Lincoln’s understanding of secession, Part 2

Yesterday, I spoke to Abraham Lincoln’s understanding of perspective, but that was only a set-up.  150 years ago today, Lincoln was in Trenton, NJ, where for the first time, in a speech in the Statehouse to the NJ General Assembly, he clearly showed his intent to save the Union, even by force if necessary.  After giving some oft-repeated remarks mirroring those from the rest of his train journey, he markedly changed his tune, commonly believed to be in response to Jefferson Davis’s CSA inaugural address, and spoke thusly:

But it may be necessary to put the foot down firmly.

That, followed by a physical demonstration of the same.  Just one day prior, Lincoln had no problem saying that if a ship was truly no longer sustainable for its purposes that it could be abandoned, conveying his understanding that secessionists saw things differently and that, in their honest view, the ship of Union was indeed a goner by the same method of evaluation.  So what?  So two things.

First, this is a prime example of understanding other perspectives, taking into account that opposing views can be legitimate, yet holding to a self-realized conclusion.  It is my own opinion that many people today either don’t take other views into account as legitimate or, more annoying to me, they take so many other views into consideration that they claim nothing can be right/correct and we must allow for an amorphous blob of potential but not certain truths (perhaps they are all simply fans of Heisenberg).  The former point is self-explanatory as a problem that plagues us as humans quite often, but the latter point speaks to political correctness.  Lincoln talked much of peaceful resolution to the crisis, yet he must have known that stamping his foot down, literally, would rile the Southern warmongers even more.  So why did he do it? Because he believed in the rightness of his opinion, based on his studies, his intellect, his values, and certainly what he perceived to be his duties and obligations as President.  Instead of trying to appease everyone, offend no one, and cover his own rear end like James Buchanan, who now consistently rates as one of the worst Presidents ever, Lincoln stuck to his views, was honest about them, and has ever since been revered for it, even though the ensuing war cost over 600,000 lives.  Excepting the particular circumstances of the belligerent parties, it’s almost what a Southerner could have called “honorable”.

Second, I think the combination of Lincoln’s acceptance of other perspectives with a firmness of his own led to his desire of “malice towards none.”  He was intellectually honest in understanding that the Confederates were just as ardent in their views of the same “ship question” as he was, that they did not take action in 1860-1861 based on some other issue, but on that which all of America pondered.  Although Lincoln did not personally get to manage Reconstruction, it was understood by North and South alike that he would have been the South’s best possible friend for this reason; even in his customary position as “tyrant”, Southerners were convinced that this intellectual honesty would persist after their defeat.  To me, this is another of the great reasons to study the American Civil War and Lincoln himself- it ended with defeat of the rebellion but yet also with the honest desire of the victorious leader to bring rebels back into the original fold instead of castrating them from society or creating a new dictatorial government.

Are we willing to understand that others’ views can be legitimate?  Are we strong enough in so doing to still stand by our own conclusions? Are we intellectually honest enough to hold to our values after vindication, or perhaps more accurately, victory?  Wouldn’t it be nice if we could find leaders today who would answer “yes” to these questions?

More to come on the Confederate side of the same issue soon.

This entry was posted in Abraham Lincoln, Civil War, Studying History and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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