After Two Centuries: Reflecting on One of History’s Great Men, Abraham Lincoln

Update: Warner Todd Huston has a lengthier, more eloquent, and thoughtful piece up for your perusal.

Today is the 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth. And I’d be remiss not to acknowledge the moment. Ironically, even as we would honor the day of his birth, Lincoln himself would dismiss all inquiries about his youth and upbringing on the Frontier as “the short and simple annals of the poor”.

A man of rare ambition, savvy, and statesman-like vision, the colorful and quasi-religious mythology about our 16th President misses the mark, but not by as much as it would with most historical actors we can study. Outside the God-man Christ Jesus there have been no perfect men, no flawless or superhuman men, who have lived among us. But that doesn’t mean we have to imbibe the politically correct dogma that history is propelled forward overwhelmingly by sweeping social forces.

There are great men in history, and Abraham Lincoln is one of them. (Despite his best efforts to try to construct a comparative mythology, our current President is no Abraham Lincoln.) Black Power activists on the far left and neo-Confederate sympathizers on the far right are free to speak their piece, and they’re free to be wrong. I’ve been down this path before, and I have no time to travel down it again.

(They know who they are – if they choose to leave a comment, they must know that it only will bore me with the same recycled nonsense and/or annoy me with the same indecipherable dialect. In the end, any comments left will only reveal more about their unhealthy obsessions and antisocial behavior than anything that will interest readers about Lincoln himself.)

Vast amounts of ink have been used to tell Lincoln’s story from thousands of different angles. Every document pertaining to his life has been pored over multiple times. What new could I possibly add to the discussion from a historical perspective? Just tag the moment, hopefully spark some additional interest in American history, and move on.

I have neither the time nor the inclination to dedicate to producing any insightful Lincoln articles or thought-provoking Lincoln essays. Powerline’s Scott Johnson points the way to some new pieces. If you’re looking for a good Lincoln biography, something more comprehensive and insightful, here are some suggestions.

I close with the conclusion of Lincoln’s powerful Cooper Union address of February 1860 that launched the 51-year-old Illinois lawyer and former Congressman into the national eye and gave momentum to his bid to be the Republican nominee for President (the rest, as they say, is history). He addressed the pro-slavery Southern faction directly and boldly, but also with great logic and precision:

The question recurs, what will satisfy them? Simply this: We must not only let them alone, but we must somehow, convince them that we do let them alone. This, we know by experience, is no easy task. We have been so trying to convince them from the very beginning of our organization, but with no success. In all our platforms and speeches we have constantly protested our purpose to let them alone; but this has had no tendency to convince them. Alike unavailing to convince them, is the fact that they have never detected a man of us in any attempt to disturb them.

These natural, and apparently adequate means all failing, what will convince them? This, and this only: cease to call slavery wrong, and join them in calling it right. And this must be done thoroughly – done in acts as well as in words. Silence will not be tolerated – we must place ourselves avowedly with them. Senator Douglas’ new sedition law must be enacted and enforced, suppressing all declarations that slavery is wrong, whether made in politics, in presses, in pulpits, or in private. We must arrest and return their fugitive slaves with greedy pleasure. We must pull down our Free State constitutions. The whole atmosphere must be disinfected from all taint of opposition to slavery, before they will cease to believe that all their troubles proceed from us.

I am quite aware they do not state their case precisely in this way. Most of them would probably say to us, “Let us alone, do nothing to us, and say what you please about slavery.” But we do let them alone – have never disturbed them – so that, after all, it is what we say, which dissatisfies them. They will continue to accuse us of doing, until we cease saying.

I am also aware they have not, as yet, in terms, demanded the overthrow of our Free-State Constitutions. Yet those Constitutions declare the wrong of slavery, with more solemn emphasis, than do all other sayings against it; and when all these other sayings shall have been silenced, the overthrow of these Constitutions will be demanded, and nothing be left to resist the demand. It is nothing to the contrary, that they do not demand the whole of this just now. Demanding what they do, and for the reason they do, they can voluntarily stop nowhere short of this consummation. Holding, as they do, that slavery is morally right, and socially elevating, they cannot cease to demand a full national recognition of it, as a legal right, and a social blessing.

