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Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Lincoln's Moral Clarity

Winston Churchill once famously said that history is written by winners. Nowhere is that true than in the history that surrounds Abraham Lincoln. By winning the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln insured that his place in history was cemented in a lionized manner. That isn't to say that his awesome legacy isn't well deserved. Still, history overlooks Lincoln's repeated dismissal of the Constitution. It dismisses the great difficulty that victory was achieved with. Yet, it is all those things that history has minimized that gave Lincoln his moral clarity.

Throughout the prosecution and the aftermath of the Civil War, Lincoln only used the Constitution when it became convenient for goals that he saw as more overriding. In fact, the whole premise of the Civil War was a usurption of the Constitution. Slavery, at the time, was written into the Constitution. In order to amend the Constitution, it would have taken three fourths of the states to ratify an amendment. Of course, this was never going to happen since the Southern states would vote in unison against changing the Constitution. At the time of Lincoln's inauguration, he planned on including several more states into the Union and each would likely vote to ratify an end to slavery. Before this could happen Southern states began one by one to secede.

The American Civil War (1861–65) began because leaders of Southern states were unhappy with the outcome of the 1860 presidential election, which was won by Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865). Fearful of losing their economic system, which was based on agriculture and dependent on slave labor, the Southern states began to act on their promise to secede (withdraw) from the United States (called the Union) and form their own nation. South Carolina was the first to secede, in December 1860. Five more states—Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, and Louisiana—followed in January 1861. When representatives from the six states met the next month in Montgomery, Alabama, they established the Confederate States of America (commonly called the Confederacy) and elected Jefferson Davis (1808–1889) as president. Two days before Lincoln's inauguration...

All of this was in fact perfectly within their rights as states. Lincoln forced the Civil War on the South even though they did everything within the confines of the Constitution.

In 1862, Abraham Lincoln not only declared martial law but suspended habeas corpus.

Along with a declaring martial law, President Abraham Lincoln ordered the suspension of the constitutionally protected right to writs of habeas corpus in 1861, shortly after the start of the American Civil War. At the time, the suspension applied only in Maryland and parts of the Midwestern states.

The Supreme Court eventually ruled that Lincoln was acting outside the confines of the Constitution in suspending habeas corpus though this ruling came after the war ended.

Finally, the 14th amendment

All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

which effectively ended slavery was also ratified without the proper seventy five percent of the states ratifying the amendment. Lincoln faced roughly the same problem as he faced in attempting to end slavery prior to the war. The Southern states were never going to go for such an amendment. The first confrontation lead to war. After the war, Lincoln simply ignored the guidelines laid out in order to add an amendment. Rather than following the Constitution, Lincoln simply imposed the 14th amendment on the defeated Southern states who were then in no position to argue.

Besides the bouts with a lack of Constitutional clarity, Lincoln also faced an ever more tenuous war effort. Here is how the 1864 Democratic Party platform...the platform of his opponents.

Resolved, That in the future, as in the past, we will adhere with unswerving fidelity to the Union under the Constitution as the only solid foundation of our strength, security, and happiness as a people, and as a framework of government equally conducive to the welfare and prosperity of all the States, both Northern and Southern.

Resolved, That this convention does explicitly declare, as the sense of the American people, that after four years of failure to restore the Union by the experiment of war, during which, under the pretense of a military necessity of war-power higher than the Constitution, the Constitution itself has been disregarded in every part, and public liberty and private right alike trodden down, and the material prosperity of the country essentially impaired, justice, humanity, liberty, and the public welfare demand that immediate efforts be made for a cessation of hostilities, with a view of an ultimate convention of the States, or other peaceable means, to the end that, at the earliest practicable moment, peace may be restored on the basis of the Federal Union of the States.

Before finally attaining victory, Lincoln faced many dark days in which victory was not only not inevitable but frankly never in sight.

