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Lincoln in 1917

Early in November, 1864, immediately after his reelection, President Lincoln made a brief speech upon the results of the election which compares in substance, if not in form, with the Gettysburg address and the Second Inaugural. In a few pregnant phrases he sketched what the peculiar dangers were which are bound to beset a democracy when engaged in a serious war. “It has long been a grave question,” he said, “whether any government not too strong for the liberties of its people can be strong enough to maintain its own existence in great emergencies.” He considered that the recent election had for the time being demonstrated the ability of the American peple to sustain a strong government without any sacrifice of liberty. But he knew that on every future emergency a test no less dangerous and exigent would have to be faced. “What has occurred in this case,” he said, “must never recur in similar cases. Human nature will not change. In any future great national trial, compared with the men of this, we shall have as weak and as strong, as silly and as wise, as bad and as good. Let us therefore study the incidents of this as philosophy, to learn wisdom from, and none of them as wrongs to be revenged.

Again the American people are confronted by a grave national emergency. In our moment of searching trial we cannot do better than to follow his advice and study the incidents both of the Civil War and the existing crisis as philosophy to learn wisdom from. It is more desirable to follow this advice, because during the past two years the issues and incidents of our Civil War, and the personal relation of Mr. Lincoln to them, have been wilfully and grotesquely misinterpreted. Partisans have found chapter and verse in the Lincoln record and scripture for every phrase of pacifist irresponsibility and of militarist obsession. The smoke and heat thrown off by the conflagration have obscured the clear and congruous outlines of Mr. Lincoln’s own attitude and philosophy. Let us see whether we cannot resurrect something of the real meaning and of the real man.

We should remember, in the first place, that Mr. Lincoln insisted upon fighting to resist the secession of the South from the Union. Although one of the most humane men in the word, who was the despair of his generals because he would not give his personal consent to the execution of deserters, yet he did not flinch from a decision which involved his fellow countrymen in the prolonged calamity of one of the most desperate and destructive of wars. His refusal to yield did not look as inevitable in the fall of 1860 as it does today.

Then as now the nation was enervated by uncertainty and distracted by conflicting counsels. Abolitionists like Garrison wanted to avoid war at any cost and to allow the erring sisters to depart in peace. Republican leaders like Seward were willing to enter into arrangements with the southern leaders which would perpetuate the house divided against itself and reduce the nation to a hyphenated alliance between slave and free states. But Lincoln would have nothing to do with Crittenden compromises. The Republican party had been organized to prevent the spread of slavery within the Union. He had been elected expressly for the purpose of carrying this policy into effect. He refused absolutely to place himself and his party in the situation of solemnly proclaiming a policy and then of accepting a measure of conciliation which dishonored all its promises and renounced all its objects. He would avoid war if possible; he would do nothing to provoke it; but he would not seek to avoid it by abandoning one inch of the ground assumed by the Republican party as the consequence of almost forty years of southern aggression. It was a moment when difficulties, fears and scruples could not be permitted to interfere with an ultimate decision, when the morale of a great people depended upon resolute and imperturbable fulfilment of declared purposes in action.

Yet although he would not flinch from fighting he had something in him which prevented him from being infected by the psychology of war. War is repugnant to a democracy, not merely because it is wasteful, barbarous and hideous, but because the state of mind of a nation at war suppresses or discourages the application of ideas to business and politics upon which the democratic fulfilment depends. It is the perfect example of that dangerous, costly, headstrong, and imperative action which seems to demand, as the condition of its success, the utter subordination of the variety and humor of life to a grim puritanism of immediate achievement. It insists on the undivided service of the material, emotional, intellectual and moral resources of a people. A nation at war is intolerant of dissent or contradiction, of hesitation or patience, of any tendency to mitigate emotion with reflection or supplement action with open-minded research. Lincoln never yielded to this Constraint. Because he insisted on fighting rather than compromising, and because he would not abandon the fight until the purposes for which it begun were achieved, he has been credited the hypnotism of emotion and the absolutism of dogma so characteristic of European statesmen of today. But Mr. Lincoln's absolutes were always under control and were always tempered by kindliness of feeling and by an inquisitive openness of mind.

When he advised his fellow countrymen to study the incidents of the war, not as wrongs to be revenged but as philosophy to learn wisdom from, he was preaching precisely what he practised. His speeches will be searched in vain for a single sentence which attacked the Southerners with harsh, bitter, or intemperate words. He not only felt kindly towards them, but in thinking about them he was scrupulously considerate and fair. Because they had by their own aggressive acts brought this war on and because they were fighting for the perpetuity of legalized human bondage, he was not tempted either to outlaw them or condemn them to punishment. He foresaw the futility of drawing up an indictment against a people with the intention of making them suffer for their transgressions. His behavior in this respect was superior to that of many of his contemporaries, not only because of his essentially humane imagination but because his intellectual grip upon the political issues of the Civil War was far more comprehensive, exact and profound than theirs. In those days, as in these, there were people who believed that because one side was more right than the other, the war had no object except to make the right prevail. By subordinating political to moral considerations, they over-simplified the problem and so increased the difficulty of its solution. Mr. Lincoln was, consequently, sharply criticized for vacillation and hesitation, for allowing his policy to be dictated by expediency and for his refusal to cut all political knots with the sword of a moral imperative. But he knew better than his critics. They were condemning him for his most salutary quality. He was only seeking to grasp the situation as a whole, to keep all of its complicated aspects in his mind at the same time, and to arrange them in the order of their relative importance. Surrounded as he was by the passions and obsessions of a desperate war, he never budged from his ordinary practice of patiently waiting until he possessed all the available facts and then of applying to them the searchlight of cool, disinterested and purposed thinking.

His peculiar greatness did not consist merely in his kindness and magnanimity of feeling, or in his ultimate stability of purpose, or in his penetrating, surefooted and indefatigable intelligence. It consisted in the extraordinary fact of a successful working combination of all these qualities in one man. He achieved for himself a mutually helpful relation among lively human sympathies, a firm will and a luminous intelligence. He used his intelligence to enlighten his will, and his will to establish the mature decision of his intelligence. His formal judgments were charged with momentum and his actions with sympathy and understanding. Because of this many-sidedness and balance he answered the question in his own life which in the post-election speech he had put to the American people. In the case of an individual, as in the case of a nation, it is always doubtful whether an authoritative government not too strong for the liberties of its members can be strong enough to maintain its existence in great emergencies. The government of Mr. Lincoln's mind was strong enough to maintain its own integrity during the great test, but at the same time it left the liberty of his other members not only intact but vigorous and operative. In the present emergency, no American citizen can by his own efforts secure to his country a salutary combination of government and liberty, of resolution and enlightenment; but all of us can at least do something, however imperfectly, to create some such combination in our own lives and to welcome any evidence of it in others. Inasmuch as the American nation has inherited the priceless, possession of a national hero who succeeded in keeping alive during a war the finest spiritual flowers of a democratic society, a prevailing indifference to his advice and example during the present national emergency would be as shabby a piece of backsliding as could be committed by a pretentiously patriotic people.