<< continued from part one


I initially started this project because I had a history student who asked me to tell her something about each of the presidents. For the most part I did okay but there were a few who as far as I was aware hadn't really done much. I was left having to say things like, "Chester A. Arthur... had gigantic sideburns! Millard Fillmore... uh... the junior high on 'The Brady Bunch' was named after him!" And for all his personal ambition, what I've read suggests that in most eras Abraham Lincoln would have been one of these. He'd been a Whig almost to the end, and what united the Whigs above all else was a revulsion against Andrew Jackson's autocratic style. "King Andrew the First," they called him. "Were I president," Lincoln declared in 1848, "I should desire the legislation of the country to rest with Congress, uninfluenced by the executive in its origin or progress, and undisturbed by the veto unless in very special and clear cases." He held up Whig candidate Zachary Taylor, so apolitical that he'd never even voted, as a model. "The people say to General Taylor, 'If you are elected, shall we have a national bank?' He answers, 'Your will, gentlemen, not mine.' 'What about the tariff?' 'Say yourselves.' 'Shall our rivers and harbors be improved?' 'Just as you please.'" Of course, it stood to reason that Lincoln would argue that power should rest with Congress — in 1848, he was a congressman. Yet thirteen years later, despite having taken up residence at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, Lincoln showed no sign of having changed his view. He seemed to believe the president's role was to serve as America's customer service representative and HR manager.

One of the ways Andrew Jackson had changed American government was by instituting the "spoils system," which held that government jobs were not lifelong careers but merely political appointments, and that all federal employees were therefore to be replaced with each new administration. Lincoln thus found himself deluged by tens of thousands of office-seekers. On a typical morning he would sit at his desk and the line of people waiting to see him would already stretch down the hall, through several rooms of the executive mansion and out into the street. The door would be opened around ten o'clock and people would come rushing into the president's office. "Well, friend, what can I do for you?" Lincoln would ask each one in turn. Most would ask for, say, a job at the post office in their home town, or, once the war had started, a commission in the army. Lincoln liked to tell the story of the man who had asked for an ambassadorship, then lowered his sights and tried for a position as a customs official, and finally asked if he could have a pair of pants. Others just wanted to shake the president's hand and wish him good luck, or complain about a dispute they were having with their neighbors, or show him a fabulous new invention that surely the government would want to invest in. Another story Lincoln liked to tell was of the lady who said that she'd just wanted to see what he looked like. Lincoln quipped that he'd surely come out better in the exchange.

These visits lasted for the entire business day, more days than not, for Lincoln's entire administration. Twice a week Lincoln would take a break around noon and meet with his cabinet; more often he would convene meetings in the evenings after the office-seekers had finally left. Secretary of State William Henry Seward was aghast. "We must dismiss the applicants for office," he demanded in a memorandum to the president. "We are at the end of a month's administration, and yet without a policy either domestic or foreign." To such complaints Lincoln replied, "My policy is to have no policy." Transforming society, to the extent that it was desirable at all, was Congress's job. The president's job was to tackle problems. Had no problems cropped up, Lincoln might well have spent his entire term chatting with the folks who'd lined up to see him, occasionally rubber-stamped some bills Congress sent him, and wound up known chiefly for kicking off fifty years of presidential facial hair. Instead there were some problems and that facial hair is now carved into the side of a mountain.


According to my high school U.S. history class, Northern victory in the Civil War was inevitable. We looked at many charts, graphs, and maps that illustrated the Northern advantages over the South: 4.4 times the number of free white men aged 18 to 60; 2.4 times the railroad mileage; three times the farm acreage; ten times the factory production; 25 times the naval tonnage. I would later frequently encounter similar arguments: that the orientation of continents and distribution of plants and animals dictated that it would always have been Europe that colonized America and not the other way around, say, or that the socioeconomic situation in 1920s Germany meant that even if Hitler had never been born, some monstrous dictator would have risen to power. Viewed in this light, Abraham Lincoln's place in history resembles that of Neil Armstrong: simultaneously legendary and replaceable. Neil Armstrong was the first man on the moon!! ...and yet, had he never lived, some other test pilot would have had that honor, probably on the very same day. And Abraham Lincoln won the Civil War and preserved the United States!! ...and yet, had he never lived, some other politician would have done the same and wound up with his profile on the penny.

