In his famous Lyceum Speech in 1839, Abraham Lincoln expressed his hope that George Washington would always be revered. Little did Lincoln know that he too would be revered and that more would be written about him than anyone except Jesus Christ. Lincoln’s fame is deserved. He did not run for President simply to hold the office. Rather, he sought the office in order to deal with the nation’s greatest crisis. When the Civil War ended, the nation finally ended slavery, the institution that massively contradicted our nation’s principles.
Not only that, the end of slavery invigorated commerce and caused a steady rise in the standard of living for millions of Americans. Whereas the nation once had enslaved nearly half of its population and had provided limited opportunities for much of the other half, after war’s end it turned its energies to an industrial revolution that made America rich and powerful.
Millions of Americans admire Lincoln for his statesmanship, yet some on the extreme left and right accuse him of hypocrisy, offenses against the Constitution and even tyranny. These charges are false.
The black power movement and remnants of Confederate sympathizers would seem to have little in common, but in fact both have denounced Lincoln. Both believe that Lincoln didn’t really care as much about freeing Americans of African descent as he did in wielding power. Their common error, to put it charitably, is to ignore the circumstances in which Lincoln’s statesmanship was employed.
In his campaign against the spread of slavery following passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, Lincoln found himself in the middle between passionate abolitionists who disregarded public opinion, and pro-slavery men who were determined to spread slavery wherever they could.
There was no majority in favor of the abolition of slavery, but many Americans were determined to prevent domination of the country by slavemasters. This position was grounded in the judgment that slavery was wrong and, though too powerful to be abolished, must be prevented from spreading.
We need to understand that when slavery was legal most people were slow to turn against it. Lincoln walked a fine line in the North between those few who favored abolition and many more who hated slavery because it had brought Negroes into the country.
Lincoln contended that slavery was wrong because it denied the fundamental rights of human beings, and that its expansion ultimately threatened the rights of whites no less than blacks. Color may have been an excuse but it hardly limited the desires of slave masters.
Lincoln was reviled by northern Democrats for declaring in his 1858 Senate campaign in Illinois that "a house divided against itself cannot stand." Lincoln invoked that Biblical passage to condemn the efforts of slavemasters to make slavery national. He did not call for the abolition of slavery where it existed.
Lincoln did not originally support full civil rights for those held as slaves for such a goal was not yet possible. It was enough that slavery should be restricted to where it already was.
Fortunately, more Americans opposed than supported the spread of slavery and even more the attempt at secession by 11 southern states. While both abolitionists and Democrats wavered in the face of rebellion, Lincoln never abandoned his determination to preserve the Union or his commitment to the ultimate extinction of slavery.
After hundreds of thousands of Americans became casualties in a terrible conflict, it became clear to Lincoln that the war could no longer be fought simply to preserve slavery. As a war measure, as well as to propound a greater purpose, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed slaves in rebel states and thereby encouraged them to abandon their masters and even to join the Union Army.
Lincoln was no usurper, but he did not hesitate to use his powers to preserve the Union. When the Maryland state legislature met to vote for secession, Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus and arrested all those who intended to take that fateful step. The loss of Maryland would have isolated the nation’s capital behind rebel lines.
As political philosopher Harry V. Jaffa has written, President Lincoln in dealing with rebellion exercised extra constitutional power to protect freedom, in contrast to Confederate President Jefferson Davis, who may have been more scrupulous but was dedicated to preserving slavery. That made all the difference.
This Thursday, Feb. 12, we should honor Lincoln on the 200th anniversary of his birth, for he well deserves the titles of Savior of the Union and Great Emancipator. He saved America for freedom.