Speaking of Lincoln



He’s come up in a few posts and comments here lately. I differ with some of my Southern friends in that I see Abraham Lincoln as a literary genius, one of the great American prose stylists and certainly the greatest ever to occupy the Presidency.

He could have written a Greek tragedy. Instead, he starred in one; and his abilities as a writer were accessories to his acts in office. They also gave his hagiographers ample material from which to build the myth of the patient, tolerant, humble Lincoln. That man is Lincoln’s great fictional triumph; a character as enduring as Huck Finn and about as authentic. Herndon is the antidote, the man who knew him like a brother and described the struggles for self-control, the ambition, the intellectual arrogance, the bouts of rage and depression.

Those lulled by the music of Lincoln’s words tend to miss the facts and the deeds. Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that my one-time deaf girlfriend, who naturally had no ear for the music of Lincoln’s prose, found him despicable. All the better to see the rocks that his siren words disguised.

Sometimes, he can make me laugh out loud. Lincoln, in a letter from his youth, describes meeting the girl he had agreed to court in Illinois:

I knew she was over-size, but she now appeared a fair match for Falstaff; I knew she was called an ‘old maid,’ and I felt no doubt of the truth of at least half of the appelation.

You have to take a second to unravel that “half of the appelation” to get the joke, and it’s a mean one. That’s typical of him, though. I don’t know if it’s true, as some say, that Lincoln never lies; but you have to read him very carefully. When in the congressional election of 1846 he was accused (more or less correctly) of being an infidel, he replied that he could never support “a man for office, whom I knew to be an open enemy of, and scoffer at, religion.”

The key word, of course, is “open.” But the letter had the desired effect, and the Protestant objection died down. Just so, during the Mexican War, in 1848, he had eloquently staked out the moral high ground for rebellion: “Any people anywhere, being inclined and having the power, have the right to rise up, and shake off the existing government, and form a new one that suits them better.” If Lincoln had been asked to explain these words in 1862, Gore Vidal pointed out, “Lawyer Lincoln would probably have said, rather bleakly, that the key phrase here was ‘and having the power.’ ”

“Macbeth” was his favorite play. That’s ominous. In his Springfield Lyceum speech of 1838 — one of the key documents to understanding Lincoln’s character — he tells how an ambitious man, under the guise of fighting slavery, might re-order a republican nation in his own image.

One of the most illuminating documents in the Lincoln library is the letter he wrote in June 1863 to Erastus Corning and others in New York state who had petitioned against Lincoln’s trampling of civil liberties in the name of war for the Union.

It’s enlightening to consider Lincoln’s justifications in terms of the present crisis. And by “think about” I don’t mean merely “rip sawing through it with a fanatical intention to prove Lincoiln is irrelevant to the current situation or that he and Bush are of one heart and mind.” I mean think about.

Lincoln took Corning’s petition as an opportunity to reply with a public letter explaining his view of these things. Here are some highlights, out of sequence.

…[A]rrests are made, not so much for what has been done, as for what probably would be done. … The man who stands by and says nothing when the peril of his Government is discussed, cannot be misunderstood. If not hindered, he is sure to help the enemy; much more, if he talks ambiguously — talks for his country with ‘buts’ and ‘ifs’ and ‘ands.’

… [H]e who dissuades one man from volunteering, or induces one soldier to desert, weakens the Union cause as much as he who kills a Union soldier in battle. Yet this dissuasion or inducement may be so conducted as to be no defined crime of which any civil court would take cognizance.

[Southern] sympathizers pervaded all departments of the government, and nearly all communities of the people. From this material, under cover of “Liberty of speech” “Liberty of the press” and “Habeas corpus” they hoped to keep on foot amongst us a most efficient corps of spies, informers, supplyers, and aiders and abettors of their cause in a thousand ways.

