By: Robert Shi
The American Civil War was a time of great internal revolution. As one of the bloodiest wars this world has ever seen, it was further complicated by the fact that a nation was essentially tearing itself apart. While the country was maiming itself, individuals were considering their motivations for war and the many possible stances on politics, but much of this was for good reason. For many, the war would eventually focus on the ending of the tradition of slavery. But this rallying cry did not drive the war effort at its beginning; instead, preservation of the Union was a priority. Abraham Lincoln was a dynamic president who was unafraid to exercise his power and to fight for his beliefs. His many declarations ranging from the Emancipation Proclamation to his second inaugural speech show the clear reasoning he had against slavery and for the preservation of the Union, despite painful pressures from both sides of the nation.
At the beginning of his presidency, Lincoln knew he had to tread carefully where slavery was concerned in order to keep the peace within the nation. During his first inaugural address, he made very clear that he had “no purpose directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery where it exists. [He believed he had] no lawful right to do so.” [i] Though at first this might seem crude on Lincoln’s part, we have to remember that he was a brilliant political strategist. This statement doesn’t represent his true opinions on slavery; he was attempting to follow the Constitution. However, the inevitable happened, and the southern states thought Lincoln’s policies were too radical. Lincoln knew that by the technicalities of the Constitution he could not yet rid the nation of slavery, so instead he intended to contain it. [ii] This process of containment would have prevented slavery from being spread to new states through its ongoing expansion into the west. On December 20, 1860, South Carolina became the first of what would be eleven states to secede from the United States of America.
As the war dragged on for years, it became clear that it wasn’t simply a matter of differing political opinions, but also a moral dilemma. President Lincoln publicly solidified his stance for freedom in the Emancipation Proclamation:
And by virtue of the power and for the purpose aforesaid, I do order and declare that all persons held as slaves within said designated States and parts of States are, and henceforward shall be, free; and that the Executive Government of the United States,
including the military and naval authorities thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of said persons.
As a former lawyer, Lincoln consistently looked to the Constitution for advice. This explains why as his presidency began, he could not bring himself to make any serious moves to abolish slavery. The Constitution was created only as a result of several compromises. This was because the American government needed to quickly create a Constitution that could allow the central government to have more power, essentially helping the country become more of a unified nation. One of those provisions that the states had to agree upon was the Three-Fifths Compromise, which legally assigned an individual male slave to count for only three-fifths of a free man; this was used for voting purposes and to decide a state’s representation in the House of Representatives. [v] This hasty maneuver essentially served to dehumanize black slaves in both a political and social sense, causing them to be ‘worth’ less than white men.
However, when he felt he could no longer ignore the issue of slavery, he turned instead to the Declaration of Independence to establish credibility and support for his position. In particular, the phrase or the idea that “all men are created equal” allowed him to argue, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that slavery was wrong. If “all men are created equal,” he argued, then free blacks, slaves, and white men alike must be entitled to freedom in the American Republic. By grounding his argument in this founding document written by Thomas Jefferson, he was able to overturn the charges against him that as he had neglected his duty to obey laws. Instead, he reasoned that the initial, pure idea behind the nation’s founding was of greater moral importance than the crooked legislation within the Constitution. There is a perfect juxtaposition between the revolutionary freedom attained in eighteenth century America and that of the African American slaves. In both cases, a people was oppressed to a choking point. In both cases, the superior doubted the abilities of the individuals they wrongly called inferior. Both Jefferson and Lincoln drew from philosophies of the past to renew and redefine the concept of freedom.
