The Writings of Abraham Lincoln Vol. 1-7


iSpeech

The cautious policy foreshadowed in his inaugural address, and
pursued during the first period of the civil war, was far from
satisfying all his party friends. The ardent spirits among the
Union men thought that the whole North should at once be called
to arms, to crush the rebellion by one powerful blow. The ardent
spirits among the antislavery men insisted that, slavery having
brought forth the rebellion, this powerful blow should at once be
aimed at slavery. Both complained that the administration was
spiritless, undecided, and lamentably slow in its proceedings.
Lincoln reasoned otherwise. The ways of thinking and feeling of
the masses, of the plain people, were constantly present to his
mind. The masses, the plain people, had to furnish the men for
the fighting, if fighting was to be done. He believed that the
plain people would be ready to fight when it clearly appeared
necessary, and that they would feel that necessity when they felt
themselves attacked. He therefore waited until the enemies of
the Union struck the first blow. As soon as, on the 12th of
April, 1861, the first gun was fired in Charleston harbor on the
Union flag upon Fort Sumter, the call was sounded, and the
Northern people rushed to arms.

Lincoln knew that the plain people were now indeed ready to fight
in defence of the Union, but not yet ready to fight for the
destruction of slavery. He declared openly that he had a right
to summon the people to fight for the Union, but not to summon
them to fight for the abolition of slavery as a primary object;
and this declaration gave him numberless soldiers for the Union
who at that period would have hesitated to do battle against the
institution of slavery. For a time he succeeded in rendering
harmless the cry of the partisan opposition that the Republican
administration were perverting the war for the Union into an
"abolition war." But when he went so far as to countermand the
acts of some generals in the field, looking to the emancipation
of the slaves in the districts covered by their commands, loud
complaints arose from earnest antislavery men, who accused the
President of turning his back upon the antislavery cause. Many
of these antislavery men will now, after a calm retrospect, be
willing to admit that it would have been a hazardous policy to
endanger, by precipitating a demonstrative fight against slavery,
the success of the struggle for the Union.

Lincoln's views and feelings concerning slavery had not changed.
Those who conversed with him intimately upon the subject at that
period know that he did not expect slavery long to survive the
triumph of the Union, even if it were not immediately destroyed
by the war. In this he was right. Had the Union armies achieved
a decisive victory in an early period of the conflict, and had
the seceded States been received back with slavery, the "slave
power" would then have been a defeated power, defeated in an
attempt to carry out its most effective threat. It would have
lost its prestige. Its menaces would have been hollow sound, and
ceased to make any one afraid. It could no longer have hoped to
expand, to maintain an equilibrium in any branch of Congress, and
to control the government. The victorious free States would have
largely overbalanced it. It would no longer have been able to
withstand the onset of a hostile age. It could no longer have
ruled,--and slavery had to rule in order to live. It would have
lingered for a while, but it would surely have been "in the
course of ultimate extinction." A prolonged war precipitated the
destruction of slavery; a short war might only have prolonged its
death struggle. Lincoln saw this clearly; but he saw also that,
in a protracted death struggle, it might still have kept disloyal
sentiments alive, bred distracting commotions, and caused great
mischief to the country. He therefore hoped that slavery would
not survive the war.

But the question how he could rightfully employ his power to
bring on its speedy destruction was to him not a question of mere
sentiment. He himself set forth his reasoning upon it, at a
later period, in one of his inimitable letters. "I am naturally
antislavery," said he. "If slavery is not wrong, nothing is
wrong. I cannot remember the time when I did not so think and
feel. And yet I have never understood that the Presidency
conferred upon me an unrestricted right to act upon that judgment
and feeling. It was in the oath I took that I would, to the best
of my ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of
the United States. I could not take the office without taking
the oath. Nor was it my view that I might take an oath to get
power, and break the oath in using that power. I understood,
too, that, in ordinary civil administration, this oath even
forbade me practically to indulge my private abstract judgment on
the moral question of slavery. I did understand, however, also,
that my oath imposed upon me the duty of preserving, to the best
of my ability, by every indispensable means, that government,
that nation, of which the Constitution was the organic law. I
could not feel that, to the best of my ability, I had even tied
to preserve the Constitution--if, to save slavery, or any minor
matter, I should permit the wreck of government, country, and
Constitution all together." In other words, if the salvation of
the government, the Constitution, and the Union demanded the
destruction of slavery, he felt it to be not only his right, but
his sworn duty to destroy it. Its destruction became a necessity
of the war for the Union.