They knew that in times such as they were inaugerating, by the constitution itself, the “Habeas corpus” might be suspended; but they also knew they had friends who would make a question as to who was to suspend it; meanwhile their spies and others might remain at large to help on their cause. Or if, as has happened, the executive should suspend the writ, without ruinous waste of time, instances of arresting innocent persons might occur, as are always likely to occur in such cases; and then a clamor could be raised in regard to this, which might be, at least, of some service to the insurgent cause.

It needed no very keen perception to discover this part of the enemies’ programme, so soon as by open hostilities their machinery was fairly put in motion. Yet, thoroughly imbued with a reverence for the guarranteed rights of individuals, I was slow to adopt the strong measures, which by degrees I have been forced to regard as being within the exceptions of the constitution, and as indispensable to the public Safety. Nothing is better known to history than that courts of justice are utterly incompetent to such cases.

Emphasis added. Read it like Lincoln has to be read — with an eye to the key phrase, which likely will be a subtle, lawyerly one: “… strong measures which by degrees I had been forced to regard as being within the exceptions of the Constitution …”

If you want an image of what he would have done had he, not Bush, been in power on Sept. 11, 2001, he spells it out for you:

“Of how little value the constitutional provisions I have quoted will be rendered, if arrests shall never be made until defined crimes shall have been committed, may be illustrated by a few notable examples. Gen. John C. Breckenridge, Gen. Robert E. Lee, Gen. Joseph E. Johnston, Gen. John B. Magruder, Gen. William B. Preston, Gen. Simon B. Buckner, and Commodore Franklin Buchanan, now occupying the very highest places in the Rebel war service, were all within the power of the Government since the Rebellion began, and were nearly as well known to be traitors then as now.

Unquestionably if we had seized and held them, the insurgent cause would be much weaker. But no one of them had then committed any crime defined in the law. Every one of them, if arrested, would have been discharged on habeas corpus were the writ allowed to operate. In view of these and similar cases, I think the time not unlikely to come when I shall be blamed for having made too few arrests rather than too many.

What would Lincoln have made of Michael Moore and Cindy Sheehan, given what happened on his watch to the dissident politician Clement Vallandigham?

Mr. Vallandigham avows his hostility to the war on the part of the Union; and his arrest was made because he was laboring, with some effect, to prevent the raising of troops, to encourage desertions from the army, and to leave the rebellion without an adequate military force to suppress it. He was not arrested because he was damaging the political prospects of the administration, or the personal interests of the commanding general; but because he was damaging the army, upon the existence, and vigor of which, the life of the nation depends. He was warring upon the military; and this gave the military constitutional jurisdiction to lay hands upon him.

Lincoln draws a supple and elegant figure of speech to draw our sympathies to his side:

Long experience has shown that armies can not be maintained unless desertion shall be punished by the severe penalty of death. The case requires, and the law and the constitution, sanction this punishment. 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? This is none the less injurious when effected by getting a father, or brother, or friend, into a public meeting, and there working upon his feeling, till he is persuaded to write the soldier boy, that he is fighting in a bad cause, for a wicked administration of a contemptable government, too weak to arrest and punish him if he shall desert. I think that in such a case, to silence the agitator, and save the boy, is not only constitutional, but, withal, a great mercy.

Brilliant! Would that George W. Bush could write — or think — half that capably. Lincoln, too, knew how to pull the rug out from under the political opposition while still standing on the high ground.

I can not overlook the fact that the meeting speak as “Democrats.” Nor can I, with full respect for their known intelligence, and the fairly presumed deliberation with which they prepared their resolutions, be permitted to suppose that this occurred by accident, or in any way other than that they preferred to designate themselves “democrats” rather than “American citizens.” In this time of national peril I would have preferred to meet you upon a level one step higher than any party platform; because I am sure that from such more elevated position, we could do better battle for the country we all love, than we possibly can from those lower ones, where from the force of habit, the prejudices of the past, and selfish hopes of the future, we are sure to expend much of our ingenuity and strength, in finding fault with, and aiming blows at each other. But since you have denied me this, I will yet be thankful, for the country’s sake, that not all democrats have done so.

You might also like More from author