written April 25, 2012
Was Abraham Lincoln “great”?
This question was posed to us by Dr. Hansen in January. We could have said yes: he of the five dollars, toys logs, and marbled thrones. But that would have left a lot of time to fill. What Dr. Hansen was trying to suggest was that Lincoln’s largess is often the default, a presumption without pause.
The aim was to discover how Lincoln, a poor child of squalor, would evolve into a world figure that people on the other side of the world fifty years later would clamor to know about from Leo Tolstoy. It was also a meditation of the diverse, useful faces of so Abrahams-of-the-moment that would be created, torn down, and rebuilt in America through intervening decades’ prisms: The war president, the president yearning for peace, the civil rights Lincoln, even a Lincoln of more pronounced bigotry with a secret inner alliance with the South’s Lost Cause. How does one man, above all, seemingly encapsulate this tangled, epic national story we like to tell ourselves, and how is a man of all the People so often leveraged as a symbolic power grab—a.k.a. “getting Lincoln on your side”—to trump opposing views? Further, what was his true, mortal faults and failings? And do these, then discovered, disqualify him from greatness? Can anyone then be termed great? Do we have to address the gay thing too?
Throughout the class I met a man (a common enough description of a developed, seemingly personal relationship with Lincoln for a surprising many, considering we are reading of a long-dead shadow) that I liked quite a lot. Like my peaceful, compassionate-to-the-poor conception of Jesus that appeals to my own personality, I hope the Lincoln of my head is close to real. Funny, Lincoln biographies are outnumbered only by printings of the Bible, and these two figures are equally, often a construction of individual taste and temperament. For my group project on Lincoln we presented this week, I was asked debate whether Lincoln and his famous “House Divided” Speech was the crucial spark to the coming Civil War. Taking a long view of events, I chose to defend Lincoln from this charge of individual incitement, with the notes I used in my opening half of the defense argument below:”
Both Kristee and I will first be answering in the negative, that the “House Divided” Speech did not lead inevitably to secession. At first it seemed easy to prove if we stayed within the 1850’s, with violent events like Bleeding Kansas or John Brown often more noted by historians. Yet the South later became so focused on Lincoln–South Carolina even quoting the famous phrase in its official reasons for separation- that the speech retroactively grew out of proportion, as scapegoat, to the larger threads that had been leading to secession.
Implicit in the question, “did the speech make secession inevitable,” is that if it had not been given the nation’s crisis could have been averted. By stretching the secession question to the origins of colonization, secession is seen as a culmination of decades if not centuries of sectional difference and isolation. And this is I guess the thesis. This view still shows secession as inevitable, regardless of the “House Divided” speech, or even if Lincoln had never existed. The speech’s credit and blame then decreases in importance, merely pointing out an ignored truth- the North and South had split.
On the surface it seems that the first colonies were sort of similar when it came to slavery. Africans first arrived in 1619, and worked as indentured servants, not unlike poor whites. Virginians transitioned to Africans slavery only after Native slavery was unsuccessful. There is a similar story in the North, the first Africans arriving possibly in the 1620’s, with Puritan Massachusetts also taking Native and Irish slaves and trading with Barbados. It this point is seems they are of similar minds.
Most sources pointed to deep divides culturally and economically from the beginning. Virginia was comprised of Anglicans and a plantation system that fostered independence and relative isolation. Aristocrats become tied to the land expansion with tobacco. They also had little love for Puritanism, and vice versa. The North was made of “town systems,” in which families worked their own small lands. The slavery of the North was often not needed for families immediate livelihood, so it did not affect their concepts of labor and status as in the South.
Both regions however took steps towards codifying slavery in the late 17th century. And a great deal of writings can be found to lay out the slow dehumanization of African-Americans, from servants to slaves. In 1650 the Black Codes were near complete, and by 1705 African-Africans were considered property.
It was Massachusetts, however, that legalized slavery first, in 1641, ironically as part of the “Liberties.” Other New England states followed, and the North was of course complicit with its part in the triangle slave trade.Yet societal shifts were occurring in the South that was absent in the North.
The elite South, it is argued, became a society based on leisure, especially in South Carolina, about quote “pleasures and amusements,” which became over time a haughtiness. Slavery made the South more intemperate and prone to violence. The manufacturing and commercial North retaining a strong individual work ethic.
By the dawn of the Revolution the South had developed arguments that slavery was not only acceptable but Biblically sanctioned, George Whitefield stating that “slavery was a way of spreading Christianity.” While the Society of Friends’ anti-slavery influence is perhaps overstated for some historians, a few Quakers like John Woolman stand out in the North arguing against slavery in 1754. The first anti-slavery society begins in 1775. Unfortunately, this was seen as unwelcome, hypocritical sanctimoniousness by the South.
It is at this time that the divide begins in earnest. And several historians point to the Declaration of Independence.
Here is a quote: “The humanitarian zeal of the Revolution era, together with non-slaveholder hatred of the slave competition and universal acknowledgement that the economy did not need slavery, doomed Northern slavery.”
Once slavery was rejected, the South stood in stark contrast, and “bondage had been made a peculiar institution” of the South alone. The Declaration was seen in a regional light: The North held it more as a moral document, and the South a securer of property. Northern states began to rescind slavery in the following years. Another division in Lincoln’s metaphorical House occurs when South Carolina and Georgia ask for special, regional considerations, that a line be stricken out concerning slavery.
Historians are mixed when it comes to the impact of the Founders upon secession. One called the North “ambivalent” about slavery, and the whole of them would rather “ignore” its reality. If this is was to say things would eventually work out, this would be a case against eventual secession. Yet even their successes, in the forms on compromises, became eventual “irritants.” Among them was the 3/5th rule, an artificial political balance that created Southern defensiveness and Northern agitation. And while the abolition of the slave trade is sometimes not thought of as a clear accomplishment of the Founders, it did set up later battles concerning tariffs and fugitive laws.
When in 1784 Thomas Jefferson wrote an ordinance outlawing all Western slavery after 1800, it failed by a single vote- a congressman from New Jersey was ill. Could this have prevented secession? Jefferson stated, “the fate of millions of unborn hanging on the tongue of one man, and heaven has been silent in that awful moment.” At least one person is aware the nation is hurtling towards something unknown. Sources seem to highlight moments like these, yet ultimately allow room for their failure, as this generation could not see their future ramifications.
As has been pointed out earlier, the Northwest Ordinance concretely shows the growing separation between Northern and Southern goals, formally restricting slavery and foreshadowing the territorial battles to come, that could only lead to secession.
The legal basis for secession is often traced back to the Alien and Sedition Act, which produced the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions of 1798, again, nine years before Lincoln is born. These statutes would serve John C. Calhoun as a basis to argue the constitution is simply “a compact between states,” while the North and Daniel Webster argued the Constitution’s bound was something more. Abraham Lincoln believed this as well, but when he returned to the issues of the Founders’ role in slavery, in 1860 in preparation for his Cooper Union speech, Lincoln turned to the universal morality of the Deceleration. His those careful, lawyerly pronouncements in New York he won fame that would carry him months later to the Republican nomination.