As the war dragged on and disaster followed disaster, the sense
of that necessity steadily grew upon him. Early in 1862, as some
of his friends well remember, he saw, what Seward seemed not to
see, that to give the war for the Union an antislavery character
was the surest means to prevent the recognition of the Southern
Confederacy as an independent nation by European powers; that,
slavery being abhorred by the moral sense of civilized mankind,
no European government would dare to offer so gross an insult to
the public opinion of its people as openly to favor the creation
of a state founded upon slavery to the prejudice of an existing
nation fighting against slavery. He saw also that slavery
untouched was to the rebellion an element of power, and that in
order to overcome that power it was necessary to turn it into an
element of weakness. Still, he felt no assurance that the plain
people were prepared for so radical a measure as the emancipation
of the slaves by act of the government, and he anxiously
considered that, if they were not, this great step might, by
exciting dissension at the North, injure the cause of the Union
in one quarter more than it would help it in another. He
heartily welcomed an effort made in New York to mould and
stimulate public sentiment on the slavery question by public
meetings boldly pronouncing for emancipation. At the same time
he himself cautiously advanced with a recommendation, expressed
in a special message to Congress, that the United States should
co-operate with any State which might adopt the gradual
abolishment of slavery, giving such State pecuniary aid to
compensate the former owners of emancipated slaves. The
discussion was started, and spread rapidly. Congress adopted the
resolution recommended, and soon went a step farther in passing a
bill to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia. The plain
people began to look at emancipation on a larger scale as a thing
to be considered seriously by patriotic citizens; and soon
Lincoln thought that the time was ripe, and that the edict of
freedom could be ventured upon without danger of serious
confusion in the Union ranks.

The failure of McClellan's movement upon Richmond increased
immensely the prestige of the enemy. The need of some great act
to stimulate the vitality of the Union cause seemed to grow daily
more pressing. On July 21, 1862, Lincoln surprised his cabinet
with the draught of a proclamation declaring free the slaves in
all the States that should be still in rebellion against the
United States on the 1st of January,1863. As to the matter
itself he announced that he had fully made up his mind; he
invited advice only concerning the form and the time of
publication. Seward suggested that the proclamation, if then
brought out, amidst disaster and distress, would sound like the
last shriek of a perishing cause. Lincoln accepted the
suggestion, and the proclamation was postponed. Another defeat
followed, the second at Bull Run. But when, after that battle,
the Confederate army, under Lee, crossed the Potomac and invaded
Maryland, Lincoln vowed in his heart that, if the Union army were
now blessed with success, the decree of freedom should surely be
issued. The victory of Antietam was won on September 17, and the
preliminary Emancipation Proclamation came forth on the a 22d.
It was Lincoln's own resolution and act; but practically it bound
the nation, and permitted no step backward. In spite of its
limitations, it was the actual abolition of slavery. Thus he
wrote his name upon the books of history with the title dearest
to his heart, the liberator of the slave.

It is true, the great proclamation, which stamped the war as one
for "union and freedom," did not at once mark the turning of the
tide on the field of military operations. There were more
disasters, Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville. But with
Gettysburg and Vicksburg the whole aspect of the war changed.
Step by step, now more slowly, then more rapidly, but with
increasing steadiness, the flag of the Union advanced from field
to field toward the final consummation. The decree of
emancipation was naturally followed by the enlistment of
emancipated negroes in the Union armies. This measure had a
anther reaching effect than merely giving the Union armies an
increased supply of men. The laboring force of the rebellion was
hopelessly disorganized. The war became like a problem of
arithmetic. As the Union armies pushed forward, the area from
which the Southern Confederacy could draw recruits and supplies
constantly grew smaller, while the area from which the Union
recruited its strength constantly grew larger; and everywhere,
even within the Southern lines, the Union had its allies. The
fate of the rebellion was then virtually decided; but it still
required much bloody work to convince the brave warriors who
fought for it that they were really beaten.

