The War Between the States, Then and Now

In the final paragraphs of Heirs of the Founders, H. W. Brands summarizes the critical years that preceded the Civil War and reminds us — as if we need reminding — of the deep division that remains:

The deaths of Calhoun, Clay and Webster appeared less uncannily timed than the same-day deaths of Jefferson and Adams on the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. Nothing could match that earlier coincidence. But if the passing of the two founders in 1826 had symbolized the end of the first generation of America’s nationhood, the demise of the three senators amid the controversy surrounding the Compromise of 1850 marked the end of the second.

The founders had won freedom for America and created the Union of the states; their heirs had confirmed freedom and guided the Union through four decades of crisis. Neither group felt that its task was complete; American self-government was always a work in progress. Jefferson had shuddered at what the fight over the Missouri Compromise portended; Clay, Calhoun and Webster understood that the Compromise of 1850 might purchase time but guaranteed no final resolution of the struggle between the sections.

In their deaths the country honored the three as it had not always done in their lives. Henry Clay became the first American to lie in state in the Capitol; his funeral train took the long way to Lexington, looping north to Philadelphia and New York before turning west. Hundreds of thousands of mourners lined the route and paid their respects as the black-veiled car rolled by. …

The honors accorded John Calhoun were fittingly sectional. His remains were carried to Richmond; thousands journeyed to the Virginia capitol to pay their respects. Another train took him to Charleston, where thousands more viewed the casket in the city hall. He was interred in a churchyard not far from the harbor.

Daniel Webster, having died in his home, was buried there and required no transport. But half of Massachusetts, it seemed, clogged the railways and roads to Marshfield to acknowledge their debt to the state’s most famous adopted son.…

Americans felt great loss in the aftermath of the three deaths, but the nation required several years to determine just what the loss entailed. The Whig party fell to pieces, deprived of the leadership of Clay and Webster. A successor coalition, taking the name of Jefferson’s party, organized Northern Whigs and free-soil Democrats into a new Republican party, which was explicitly antislavery and effectively anti-Southern. The ghost of Henry Clay shook his head in sorrow, while John Calhoun’s specter nodded grimly at this fulfillment of his prophecy of escalation against the South.

The sectional contest took a bloody turn after Stephen Douglas pushed a bill through Congress repealing the Missouri Compromise, the more swiftly to settle Kansas and Nebraska. John Calhoun’s shade again nodded, this time in approval. Slaveholders poured into Kansas from neighboring Missouri; antislavery activists rushed to counter them. The result was an irregular war between zealots of the two sides. Among the antislavery militants was the charismatically monomaniacal John Brown, who led a band of followers in a brutal murder of several pro-slavery settlers.

While Kansas bled, the federal courts heard a case involving a slave named Dred Scott. The eventual verdict by the Supreme Court confirmed John Calhoun’s judgment that slaveholders could not be barred from taking their slaves into the federal territories. The Missouri Compromise had been unconstitutional all along.

The South celebrated; many in the North despaired. But the South was the side despairing after John Brown and a larger band of antislavery militants staged a raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, with the aim of inciting a slave rebellion. The mission failed; the rebellion never materialized. Brown was captured, tried and executed. Yet in much of the North he was treated as a martyr, one who did what other abolitionists simply talked about. The South was aghast: a murderer made into a saint? Never had the gulf between North and South yawned wider.

Within weeks of the tenth anniversary of the Compromise of 1850, Abraham Lincoln was elected president on a Republican ticket and a Republican platform. Lincoln received not a single electoral vote from a Southern state. Southerners interpreted the outcome as proof that the federal government was irretrievably in hostile hands. South Carolina finally made good on John Calhoun’s repeated threats to secede. Six other slave states followed. When Lincoln resisted secession and attempted to resupply Fort Sumter in Charleston’s harbor, the Civil War began—within rifle shot of Calhoun’s grave.

In battling the legacy of Calhoun, Lincoln looked to Henry Clay and Daniel Webster. Lincoln had been born in Kentucky while Clay was launching his career; he took notes on Clay’s climb to national prominence as he himself calculated how to advance in the political world. Lincoln called Clay “my beau-ideal of a statesman, the man for whom I fought all my humble life.” When Lincoln learned, in Springfield, Illinois, that Clay had died, he organized a memorial for his hero and insisted on giving the eulogy. “Mr. Clay’s predominant sentiment, from first to last, was a deep devotion to the cause of human liberty, a strong sympathy with the oppressed everywhere and an ardent wish for their elevation,” Lincoln said.

To be sure, Clay had countenanced slavery. “Mr. Clay was the owner of slaves. Cast into life where slavery was already widely spread and deeply seated, he did not perceive … how it could be at once eradicated, without producing a greater evil, even to the cause of human liberty itself.” Yet Clay’s tolerance was nothing more than a temporary nod to reality. “He was ever, on principle and in feeling, opposed to slavery.” Lincoln accepted Clay’s pragmatic belief that progress came in steps. And he endorsed unreservedly Clay’s central conviction that the Union was the prerequisite of all that America had done and could do on behalf of liberty.

