Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Michael Burlingame on Abraham Lincoln: the transcendent political hack (2)

(The first installment of this review is here.)

One of the main themes of the second volume of Michael Burlingame's biography of Lincoln is the consistent contradictory ways his contemporaries saw him. So far as I noticed, there was not a single occasion of his presidency where all his observers saw the same thing. No matter how unified posterity's memory of him or his actions may have been, some of his contemporaries damned, disdained or pitied him at every single moment. Arriving at Congress (where he had once been a member), here's how some saw him:
Henry L Dawes, (R MA): "Never did a God come tumbling down more suddenly and completely than did mine.. as the unkempt, ill-formed, lose-jointed and disproportionate figure of Mr. Lincoln appeared at the door". Alexander Doniphan of Missouri thought it was "very humiliating for an American to know that the present and future of his country is in the hands of one man, and that such a man as Lincoln - a man of no intelligence - no enlargement of views - as ridiculously vain and fantastic as a country boy with his first red Morocco hat - easily flattered into a belief that he is King Canute and can say to the waves of revolution "Thus far shalt though come and no further". (p.45)
 In May 1861 Lincoln called up more troops than he was constitutionally permitted, explaining that:
he did not know of any law to authorize some things he had done; but he thought there was a necessity for them, and to save the constitution and the laws generally, it might be better to do some illegal acts, rather than suffer all to be overthrown. (p.150)
Try that in Washington DC in the early 21 century.

In October 1861 Lincoln dismissed Major General John Fremont, who had run too fast ahead of him towards emancipating slaves, thus endangering Lincoln's determination to do things only when society was ready for them. He later explained that Fremont may have been like Moses, who needed his successor, Joshua, to complete the entrance into the promised land:
It looks as if the first reformer of a thing has to meet such a hard opposition, and gets so battered and bespattered, that afterwards, when people find they have to accept his reform, they will accept it more easily from another man. (P.210).
(I took that comment personally, but that's for another post, someday. Or not.)

He tried not to read too much of what was written against him, nor to refute it:
If I were to read, much less answer, all the attacks made on me, this shop might as well be closed for all other business. I do the very best I know how - the very best I can; and I mean to keep doing so until the very end. If the end brings me out all right, what is said against me won't amount to anything. If the end brings me out wrong, ten angels swearing I was right would make no difference (p.288)
Lincoln's critics came from many political camps. Here's a small roundup of vituperation directed at him in the summer of 1862 by abolitionists who didn't see much chance that any good would ever come from his administration:
An administration without a policy is an administration without brains... Lincoln and his cabinet have fought the rebels with the olive branch. The people must teach them to fight with the sword. (Frederick Douglass).
The President is a first rate second rate man... No mind whatsoever. He may be honest - nobody cares whether the tortoise is honest or not; he has neither insight, nor prevision, nor decision. (Wendell Phillips).
A rather slow intellect, with slow powers of perception... has no experience of men and events and no knowledge of the past (Adam Gurowski).
Has no spark of genius, element of leadership, or particle of heroic enthusiasm (Henry Ward Beecher) (p.397)
This defamation went on incessantly until April 15th 1865, though the identity of the critics often changed.

Throughout the Spring and Summer of 1862 Lincoln waited for a military victory, so as to announce his determination to free the slaves. He understood that the announcement must come as a reflection of military strength, and although he was viciously castigated for doing nothing he bode his time giving no sign of the coming event; the timing had to be right else the move would fail to garner sufficient public support. In September the time came. He convened his cabinet and asked their opinion on the form, not the content, of the proclamation of emancipation. He also spoke of the responsibility, and of destiny:
Many others might, in this matter as in others, do better than I can; and if I were satisfied that the public confidence was more fully possessed by any one of them than by me, and knew of any Constitutional way in which he could be put in my place, he should have it. I would gladly yield it to him. But although I believe that I have not so much of the confidence of the people as I had some time since, I do not know that, all things considered, any other person has more; and, however this may be, there is no way in which I can have any other man put where I am. I am here. I must do the best I can, and bear the responsibility of taking the course which I feel I ought to take. (p.408)
Did the abolitionists praise him for the historic proclamation? Well, sort of, in a miserly sort of way. By way of example, here's Lydia Maria Child:
The ugly fact cannot be concealed that it was done reluctantly and stintedly, and that even the degree that was accomplished was done selfishly; was merely a war measure, to which we were forced by our own perils and necessities; and that no recognition of principles of justice or humanity surrounded the politic act with a halo of moral glory. (p.410)
Keep that in mind for future use: some folks will never be satisfied, and some people hold their theoretical principles so high that no grubby politician can ever reach their level, and no mundane consideration will ever be legitimate. Springing forward so as not to soil the end of the story, it's noteworthy that some radicals found satisfaction even in Lincoln's death: he had done his part and freed the slaves, but now a firmer man would lead the reconstruction without a surfeit of mercy. (p. 820).

