Over the years I have heard many criticism of Abraham Lincoln. Some of these arguments make valid points. Nevertheless, after reading James McPherson’s concise but perceptive study, I am convinced that the Union president made the wisest decisions possible at a time of national crisis, given the imperfections of politics and human nature. I will address two questions that typically come up.
The first issue is emancipation. Some will argue that Lincoln was not interested in dealing with slavery so much as he was in maintaining the Union at all costs. They often quote his letter to Horace Greeley, written at the onset of the Civil War: “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery.” But McPherson puts this in the context of political necessities. Lincoln was a principled abolitionist for decades, though not a radical on the subject. He supported the cause of racial justice even when many free soilers, who were against slavery, were also against blacks. Lincoln is also faulted for the apparent inconsistencies of his Emancipation Proclamation which, at first, did not free any blacks at all. He had no power over slaves in the Confederate areas, and (for pragmatic reasons) did not touch slaves held in occupied or Union territories. McPherson explains: “The Declaration of Independence in 1776 had not made the United States an independent nation. That was accomplished only by victory in the War of the Revolution. Freedom for slaves would likewise be accomplished only in the victory in the War for the Union.”
The second issue is republican government. To what extent, critics ask, did Lincoln preserve or subvert the American Constitution? Lincoln believed that slavery was an unresolved issue of the American Founding. Many framers of our new government hoped for its gradual elimination. While there were free blacks in the south, attitudes hardened in the unfortunate rhetoric over abolition. There was no sign that it was going away anytime soon. Lincoln was determined to halt the spread of slavery and that – in terms of the electoral balance – would mean its demise. This issue was the immediate and most prominent (if not the only) cause of secession. As in any armed conflict, including the War for Independence, drastic policies were employed. These were sometimes harsh, though not overly so when compared with later American wars or with the harshness of slavery itself. They were also of short duration. People often ask if the Civil War was worth the price, even in ridding ourselves of what Southern historian Shelby Foote called the “enormous stain and sin of slavery.” Lincoln perhaps answered that best: “By general law life and limb must be protected, yet often a limb must be amputated to save a life; but a life is never wisely given to save a limb.” We may justifiably lament the compromises to American liberty over the last two centuries, but slavery was the most glaring defect of all.