But is that actually true? How much of Lincoln's perceived greatness is truly his own, and how much is a product of his time and place? Baseball has a statistic that we can borrow here. Call it VORP: Value Over Replacement President. Ronald Reagan used to ask, "Are you better off than you were four years ago?" But that's a stupid question. Sometimes a president inherits a terrible situation and the best he can do is mitigate the damage. A better question in evaluating the value of a president is: "How much better off was the country after this president's term than it would have been had one of the other contenders been elected in his place?"

And it just so happens that we have a pretty good idea what might have happened had Lincoln never lived. First, let's assume a Republican win, for despite the electability concerns that led to Lincoln's nomination, it does look as though there were 158 pretty safe electoral votes for the Republicans with only 152 needed to win. (It's also necessary to establishing a relevant comparison: there would have been no secession had the Southern Democrats won, so asking how John Breckinridge would have steered the country through the Civil War is like asking how John McCain would have fared as American's first black president.) Let's also put aside the scenario in which Douglas wins on the Republican ticket; Douglas died within the first three months of what would have been his term, and who knows who his running mate might have been. (In real life he ran as a Democrat with Herschel Johnson of Georgia, which brings us back to the Breckinridge case.) That brings us to Seward. What would he have done?

As it happens, he told Lincoln what he wanted to do in the memo mentioned above. Seward's plan was to declare war on Spain, or France, or Britain, or Russia, or some combination of these. This, he asserted, would surely "rouse a vigorous continental spirit of independence," and the rebellious states would return to the fold in order to fight the common foe. Hey, it worked for Adrian Veidt!...though Veidt had the sense to pick a fight with an imaginary foe rather than a real and much more powerful one. It's hard to imagine Seward's plan not leading to disaster. Nor am I at all convinced that it would even have succeeded in uniting North and South. When Lincoln sent a friend who had family in Charleston to get a read on the mood down there, the report he received was unequivocal: "separate nationality is a fixed fact." South Carolinians did not consider themselves part of the United States. They might well have supported the European side in the war. Who knows what price we might have paid for Seward's folly?

But say that, in Lincoln's absence, the anti-Seward sentiment had coalesced around another candidate. Edward Bates, Lincoln's future attorney general, had hoped he might wind up as the anti-Seward candidate; as a moderate from Missouri, he also stood the least chance among the Republican field of provoking secession. When the South threatened to capture Fort Sumter, Bates advised giving it up: he was sure that secession fever would eventually burn itself out if the North undertook no provocative actions. Nor was he willing to risk civil war, which "could hardly fail to bring on a servile war, the horrors of which need not be dwelt upon." Bates had spent his whole life in slave states; he shared the Southern terror of slave revolt. And Salmon Chase? As Lincoln's treasury secretary, he weighed in as well. Chase declared that secession of the seven southernmost states was "an accomplished revolution" — emphasis his — the final bitter legacy of the Buchanan administration. Bates might have avoided war by fruitlessly trying to reconcile with the South for the duration of his term. Chase sought to avoid it by washing his hands of the South as quickly as possible. Those who read this site on a regular basis know that I have more than a little sympathy for this position, so I'm not saying that by refusing to back down, sending a resupply mission to Fort Sumter, and letting the South launch the Civil War, Lincoln raised his VORP. But I am saying that by doing so he distinguished himself from other potential presidents. They wouldn't have seen the North through to victory in the Civil War. There probably wouldn't have been one.


Once it was launched, could the North have lost the Civil War, despite its overwhelming advantages? Oh, yes.

Victory for the South meant survival. Robert E. Lee didn't need to capture Washington any more than George Washington had needed to capture London. The South could have fought an entirely defensive war. The fact that it didn't — that the Southern armies pushed into Maryland and even Pennsylvania — was to a great extent a psychological tactic, and a very successful one. Northern generals found themselves fighting a defensive war and adopted a defensive mindset. After the Battle of Gettysburg, for instance, commanding general George Meade vowed to follow up his victory with even "greater efforts to drive from our soil every vestige of the presence of the invader." Lincoln was livid: "The whole country is our soil!" To drive the rebel army back to Virginia rather than encircling and destroying it was implicitly to recognize that Virginia was an acceptable place for that army to be; even to refer to "the invader" was implicitly to recognize that there was a separate nation called the Confederate States of America from which a foreign army was invading. This was tantamount to declaring that the other side was correct about what, as we'll see, Lincoln considered the very question being contested in the war. And if the United States was not merely putting down an uprising but engaging in a war against another, equally legitimate country, then outside intervention became legitimate as well.