This idea of founding and beginning freedom in both eras of American history strongly relates to Hannah Arendt’s ideas of beginning or initium. She believed that the ability to found and begin anew, to initiate change in the world, and to reinterpret the laws—the way Lincoln did—is inherent to the human condition. She wrote that because man “is a beginning, man can begin; to be human and to be free are one and the same. God created man in order to introduce into the world the faculty of beginning: freedom.” [vi] To her mind, to be free is to act upon principles, to perform justice and equality in the public sphere. To define freedom, she traces the etymology of the Latin words agere and gerere. Agere means to begin or start something and gerere means to sustain or follow through with that action. These two words are used to describe what we would call to act. And in the meaning of agere, it implies that only a leader or ruler, like Abraham Lincoln, could begin something new because of his freedom from normal duties. In addition, it is described in gerere that peers of the leader must assist him in order to sustain this new enterprise. Lincoln’s presidential position of power allowed him to fulfill these definitions and establish the faculty of beginning by taking initiative in the public sphere, and, by Arendt’s argument, establishing a precedent for freedom. We have seen leaders and their peers gain passion for civil rights and justice as a result of Lincoln’s starting block. Martin Luther King, Jr., for example, took heavily from not only Lincoln’s sense of human justice, but also from his resolute political position. In arguably his most famous speech, King paid homage to Lincoln through his “I Have a Dream” speech by not only presenting it in front of the Lincoln memorial, but explicitly praising Lincoln who “signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon of light of hope to millions of Negro slaves” (King, “I Have a Dream”). We can clearly see that the precedent that Lincoln set successfully allowed freedom to span and inspire many generations; a chain reaction was initiated by the faculty of beginning.
The Civil War continued to progress from the Emancipation Proclamation with this new motivation, leading to one of the bloodiest battles of the war at Gettysburg. President Lincoln delivered his Gettysburg Address in order to honor the soldiers that had died in that Pennsylvanian bloodbath. To begin, Lincoln reminded the audience that,
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Again and again, Lincoln stressed the act of founding as a ticket to freedom—freedom that his troops were dying for. As Robert Harrison explains in his book Juvenescence, “The founding fathers did not found upon ‘this continent’ the Constitution…It was Lincoln who presided over that solemn event by giving the ‘new nation’ a new founding.” [viii] Although Lincoln failed to follow the Constitution exactly in his quest for freedom, it was the Constitution itself that failed to guarantee justice within the country as states seceded illegally. As mentioned above, this was a result of compromise, and Lincoln put it upon himself to therefore interpret the law in a way that would allow for a new founding and therefore a new freedom. In the Gettysburg address Lincoln went on to say:
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
Lincoln repeated and stressed the word “We.” By using the first person plural, he included those listening to his speech, forcing them to have a sense of responsibility for the predicament at hand. It brought them closer, almost in a personal manner, to the grief Lincoln experienced as his people were killing each other. He stressed that this ground on which he stood was stained so that “this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” Lincoln made tangible the debate for which the soldiers and their families were fighting. The country lacked that freedom, which was, although political, also applicable to slavery. This speech made slavery not only a morality issue, but also a corruption of the tenets of the Declaration of Independence and the essence of American culture; it was a corruption in that the Declaration of Independence reads, “That all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” [ix] If these principles could not be defended in such a tribulation, when can we do any justice to our founding fathers and the ideals and philosophy for which they stood?
Two years after the Gettysburg address, Abraham Lincoln gave his second inaugural speech. Many, as did Lincoln himself, view this speech as the most influential of his career. He began by summarizing the past “four years, during which public declarations have been constantly called forth on every point and phase of the great contest” (Lincoln, AbrahamLincoln.org). Lincoln acknowledged that opinions on the war and on his reasons for it had been complex, but almost in a euphemistic fashion. This brilliant oversimplification of the incredible war as a contest or game serves to jest at the fact that the South’s reasons for conflict were childish. A mature and logical person would see slavery as a ludicrously unfair system. Readers and listeners perceive an image of Lincoln that is objective, especially considering the fact that even in his second inaugural speech as the President of the United Status, he still faithfully explained his reasons for war. One presidential term ago, he had made a speech “devoted altogether to saving the Union without war; [however,] insurgent agents were…seeking to destroy it without war.” This rationalizes that even in this early stage, the rebels had no intention of attempting to save the nation’s unity. They lacked the fundamental desire to progress and change and instead persisted to mire in the twisted traditions of the past. Lincoln admitted that at this early stage
Both parties deprecated war; but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive; and the other would accept war rather than let it perish.
President Lincoln eloquently explained how unprepared both the Union and the Confederacy were for such a destructive war. Though both sides had some idea of the potential pain that would ensue, the South failed to be wise enough to stop itself from naïvely picking a fight with the Union, which had the strength of freedom on its side. This strength was ironically absent at the war’s beginning since “neither [side] anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with, or even before, the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding.” President Lincoln fully expected the issue of slavery to continue will into the antebellum period, and this idea of freedom because of a Union victory was simply unreasonable to hope for. But by the war’s end, this “astounding” opportunity became an idea that was being set in stone and cemented by Lincoln and his army’s sacrifices. To both the Union and the Confederacy, freedom for all was a surprising yet permanent outcome.