Lots of folks didn't like the Gettysburg Address at the time, before it was recognized as perhaps the single most important speech in American history. For example, a local Gettysburg newspaper wrote
We pass over the silly remarks of the President. For the credit of the nation we are willing that the veil of oblivion shall be dropped over them, and they shall be no more repeated or thought of. (p.576).
I'll let the veil of oblivion drop over the name of the newspaper.

Burlingame tells repeatedly that Lincoln was an extraordinarily magnanimous man. Here's an example from a little speech he made right after his reelection in 1864:
While I am deeply sensible to the high compliment of re-election; and duly grateful, as I trust, to Almighty God for having directed my countrymen to a right conclusion, as I think, for their own good, it adds nothing to my satisfaction that any other man be disappointed or pained by the result. May I ask those who have not differed with me, to join with me, in this same spirit towards those who have? (p.725).
I, for one, certainly don't claim to be able to think that way.

The second Inaugural Address (March 1865) contained the idea that  the war was divine punishment for the whites of both North and South for having allowed slavery to continue so long. As Burlingame notes, coming from a pastor this would have been fine, but for the serving president it was startling, at the very least. Lincoln then summed up the reasons for the war in a few words:
Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish. And the war came. (p. 769).
 A distinction many present day pundits seem incapable of grasping.

During the last days of the war Lincoln went to visit the army; he spent one morning visiting the beds of wounded soldiers and greeting each and every one of them. An observer wrote:
Mr. Lincoln presides over millions of people, and each individual share of his attention must necessarily be very small, and yet he wouldn't slight the humblest of them... The men not only reverence and admire him Mr. Lincoln, but they love him. 
Another observer managed to capture the crushing burden and the vital resilience which seemed, combined, to epitomize the man:
It was rare to converse with him a while without feeling something poignant... Mr. Lincoln was quite humorous, although one could always detect a bit of irony in his humor. He would relate anecdotes, seeking always to bring out the point clearly. He willingly laughed either at what was being said, or at what he himself had said. But all of a sudden he would retire within himself; then he would close his eyes and all his features would at once bespeak a kind of sadness as indescribable as it was deep. After a while, as though it were by an effort of his will, he would shake off this mysterious weight under which he seemed bowed; his generous and open disposition would again reappear. In one evening I happened to count over twenty of these alternations and contrasts. (P.797).
There's an eerie neatness about the date of the assassination, which may even be part of its lasting impact on communal memory. One can count the hours between the successful end of Lincoln's gigantic historic mission and his felling. He was granted the gift of briefly savoring his success, then died before any post-war events had time to intervene and destroy the perfectness of the day:
Treasury Secretary Hugh McCulloch "Never saw Mr. Lincoln so cheerful and happy as he was on the day of his death. The burden which had been laying upon him for four long years, and which he had borne with heroic fortitude, had been lifted; the war had been practically ended; The Union was safe. The weary look which his face had worn for so long and which could be observed by those who knew him well even when he was telling humorous stories, had disappeared. It was bright and cheerful." James Harlan saw that his customary expression of "indescribable sadness" had abruptly become "an equally indescribable expression of serene joy, as if conscious that the great purpose of his life had been achieved" (p.806).
It will not be original of me, yet nonetheless fitting, to summarize his story with an epitaph written by The Bard 250 years earlier:
He was a man, take him for all in all
I shall not look at his like again.


David said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
David said...

Thank you very much for his and the previous post, Yaacov.

milton said...

It looks as if the first reformer of a thing has to meet such a hard opposition, and gets so battered and bespattered, that afterwards, when people find they have to accept his reform, they will accept it more easily from another man. (P.210).
(I took that comment personally, but that's for another post, someday. Or not.)

The line in brackets is a teaser. Perhaps you could briefly expatiate.