"England and France would not allow our great staple to be dammed up within our present limits," Jefferson Davis warned the Union, sounding like the emir of a tiny petrostate nervously boasting of the backing of a superpower he really hopes he can rely on. "Exhaust the supply of cotton in Europe for one week, and all Europe is in revolution." Davis was wrong, just as James Madison had been in 1807 when he insisted that cutting off trade to Britain and France would cripple their economies. But Davis's comments point to another challenge facing the Union: not only did it have much tougher victory conditions than the rebels — total conquest vs. mere survival — but it was on the clock, for the moment Britain or France stepped in, Southern independence was assured. For a while it looked like this was going to happen at the end of 1861, when a Union captain took it upon himself to stop a British mail boat that was about to carry two Southern diplomats off to Europe to drum up support. Britain responded by preparing for war, and there was widespread sentiment in the North to tell the Brits to bring it on — these were enemy agents, after all. But the reality was that the U.S. had to mend fences as quickly as possible to keep Britain out of the war. Seward's face-saving solution was to release the Southerners to British custody with a note apologizing for the captain's unauthorized actions, for of course the U.S. agreed wholeheartedly that no power had the right to seize foreign ships in order to recapture its fugitive citizens. Pretty clever, eh? To claim victory in the crisis of 1861, Britain essentially had to morally surrender in the War of 1812. Lincoln was pleased. Still, the resolution of that crisis didn't guarantee European neutrality for the duration of the war. Well into 1862 both Britain and France were making noises about intervening in the war for humanitarian reasons. (War-Torn, Blood-Soaked America: Would Bombing It Help?)

And the possibility of European intervention wasn't the only reason that the Union was on the clock. I'm not a huge aficionado of computer strategy games, but those I've played have tended to have a "war exhaustion" algorithm built in: you can't spend the entire game launching attack after attack on your neighbors because pretty soon all your cities are in revolt. This seems to reflect lived experience pretty accurately. Whatever advantages the North held over the South in the 1830s paled in comparison to those the United States held over North Vietnam a hundred years later. But not only did the Vietcong not have to cross the Pacific and start capturing American cities, they didn't even have to win the battles on their own soil. All they had to do was inflict enough damage to make Americans ask, "Is our objective — which is what? to keep an undeveloped corner of a distant continent from adopting a political structure we don't care for? — worth all these caskets, all these physically and psychologically shattered veterans, all these devastated families? Or even all this expense?" And the same was true in the Civil War. Lincoln didn't have enough of a mandate to take the nation to war indefinitely. He'd won less than half the vote in the states that stayed in the Union. He'd had to sneak through Maryland in disguise on the way to his inauguration. When he sent out his first call for troops, the governors of the remaining slave states were incensed: "Kentucky will furnish no troops for the wicked purpose of subduing her sister Southern States," fumed Beriah Magoffin, while Claiborne Jackson of Missouri warned Lincoln that "your requisition, in my judgment, is illegal, unconstitutional, and revolutionary in its object" and that "not one man will the state of Missouri furnish to carry on any such unholy crusade." Even in the free states a typical Lincoln margin had been something like 55-45, a solid thumping in political terms but not the sort of numbers that can sustain years and years of bloody combat. True, once the war was underway, many Northern Democrats wholeheartedly supported the Union effort. But many others didn't.

Some of the sources I've read use the word "Copperheads" to refer to all of the so-called Peace Democrats; others apply it only to those who today's pundits would accuse of suffering from "Lincoln Derangement Syndrome," such as the Wisconsin newspaper editor who thundered that the president was "the fungus from the corrupt womb of bigotry and fanaticism." Peace activists in all wars are accused of siding with the enemy, but in the Copperheads' case this was a fair accusation. Many of them were themselves Southerners who had emigrated to border or northern states but still strongly supported slavery and saw the war as an evil abolitionist scheme. Unlike the actual rebels, they hoped to restore the Union — but only "the Union as it was." This meant with no further restrictions on slavery, but the message's appeal wasn't limited to fellow advocates of the peculiar institution. It also spoke to conservatives in general, those who longed to return to the days before the country got all citified, before rail-roads and tele-o-graphs, when Americans were killing Brits and natives and Mexicans instead of each other. "I want my country back!" is generally a pretty good rallying cry in American politics, and as the news from the battlefields got worse and worse, the promise of a return to an idealized past became all the more tempting.