Lincoln didn’t know, as he concluded his eulogy for Clay, how aptly his prayer for Clay would become a prayer for himself. “Henry Clay is dead,” Lincoln said. “His long and eventful life is closed. Our country is prosperous and powerful. But could it have been quite all it has been, and is, and is to be, without Henry Clay? Such a man the times have demanded, and such, in the providence of God, was given us….”

Where Henry Clay furnished Lincoln the philosophy of democratic politics, Daniel Webster gave him the words…. He edited Webster’s formulation of democracy—“the people’s government; made for the people; made by the people; and answerable to the people”—into “government of the people, by the people, and for the people.” And when, in the same Gettysburg address, Lincoln tied the fate of liberty, by then including freedom for the slaves, to that of the Union, he echoed Webster’s ringing affirmation: “Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable!”

The equation of liberty and the Union was the central article of faith of Webster and Clay, and of Lincoln. It was what separated them from John Calhoun, who perceived liberty—for the states, and specifically for slaveholders in the Southern states—as increasingly threatened by the Union. Liberty and Union, said Clay and Webster. Liberty or Union, said Calhoun.

This was what the struggle came down to during the lives of the three. And it was the heart of the struggle they bequeathed to the next generation of Americans. Lincoln and the Union army, at great cost, assured the triumph of Clay and Webster over Calhoun and the Confederacy.

Yet the struggle persisted. Slavery was its most salient aspect at the midpoint of the nineteenth century, but the contest between the states and the national government had hinged on other issues at other times: freedom of speech in 1798, war powers in 1814, the tariff in 1833. So it wasn’t surprising that the struggle outlived slavery. Clay and Webster, with Lincoln’s help, won the argument that the Union must be unbroken, but Calhoun’s insistence on the need for balance between the states and the nation found adherents on matters that ranged, during the next several generations, from civil rights and business regulation to school funding and the environment.

The struggle originated with the founders. It continued with their heirs. It is with us still.

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

Lincoln is Abraham Lincoln. The Civil War isn’t going well at all. His young son, Willie, has died, devastating Lincoln and his wife. At night, alone, the President visits the cemetery, retrieves his son’s body from its crypt and holds it in his arms. 

The President doesn’t know it, but he is surrounded by ghosts or spirits. They are denizens of the bardo:

Used loosely, “bardo” is the state of existence intermediate between two lives on earth. According to Tibetan [Buddhist] tradition, after death and before one’s next birth, when one’s consciousness is not connected with a physical body, one experiences a variety of phenomena [Wikipedia].

The phenomena the ghosts experience are strange to say the least. Their incorporeal selves take on bizarre shapes, they are merged with other ghostly beings against their will, they enter Lincoln’s body and know his thoughts and memories. They sometimes disappear amid sound and fury, presumably emerging somewhere else. The conversations they have with each other make up most of the novel. 

The more I read Lincoln in the Bardo, the more I enjoyed it. It’s understandable that it won last year’s Man Booker Prize for fiction.

Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America by Garry Wills

The brilliant author Garry Wills did a public service when he wrote this book about Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address”. Chapters on 19th century oratory, the “rural cemetery” movement and Lincoln’s choice of words provide context, but those aren’t the parts of the book that make it important.

Wills’s principal thesis is that Lincoln’s focus on the idea of equality as stated in the Declaration of Independence (“all men are created equal”) changed our understanding of the Constitution and America itself:

The Gettysburg Address has become an authoritative expression of the American spirit — as authoritative as the Declaration itself, and perhaps even more influential, since it determines how we read the Declaration. For most people now, the Declaration means what Lincoln told us it means, as a way of correcting the Constitution itself without overthrowing it. It is this correction of the spirit, this intellectual revolution, that makes attempts to go back beyond Lincoln so feckless. The proponents of states’ rights may have arguments, but they have lost their force, in courts as well as in the popular mind. By accepting the Gettysburg Address, its concept of a single people, dedicated to a proposition, we have been changed. Because of it, we live in a different America (146-147).

As originally written, the Constitution not only accepted the existence of slavery but gave preferential treatment to the slave states. Lincoln, however, forcefully proclaimed that “our new nation” was “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal”. Furthermore, he challenged us to continue “our unfinished work” to insure that America’s government would truly be, by implication, of all the people, by all the people and for all the people. Lincoln’s brief remarks at the dedication of the Soldiers National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, a few months after the cataclysmic Battle of Gettysburg, helped make our country a different and better place. Garry Wills’s excellent book explains why and how that happened.

This Passed for a Sermon Tonight

We decided to deliver our own Christmas Eve sermons this year. This was mine:

It was on November 19, 1863, four and a half months after the Battle of Gettysburg, that Abraham Lincoln spoke at the dedication of the Soldier’s National Cemetery, where 3,512 soldiers who died in the battle were still in the process of being buried.

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract….

