The Writings of Abraham Lincoln Vol. 1-7


iSpeech

Many of the radical antislavery men were never quite satisfied
with Lincoln's ways of meeting the problems of the time. They
were very earnest and mostly very able men, who had positive
ideas as to "how this rebellion should be put down." They would
not recognize the necessity of measuring the steps of the
government according to the progress of opinion among the plain
people. They criticised Lincoln's cautious management as
irresolute, halting, lacking in definite purpose and in energy;
he should not have delayed emancipation so long; he should not
have confided important commands to men of doubtful views as to
slavery; he should have authorized military commanders to set the
slaves free as they went on; he dealt too leniently with
unsuccessful generals; he should have put down all factious
opposition with a strong hand instead of trying to pacify it; he
should have given the people accomplished facts instead of
arguing with them, and so on. It is true, these criticisms were
not always entirely unfounded. Lincoln's policy had, with the
virtues of democratic government, some of its weaknesses, which
in the presence of pressing exigencies were apt to deprive
governmental action of the necessary vigor; and his kindness of
heart, his disposition always to respect the feelings of others,
frequently made him recoil from anything like severity, even when
severity was urgently called for. But many of his radical
critics have since then revised their judgment sufficiently to
admit that Lincoln's policy was, on the whole, the wisest and
safest; that a policy of heroic methods, while it has sometimes
accomplished great results, could in a democracy like ours be
maintained only by constant success; that it would have quickly
broken down under the weight of disaster; that it might have been
successful from the start, had the Union, at the beginning of the
conflict, had its Grants and Shermans and Sheridans, its
Farraguts and Porters, fully matured at the head of its forces;
but that, as the great commanders had to be evolved slowly from
the developments of the war, constant success could not be
counted upon, and it was best to follow a policy which was in
friendly contact with the popular force, and therefore more fit
to stand trial of misfortune on the battlefield. But at that
period they thought differently, and their dissatisfaction with
Lincoln's doings was greatly increased by the steps he took
toward the reconstruction of rebel States then partially in
possession of the Union forces.

In December, 1863, Lincoln issued an amnesty proclamation,
offering pardon to all implicated in the rebellion, with certain
specified exceptions, on condition of their taking and
maintaining an oath to support the Constitution and obey the laws
of the United States and the proclamations of the President with
regard to slaves; and also promising that when, in any of the
rebel States, a number of citizens equal to one tenth of the
voters in 1860 should re-establish a state government in
conformity with the oath above mentioned, such should be
recognized by the Executive as the true government of the State.
The proclamation seemed at first to be received with general
favor. But soon another scheme of reconstruction, much more
stringent in its provisions, was put forward in the House of
Representatives by Henry Winter Davis. Benjamin Wade championed
it in the Senate. It passed in the closing moments of the
session in July, 1864, and Lincoln, instead of making it a law by
his signature, embodied the text of it in a proclamation as a
plan of reconstruction worthy of being earnestly considered. The
differences of opinion concerning this subject had only
intensified the feeling against Lincoln which had long been
nursed among the radicals, and some of them openly declared their
purpose of resisting his re-election to the Presidency. Similar
sentiments were manifested by the advanced antislavery men of
Missouri, who, in their hot faction-fight with the
"conservatives" of that State, had not received from Lincoln the
active support they demanded. Still another class of Union men,
mainly in the East, gravely shook their heads when considering
the question whether Lincoln should be re-elected. They were
those who cherished in their minds an ideal of statesmanship and
of personal bearing in high office with which, in their opinion,
Lincoln's individuality was much out of accord. They were
shocked when they heard him cap an argument upon grave affairs of
state with a story about "a man out in Sangamon County,"--a
story, to be sure, strikingly clinching his point, but sadly
lacking in dignity. They could not understand the man who was
capable, in opening a cabinet meeting, of reading to his
secretaries a funny chapter from a recent book of Artemus Ward,
with which in an unoccupied moment he had relieved his care-
burdened mind, and who then solemnly informed the executive
council that he had vowed in his heart to issue a proclamation
emancipating the slaves as soon as God blessed the Union arms
with another victory. They were alarmed at the weakness of a
President who would indeed resist the urgent remonstrances of
statesmen against his policy, but could not resist the prayer of
an old woman for the pardon of a soldier who was sentenced to be
shot for desertion. Such men, mostly sincere and ardent
patriots, not only wished, but earnestly set to work, to prevent
Lincoln's renomination. Not a few of them actually believed, in
1863, that, if the national convention of the Union party were
held then, Lincoln would not be supported by the delegation of a
single State. But when the convention met at Baltimore, in June,
1864, the voice of the people was heard. On the first ballot
Lincoln received the votes of the delegations from all the States
except Missouri; and even the Missourians turned over their votes
to him before the result of the ballot was declared.

