On Feb. 12, 2009, the 200th anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln will be marked by the nation. Lincoln is by mostly all accounts considered the greatest of our presidents, having led the United States through the Civil War and begun the process of the emancipation of the slaves.
Through most of his political life though, he believed in a limited executive, a view characteristic of the Whig party of Henry Clay. Clay was his boyhood hero, not Andrew Jackson, and Lincoln once acknowledged that he was in all things a Whig. He accumulated a total of four formal months of education, yet he wrote some of the most elegant prose in the English language. He grew up reading the King James Version of the Bible and Shakespeare, not bad role models for 19th century stylists. He was acutely aware of his educational deficiencies and insisted that his eldest child, Robert, go to Harvard College. When he read a book he totally absorbed it—reading it aloud so he could see and hear it at the same time.
Lincoln was truly born poor, a boy who hated manual labor, who rarely got along with his father, but he lived in a world of dreams and history. He was deeply influenced by the Founding Fathers, especially George Washington, and in one of his earliest speeches he lamented that they seemed to have gotten all the nation’s glory, and left little for future generations. He obviously was personally very wrong.
Once in the White House he reminded an Ohio regiment that the mere fact that he was president showed that it was possible that one of their boys could be president someday. He knew that he was the American dream come true—the very exemplar of virtuous ambition rewarded.
From the earliest years of his manhood, he was extensively involved in politics in Illinois, serving with distinction in the state legislature and was known for pork barrel politics, the Whig preference for internal improvements. Finally he received a chance to go to Congress and he gladly took the honor. But there he opposed President James K. Polk and the Mexican war, and suffered public disapproval back home. The successes of the Americans in the war led to vast tracks of land in the Southwest being opened up to slavery. The Mexican war was the father of the Civil War in a very real way.
Lincoln was unable to advance very much after that, losing election after election. He was still a Whig, but the Whig party was unsuccessful in trying to expand its base, and it was the new Republican Party that garnered the energy and interest of people. Reluctantly he became a Republican, saying goodbye to the party of Clay.
As is frequently said, Lincoln was no abolitionist, but one must not forget that he consistently stood for no expansion of slavery into the new territories—a position that the South could not accept. He ran on that plank, administered his government at first on that caveat, but then realized what General Ulysses Grant said at the start of the Civil War—the dynamics of the conflict would end in total abolition.
An inexperienced Present Lincoln bounced from one general to another, until he became even more and more the true commander in chief. He proposed strategies, raised up armies and resources, and pursued a modest foreign policy so as not to take away Union energies from the war. Doris Kearns Goodwin has praised Lincoln for assembling at first a team of rivals to head up his administrative departments. She forgets that one cabinet secretary was initially disloyal to the president, another was removed for corruption, and several others were barely competent. If that was a team, and Lincoln’s approach is being recommended to President Obama, then perhaps one should review that recommendation.
Using those same powers as commander in chief, Lincoln began the emancipation process. He freed the slaves in rebel territories (where he did not have power initially), but then he pushed Congress for the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the Constitution which ended slavery. He truly gave the nation a new birth of freedom.
In the end, he redefined the Union of Washington and Jefferson, and his two great state papers—the Second Inaugural Address and his Gettysburg—made America a very different republic. Instead of being a collection of states, it was a nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men were equal. It was a slave nation made purer by the blood of martyrs, black and white, who fought for that new Union.
And so on his anniversary, the nation he so loved can take a moment to render its due to its greatest president and also to a promise that he made on behalf of generations not yet born.
Michael P. Riccards is the executive director of the Hall Institute of Public Policy. A presidential scholar who has written 14 books, Riccards was selected by Governor Jon S. Corzine as New Jersey liaison to the national Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission.