NOT A BAD EXAMPLE A CENTURY AND A HALF LATER

I continue to make my way through the Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, and just this week made it to the eighth and final volume in the series.  Volume Eight begins in September 1864, in the midst of the presidential campaign of that year.  Abraham Lincoln was seeking re-election to the presidency, but the human costs of the war had exceeded the darkest predictions, and that combined with divisions within his own party, widespread war weariness, and the passionate opposition of northern Democrats made his re-election far from certain.

At the end of August, the outlook for the Union was so grim that Lincoln himself had come to expect defeat.  Although William Sherman’s capture of Atlanta in early September initiated a decisive shift in military momentum and boosted popular support for the Lincoln Administration, the presidential campaign was still one of the ugliest of the century.  Northern Democrats lampooned Lincoln as “Abe the Widow-maker” and held him personally responsible for the deaths of the Union slain.  With a crudity that almost defies description, they hailed him as King “Abraham Africanus the First” and accused him of being a “negro-lover” who advocated miscegenation and the rule of blacks over whites.  In their platform they denounced the war as a “failure” and called for an immediate cease-fire to be followed by negotiations with the South.

Lincoln sat for this photograph less than a month before his Second Inaugural Address.

Lincoln sat for this photograph about three months after his re-election to the presidency.

Here is how Lincoln responded publicly after news arrived of his re-election.  Presidents did not hold news conferences in those days, and Lincoln scheduled no public speeches of any kind in the weeks following his electoral victory.  But on November 10th, 1864, the day after Lincoln learned beyond doubt that he had been re-elected to a second term, a torchlight parade of supporters proceeded to the White where they “serenaded” the victor, prompting Lincoln to deliver a short speech from his balcony.  Here is a portion of what he had to say:

 . . . now that the election is over, may not all, having a common interest, re-unite in a common effort, to save our common country?  For my own part, I have striven, and shall strive to avoid placing any obstacle in the way.  So long as I have been here I have not willingly planted a thorn in any man’s bosom.

While I am deeply sensible to the high compliment of a re-election; and duly grateful, as I trust, to Almighty God for having directed my countrymen to a right conclusion, as I think, for their own good, it adds nothing to my satisfaction that any other man may be disappointed or pained by the result.

May I ask those who have not differed with me, to join with me, in this same spirit towards those who have?

A remarkable example, don’t you think?  Lincoln told his private secretary afterward that his comments were “not very graceful,” but they revealed a largeness of heart and magnanimity of spirit in short supply a century and a half later.

 

2 responses to “NOT A BAD EXAMPLE A CENTURY AND A HALF LATER

  1. A few years ago my wife and I visited the Lincoln Presidential Museum in Springfield, IL. I had never known until I saw some of the exhibits how nasty Lincoln’s opponents had been in print – and how irrelevant Facts were to them (now we call it a post-fact, post-truth world; I wonder what they called it in the 1860s?). Party dominance was all that mattered.

    And then came this year’s presidential campaign, and it was “Deja vu all over again” as Yogi Berra is claimed to have said.

    I think many Americans are ignorant (in the sense of ‘unaware’) of how nasty our politics and politicians have so often been in our past. So I think many (“moderate”) Americans felt we had progressed to an irreversible stage of “civility” in politics, and in handling disagreements in general. But maybe it’s something else (wishful thinking?) because we forget the harsh realities, even, in the politics that were revealed in Capra’s 20th century “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” and think that story has a happy ending in the face of atypical corruption, yet Capra’s point, I think, was that the corruption was, in fact, the typical way of American politics.

    And now comes DJT. It seems to me the style of politics he, and those he is influencing, are adopting is very much like that of our past, being repeated. Lots of Americans don’t know what to do in the face of what are actually our nation’s past practices coming back around. Lincoln was gracious, but many in his own party thought he was too soft, and his opponents were merciless. It’s Deja vu all over again.

  2. What is remarkable to me is that these sentiments came after all the slaughter of years of warfare and the unprecedented nastiness of the recent election campaign. Where does this graciousness come from and why do we seem so unable to emulate this spirit? The news is full of the “confession” of Dylan Roof and I have a similar question – where does this level of absolute hatred and calculated violence come from? I can’t help but think that our modern rejection of the way of life God has laid down in the Scriptures contributes to the general debasing of public discourse to say nothing of the continuing racial conflict.

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