But even after his renomination the opposition to Lincoln within
the ranks of the Union party did not subside. A convention,
called by the dissatisfied radicals in Missouri, and favored by
men of a similar way of thinking in other States, had been held
already in May, and had nominated as its candidate for the
Presidency General Fremont. He, indeed, did not attract a strong
following, but opposition movements from different quarters
appeared more formidable. Henry Winter Davis and Benjamin Wade
assailed Lincoln in a flaming manifesto. Other Union men, of
undoubted patriotism and high standing, persuaded themselves, and
sought to persuade the people, that Lincoln's renomination was
ill advised and dangerous to the Union cause. As the Democrats
had put off their convention until the 29th of August, the Union
party had, during the larger part of the summer, no opposing
candidate and platform to attack, and the political campaign
languished. Neither were the tidings from the theatre of war of
a cheering character. The terrible losses suffered by Grant's
army in the battles of the Wilderness spread general gloom.
Sherman seemed for a while to be in a precarious position before
Atlanta. The opposition to Lincoln within the Union party grew
louder in its complaints and discouraging predictions. Earnest
demands were heard that his candidacy should be withdrawn.
Lincoln himself, not knowing how strongly the masses were
attached to him, was haunted by dark forebodings of defeat. Then
the scene suddenly changed as if by magic.

The Democrats, in their national convention, declared the war a
failure, demanded, substantially, peace at any price, and
nominated on such a platform General McClellan as their
candidate. Their convention had hardly adjourned when the
capture of Atlanta gave a new aspect to the military situation.
It was like a sun-ray bursting through a dark cloud. The rank
and file of the Union party rose with rapidly growing enthusiasm.
The song "We are coming, Father Abraham, three hundred thousand
strong," resounded all over the land. Long before the decisive
day arrived, the result was beyond doubt, and Lincoln was re-
elected President by overwhelming majorities. The election over
even his severest critics found themselves forced to admit that
Lincoln was the only possible candidate for the Union party in
1864, and that neither political combinations nor campaign
speeches, nor even victories in the field, were needed to insure
his success. The plain people had all the while been satisfied
with Abraham Lincoln: they confided in him; they loved him; they
felt themselves near to him; they saw personified in him the
cause of Union and freedom; and they went to the ballot-box for
him in their strength.

The hour of triumph called out the characteristic impulses of his
nature. The opposition within the Union party had stung him to
the quick. Now he had his opponents before him, baffled and
humiliated. Not a moment did he lose to stretch out the hand of
friendship to all. " Now that the election is over," he said, in
response to a serenade, "may not all, having a common interest,
reunite in a common effort to save our common country? For my own
part, I have striven, and will strive, to place no obstacle in
the way. So long as I have been here I have not willingly
planted a thorn in any man's bosom. While I am deeply sensible
to the high compliment of a re-election, it adds nothing to my
satisfaction that any other man may be pained or disappointed by
the result. May I ask those who were with me to join with me in
the same spirit toward those who were against me?" This was
Abraham Lincoln's character as tested in the furnace of
prosperity.