Closer to the end of his life, Lincoln began to seek guidance and answers in his time of conflict through Christianity and the omniscience of God. Lincoln, in his highest position of political power, lacked this father figure and this direction. In addition, bearing the weight of a torn nation and the future of freedom in America would be horrific for anyone to do alone. Continuing with his theme of honesty and pragmatism, Lincoln explained that the past several years of suffering were a result of God giving “to both North and South, this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offense came.” Both sides shared the blame, and the suffering experienced by both the North and the South was essentially God’s act of punishment and justice. This idea of a divine hand has been present within humanity for millennia. It in fact mirrors closely the Antigone‘s idea of a lack of true choice while an inscrutable force draws our future. In this sense, the reformation of the Union and the path for freedom were inevitable and a fact of life. God presented this opportunity for change, and President Lincoln concluded that it was concurrently the duty of the American people “to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have born the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan.” This diction implies that we shouldn’t and won’t ever forget the duress necessary for this ideal of freedom. The nation has the responsibility to begin the healing process of the biting past, but the scars of conflict can never disappear. In continuing with Lincoln’s Biblical allusions, the bloodbath of the American Civil War was similar to God’s great flooding of the world. This was a more crimson flooding, however, that served as a lesson from God that Lincoln interpreted as an opportunity to redeem the country—a redemption that would strive to more closely adhere to the spirit of the nation’s founding.
It is without doubt that this bellicose era was mired in complicated issues. Many view Lincoln’s actions as Machiavellian since he eliminated habeas corpus and used somewhat under the table agreements to, in a way, force legislators to side with him. But no one can deny that what he accomplished was beyond the scope of many presidents before and after him. His stance on the war was always securely backed by the principles of the Revolutionary War and the Declaration of Independence—the most important founding document that represents the unadulterated ideas of the republic. His speeches and writings were simple, yet virtuosic and fair. It was never doubted that he devoted his presidency to saving the Union and saving freedom.
[i] Pulito, Brian. “Lincoln’s Abuse Of Power During The American Civil War.” Lincoln’s Abuse Of Power During The American Civil War. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Nov. 2014. http://www.civilwarhome.com/pulito.html.
[v] “Digital History.” Digital History. Digital History, n.d. Web. 10 Dec. 2014. http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/disp_textbook.cfm?smtID=3&psid=163.
[vi] Arendt, Hannah. “What Is Freedom?” Between past and Future; Eight Exercises in Political Thought. New York: Viking, 1968. 166. Print.
[vii] “The Gettysburg Address by Abraham Lincoln.” The Gettysburg Address by Abraham Lincoln. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Nov. 2014. http://www.abrahamlincolnonline.org/lincoln/speeches/gettysburg.htm.
[viii] Harrison, Robert Pogue. “Neotenic Revolutions–The American Constitution.” Juvenescence: A Cultural History of Our Age. N.p.: n.p., n.d. 109-10. Print.
[ix] “The Declaration of Independence: A Transcription.” National Archives and Records Administration. National Archives and Records Administration, n.d. Web. 3 Dec. 2014. http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/charters/declaration_transcript.html.
[xi] “Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 25 Nov. 2014. Web. 24 Nov. 2014. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abraham_Lincoln%27s_second_inaugural_address.
Other Works Cited
Burgess, Jim. “Spectators Witness History at Manassas.” Council on Foreign Relations. Council on Foreign Relations, n.d. Web. 10 Dec. 2014. http://www.civilwar.org/hallowed-ground-magazine/spring-2011/spectators-witness-history-at.html.
“Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address.” Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Nov. 2014. http://www.abrahamlincolnonline.org/lincoln/speeches/inaug2.htm.
“Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 25 Nov. 2014. Web. 24 Nov. 2014. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abraham_Lincoln%27s_second_inaugural_address.
Singh, Ajay. “A Look Back at King’s Dream.” UCLA College Report (n.d.): n. pag. Web. 11 Dec. 2014. http://www.humanities.ucla.edu/sites/faculty/documents/Eric%20Sundquist%20book%20Martin%20Luther%20King.pdf.