So, why did Lincoln subvert the Constitution and how did he get through all those dark days? Of course, only Abraham Lincoln himself really knows. I firmly believe though that Abraham Lincoln knew in his core that slavery was the great evil of its time. He knew that it must be confronted and that's what brought him into politics to begin with. He knew that even the Constitution itself could not be an unwitting accomplice in perpetuating this evil. Even in his darkest days, he knew that he was on the side of good against evil and that's what got him through. It was this moral clarity that got him through, and it's that moral clarity that has lionized his legacy. It was that moral clarity that allowed him to confront the evil of slavery without flinching. It's that sort of moral clarity that we need more of now.


Anonymous said...

An example of Lincoln's moral clarity:

"In his 1860 inaugural address, he said: "I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the states where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so." Two years later, President Lincoln wrote: "My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union (Letter to Horace Greeley, August 22, 1862)." And in 1858 Lincoln had written: "I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races. I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of making voters or jurors of Negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people. There is a physical difference between the white and black races, which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality.""

mike volpe said...

That is typical distortion of history. FDR also campaigned on keeping the U.S. out of the war. Wilson promised to keep the U.S. out of WWI. Taking one speech and assigning his entire platform to ist is nonsense. He built his entire reputation in the 1850's as a crusader against slavery. He made his reputation debating against slavery with Stephen Douglass. The war was fought first and foremost because he saw slavery as an evil.

What you are doing is proclaiming that one speech is more important than years of speeches, his steadfast hand in the war, and his entire reputation. To say that Lincolnd didn't have moral clarity on the evil of slavery is the worst kind of revisionist history on one of the greatest Americans of all time.

Conrad Bibby said...

"After the war, Lincoln simply ignored the guidelines laid out in order to add an amendment. Rather than following the Constitution, Lincoln simply imposed the 14th amendment on the defeated Southern states who were then in no position to argue."

Lincoln didn't do anything "after the war." He died on April 15, 1865.

The 14th Amendment didn't "effectively end slavery." The 13th Amendment ended slavery. By the time of the 14th Amendment (1868), there was no slavery left for Lincoln to end, were he not already dead.

In securing passage of the 13th Amendment, Lincoln didn't "simply ignore[] the guidelines laid out in order to add an amendment." To become a part of the Constitution, the 13th Amendment required the votes of 27 out of the 36 states. The 27th state ratified it on December 6, 1865, 8 months after Lincoln's death. Prior to the day he was shot, the amendment was ratified by the legislatures of 20 states, including Virginia, Louisiana, and Tennesee. Virginia had a loyalist legislature throughout the war, and it was that legislature which ratified the 13th amendment. Tennessee and Louisiana both had functioning pro-union governments during the latter part of the war. Perhaps it's debatable whether these pro-union legislatures as of early 1865 deserved to be recognized as the legitimate governments of these three states for purposes of ratifying the amendment. However, that's a far cry from declaring that Lincoln "simply ignored" the procedural requirements for getting the amendment adopted.

I would also disagree with your assertion that the southern states were "perfectly within their rights" to secede from the Union. Nothing in the Constitution confers a right of secession. Logically, moreover, there is no reason to differentiate between secession and treason. The southern states may have considered themselves justified in seceding, but this was hardly a position Lincoln was obliged to respect.

Since Lincoln didn't force to South to secede, and in fact was duty-bound to "preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution," I don't see how you can say he "forced the Civil War on the South." He only "forced" the war on them in the sense that he didn't acquiesce to the attempted dissolution of the country of which he had just been elected president.

Although Lincoln was certainly justified in acting militarily in order to keep the Union intact, I would agree with you that various other actions he took during the war were problematic from a constitutional standpoint. However, it's not as if the Constitution included a how-to book to assist presidents in dealing with secession and civil war. Lincoln appropriately considered habeas corpus unworkable in the context of an organized, armed rebellion. He reasoned that his duty to preserve the union outweighed his duty to enforce writ of habeas corpus. He acted out of necessity, not out of a general disrepspect for the Constitution. In fact, with the exception of measures taken in response to military necessity, Lincoln continued to run the government in accordance with the terms of the Constitution. He didn't assume dictatorial powers, suspect elections, etc. Therefore, I strongly disagree with your assertion that Lincoln "subverted" the Constitution.

