”

It’s long been exasperating to history majors like myself when the U.S. presidents of today start comparing themselves in what they perceive as reputation-boosting ways to the U.S. presidents of the past. Indeed, President Obama and his staff have worked overtime connecting their incoming administration to the legacy of Abraham Lincoln, going to far as to “recreate” Lincoln’s “historic” train ride to Washington D.C. for the first inaugural of our 16th president back in 1861.

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Now, true, I made my own Lincoln connection in this space back in November, but of a very different nature than what’s going on now. And the reason I made it is very simple – Lincoln’s presidency provides (I firmly believe) an example of greatness. Yet those reasons are light years away from the superficial connections being made on behalf of our 44th president – and it would behoove everyone to dust off their history books and get a real understanding of Lincoln’s presidency.

Even something as basic as Lincoln’s “train ride into Washington” that President Obama is supposedly “recreating” is totally bogus. Obama’s trip from Chicago to Washington is an easy victory lap, set against the backdrop of high poll numbers and a cheering electorate. Lincoln, however, only won the presidency because the electorate was badly divided. The nation literally splintered apart on his train ride, with southern states seceding from the Union. People vilified him left and right (if they had polling back then, he would’ve been garnering rock bottom numbers) and he sneaked into Washington in the dead of night in a haphazard disguise for fear of mob violence.

Not exactly what the Obama administration is “recreating” is it?

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We hail Lincoln rightly as one of the greatest presidents in U.S. history – in my book, THE greatest. Yet he was detested by much of population during his time in office. We forget that Lincoln imposed a draft, suspended the writ of habeas corpus and other legal rights, muzzled newspapers, and fired a whole slew of generals – many of them popular with the people, the press, even the soldiers. His opposite number at the helm of the Confederacy – Jefferson Davis – dragged Lincoln through the rhetorical mud for those actions … until, of course, dire necessity forced him to do the same.

That “dire necessity” of course was the war – The Civil War – a cataclysm of horror and death that we of today simply cannot grasp. Over 620,000 soldiers alone died in that conflict (a good portion of disease, it should be noted) a little over 2% of the ENTIRE U.S. population at the time. By comparison, if that war were fought today, that death toll would equal 6.4 MILLION. The men of entire towns – fathers, sons, brothers, and uncles – disappeared when the armies met in combat. The Battle of Shiloh alone resulted in 23,700 casualties for both sides in two DAYS – nearly four times the number suffered in our current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan after nearly six YEARS of strife.

Not exactly a comparison being made by the incoming administration, is it?

We forget that the Civil War was extremely unpopular – and that Lincoln caught grief from all sides for his ongoing prosecution of it. Many wanted him to let the southern states secede and stop the bloodshed – a level of bloodshed we’ve never seen before or since in the history of this nation of ours. His election alone angered pro-slavery forces to the point where they seceded from the Union. Yet his temporizing and half-steps in support of emancipation drew the wrath of anti-slavery advocates in the North – the people he’d nominally call supporters.

Yet as my quote at the start of this post illustrates, Lincoln focused on one goal and one goal alone – winning the war. He knew – almost instinctively – that everything relied on that one salient fact. So he ignored all the criticism and accepted what would have been dismal approval ratings by anyone’s imagining. He knew what the stakes were and would put the most noble of objectives on hold if it threatened them.

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“I will mention another thing, though it meet only with your scorn and contempt,” Lincoln told a gathering of Chicago religious ministers early in the war. “There are 50,000 bayonets in the Union armies from the border slave states. It would be a serious matter if, in consequence of a [emancipation] proclamation such as you desire, they should go over to the rebels.”

So Lincoln temporized and waited – and when he did finally issue his Emancipation Proclamation in September 1862 after the hideous Battle of Antietam, almost after a full year and a half of war, it was notable in that it ONLY freed slaves NOT under Lincoln’s director control. Border slaves states still with the Union, such as Maryland (where ironically Antietam was fought), did not have that “foul institution” (as Lincoln himself called it) affected in any way.

Is THIS a comparison the Obama administration would like to draw with Lincoln? Half-measures on human rights in favor of a larger yet unseen goal?

None of this detracts from the salient fact that we are witnessing history in the making this week as our first-ever African American takes of the oath of office as U.S. president. However, that doesn’t lessen the challenges President Obama faces, either – challenges that require hard choices to solve, require him to remain firm in the face of criticism not only of those that elected him but from his own party, even from his own cabinet.

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It’s worth noting, too, that Lincoln possessed other characteristics that get overlooked – ones President Obama might indeed wish to emulate. For starters, Lincoln possessed that most rare sense of humor – the ability to laugh at himself. Lincoln also suffered from severe depressive episodes (another most human condition usually whitewashed from history), too, yet managed not to take counsel of fears and abandon his cause despite his innate melancholy, compounded by years of lost battles and ghastly casualty lists.

Finally, there’s Lincoln’s humility. An excerpt from a note to General U.S. Grant after the fall of Vicksburg, Mississippi, in July 1863 offers a prime example:

My dear General: I write this now as a grateful acknowledgement for the almost inestimable service you have done the country … When you got below [Vicksburg] and took Port Gibson, Grad Gulf and the vicinity. I thought you should go down the river and join General Banks; and when you turned northward, east of Big Black, I feared it was a mistake. I now wish to make the personal acknowledgement that you were right and I was wrong. Yours very truly, A. Lincoln.”

Can you imagine how refreshing it would be should a modern-day president adopt such a tone? It would indeed be something to cheer. Let’s hope President Obama takes that historical lesson from Lincoln to heart as he prepares to take office.

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