Abraham Lincoln was born 200 years ago today. We celebrate Lincoln as our president, our leader who achieved victory for the union in the civil war, and is so doing delivered the death knell to slavery in our country.
He was as much a receiver of events as a maker of our world. In the first years of the civil war union generals displayed incompetence and ambivalence in fighting the south. (Such as General Meade’s failure to cut off retreating southern armies from Gettysburg.) But if the union had won quickly, the shackles of slavery would have remained in place in the south, within a united country.
He began his presidency intent, as were most white citizens, on the preservation of the union rather than the defeat of slavery. The work of the abolitionists, the plantation rebellions and passive resistance of slaves, and the escape from slavery via the underground railroad, created context for liberation. But neither the South nor the North was ready to end slavery.
As Lincoln explained in his second inaugural:
“One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war, while the Government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it.”
But just as much as Lincoln led our country and steered the national course from one event to another, each event pushed Lincoln along the road to systemic and moral change. His wisdom was to recognize these events and move with the opportunities and necessities they presented.
The south and its economy and culture, based on slavery, did not fall easily. Prolonging the civil war sharpened the national debate on slavery and equality. It forced the President to recruit and arm 200,000 blacks, most of whom were born into slavery, for service to the union. Blacks made up ten percent of the union army. This arming of black folk made it impossible to accept slavery after the war. You give a former slave a uniform and a rifle, and he will never turn back….
And so, in 1865, Lincoln led us to a new world. This too is from his second inaugural address:
“ … if God wills that (this terrible war) continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”
The Civil War remade our country in many ways. We became a modern nation, more than the pre-war assemblage of states. We tied together the East, Midwest, Rockies and the West coast with transcontinental railroads. We created the system of land grant colleges to educate the next generation for agricultural progress. We put in place a system of homesteading for farmers settling the west. The war demanded and the north created a modern industrial economy to provide the guns and the materials for eventual victory.
Most of all, Abraham Lincoln led our country in one step to realizing our ideals of a free and democratic society. He did it with the help of millions of people, white and black. He led Americans “ to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.” This is our legacy from Father Abraham.
Happy Lincoln’s Birthday!