I do think the manifest immorality of slavery likely sustained Lincoln's belief that he was on the right side of the secession issue. However, there's no question in my mind that Lincoln felt duty-bound to preserve the Union for its own sake, and that the secession crisis, which actually took place BEFORE he assumed the presidency, dictated the course he would have to follow. The fact that this course also ended up destroying the institution of slavery was a significant consolation for the loss of blood on both sides.

mike volpe said...

Had the disagreement between the North and South been on an issue of the sort we are dealing with re gay marriage, we wouldn't have had a military confrontation. Because the issue was on the magnitude of the evil of slavery, we had a military confrontation.

States are not forced to stay in the union. There are all sorts of fringe groups in many of the current states that advocate secession, and if hypothetically, their was enough backing in one of these states to secede, that's what they would do. There was nothing in the Constitution that said that Lincoln could by force keep them in the Union.

That said, all of these issues are tied together, slavery, keeping the Union together, and state's rights. If you have an agenda, you can paint Lincoln as a supporter/opponent of anyone of the three, however to say that Lincoln didn't firmly believe that slavery was evil and that this was his driving force is to misconstrue his philosophy.

Don't get me wrong, I believe that Lincoln acted correctly. I believe the confrontation of evil is the most dutiful thing any leader can do. I give any leader plenty of slack when they confront evil. I don't criticize any of the actions that Lincoln took. The point I was making is that it took incredible courage and moral clarity to hold to the belief that if the Constitution perpetuated slavery that confronting the evil of slavery was the right thing to do over a strict interpretation of the Constitution.

HeartofDarkness said...

Revisionist history, plain and simple. But I'm not really interested in going it to the details about something 150 years out of date. Rather that rebutting the nonsense, let me just quickly define what the war was about:


There was a white population explosion, both in Europe and America at the same time the industrial revolution reduced the number of available jobs. Before that point, slavery had been an economically viable system (economically, never morally) but after that, it wasn't. Long story short, people willing to work were starving while slaves were forced to perform what should be wage bearing labor for free. It had to end. It was an economic imperative that it end.

So, when your hear some northerner say: 'my ancestors gave their blood and treasure to free the slaves tell them what they are full of. Their ancestors gave their blood and treasure for the right to the jobs that blacks were doing for free and to feed their family.

Furthermore, when you hear some southerner say 'my ancestors were fighting for states rights or against unfair taxes' please tell them what they are full of as well. Their ancestors fought for the right to keep slaves and not pay for labor that should have been on the free market. Their ancestors committed treason for this base reason.

Sorry for being curt, but I don't want to spend a lot of time on this, but I did want to introduce a little reality.

mike volpe said...

Talk about revisionist history. You're basically trying to make it seem as though Lincoln started the Civil War out of greed. Talk about besmirching a hero. Good one.

First, as an economic system, slavery was always a very good one. Free labor is cost effective under any conditions. To say that because of changes in the market, that suddenly free labor was no longer cost effective is just absurd.

It's true that the North didn't necessarily have the purist of intentions in wanting to end slavery. They had a more modern economy that wasn't as suited. That frankly is beside the point. Lincoln got into politics, made his name, and risked everything because he believed that slavery was inherently evil. To try and muddy the waters on his legacy is revisionist history.

HeartofDarkness said...


I agree with you about lincoln. Indeed, Lincoln was the search term that lead me to this article. Lincoln is a great hero of mine and I've always been amazed that, 150 years after the fact, people are still trying to snatch his greatness away.

But, as I read the comments I thought I was seeing as much unreality in response to the article as was in the article. I thought it was more important to address that issue because, frankly, Lincoln's greatness speaks for itself and no matter how many people try to denigrate him, they are going to lose this battle. Lincoln was our greatest president and It's going to take more than a few blog posts to the contrary to knock him off that throne.

In fact, in your own post, weather you realize it or not, you said Lincoln started the civil war. Of course, he did not. He responded to aggression after aggression after aggression until the aggression could no longer be tolerated. If I punch you in the face 15 times then you knock me out, YOU did not start the fight. You just finished it.

I'm trying to look at the overall causes of the Civil War; why people, 99% of which DID NOT OWN SLAVES on either side, would be moved to this nightmare. And I think, if you are honest, you will see that I'm right.

All nations, especially America try to 'folklore-ize' their history (Washington did not really chop down a Cherry tree, etc.) We have built up this myth that the Civil war was this great and noble thing about great causes. Not true, the reasons were economic, once the economic reasons were established it was easy to coat it in the nonsense that it was really about great causes.

I'm just pointing out that it wasn't. The people who truly started the war: the rich, southern plantation owner, 'sold' the war to southern as if there was some foreign enemy coming in to uproot every aspect of their lives. Northern were told this was a godly war against evil. Neither were really true.

And no system is economically viable all the time. FDR prevented a socialist, possibly all out communist revoution in the 30's. The 'robber baron' econemy that worked just fine for more than 40 years was going to end, period. People will not sit on their hands and starve to perserve an economic ideal. That same with slavery. WHITES wouldn't tolerate it anymore. Had the south somehow managed to win, they would have staved off the issue until the southern white poplulation grew as large as the north - then the same thing would have happened again. Slavery was no longer economicaly viable. I was going to end, one way or another.

But, again, let me reiterate, the villains in this piece were the confederates, not Lincoln.

We need to get real about history if we are going to learn from it.

mike volpe said...

I don't care how many times you say that slavery wasn't economically viable, that ridiculous statement will never be true. Having free labor is now, was then, and always will be economically viable.

I have college and high school interns and I try as often as possible to get away with not paying them. That's the most economically viable thing there is.

As for the war, all of these issues are wrapped up in each other. The South seceded because he was elected President. Yet, this was within their rights. He did attempt to hold the union together outside the guidelines of the Constitution. That, to me, is perfectly acceptable, and that's because the center of the debate was the evil of slavery.

The South wanted to continue allowing slavery more than they wanted to be in the Union. Lincoln wouldn't accept standing by while such an evil took place. For this, he had moral clarity.

HeartofDarkness said...

I think we are largely in agreement and are hung up on one aspect.

But you are wrong on that one aspect. Tell your intern you want him to work for life for free and see how long he stays. If you do find someone brain damaged enough to take you up on that offer, try to tell me others won't be coming to you every day saying: I can do it better than your slave for this price.

It just won't work, at least not in the modern, industrial economy. At best you get the shoddy, half-buttocked work of someone who doesn't care. At worst you'll be so ineffective as to be driven out of business by your competitors who get better work, and produce better products by hiring dedicated workers rather than slaves.

There is no question that the North was the economic powerhouse, and the South was a wasteland, dotted by islands of VERY rich in a sea of the VERY poor.

But all this is straying rather far from the point I was trying to make about the history of the Civil War. If you have anything on THAT subject, any responses will come to my email account.

Thank you for letting me share my thoughts.

mike volpe said...

Obviously, we are in agreement that no intern would work for free forever. That's because those interns have a choice eventually.

The same couldn't be said for the Slaves. The difference at the time between the North and the South was that the North was much more industrialized while the economy of the South continued to be mostly derived from farming. That's why the North had little use for slaves. I don't think that most in the North had any real pure motives but that's frankly beside the point.

That said, of course, in the South, there was great economic benefit from having slaves. Free labor is always cost effective. It's gravy for a farmer to get a slave that actually works hard. Who cares? They aren't paid either way.