While the Union forces were certain to win the war given enough time, whether they'd get that time was contingent on public opinion. That meant that victory needed to be achieved as quickly as possible and support for the war needed to be maintained as long as possible. The problem was that a lot of the options Lincoln had at his disposal to try to achieve these goals simultaneously undermined them, and it was up to him to figure out which would help more than they hurt. For instance, calculating that he couldn't afford to have Copperheads turning people against the war effort, he condoned such moves as Ambrose Burnside's General Order #38, which authorized the arrest, military trial, and deportation or execution of anyone who criticized the war or expressed sympathy for the rebels. "Must I shoot a simple-minded soldier boy who deserts, while I must not touch a hair of a wiley agitator who induces him to desert?" Lincoln asked. "To silence the agitator, and save the boy, is not only constitutional, but, withal, a great mercy." Lincoln also suspended the writ of habeas corpus, allowing arbitrary arrests. This was something I already knew, but I'd been under the impression that it was basically a historical footnote. Apparently not! The suspension of the writ was a big issue in the midterm campaigns of 1862 and Lincoln's party suffered from a serious backlash at the polls. Shutting up the Copperheads had come at the price of alienating those who had no sympathy for the insurrection but feared that the nation was sliding into despotism. Lincoln attempted to reassure them:

I can no more be persuaded that the government can constitutionally take no strong measure in time of rebellion, because it can be shown that the same could not be lawfully taken in time of peace, than I can be persuaded that a particular drug is not good medicine for a sick man, because it can be shown to not be good food for a well one. Nor am I able to appreciate the danger [...] that the American people will, by means of military arrests during the rebellion, lose the right of public discussion, the liberty of speech and the press, the law of evidence, trial by jury, and habeas corpus, throughout the indefinite peaceful future which I trust lies before them, any more than I am able to believe that a man could contract so strong an appetite for emetics during temporary illness as to persist in feeding upon them through the remainder of his healthful life.

A similar problem presented itself with the institution of the draft. More soldiers theoretically meant a quicker victory, but the discontent sown by the draft meant less time before the public's patience came to an end. It also meant making enemies of yet another segment of the public: the urban working class. Nativists had driven the immigrants who dominated this group into the Democratic Party, but they had no particular ties to the party's Southern wing; many knew virtually nothing of the United States outside New York, or Boston, or wherever they'd wound up establishing themselves. But that meant that while they had no affection for the South, neither did they have any quarrel with it. And for the same reason white Midwestern farmers opposed slavery — they didn't want the competition — urban immigrants in the Northeast favored it. They preferred that blacks be bound to patches of land hundreds of miles away rather than free to head north and compete with them for jobs in the city. So much so that when the draft got underway for real, complete with the calling of names, the reaction of working-class men in New York City was to riot for the better part of a week, murdering any free blacks they could get their hands on. The Copperhead meme that this was the abolitionists' war had taken hold with a new audience. Which made it all the more vital that Lincoln articulate a rationale for the war that would keep enough people on board for long enough to see the war to its conclusion.


Thomas Jefferson insisted that his gravestone bear the following inscription, and not a word more: "Here was buried Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, and father of the University of Virginia." Abraham Lincoln didn't have the luxury of living into his eighties and pondering his legacy. But I'd guess that if you were to ask people for a list of the three accomplishments for which Lincoln is most celebrated, most would name the following: led the North to victory in the Civil War, restoring the Union; freed the slaves; wrote and delivered the Gettysburg Address.
The New Adventures of Abraham Lincoln
Scott McCloud, 1998

This is a slim graphic novel McCloud put out mostly as an experiment in combining extremely simple cartoons with computer-rendered 3D backgrounds. The story is an unsubtle satire in which aliens attempt to launch an invasion using a Fox-News-friendly, action-hero version of Abraham Lincoln as their Trojan Horse. When the real, all-too-human Lincoln appears in the present to expose the aliens' deception, he is shocked to discover that the American public prefers the fraud. Again, none too sophisticated, but also not wrong.

More interesting is the underlying argument that people think in symbols. New Adventures is to a great extent an elaboration of page 26 of Understanding Comics, particularly this part right here:

Say you turn on the news and see a group of Afghan villagers burning an American flag. Members of their families have just been killed by robot planes which they correctly deduce belong to the United States. To them, the flag symbolizes indiscriminate murder. But viewers watching this on TV in the U.S. might well think, "That flag symbolizes representative government! Those people must be medieval to oppose such a noble principle!" In academic jargon, both these groups are using the same signifier, but they mean different things: signifiers have no inherent connection to any particular signified. There might not actually be any real disagreement in this scenario! Both the villagers and the viewers might oppose indiscriminate murder and support representative government. They might actually disagree only about the meaning of a particular pattern of geometrical shapes. But people tend not to be dispassionate enough about the symbols they use to be able to have that dialogue. In fact, an American viewer is more likely to think, "That flag symbolizes... me! And everyone I know and love! These people want to murder us! Send in the robot planes!"