It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Not everyone agreed with Lincoln’s speech. In his book, Lincoln At Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America, Garry Wills quotes an article from the Chicago Times published a few days after Lincoln spoke. The author of that article pointed out that the U.S. Constitution made no mention of equality and accepted the institution of slavery. Lincoln, therefore, was supposedly betraying the soldiers who fought to defend the Constitution as it was written and adopted. From that article:

It was to uphold this constitution, and the Union created by it, that our officers and soldiers gave their lives at Gettysburg. How dare he then, standing on their graves, misstate the cause for which they died, and libel the statesmen who founded the government? They were men possessing too much self-respect to declare that negroes were their equals, or were entitled to equal privileges.

Garry Wills, on the other hand, argues that Lincoln’s words were important because they gave new meaning to the Constitution, to the battle at Gettysburg and to the entire Civil War. Lincoln avoided “all local emphasis”. His speech “hovered far above the carnage”. He mentioned “no particulars” — “no names of men or sites or units, or even sides”. Lincoln didn’t even mention slavery.

Listening to Lincoln, it was as if the Southerners, against their will and without realizing it, were also engaged in the “unfinished work” of making sure government of, by and for the people would not “perish from the earth”.

In addition, Lincoln claimed that America had been founded on the proposition that all men, and perhaps all women, were created equal, despite the obvious fact that some people, including women, weren’t born with the same rights as the men who wrote the Constitution. And by expressing the hope that government of, by and for the people should not perish, he implied that such a government already existed.

Despite Lincoln’s exaggeration or imprecision, Wills concludes that the Gettysburg Address was a tremendous success. It “cleared the infected atmosphere of American history … tainted with official sins and inherited guilt”. Lincoln’s words changed the meaning of the Constitution in the minds of most Americans:

The crowd departed with a new thing in its ideological luggage, that new constitution Lincoln had substituted for the one … they brought with them. They walked off, from those … graves on the hillside, into a different America.

I n fact, how different was it? Did America become as different as Lincoln would have wanted it to be after the Civil War, or in the 20th century or the 21st? We all know that progress has been made, but it hasn’t been enough.

From The Atlantic last month:

One hundred thirty-nine years since Reconstruction, and half a century since the tail end of the civil-rights movement, a majority of white voters backed a candidate who explicitly pledged to use the power of the state against people of color and religious minorities, and stood by him as that pledge has been among the few to survive the first year of his presidency. Their support was enough to win the White House, and has solidified a return to a politics of white identity that has been one of the most destructive forces in American history. This all occurred before the eyes of a disbelieving press and political class, who plunged into fierce denial about how and why this had happened. That is the story of the 2016 election.

Maybe we will never cure humanity of tribalism, the tendency to favor people who look and sound like we do. Fear of strangers was probably built into us through thousands of years of evolution. But we have made progress. There is less slavery in the world. There is more equality, even with the economic inequality that’s increased since the 1980s. But we all have more work to do. Lincoln’s implied promise of a government of all the people, by all the people and for all the people has not been fulfilled. In recent years, we seem to have gone backward.

So it’s worthwhile at this time of the year, when “joy to the world” is proclaimed, “peace on earth” and “good will to men” are sung, and A Christmas Carol always ends with “God bless us, everyone”, to remember the words and the challenge delivered by a real president, 154 years ago, at the dedication of a new cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

Filling in the February Gap

One thing leads to another, especially in the Age of the Internet, so I recently learned a few things about America’s official national holidays.

First: Even though some states celebrate Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, it’s never been an official national holiday (blame the South). I thought it was, because when I was growing up in California, we got the day off from school. Now, unfortunately, it’s only a holiday in four states. California isn’t one of them.

Second: The lame national holiday widely known as Presidents Day, which I thought commemorated Presidents Washington and Lincoln, isn’t actually called “Presidents Day”. As far as the federal government is concerned, it’s Washington’s Birthday. Even though it never falls on the day Washington was born.

Third: This means we only have four national holidays devoted to individuals: George Washington, Christopher Columbus, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Jesus of Nazareth.

I’ve always been especially good at remembering Washington’s birthday and Lincoln’s birthday because they both come along in the middle of February. That’s when my father was born. It’s also when there’s another family anniversary that’s best kept private. 

So here’s the mid-February lineup:

February 12th is Lincoln’s birthday, the 16th was my father’s, the 18th is that other important anniversary, and the 22nd is Washington’s. And of course the 14th is (Saint) Valentine’s Day. That’s the 12th, 14th, 16th, 18th and 22nd.

But, as you can see, I’ve got nothing for February 20th!

Until now?

Further research revealed that all of this happened on the 20th of February:

1673 – The first recorded wine auction in London
1792 – The United States Postal Service was created
1872 – The Metropolitan Museum of Art opened in New York City
1927 – Golfers were arrested in South Carolina for violating the Sabbath (the South again!)
1962 – John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth
1974 – Cher filed for separation from her husband Sonny Bono
1975 – Margaret Thatcher was elected leader of the Conservative Party

Rather slim pickings, as we used to say. I’ve never been a fan of Sonny or Cher, and I always preferred Alan Shepherd (the first American in space) to John Glenn. And Margaret Thatcher is simply out of the question. Sadly, the past has let me down.

But there’s always the future.