Neither did the Emancipation Proclamation forthwith command
universal assent among the people who were loyal to the Union.
There were even signs of a reaction against the administration in
the fall elections of 1862, seemingly justifying the opinion,
entertained by many, that the President had really anticipated
the development of popular feeling. The cry that the war for the
Union had been turned into an "abolition war" was raised again by
the opposition, and more loudly than ever. But the good sense
and patriotic instincts of the plain people gradually marshalled
themselves on Lincoln's side, and he lost no opportunity to help
on this process by personal argument and admonition. There never
has been a President in such constant and active contact with the
public opinion of the country, as there never has been a
President who, while at the head of the government, remained so
near to the people. Beyond the circle of those who had long
known him the feeling steadily grew that the man in the White
House was "honest Abe Lincoln" still, and that every citizen
might approach him with complaint, expostulation, or advice,
without danger of meeting a rebuff from power-proud authority, or
humiliating condescension; and this privilege was used by so many
and with such unsparing freedom that only superhuman patience
could have endured it all. There are men now living who would
to-day read with amazement, if not regret, what they ventured to
say or write to him. But Lincoln repelled no one whom he
believed to speak to him in good faith and with patriotic
purpose. No good advice would go unheeded. No candid criticism
would offend him. No honest opposition, while it might pain him,
would produce a lasting alienation of feeling between him and the
opponent. It may truly be said that few men in power have ever
been exposed to more daring attempts to direct their course, to
severer censure of their acts, and to more cruel
misrepresentation of their motives: And all this he met with that
good-natured humor peculiarly his own, and with untiring effort
to see the right and to impress it upon those who differed from
him. The conversations he had and the correspondence he carried
on upon matters of public interest, not only with men in official
position, but with private citizens, were almost unceasing, and
in a large number of public letters, written ostensibly to
meetings, or committees, or persons of importance, he addressed
himself directly to the popular mind. Most of these letters
stand among the finest monuments of our political literature.
Thus he presented the singular spectacle of a President who, in
the midst of a great civil war, with unprecedented duties
weighing upon him, was constantly in person debating the great
features of his policy with the people.

While in this manner he exercised an ever-increasing influence
upon the popular understanding, his sympathetic nature endeared
him more and more to the popular heart. In vain did journals and
speakers of the opposition represent him as a lightminded
trifler, who amused himself with frivolous story-telling and
coarse jokes, while the blood of the people was flowing in
streams. The people knew that the man at the head of affairs, on
whose haggard face the twinkle of humor so frequently changed
into an expression of profoundest sadness, was more than any
other deeply distressed by the suffering he witnessed; that he
felt the pain of every wound that was inflicted on the
battlefield, and the anguish of every woman or child who had lost
husband or father; that whenever he could he was eager to
alleviate sorrow, and that his mercy was never implored in vain.
They looked to him as one who was with them and of them in all
their hopes and fears, their joys and sorrows, who laughed with
them and wept with them; and as his heart was theirs; so their
hearts turned to him. His popularity was far different from that
of Washington, who was revered with awe, or that of Jackson, the
unconquerable hero, for whom party enthusiasm never grew weary of
shouting. To Abraham Lincoln the people became bound by a
genuine sentimental attachment. It was not a matter of respect,
or confidence, or party pride, for this feeling spread far beyond
the boundary lines of his party; it was an affair of the heart,
independent of mere reasoning. When the soldiers in the field or
their folks at home spoke of "Father Abraham," there was no cant
in it. They felt that their President was really caring for them
as a father would, and that they could go to him, every one of
them, as they would go to a father, and talk to him of what
troubled them, sure to find a willing ear and tender sympathy.
Thus, their President, and his cause, and his endeavors, and his
success gradually became to them almost matters of family
concern. And this popularity carried him triumphantly through
the Presidential election of 1864, in spite of an opposition
within his own party which at first seemed very formidable.

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