What’s that you say? The suggestion that Lincoln upheld right of revolution is nothing new because we are all aware of his 1848 Congressional speech on the Mexican War? Well, I’d say it’s not the same. Supporting his party coalition on the House floor when the country was fighting against Mexico was one thing, but Lincoln had enough integrity to keep this position and enough guts to say it publicly when the enemy was domestic and, in many senses, personal.
With that in mind, I refer to the poignant portion of the speech given 150 years ago today by Abraham Lincoln on his second day in New York City, a stop along his inaugural train journey from Springfield, IL, to Washington, DC. (Of course, it wonderfully has to do with not giving up a ship, but that’s beside the point, and not necessarily done in the same manner in which I take the rallying cry.) The key is to remember that this is before any shots were fired, when the questions were of secession vs. Union and when Congressmen were still trying to come to political compromise. As any honest student of the war knows, the Union’s war aims changed over its course, but that is part of the point when studying the public mindsets that led to the war happening in the first place- it’s hard to separate that from our current hindsight and knowledge of what the war turned into and how it ended, so we must be careful to put things in the right time context. Responding to the NYC mayor’s comments reminding folks that not everyone in the North was on board with the Republican platform, Lincoln himself summarized, in my opinion, the crux of the Civil War debate experience (emphasis mine):
There is nothing that can ever bring me willingly to consent to the destruction of this Union, under which not only the commercial city of New York, but the whole country has acquired its greatness, unless it were to be that thing for which the Union itself was made. I understand a ship to be made for the carrying and preservation of the cargo, and so long as the ship can be saved, with the cargo, it should never be abandoned. This Union should likewise never be abandoned unless it fails and the probability of its preservation shall cease to exist without throwing the passengers and cargo overboard. So long, then, as it is possible that the prosperity and the liberties of the people can be preserved in the Union, it shall be my purpose at all times to preserve it. Thanking you for the reception given me, allow me to come to a close.
And there you have it: “unless”, “so long as”, “unless”, “so long, then, as it is possible.” It was all about what one defined as the liberties for which the Union was created and then whether those liberties could be preserved in the circumstances. Lincoln clearly believed, without defining them, that those liberties certainly could be preserved, and thus the Union was worth fighting for. But, along with his 1848 speech, he allowed even in the most egregious of circumstances for the fact that others could see things differently. One could argue that Lincoln was merely responding to the mayor’s concerns, but I really think that the consistency over 13 years supports the idea that Lincoln was simply stating his true beliefs. I would go so far as to argue that Jefferson Davis himself could have made this same speech in complete self-honesty, believing that the liberties achieved through Union were different and most definitely in peril, thus worthy of secession. My further bet is that Lincoln knew this because that “Union” was the same one for which both his and Davis’s own ancestors fought and cherished so dearly. This is why the Civil War era was so complex, and knowing that such complexity led to real consequences is just one of the myriad of reasons it’s worth studying.