Thursday, February 12, 2009

"This nation, under God...."

Today is the two hundredth anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln.

Although most Americans revere him as our greatest President, he remains controversial in some quarters. In the midst of civil war, he suspended habeas corpus, had arrested individuals considered seditious, and did what he thought necessary to win. He would have agreed that "the Constitution is not a suicide pact." In fact, he did these things precisely because they were necessary to ensure that this nation might "have a new birth of freedom."

At City Journal, Michael Knox Beran considers "Lincoln and the Moral Imagination", comparing Lincoln to Bismarck as statesmen and concluding that the differences are significant. Both men used force to accomplish their ends, but the purposes served were very different.
.... Lincoln believed that if the United States were broken up by internal dissension, the result would be a setback for the cause of free democratic government from which it might not soon recover. The question, he said, was
whether a constitutional republic, or a democracy—a government of the people, by the same people—can, or cannot, maintain its territorial integrity, . . . whether discontented individuals, too few in numbers to control administration, according to organic law, . . . [can] break up their Government, and thus practically put an end to free government upon earth. . . . When ballots have fairly, and constitutionally, decided, there can be no successful appeal, back to bullets; . . . there can be no successful appeal, except to ballots themselves, at succeeding elections.
Lincoln’s point was that if you can opt out of a democracy whenever you lose an election, democracy will never work. The moral case for the Union was even stronger, he believed, given that those who were trying to break out were doing so not because their liberties had been violated, but because they insisted on a perpetual right to take slaves out of their own states and into the national territory. .... [more]
At the Weekly Standard, Edwin M. Yoder, Jr. celebrates "Lincoln the Rhetor: As he saved the Union, he savoured the English language."
.... That Lincoln wrote splendidly is hardly news to anyone. He was so persuasive when putting pen to paper that he outclassed all other noted public rhetors in our past—even Jefferson, even Madison, even Hamilton.

The ultimate proof lies in his two great inaugural addresses, and to my taste, the subtle letters he dispatched to military commanders obsessed with their own importance and foolishly blind to his.

Who can forget his laconic note to Gen. George McClellan when, in October 1862, the dilatory Union commander complained that his horses were too few and too tired?
I have just read your dispatch about sore-tongued and fatigued horses. Will you pardon me for asking what the horses of your army have done since the battle of Antietam that fatigues anything?
And this, a few months later, to McClellan's overconfident successor, General Hooker?
I have heard, in such a way as to believe it, of your recently saying that both the army and the government need a dictator. Of course it was not for this, but in spite of it, that I have given you the command. Only those generals who gain successes can set up dictators. What I now ask of you is military success and I will risk the dictatorship.
(Hooker is mainly remembered today as the boastful general who was utterly routed by Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson at Chancellorsville a few months later.)
Yoder compares language suggested for Lincoln's First Inaugural Address by Seward with Lincoln's final version. The substance is essentially the same, but ....
Seward, who was no slouch as a writer himself, proposed:
I close. We are not and must not be aliens or enemies. .  .  . Although passion has strained our bonds of affection too hardly I am sure they will not be broken. The mystic chords which proceeding from so many battle fields and so many patriot graves pass[ing] through all the hearths in this broad continent of ours will yet again harmonize in their ancient music when breathed upon by the guardian angel of the nation.
Lincoln's burnished an immortal version:
I am loth to close. We are not enemies but friends—we must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching every battle-field, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearth-stone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.
As Lincoln uttered these words the slave states were already seceding and the preservation of the Union was in doubt. Four years later, after enormous sacrifice and bloodshed, as the war approached its end with the unity of the Republic preserved, he said:
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
At Between Two Worlds Justin Taylor provides an interesting and informative annotated list of the Lincoln books in his library.

Lincoln and the Moral Imagination by Michael Knox Beran, City Journal 11 February 2009, Lincoln the Rhetor, Between Two Worlds: Reading on Lincoln

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