Lincoln’s Birthday

Today is the birthday of our greatest president, Abraham Lincoln. A few thoughts on the day.

Often, in my books, I “chip away” at bits of the Lincoln legend. For example, in early December 1861, Lincoln was surprised when the report of Simon Cameron, his secretary of war, argued for using the former slaves as Union soldiers. Lincoln should not have been surprised. Cameron had given a widely-reported speech in which he advocated making solders of the former slaves. The New York Tribune predicted that Cameron would provide historical and other arguments in the imminent report for arming the former slaves. So if Lincoln had been paying attention, he would have asked Cameron for a draft version of his report, and if he disagreed, he would have forced Cameron to make changes.

He did not. Cameron’s report was printed and distributed to the papers. When he learned about the language about black soldiers, Lincoln made an almost comical attempt to retrieve and suppress all copies of the report. Soon a second version of Cameron’s report was in the papers, without Cameron’s language about arming the former slaves. It was, in the words of the Chicago Tribune, a paper usually supportive of Lincoln, “a fiasco.”

In this case at least, Lincoln was not a “political genius,” as Doris Kearns Goodwin calls him in the title of her fine biography. So why do I believe, as I said in the first sentence, that Lincoln was our greatest president?

A full answer to that question would take many pages, but let me cite one example, from the same month. In late December 1861, Lincoln and his cabinet faced a crisis over the Trent, the British vessel from which an American naval captain had seized four Confederate diplomats. Britain demanded the return of the four diplomats, and an apology, and Lincoln’s initial inclination was to stall for time, to suggest arbitration. Indeed, among the Lincoln papers at the Library of the Congress, there is a draft in Lincoln’s hand of a letter from Seward to the British minister, suggesting arbitration.

Seward persuaded Lincoln that this would not work; that the British minister deserved a clear “yes or no” and that the answer should be that the United States would yield up the former diplomats. Lincoln was prepared to listen and learn. Perhaps because he was less educated, less experienced, than Seward or Chase, Lincoln included them in his cabinet and listened to them at critical moments, such as the Trent crisis. That is greatness.

In an April 1864 letter, Lincoln wrote “I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me.” For a president to recognize that he does not control events, that is greatness.

In one way, at least, Lincoln did influence events; through his speeches. He understood so well the power of words, of short simple English words, and he used them so effectively. My subjects, Seward and Chase and Stanton, also gave speeches, some of them eloquent. But none of them could come close to Lincoln. Let me end with the ending of Lincoln’s Cooper Union speech, from February 1860.

“Wrong as we think slavery is, we can yet afford to let it alone where it is, because that much is due to the necessity arising from its actual presence in the nation; but can we, while our votes will prevent it, allow it to spread into the National Territories, and to overrun us here in these Free States? If our sense of duty forbids this, then let us stand by our duty, fearlessly and effectively. Let us be diverted by none of those sophistical contrivances wherewith we are so industriously plied and belabored—contrivances such as groping for some middle ground between the right and the wrong, vain as the search for a man who should be neither a living man nor a dead man — such as a policy of “don’t care” on a question about which all true men do care — such as Union appeals beseeching true Union men to yield to Disunionists, reversing the divine rule, and calling, not the sinners, but the righteous to repentance . . . . Neither let us be slandered from our duty by false accusations against us nor frightened from it by menaces of destruction to the Government nor of dungeons to ourselves. Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it.”

To be able to write such words, that is greatness.