But this isn't what McCloud is concerned about. McCloud's worry is that a lot of people don't even think things through that far — for them, symbols directly trigger an emotional response, with no thought given to what they might actually symbolize. It's just "FLAG GOOD!" How many times have you heard it said of a veteran — or heard a veteran say directly — that he fought for the flag? That's an insane thing to do for a garish piece of cloth! And, yes, the statement is metonymic. McCloud's point is that overuse of the metonym makes it easy to forget what it's a metonym for — assuming the speaker ever gave it conscious thought.

This can happen to verbal symbols as well as visual ones. To a thoughtful person on the left, the word "freedom" might call to mind freedom to dissent, and to a thoughtful person on the right, it might suggest free enterprise, and these two might end up talking past each other. But these days "freedom" is all too often used without semantic content beyond "OUR GOOD THING." Now consider a speech. Many have found Hamlet's soliloquy on suicide profound, so much so that it should be taught in school; what students tend to take away, however, is "'To be or not to be' = profound," without understanding why. (And of course in isolation it isn't.) I can't even count the number of student essays I've had to read in which the writer demonstrated no understanding of Martin Luther King or the civil rights movement beyond "'I have a dream' = inspiring." And then there's the Gettysburg Address. In New Adventures, the teacher asks the class to recite it. "'Four score and seven years ago,'" they drone in reply. "Right!" the teacher chirps. "Aaah, such grand sentiments! Such wisdom! Can anyone tell me what these words mean to you?"

Byron, the main character: "It means eighty-seven years ago."

Teacher: "Detention for you, young man!"

Of course, these days the meaning of the Gettysburg Address is largely forgotten; "four score and seven years ago" has become a meaningless sound bite symbolizing statesmanship. (See the sidebar.) But in it, Lincoln lays out his rationale for setting in motion a chain of events that he knew would likely lead to war, when so many in his place would not have.

I've heard many a Southern sympathizer insist that the Civil War wasn't about slavery. First I heard that "it was about economics!!" — true, in that the South wanted the nation to be dominated by an economic system based on slavery. Then I heard that "it was about states' rights!!" — true, in that Southern states wanted the right to spread slavery to the rest of the country. This is the usual critique of "states' rights" — that it's a code phrase. That smart racists learned around 1968 that it was no longer acceptable to say "nigger, nigger, nigger" all the time, but that you could talk about "busing" and "quotas" and "states' rights" and people would know what you meant. It's a shame, because as an abstract principle, I fully support the notion that when regions or even populations differ about fundamental matters of policy, they should each go their own way and see whose approach is best. It's immensely frustrating that in the United States we have enough people who'd support a fully public health care system, strict environmental and financial regulation, a stimulus program that would do more than shave a point or two off the dire unemployment numbers, etc., to populate a large European country... but we never get a chance to enact those policies because we have to compromise or compete with those who prefer corporate rule and neo-Hooverism. Why should Oklahoma have any more say in what happens in Oakland than it does over Okinawa? Just because of historical happenstance? Shouldn't political boundaries change with the times?

Lincoln's answer is no. The Gettysburg Address takes the states' rights argument at face value, and rejects it. It's strange to try to boil down a speech that's already famous for its brevity, but the basic argument of the Gettysburg Address is that the United States is not a league of sovereign entities but a single republic. Historically, republics have been short-lived curiosities. The United States of America was the second-oldest continuously extant republic in the world, and it had only been around for 87 years. And already it was going to break up? No. As far as Lincoln was concerned, the issues over which the southern states had left the Union were less important than the meta-issue of whether they had the right to leave. The integrity of the republic depended on its constituents' acquiescence to majority rule. And the future of representative government throughout the world depended on the integrity of the republic, on this particular republic's ability to serve as an example that democracy could work for longer than a century. Many Southerners declared that they had rebelled because Lincoln was a tyrant. As Jon Stewart put it seven score and six years later, "I think you might be confusing 'tyranny' with 'losing.'"

Personally, I don't really buy the Gettysburg argument. Hundreds of thousands should die for the sake of setting a moral example? And the existence of the United States wasn't threatened, any more than the existence of the United Kingdom was ended when it finally lost Ireland. Ultimately, I have to agree with Adam Gopnik that the Gettysburg Address is an exercise in "making the proposition that Texas and New Hampshire should be forever bound by a single post office sound like something right out of Genesis."


