Saturday, December 1, 2012

Quote of the Day (Abraham Lincoln, on the Need to “Think Anew and Act Anew”)

“Is it doubted, then, that the plan I propose, if adopted, would shorten the war, and thus lessen its expenditure of money and of blood? Is it doubted that it would restore the national authority and national prosperity and perpetuate both indefinitely? Is it doubted that we here—Congress and Executive can secure its adoption? Will not the good people respond to a united and earnest appeal from us? Can we, can they, by any other means so certainly or so speedily assure these vital objects? We can succeed only by concert. It is not "Can any of us imagine better?" but "Can we all do better?" Object whatsoever is possible, still the question recurs, "Can we do better?" The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.

“Fellow-citizens, we can not escape history. We of this Congress and this Administration will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance or insignificance can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass will light us down in honor or dishonor to the latest generation. We say we are for the Union. The world will not forget that we say this. We know how to save the Union. The world knows we do know how to save it. We, even we here, hold the power and bear the responsibility. In giving freedom to the slave we assure freedom to the free—honorable alike in what we give and what we preserve. We shall nobly save or meanly lose the last best hope of earth. Other means may succeed; this could not fail. The way is plain, peaceful, generous, just—a way which if followed the world will forever applaud and God must forever bless.”—Abraham Lincoln, Second Annual Message to Congress, December 1, 1862

A century and a half ago, seeking means of ending a civil war already costing the nation countless blood and treasure, Abraham Lincoln called for a constitutional amendment to the Constitution authorizing voluntary colonization of freedmen back to Africa and compensated emancipation for their slave masters. Despite eloquent passages such as the one included here that have been recalled by successive generations of his reunited countrymen, however, his proposal failed, leading him to rethink his options—setting the stage for the more extraordinary, revolutionary Thirteenth Amendment.

Steven Spielberg’s biopic, Lincoln, is bringing attention to an aspect of his Presidency eclipsed in attention by the better-known Emancipation Proclamation—the use of his office, in ways not always simon-pure, for the noblest of motives: the Thirteenth Amendment, which accomplished the most fervent dreams of abolitionists. But the President’s campaign would not have come to pass had a milder anti-slavery measure two years earlier worked better than he had hoped. For all its considerable excellence, the film does not allude to this earlier proposal.

The appearance of the Spielberg film, then, leads inevitably to the question: Why did the legislative magic of the winter of 1864-65 fail when tried two years before?

Let’s start with the second year-end message to Congress, from which I’ve quoted above. Lincoln concluded with the peroration above, which has become among his best-remembered words. (Among other things, it’s among the passages recited in that evergreen of Americana, Aaron Copland’s Lincoln Portrait.) Each generation of Americans since then, facing another crisis, has found urgent meaning in his searing admonition to “think anew and to act anew.”

The passage is all the more striking because it contrasts with a far more prosaic earlier part of the message. The President began by reviewing events abroad as well as home (even the doings of the Post Office and the Agriculture Department).

But the message—to this reader, anyway—takes a decisive turn with a sentence that, in essence, stands as a rebuke to those who continue to believe that slavery did not cause the Civil War: “Without slavery the rebellion could never have existed; without slavery it could not continue.”

Lincoln’s message to Congress reads in tone so differently at various points because he was calling on three different aspects of his background to bring the war to a speedier conclusion and to rid the continent of slavery and its traces: logician, lawyer and legislator.

*Logician: Lincoln had become enamored of the principles of logic demonstrated by Euclid, and sought to apply these principles in public affairs. In an unusual section of this message to Congress, he even applied what might be considered an early instance of demographics, tracing the population growth of the American public to date and projecting out to 1920.  The great expanse of the West could accommodate such growth in the form of one nation, he told Congress, but not two, which would inevitably lead to “embarrassing and onerous trade regulations.” There was no true geographic cause for the rift, only differences over slavery that could be harmonized.

*Lawyer: Lincoln doubted that a simple act of Congress would be enough to rid the nation of slavery, and he feared that the Supreme Court, under Roger B. Taney, who had handed down the hated Dred Scott decision, would rule the Emancipation Proclamation as unconstitutional, even though he had undertaken it as part of the Presidential warmaking powers. He needed something more comprehensive—an amendment to the Constitution.

*Legislator: Through eight years in the Illinois state legislator, and another two in the U.S. Congress, Lincoln sought ways to defuse opposition to his ideas, even becoming friends in Congress with Alexander H. Stephens, a fellow Whig who later became Vice-President of the Confederacy. In the second message to Congress, he stroked the massive egos of many on Capitol Hill by noting: “Many of you have more experience than I, in the conduct of public affairs.” The modern role of the President as legislator-in-chief, put in practice on a grand scale first by Woodrow Wilson, had not yet come to pass, but already Lincoln was thinking of how he could get his ambitious policies enacted on Capitol Hill.

Lincoln’s proposal for compensation for slaveowners for manumission of their slaves, designed to end after 37 years, would have left the United States free of “the peculiar institution” by the turn of the century. An attempt to try this in Delaware, the most pro-Union of the border states (and, hence, the most likely border store to manumit slaves) had failed the year before, so the call for an amendment was a last-ditch try at this idea.

The proposal for colonization differed in certain ways from the compensation idea. The idea had long been
advocated by Lincoln’s political hero, Henry Clay, and the President had pushed the idea several times over the past year. But the strenuous opposition of Frederick Douglass and several other freedmen who met with him at the White House had made him increasingly less hopeful that he could secure the support of blacks for a movement that, he stressed, was completely voluntary. (The charge of racism in connection to Lincoln, a standard topic of revisionists, can be countered even here. To the delegation meeting with him at the White House three months before the message to Congress, Lincoln stressed, "Your race are suffering, in my judgment, the greatest wrong inflicted on any people." His assessment of their situation--"On this broad continent, not a single man of your race is made the equal of a single man of ours"--proved, sadly, all too accurate for the next century.)

The message to Congress stressed that the likelihood of freedmen overwhelming the North in a great migration was minimal. Nevertheless, feelings on this point were so strong that colonization was pushed “as an answer to racist fears about what would happen after slavery,” wrote historian William Lee Miller in Lincoln's Virtues: An Ethical Biography (2002).

Lincoln eventually yielded on the issue of colonization, but in terms of the larger issue of eradicating slavery from the continent, the intransigence of the Confederacy and even loyal border states only emboldened him. The election of 1864 gave him a better hand. The 1862 message to Congress had arrived on Capitol Hill after the Democrats had taken the House of Representatives in midterm elections, but before two more years of fighting even harder than what had come before--and the eventual decisive turn in the war with Sherman's taking of Atlanta. By the end of 1864, then, not only had Lincoln been re-elected, but he had a working majority in Congress--one not only comprised of Republicans, but increasingly of those who, after so much fighting, felt that the war had to amount to something more than the status quo ante.  

Spielberg's Lincoln stresses the compromises needed to bring the Thirteenth Amendment to fruition. In truth, however, the Second Annual Message to Congress partook far more of this spirit. The message spoke of "mutual concessions," "compromise, " and the need to "harmonize" and "act together," and the proposals represented the President's attempt at a golden mean between extremes. 

The refusal of the border states to consider his proposal, however, taught him the same kind of lesson that months of grinding battle was only beginning to teach the North: At some point, if attempts to placate and find common ground failed, more complete measures needed to be taken. Now that his olive branch to opponents had been rejected, the President made common cause with the Radical Republicans. With his re-election assured, he now had the wind at his back--and, with his push for the Thirteenth Amendment, he could steer the United States to a second republic--quicker, more complete emancipation--that few could have envisioned in December 1862.

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