A View From the Cheap Seats

March 12, 2009

Lincoln’s Legacy

Filed under: National,Politics — trzupek @ 6:47 pm
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By Rich Trzupek

  As we celebrate the 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth, there have been no shortage of people attempting to link themselves to the legacy of the greatest President of these United States. This includes the current President of the United States, who commented on Honest Abe’s example in a February 12 AP story.

  Lincoln “could have sought revenge,” Obama said, but he insisted that no Confederate troops be punished.

  “All Lincoln wanted was for Confederate troops to go back home and return to work on their farms and in their shops,” Obama said. “That was the only way, Lincoln knew, to repair the rifts that had torn this country apart. It was the only way to begin the healing that our nation so desperately needed.”

  That’s great and it obviously speaks to the “let’s forget about ideologies and principles and just all get along” message that is a central theme of President Obama’s administration. Nothing would please the President more than for us crabby conservatives to shut up and go back, both figuratively and literally, to our farms and shops.

  But, with all due respect, Lincoln’s desire to “bind up the nation’s wounds” after a momentous conflict was not something that made Lincoln great, nor did it make him unique. It made him American.

  After all, his successor, Andrew Johnson, shared exactly the same desire and no one in the history of our nation has ever used Andrew Johnson as an example of greatness. It’s an unremarkable part of Johnson’s character, because – as Americans – we expect our leaders to be healers. That’s what we do.

  Wilson tried desperately to mitigate the draconian terms that Versailles imposed on Germany after World War II. John Adams supplicated himself to King George after the Revolutionary War was concluded. Harry Truman championed the Marshall Plan, helping to rebuild (among other nations) Germany, after that country had ignited the most destructive war in history.

  So no, Lincoln’s capacity to forgive and forget didn’t make him great. What made Lincoln great was that he stood for something, that he had principles, and he didn’t give a damn if sticking to those principles made him popular or unpopular. Indeed, for most of the war, he was tremendously unpopular – an incompetent boob from the backwoods who was in way over his head, according to the opposition party and a good portion of his own.

  Lincoln was also a conservative, in the true meaning of the word, a fact that many people conveniently forget today. In one of his best speeches, an address before the Cooper Union in New York, Lincoln took the people who said he was a revolutionary (for daring to oppose the extension of slavery) to task.

  “What is conservatism?” he asked. “Is it not adherence to the old and tried, against the new and untried? We stick to, contend for, the identical old policy on the point in controversy which was adopted by “our fathers who framed the Government under which we live;” while you with one accord reject, and scout, and spit upon that old policy, and insist upon substituting something new.”

  Later, in same speech, he warned Americans against the contrivance that we call “moral relativism” today, asking his audience to reject the notion that there are not absolute rights and absolute wrongs.

  “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 … reversing the divine rule, and calling, not the sinners, but the righteous to repentance – such as invocations to Washington, imploring men to unsay what Washington said, and undo what Washington did.”

  If a politician were to utter such words today, he would be labeled a “fanatic” by a good deal of the mainstream media. He demanded that Americans choose a side. The current President, no doubt, would call such ideas divisive, and he would be right. Those were divisive words. They were words that implored men to stand for something, as he himself did.

  And what he stood for was very clear: preservation of the Union and putting a halt to the extension of slavery. The two issues were intertwined, he saw. Left on its own, relegated to a few southern states, the “Peculiar Institution” would eventually die out of its own ponderous weight. But if the cancer were allowed to spread, it would fester and the Union would not survive “half slave and half free”.

  He never deviated from this course, from these principles. Indeed, he lead the nation into a war that cost more American lives than all of its wars before or since – added together – in his single-minded desire to do what he knew to be right.

  Few other Presidents in our history have had that kind of courage, or that kind of moral certitude. Today, Lincoln’s refusal to compromise would be viewed as “stubbornness” and “fanaticism”. Americans today like gray. We take solace in it. Gray keeps us from having to take a stand and worse, from having to fight to defend our principles.

  Lincoln should be admired for wanting to forgive and forget, once the conflict was over. But, if we are to truly honor the legacy of the Sixteenth President of the United States, let us not forget how we got into that conflict in the first place, and why. For that was the true measure of the man.


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