To me the one really compelling argument in favor of going to war with the South is that slavery is enough of a crime against humanity that it merits armed intervention. That still doesn't mean annexing the breakaway states; let them go. But first, liberate every slave within their borders. Of course, that brings up the question of what to do with them all. For years, Lincoln was a champion of colonization, and advocated a scheme to give the freed slaves their own country in Central America. To which black leaders replied that the United States was their country every bit as much as it was Lincoln's. This in turn raises two questions: one, would the freed slaves have been equally insistent on their right to live in the states they knew rather than moving to the North? And two, is there the remotest chance that Northerners would have been willing to absorb four million slaves without the nation descending into riots and a second civil war? Sigh. It's a lot easier to concoct plans when you don't have to worry about actually getting people to go along with them.

But anyway, if Lincoln believed that the point of the war was not to free the slaves but rather to demonstrate that republics were not necessarily doomed to fall apart... why free the slaves? Especially given that, as discussed, it threatened to seriously erode support for the war? It seems that the primary reason was pretty simple: slaves indirectly supported the Southern war effort. They grew the crops and cooked the meals that kept the rebel troops fed. Therefore any strategy the Union army adopted had to include capturing slaves as a key element. But what to do with them once they were captured? Lock them up somewhere and return them to their owners after the war? Viewed in this light, the Emancipation Proclamation seems like nothing so much as a way to keep the government of the United States from becoming the world's biggest slaveholder.

Of course, there were other advantages of making the freedom of the slaves one of the side effects of Union victory. One was that it kept Britain and France out of the war for good: once Lincoln made it explicit that Union victory would mean freedom for the slaves, European governments dared not attempt to come to the aid of the rebels for fear of being quickly toppled by an outraged public. Another was that it provided a new source of troops for the Union side: "The bare sight of fifty thousand armed and drilled black soldiers on the banks of the Mississippi would end the rebellion at once," Lincoln mused. Pockets of resistance within the military kept the deployment of black troops from being smooth enough to pull off this sort of shock-and-awe campaign, but they did eventually see some combat. So why did it take Lincoln so long to make these moves?

Some Union generals, Frémont among them, had issued emancipation orders and black recruitment drives on their own initiative at the very outset of the war, which Lincoln then had to countermand to prevent the remaining slave states in the Union from freaking out and switching sides. Exasperated abolitionists asked, "How many times are we to save Kentucky and lose our self-respect?" They asked the same question when Lincoln finally did issue the Emancipation Proclamation and it turned out to apply only to areas that were still actively in rebellion — not the border states, not even to Tennessee (which was mostly under Union control by this point). State department translator Adam Gurowski griped that, whenever Lincoln finally acted on something, "it is done almost too late, only when the poor president was so cornered by events that shifting and escape became impossible." And here is where we reach the big question when it comes to evaluating the Lincoln presidency. Was Lincoln essentially a ditherer, lionized for adopting in 1863 policies that a more farsighted president would have put into place in 1861? (Bates thought so, at least early on, complaining that "immense mischief is caused by his lack of vim" and that "stupid inanity takes the place of action.") Or was he, rather, a master of timing — someone who, in the words of Senate secretary John Forney, was "the most truly progressive man of the age" because he never made the mistake of "wasting strength in premature struggles"?


Above I banged out a few paragraphs about how the North could have lost the war. The flip side of this analysis is that the North could also have won it much, much faster.

Many observers at the time expected that the history books would someday look back at 1861 and describe a "secession crisis" like the Nullification Crisis crushed by Andrew Jackson or the Whiskey Rebellion crushed by George Washington. Spectators in fancy dress actually went out to the battlefield to perch on the hills and watch the first major engagement through their opera glasses. And if the rebels had been crushed at Bull Run as expected? Lincoln would have had neither the leverage nor the temperament to demand an end to slavery. As noted, Lincoln believed that in peacetime, the president's powers were strictly limited, and that while those powers expanded immensely in wartime, he could still only take actions necessary to preserve the Union. Those of a Panglossian bent can argue that things therefore worked out for the best. The Union did poorly enough that Lincoln was forced to adopt emancipation as a necessary tactic, but not so poorly that it actually lost the war. Given Lincoln's personal animosity towards slavery, and in light of the way recent administrations have used endless war as a way of pushing political agendas, it's tempting to wonder whether Lincoln's inaction might not have been at least partly deliberate. But for all his shrewdness, it's a stretch to suggest that Lincoln let the war drag on as part of a Machiavellian plan to bring about the "new birth of freedom" he talked about in the Gettysburg Address. The evidence indicates that Lincoln would have loved to see the war end quickly but was stymied by one of American history's greatest douches, General George B. McClellan.

