There are many reasons why we recall Abraham Lincoln more vividly than we do either Christopher Columbus or George Washington, the other two men for whom public holidays are generally observed. Lincoln was the only one of the three born under the United States flag. As a child of the Middle West he grew up in the most American part of America, and through his veins flowed the blood of ancestors from both Virginia and New England. He was a man very like ourselves or, at least, like what in our best moments we wish to be: simple and unpretentious, deeply humane, patient with those who differed with him, unafraid of responsibility and profoundly believing in the sacredness of the human personality. Moreover, Lincoln “belongs to the ages” in the special sense that the problems of statecraft and social policy which confronted him were timeless in character. Shorn of their particular context, they are the same questions we are trying to solve all over again today. Is the democratic form of government worth defending to the death? Can mankind tolerate the doctrine of a “master race”? How can the wounds inflicted by war best be healed?
The Southern states in seceding from the Union acted on a legalistic interpretation of the Constitution, but Lincoln saw the issue more profoundly. “This is essentially a people’s contest,” he declared. “On the side of the Union it is a struggle for maintaining in the world that form and substance of government whose leading object is to elevate the condition of men--to lift artificial weights fm all shoulders; to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all; to afford all an unfettered start and a fair chance in the race of life.” He went on: “Our popular government has often been called an experiment. Two points in it our people have already settled--the successful establishing and the successful administering of it. One still remains--its successful maintenance against a formidable internal attempt to overthrow it.” It took four years of self-sacrifice and bloodshed to summon the military strength necessary to accomplish this purpose. Today Southerners as well as Northerners rejoice in the outcome.
The cornerstone of the Southern system of society was the institution of Negro bondage. Arguing from this premise, Southern spokesmen such as George Fitzhugh, Virginia lawyer and self-styled sociologist, went so far as to maintain that slavery, “black or white,” was “right and necessary.” Lincoln, even before becoming President, roundly denounced this dogma of “superior races,” calling such beliefs “the vanguard, the minters and sappers, of returning despotism. We must repulse them or they will subjugate us.” On an earlier occasion he had said, “As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master.” Now he solemnly added, “Those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves, and, under a just God, cannot long retain it.” Once in the White House, he moved steadily toward the goal of freeing the subject race. If he acted less quickly than some would have liked, it was not from lack of desire. As responsible head of the nation, he was restrained by the fact that the Constitution permitted states to maintain the system of slavery. Yet, conceiving of government as an instrument of continual progress, he used every means at his command to diminish the evil. Early in the war, the institution was outlawed in the federal territories. He next tried (without success) to get the four loyal border states to adopt a program of liberation, promising them financial assistance from the federal treasury. Then came the Emancipation Proclamation abolishing human bondage wherever military resistance continued in the South. And, finally, the Thirteenth Amendment ended the system, root and branch, everywhere in the nation.
While harassed with these problems, Lincoln was also working toward his third goal: a humane and durable peace. Unwilling to wait until the last foe surrendered, he early outlined the terms in the hope of hastening the end. He rejected wholesale punishment as the price of defeat, carefully discriminating between the leaders and the led. With slavery and the slave power no longer a threat to the cause of democracy, he offered such conditions as promised quickly to reawaken the Southerners to their ancient love of the Union. It is one of the tragedies of our history that, before he could carry through his plan, he was struck down by an assassin’s bullet. With Lincoln removed from the scene, harsher counsels prevailed.
It is hardly necessary to draw the parallel between Lincoln’s time and ours. Within the borders of a single country he faced certain great perils to a democratic people that menace us today on a global scale. We too are defending free government against armed might. We too have resolved to end the doctrine of a “master race.” We too, while fighting the enemy, must plan for a just and lasting peace. Little wonder that the spirit of Lincoln broods over us. We may well imagine him counseling us, as he counseled his fellow countrymen in the final months of the Civil War: “War at the best is terrible, and this of ours in its magnitude and duration is one of the most terrible the world has ever known. It has deranged business totally in many places, and perhaps in all. It has destroyed property, destroyed life, and ruined homes. It has produced a national debt and a degree of taxation unprecedented in the history of this country. It has caused mourning among us until the heavens may almost be said to be hung in black. …When is this war to end? …We accepted this war, and did not begin it. We accepted it for an object, and when that object is accomplished the war will end, and I hope to God it will never end until that object is accomplished. We are going through with our task, so far as I am concerned, if it takes us three years longer.”
By Arthur M. Schlesinger