November 6th, 1860 Abraham Lincoln was elected President of the United States. The crisis had come to a head. South Carolina would soon secede, the War would begin. How to feel about Lincoln? Well, for what it’s worth I can say pretty confidently that he would have been the only President ever elected that I myself would have voted for. And maybe then only in 1864. Lincoln did change, it wasn’t that he took a circuitous route to get to the right place, he changed the place he wanted to go. Yes, he would have been maddeningly hard to support sometimes, especially in the early years of the war as he courted the Border States. By the end of the war you might have gladly died to protect him.
If you look at the actual politicians on hand at the time, there is not a one, with the partial exceptions of Seward and Sumner and it would have taken a revolution (possible if Lincoln lost in 1864) for them to see power, to lead this struggle to its conclusion; emancipation. He is also, by a large measure, the best writer ever to be President. Read his letters, articles and speeches. Many of them are brilliant in their own terms. There’s a lot of myths about the man and none of them need to be perpetuated, but history will continue to be kind to him. When it mattered most he stood for human freedom and fought to achieve it, paying with his life.
William Lloyd Garrison was one of those who found it maddeningly hard to support Lincoln in the early years of the war. Here he is four years later. The war had changed. Emancipation was now the purpose and the means of the war to restore the Union. Hundreds of thousands had fallen, millions had struck out for freedom. But it was not over yet. When Garrison spoke these words, in the Spring of 1864 the war had become something else, something horrific beyond all past experience. In the first two weeks of May, when this speech was given, the Army of the Potomac suffered 33,000 casualties on a ten mile meat grinder south of the Rapidan at the start of Grant’s Overland Campaign. In those two weeks the face of war itself changed as the soldiers themselves learned to dig trenches wherever they arrived, the tone of the fighting had changed as well. Gettysburg and Chancellorsville are downright gallant and civilized compared to The Wilderness and Spotsylvania. That Spring was epic. In response both to the casualties and to the change in focus of the war there was increasing anti-war agitation in the North. Copperheads were preaching sedition and Lincoln’s re-election in the Fall was far from certain. The outcome of the struggle, from the perspective of the time, was hardly a forgone conclusion. Lincoln would not retreat. This is the context of Garrison’s speech below as we remember Lincoln on his election, this day 150 years ago.
‘Grant that there are many sad things to look in the face; grant that the whole of justice has not yet been done to the negro; grant that here and there greivances exist which are to be deplored and to be redressed; still, looking at the question broadly, comprehensively, and philosophically, I think the people will ask another question—whether they themselves have been one hair’s breadth in advance of Abraham Lincoln? (Applause.) Whether they are not conscious that he has been not fully up with him, but on the whole, a little beyond them? (Applause.) As the stream cannot rise higher than the fountain, so the President of the United States, amenable to public sentiment, could not, if he wished to do it, far transcend public sentiment in any direction. (Applause.) For my own part, when I remember the trials through which he has passed, and the perils that have surrounded him—perils and trials unknown to any man, in any age of the world, in official station—when I remember how fearfully pro-slavery was the public sentiment of the North, to say nothing of the South—when I remember what he has had to deal with—when I remember how nearly a majority, even at this hour, is the seditious element of the North, and then remember that Abraham Lincoln has struck the chains from the limbs of more than three millions of slaves (applause); that he has expressed his earnest desire for the total abolition of slavery; that he has implored the Border States to get rid of it; that he has recognized the manhood and citizenship of the colored population of our country; that he has armed upwards of a hundred thousand of them, and recognized them as soldiers under the flag; when I remember that this Administration has recognized the independence of Liberia and Hayti; when I remember that it has struck a death blow at the foreign slave trade by granting the right of search; when I remember that we have now nearly reached the culmination of our greatest struggle for the suppression of the rebellion and its cause, I do not feel disposed, for one, to take this occasion, or any occasion, to say anything very harshly against Abraham Lincoln. (Long and prolonged applause.)’
William Lloyd Garrison’s Defense of Lincoln appeared in The Liberator on May 20, 1864
‘As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy. Whatever differs from this, to the extent of the difference, is no democracy.’ Abraham Lincoln August 1, 1858.