In the aftermath of the Union defeat at Bull Run, Lincoln put McClellan in charge, initially, of the military campaign on the east coast, and before long, of the entire Union army. McClellan was renowned for his prowess in military engineering — he was a master when it came to building forts and roads — and was equally adept with the troops, keeping their morale high and their discipline sharp. The problem was that while McClellan, in Lincoln's words, "had the capacity to make arrangements properly for a great conflict," once that conflict was imminent "he became nervous and oppressed with the responsibility and hesitated to meet the crisis." He forever protested that he didn't have enough troops to launch the battles the president demanded; Lincoln complained to a friend that if he could give McClellan an extra 100,000 men that day, "when tomorrow came he would telegraph that he had certain information that the enemy had 400,000 men and that he could not advance without reinforcements." This practice got McClellan into trouble when the rebels abandoned their fortifications and it turned out that not only had McClellan drastically overstated their numbers, but their artillery turned out to be made of painted logs. Nevertheless, McClellan continued to keep his armies idle. Members of the Cabinet began to wonder: did he want to win the war at all?

The questions intensified after McClellan refused to come to the aid of fellow general John Pope in a strike on Richmond. Was he trying to keep the war going long enough to exhaust both armies and force a compromise, one in which the South would return to the Union but slavery would remain in force? Though a Northerner, McClellan was a conservative Democrat and an unashamed racist: "I confess to a prejudice in favor of my own race," he wrote, "and can't learn to like the odor of either billy goats or niggers." And he loathed Lincoln, privately referring to him as a gorilla and a baboon, and snubbing him at every opportunity. (One evening Lincoln went to McClellan's house to meet with him; McClellan left him waiting in the parlor for half an hour, then sent a servant to inform the president that McClellan had gone to bed.) McClellan coveted Lincoln's power, pressing him to turn over his position as commander-in-chief of the armed forces, which Lincoln said "made me think of the man whose horse kicked up and stuck his foot through the stirrup — he said to the horse, 'If you are going to get on I will get off.'" Rebuffed, McClellan imagined scenarios in which he took command anyway: "Were I to win some small success now," he wrote his wife, "I could become dictator or anything else that might please me — but nothing of that kind would please me — therefore I won't be dictator. Admirable self-denial!"

Instead, McClellan continued to drill his troops — "how they love me even now," he sighed — while Lincoln was heard to grumble that the Army of the Potomac was nothing more than "General McClellan's body-guard." One observer noted that "McClellan's repose is doubtless majestic, but if a couchant lion postpone his spring too long, people will begin wondering whether he is not a stuffed specimen after all." But McClellan's inaction was matched by Lincoln's inaction in not getting rid of him. McClellan said that he preferred to wait until a strategic opening presented itself that would allow him to capture the Confederate capital with minimal casualties. This went directly against Lincoln's instructions. Talk of "strategy" and capturing capitals drove Lincoln up the wall. As far as he was concerned, this was the same sort of misconception that Meade later had at Gettysburg: that there was a legitimate nation called the Confederate States of America and that capturing Richmond meant anything. Lincoln hadn't studied at West Point, but upon becoming president he'd hit the books and come up with a strategy of his own: use the North's manpower advantage to destroy the rebel army. This was the real crisis, after all: there were hundreds of thousands of men with guns flouting the authority of the rightful government. Keeping them off the White House lawn wasn't enough. Yet not until the end of 1862 did Lincoln finally replace McClellan. A month later came one of the worst defeats for the Union, as the Union lost 1284 men at the Battle of Fredericksburg with 9600 wounded and 1769 captured or missing, to only 608 killed, 4116 wounded, and 653 captured or missing for the rebels. To McClellan, this outcome was vindication — look at what Lincoln's approach gets you! But Lincoln had an answer: "If the same battle were to be fought over again, every day, through a week of days, with the same relative results, the army under Lee would be wiped out to its last man, the Army of the Potomac would still be a mighty host, the war would be over."

Not until 1864 did Lincoln finally put a general in charge who would actually implement Lincoln's battle plan: Ulysses S. Grant. That same year, McClellan became the Democratic nominee for president. However, the Republicans had temporarily merged with the War Democrats to form the National Union Party, leaving the Democratic Party in the hands of the Copperheads. Clement Vallandigham, a former congressman who had actually been arrested under the no-criticism law and deported to the South, wrote the platform. It called for an immediate cessation of hostilities, declaring the war a failure from beginning to end. McClellan, who had been in charge for almost half the war, couldn't exactly run on that message. Still, he only lost 55-45, a pretty good showing for someone who had found the enemy's weapons of mass destruction and discovered that they were trees.