Nor can we justifiably withhold this, on any ground save our conviction that slavery is wrong. If slavery is right, all words, acts, laws, and constitutions against it, are themselves wrong, and should be silenced, and swept away. If it is right, we cannot justly object to its nationality – its universality; if it is wrong, they cannot justly insist upon its extension – its enlargement. All they ask, we could readily grant, if we thought slavery right; all we ask, they could as readily grant, if they thought it wrong. Their thinking it right, and our thinking it wrong, is the precise fact upon which depends the whole controversy. Thinking it right, as they do, they are not to blame for desiring its full recognition, as being right; but, thinking it wrong, as we do, can we yield to them? Can we cast our votes with their view, and against our own? In view of our moral, social, and political responsibilities, can we do this?

Wrong as we think slavery is, we can yet afford to let it alone where it is, because that much is due to the necessity arising from its actual presence in the nation; but can we, while our votes will prevent it, allow it to spread into the National Territories, and to overrun us here in these Free States? If our sense of duty forbids this, then let us stand by our duty, fearlessly and effectively. Let us be diverted by none of those sophistical contrivances wherewith we are so industriously plied and belabored – contrivances such as groping for some middle ground between the right and the wrong, vain as the search for a man who should be neither a living man nor a dead man – such as a policy of “don’t care” on a question about which all true men do care – such as Union appeals beseeching true Union men to yield to Disunionists, reversing the divine rule, and calling, not the sinners, but the righteous to repentance – such as invocations to Washington, imploring men to unsay what Washington said, and undo what Washington did.

Neither let us be slandered from our duty by false accusations against us, nor frightened from it by menaces of destruction to the Government nor of dungeons to ourselves. LET US HAVE FAITH THAT RIGHT MAKES MIGHT, AND IN THAT FAITH, LET US, TO THE END, DARE TO DO OUR DUTY AS WE UNDERSTAND IT.

Comments

  1. says

    I giss this means ye ain’t taken th’ Snaggle-Tooth Challenge. Too bad, especially with pieces like-iss un att appeared today:

    http://www.chroniclesmagazine.org/index.php/2009/02/12/the-treasury-of-counterfeit-virtue/

    But I will be brief in respohnse t’ this here “recycled nonsense” of *yorn*. Three points:

    1) (They know who they are – if they choose to leave a comment, they must know that it only will bore me with the same recycled nonsense and/or annoy me with the same indecipherable dialect. In the end, any comments left will only reveal more about their unhealthy obsessions and antisocial behavior than anything that will interest readers about Lincoln himself.)

    http://www.nizkor.org/features/fallacies/poisoning-the-well.html

    2) Black Power activists on the far left and neo-Confederate sympathizers on the far right are free to speak their piece, and they’re free to be wrong. I’ve been down this path before, and I have no time to travel down it again.

    Is-iss juxtaposition of “Black Power” activists ‘n “neo-Confederate sympathizers” th’ latest rhetorical tactic t’ emerge from th’ Claremont Cult? Richard Reeb uses it in his paean t’ Lincoln, t’ which I respond here:

    http://coloradoconfederatarian.squarespace.com/journal/2009/2/11/abraham-lincoln-truly-was-a-great-man.html

    Or are ye just a-copyin’ him?

    3) I close with the conclusion of Lincoln’s powerful Cooper Union address of February 1860 that launched the 51-year-old Illinois lawyer and former Congressman into the national eye and gave momentum to his bid to be the Republican nominee for President (the rest, as they say, is history).

    You mean this Cooper Union address (and related ones)?:

    http://www.lewrockwell.com/dilorenzo/dilorenzo165.html

  2. says

    By the way, I just read the Huston piece, Ben. It rather reminds me of something DiLorenzo just wrote about concerning all the Lincoln scholars whose “books . . . read like defense briefs in The War Crimes Trial of Abraham Lincoln, filled with hundreds of bizarre rationalizations for every odious or barbaric act.” Huston’s doesn’t offend to this degree, it would seem, but at the end of the day he writes yet another paean to a man who clearly doesn’t deserve one, precisely because of those documentted odious and barbaric acts.

    You know, the “Golden Mean” isn’t always the best thing to pursue and being in the “center” right isn’t necessarily the best place to be. Finding the “middle ground” isn’t always the noblest endeavor. Sometimes the truth is stark; sometimes things *are* black or white. Sometimes it’s the “extremist” who speaks the truth.

    The aforementioned DiLorenzo quote comes from the following article, posted today at lewrockwell.com. The article is about historican William Marvel, precisely the kind of historian, DiLorenzo argues, who refuses to sanitize the unsanitizable by trying to find some purported balancing point between good and evil. Here it is, if you’re interested:

    http://www.lewrockwell.com/dilorenzo/dilorenzo167.html

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