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Wednesday, August 3, 2016

“Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years & The War Years”, by Carl Sandburg



762 pages, Galahad Books, ISBN-13: 978-0883658321

In my readings on the Civil War and the politics behind it, I began to collect a considerable number of words and actions by Lincoln that didn’t fit the mythical Lincoln I had studied in high school. A real eye catcher was the statement that Lincoln made during one of the 1858 Lincoln Douglas debates that people today would label as that of a White Supremacist:

I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.

Next, his unilateral decision to suspend the Writ of Habeas Corpus (which guarantees citizens of the United States the right to have the federal judiciary review any order of a state court for violation of the person’s Constitutional rights) for the duration of the war, applicable to everyone, in spite of an order by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court that this violated the Bill of Rights. Other disturbing actions and strategies include the issuance of The Emancipation Proclamation as a document that only set the slaves free in the states of the Confederacy, not even including the border states of Missouri and Tennessee, which had remained in the Union while still supporting the institution of slavery, and adapting a policy of accelerated attrition to end the war in the shortest possible time (this plan was finally put into action when Lincoln put General Grant in charge of the army; Grant was to engage in battle with the Confederate armies whenever possible, no matter what greater losses in manpower the Union armies were taking versus the Confederacy, as the Union could make good its manpower losses while the South could not). Lastly, authorizing or at least condoning Sherman’s March to the Sea that included the destruction of railroads and other industry and the massive looting and burning of private homes. It’s difficult to use Sandburg to find defenses of Lincoln because he really doesn’t acknowledge the existence of many controversies. He devotes a chapter to the Lincoln Douglas debates, but don’t look to find that statement in there. So I will attempt to articulate my own defenses of Lincoln in these areas.

It may well be that Lincoln just had to express those sentiments to have any chance of election, that these voters were not ready for racial equality. True, many abolitionists and others believed in racial equality, but they were not running for office. It may have been very understandable for Lincoln to see the Negro race as inferior as he had encountered very few who were not uneducated manual laborers. Lincoln was certainly a strong abolitionist, although failing two tests of the strictest abolitionist in that he did not believe in racial equality and found a long term solution to slavery to end in their voluntary departure for one of the two Negro republics, Haiti and Liberia. The weakest abolitionists wanted forcible deportation of Negroes to one of the republics. So why the half-hearted Emancipation Proclamation? Lincoln never varied in his insistence that the Civil War was being fought to preserve the Union, as he told Horace Greeley:

I would save the Union. I would save it the shortest way under the Constitution. The sooner the national authority can be restored; the nearer the Union will be ‘the Union as it was.’ If there be those who would not save the Union, unless they could at the same time save slavery, I do not agree with them. If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time destroy slavery, I do not agree with them. My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union. I shall do less whenever I shall believe what I am doing hurts the cause, and I shall do more whenever I shall believe doing more will help the cause. I shall try to correct errors when shown to be errors; and I shall adopt new views so fast as they shall appear to be true views.

The initial Emancipation Proclamation was a political document aimed at the upcoming election. Give something to the Northern abolitionists and don’t offend the border (slave) states who were needed both to keep the Union strong and to support Lincoln in the coming election. Sandburg also tells us that the European nations of England and France were disgusted by the retention of slavery and were considering recognizing the Confederacy and sending them aid. This is problematical to most who don't see how supporting the South would punish the North for not abolishing slavery soon enough.

About the defiance of the Supreme Court in suspending the Writ of Habeas Corpus, Lincoln, unlike Jackson, had the courtesy to write out a statement explaining why he thought that the Supreme Court and Congress were wrong in their finding that the Constitution prevented the President from suspending the Writ (it may not have made the defiance of the Court any more Constitutional, but it was at least more polite). Lincoln’s favored strategy of engaging the Confederate armies whenever possible and inflicting on the armies the greatest casualties (even if Grant’s casualties were consistently higher) is a tough one. Don’t look to Sandburg for any answers; the matter is never debated. I would say that Lincoln might have justified this by the belief that heavier casualties now would end the war sooner and prevent greater casualties during a drawn out war. Lincoln might have also felt that he himself was putting his life on the line, as access to him was not very restricted and security measures not great. One of the striking views presented by the book is that of just about anyone walking into the White House and getting in line for an audience with Lincoln. Having the huge sole responsibility for the future of the Union and all that pressure on him to get the war done perhaps created a little callousness towards the enormous loss of life. But there seems to be no question that Lincoln had the greatest sympathy and respect for his soldiers.

So Sandburg is not a good place to go for discussing great moral issues of the Civil War, but it is entertaining for a book about such a grave subject. Sandburg’s Lincoln is the man deserving of that great monument…but is Sandburg’s Lincoln the real Lincoln?


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