Meanwhile, Grant was gaining a reputation as a butcher for continuing to pound away at enemy positions even as he was losing thousands more men than the rebels were. Lincoln was satisfied with Grant's progress, and doubly pleased that he wasn't "shrieking for reinforcements all the time," but it was a brutal business. War secretary Edwin Stanton wondered why he and the generals he oversaw were "praised and honored instead of being punished as malefactors," responsible as they were for "the making of widows and orphans — the plundering of towns and villages — the exterminating and destroying of all, making the earth a slaughterhouse." But Lincoln put a different spin on Stanton's question. "Doesn't it strike you as queer," he asked, "that I, who couldn't cut the head off a chicken, and who was sick at the sight of blood, should be cast into the middle of a great war with blood flowing all around me?"

"Cast"? It's not like he had his name picked out of the phone book, or the telegraph book, or whatever. He ran for the job. He decided, against the advice of most of his Cabinet, not to back down from Southern provocation, knowing that the consequence would be war. "And the war came," Lincoln declared in his second inaugural address, as if it were a plague of locusts. He then went on to say of the two sides in the war:

The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has his own purposes. "Woe unto the world because of offences! for it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh!" If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope — fervently do we pray — that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bond-man'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."

There is a tradition in contract law of referring to events beyond human control as "acts of God." If you're expecting a package from Europe and it doesn't show up because, whoops, the shipping company left it at the warehouse, you can demand your money back. But if it doesn't show up because a volcanic eruption in Iceland grounded all transatlantic flights, you're probably out of luck. The shipping company isn't held responsible, because it didn't do anything wrong — your package was delayed by an act of God, who is apparently indistinguishable from the fire demon Surtur. The God of our contracts is the caveman's God who stamps his foot to set off earthquakes, the toddler's God whose tears make it rain. A personal, capricious God onto whom we can slough off our responsibility. For if tornado damage is attributable to God and not to our own inadequate understanding of atmospheric physics, if flood damage is attributable to God and not to our neglected and poorly designed levee system, then why can't we blame him when our thirst for fossil fuels and the incentives we give corporations to laugh off safety regulations lead to a catastrophic oil spill? And why can't we blame him when we spend four years killing each other?

Here's a piece of scripture Lincoln didn't quote in his address: "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's." Slavery and war are not things that are God's. They're not even things. They are ways of behaving. They are names applied to an aggregate of millions of individual human actions. There is no man in the sky who granted divine sanction to the enslavement of one human by another, and who then abruptly withdrew his imprimatur in eighteen hundred sixty-three. There is no celestial ledger book in which he tallied up droplets of blood and unleashed war upon the land until the accounts were balanced. This rudderless world is not shaped by vague metaphysical forces. It is not God who kills the children. Not fate that butchers them or destiny that feeds them to the dogs. It's us. Only us.

And while even a lifelong atheist like me can understand that if you're in a crashing airplane you might feel the impulse to curl into a ball and pray that things work out, I suspect that even devout believers wouldn't want the pilot doing that. Abraham Lincoln spent the end of his presidency denying responsibility for the course the war had taken: "I claim not to have controlled events, but plainly confess that events have controlled me," he maintained, declaring that the ability to shape history was something "God alone can claim." Now that Lincoln is widely considered the greatest American president, this sort of talk sounds like modesty. But if we take him at his word — and he is Honest Abe, after all — if he really did wring his hands and let events run their course until his options for preserving the nation narrowed to one... can he really be considered all that great?

Ernest Kinoy, Gore Vidal, and Lamont Johnson, 1988

This old TV movie popped up on Hulu not too long ago so I thought I'd give it a look. It was pretty cool to finally see Lincoln portrayed with the high-pitched voice and backwoods Kentucky accent all the books described. Less cool was the fact that the movie spent half its running time on Abraham Lincoln's stewardship of the country through the Civil War and the other half on Mary Todd Lincoln buying expensive curtains and snapping at other politicians' wives. I guess NBC figured that it needed to bring in the female demographic and of course women only care about gossip and shopping. Sigh. In any event, it didn't work; part one lost in the ratings to a CBS movie about a 12-year-old Navy pilot while part two not only lost to a Newhart rerun but couldn't even hold the audience from its lead-in, My Two Dads.

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