The war was virtually decided, but not yet ended. Sherman was
irresistibly carrying the Union flag through the South. Grant
had his iron hand upon the ramparts of Richmond. The days of the
Confederacy were evidently numbered. Only the last blow remained
to be struck. Then Lincoln's second inauguration came, and with
it his second inaugural address. Lincoln's famous "Gettysburg
speech " has been much and justly admired. But far greater, as
well as far more characteristic, was that inaugural in which he
poured out the whole devotion and tenderness of his great soul.
It had all the solemnity of a father's last admonition and
blessing to his children before he lay down to die. These were
its closing words: "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 up by the
bondman'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.' With malice toward none,
with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us
to see the right, let us strive to finish the work we are in; to
bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne
the battle, and for his widow and his orphan; to do all which may
achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and
with all nations."

This was like a sacred poem. No American President had ever
spoken words like these to the American people. America never
had a President who found such words in the depth of his heart.

Now followed the closing scenes of the war. The Southern armies
fought bravely to the last, but all in vain. Richmond fell.
Lincoln himself entered the city on foot, accompanied only by a
few officers and a squad of sailors who had rowed him ashore from
the flotilla in the James River, a negro picked up on the way
serving as a guide. Never had the world seen a more modest
conqueror and a more characteristic triumphal procession, no army
with banners and drums, only a throng of those who had been
slaves, hastily run together, escorting the victorious chief into
the capital of the vanquished foe. We are told that they pressed
around him, kissed his hands and his garments, and shouted and
danced for joy, while tears ran down the President's care-
furrowed cheeks.

A few days more brought the surrender of Lee's army, and peace
was assured. The people of the North were wild with joy.
Everywhere festive guns were booming, bells pealing, the churches
ringing with thanksgivings, and jubilant multitudes thronging the
thoroughfares, when suddenly the news flashed over the land that
Abraham Lincoln had been murdered. The people were stunned by
the blow. Then a wail of sorrow went up such as America had
never heard before. Thousands of Northern households grieved as
if they had lost their dearest member. Many a Southern man cried
out in his heart that his people had been robbed of their best
friend in their humiliation and distress, when Abraham Lincoln
was struck down. It was as if the tender affection which his
countrymen bore him had inspired all nations with a common
sentiment. All civilized mankind stood mourning around the
coffin of the dead President. Many of those, here and abroad,
who not long before had ridiculed and reviled him were among the
first to hasten on with their flowers of eulogy, and in that
universal chorus of lamentation and praise there was not a voice
that did not tremble with genuine emotion. Never since
Washington's death had there been such unanimity of judgment as
to a man's virtues and greatness; and even Washington's death,
although his name was held in greater reverence, did not touch so
sympathetic a chord in the people's hearts.

Nor can it be said that this was owing to the tragic character of
Lincoln's end. It is true, the death of this gentlest and most
merciful of rulers by the hand of a mad fanatic was well apt to
exalt him beyond his merits in the estimation of those who loved
him, and to make his renown the object of peculiarly tender
solicitude. But it is also true that the verdict pronounced upon
him in those days has been affected little by time, and that
historical inquiry has served rather to increase than to lessen
the appreciation of his virtues, his abilities, his services.
Giving the fullest measure of credit to his great ministers,--to
Seward for his conduct of foreign affairs, to Chase for the
management of the finances under terrible difficulties, to
Stanton for the performance of his tremendous task as war
secretary,--and readily acknowledging that without the skill and
fortitude of the great commanders, and the heroism of the
soldiers and sailors under them, success could not have been
achieved, the historian still finds that Lincoln's judgment and
will were by no means governed by those around him; that the most
important steps were owing to his initiative; that his was the
deciding and directing mind; and that it was pre-eminently he
whose sagacity and whose character enlisted for the
administration in its struggles the countenance, the sympathy,
and the support of the people. It is found, even, that his
judgment on military matters was astonishingly acute, and that
the advice and instructions he gave to the generals commanding in
the field would not seldom have done honor to the ablest of them.
History, therefore, without overlooking, or palliating, or
excusing any of his shortcomings or mistakes, continues to place
him foremost among the saviours of the Union and the liberators
of the slave. More than that, it awards to him the merit of
having accomplished what but few political philosophers would
have recognized as possible,--of leading the republic through
four years of furious civil conflict without any serious
detriment to its free institutions.

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