“Both sides read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. The prayers of both could not be answered, that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.”
- Abraham Lincoln, Second Inaugural Speech
Americans cheered as Barack Obama rode a wave of popularity into office. Yet his beau ideal enjoyed no such ride. In 1860, the split among Democrats, a third-party candidate and a country wracked with fierce divisions, gave Abraham Lincoln the win. Of all the presidents who inherited troubled times, none had faced a more dangerous threat.
The election of Lincoln pushed southern tempers over the top. By the time he took the oath of office, seven angry states had left the Union. Four more would follow. The Rebellion, as he called it, involved “more than the fate of these United States. It presents to the whole family of man, the question whether a constitutional republic, or democracy, can or cannot maintain its territorial integrity, against its own domestic foes.”
Lincoln’s folksy, joke-telling persona was real, and he often used it to deflect questions be didn’t want to answer. His ambition was also real; as law partner William Herndon observed, it was “a little engine that knew no rest.”
Lincoln was convinced that the border states — Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland and Delaware — were crucial to winning the war. The states’ allegiance was mixed. Any one of them, he knew, might bolt from the Union at any time. He handled them with kid gloves.
“I hope to have God on my side,” he quipped, “but I must have Kentucky.”
Then on Jan. 1, 1863, his Emancipation Proclamation changed the face of the war. Though wielded as a “weapon of war” — to strengthen the Union cause and crush southern hopes for foreign intervention — it pronounced every slave in the rebel states, “forever free.”
The border state slaves were excluded. This brought down the wrath of the abolitionists, already unhappy with the president’s slow road to abolition. Not all of them were angry.
“Mr. Lincoln has moved as fast as public opinion has allowed,” abolitionist leader William Lloyd Garrison declared.
In the stormy decade before the war, the slavery quarrel had grown passionate. The Dred Scott decision inflamed the North, while the Fugitive Slave Act met with outright defiance.
“I will not obey it by God!" Ralph Waldo Emerson declared.
John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, the caning of a U.S. senator, bloodshed on the Kansas and Missouri border, all foretold the war to come.
Lincoln’s clashes with his generals were great fodder for his critics. Gen. John Fremont, full of himself in Missouri, decreed the property of rebels there who took up arms against the Union, “confiscated, and their slaves hereby declared free.”
A week passed before he thought to notify his commander-in-chief. The newspapers beat him to it. Lincoln revoked the order and removed Fremont from command. The president was then vilified for “not caring about slavery.”
Lincoln’s true feelings about slavery are suggested in a letter to long-time friend Joshua Speed:
“I bite my lip and keep quiet. In 1841 you and I had … a low-water trip on a steamboat … from Louisville to the mouth of the Ohio, there were on board ten or a dozen slaves, shackled together with irons. That sight was a continued torment to me, and I see something like it every time I touch the Ohio, or any other slave border … a thing which has, and continually exercises, the power of making me miserable.”
Today Lincoln is increasingly yanked out of context of his own times. Despite his loathing for slavery, his racial attitudes belong to 19th century America. He didn’t support social equality for African Americans. For a time he favored colonization of the freed slaves. Yet Lincoln grew in the office. He pushed for equal treatment of black soldiers. When a delegation of free blacks protested colonization, he dropped the idea.
Perhaps African American writer W.E.B. Du Bois said it best: “The scars and foibles and contradictions of the great do not diminish but enhance the worth and meaning of their upward struggle. Of all the great figures of the 19th century, Lincoln is to me the most human and lovable. And I love him not because he was perfect, but because he was not and yet triumphed.”