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Serious transitional badness: Think Lincoln, not Obama

Think the country is struggling through a rough transition from Bush to Obama with the stinking economy? Sure it is. But for serious transitional badness, consider what Abraham Lincoln faced.

Abraham Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln

Think the country is struggling through a rough transition from Bush to Obama with the stinking economy? Sure it is. In fact, I have often wondered over these last months whether we really need two months for presidential transitions. In most parliamentary systems, the handover after Election Day is pretty close to immediate.

But for serious transitional badness, don’t try to match this. Between Election Day (Nov. 6, 1860) and Inauguration Day (March 4, 1861, so y’see, the transition used to be even longer) seven states seceded from the Union, created the Confederacy, elected their own president (who had just resigned from the U.S. Senate, as did most Congress members from the seceded states), claimed and took ownership of federal property within their borders and made preparations for war to defend what they had done. Now that was a rough transition, just in case it makes you feel any better about the times in which we’re living.

Perhaps it snuck up on you with all the distractions, but 2009 is the bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln’s birth (Feb. 12, 1809, and yes, the one-room log cabin is no myth, but did you recall that it was in Kentucky?). Lincoln has become, by near-consensus, our greatest president ever, perhaps the greatest American ever, and (perhaps this consensus is less widely shared in the South) the most beloved figure in U.S. history.

Having read a lot of Lincoln (as President-elect Obama has also been doing), I endorse an apt  word choice Doris Kearns Goodwin made in an interview after she had spent years researching and writing her excellent Lincoln book, “Team of Rivals.” Goodwin said she hated to be finished with the book because she had found Lincoln so “companionable.” I’m quoting from memory and maybe I’ve gotten it wrong, but that word struck me as perfect for a feeling one often gets reading about Lincoln, who comes across as so kind, sincere, unpretentious, compassionate (always looking for a reason to pardon a condemned man), well-intentioned, equipped with a homespun, humorous self-deprecating joke to get him through any situation.

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(Aside to illustrate the last point, although this one suffers from apocrypha: Lincoln was our homeliest president. When he appeared in New York to give his famous February 1860 Cooper Union address, which ended up wowing the eastern audience with its logic, the audience had first to get over their horror at the sight of him, his ungainly body, awkward gait, huge feet, dark, pitted complexion, ill-fitting collar, wiry, unkempt black hair, enormous ears. That much is confirmed.  Now the apocryphal remark, which I’ve always loved, not from Cooper Union. When Lincoln was accused of being two-faced, he replied: “I leave it to my audience. If I had another face, do you think I would wear this one?”)

So, all that circumlocution is by way of warning you that during the bicentennial year, I hope to write about Lincoln often, especially when I can relate his story to the times in which we’re living.

Lincoln, the ultimate dark horse candidate, received 39.9 percent of the popular vote, the second lowest portion ever to attain the presidency. Even worse, he received 0 (that’s a zero) popular votes in eight southern states, where his name was not even on the ballot, and single digit totals in other southern states. He carried all 18 states in which slavery was illegal, and lost all 15 states in which it was still practiced. This, you might say, signaled that his election was a divider, not a uniter of the nation.

Minnesota wasn’t purple then

(That election, by the way, was the first in which the newly admitted state of Minnesota participated and went for Lincoln by a whopping 63-34 percent over Democrat Stephen Douglas. Only Vermont gave Lincoln a bigger portion of its votes. Minnesota would remain a rock-solid Republican state in presidential elections until 1932.)

Anyway, the point is that Lincoln’s mandate was seriously flawed by regionalism and the threat of secession was frequently made during the campaign, should Lincoln, often described as a “black Republican,” win.

Immediately after Election Day, South Carolina proceeded to organize a state convention that would vote on Dec. 24 to rescind its original ratification of the Constitution, specifically referring to the election of a party that didn’t respect slavery as the cause. The rest of the deep south, plus Texas, followed suit over the next few weeks, although border slave states and some key southern ones (Virginia and North Carolina) hesitated, and would still be members of the union on Inauguration Day.

President James Buchanan did nothing. Secession had been publicly discussed for months and Buchanan had developed no policy for dealing with it if it occurred. Buchanan’s position, as described by Lincoln biographer David Donald, was that secession was unconstitutional, but if it happened there was nothing that could be done about it. Goodwin says Buchanan got the first secession news while attending a wedding. And “no longer able to enjoy the festivities, left immediately.” Ah, leadership. Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer has written that “Lincoln’s hapless predecessor, James Buchanan, made procrastination into an art form. He could not have excused himself from responsibility at a more portentous moment, or left his successor with graver problems to address.”

The case of Buchanan will have to be borne if President Bush’s critics want to truly consider the question of who was the worst president ever. Bush can at least boast: “No secessions on my watch.”

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A few days after the election, Lincoln invited the vice president-elect to meet him in Chicago to talk about cabinet appointments. Here is a trivia question for you. I’ll put the answer at the bottom of this post. Who was Lincoln’s vice president?

Now this for a reminder of how much things have changed. The two men had never met. Lincoln had not attended the convention at which he was nominated, had no hand in choosing his running-mate, and during the fall campaign, they had no contact. In those days, by tradition, the presidential candidates did not openly campaign, either for the nomination or the office. It was considered unseemly. (Douglas broke with tradition and traveled the country giving speeches, but this bordered on the scandalous.)

During the endless transition

Lincoln remained in Illinois, gave no substantive speeches (nor appearances on “Meet the Press”). Unlike Obama, he did not explicitly state that the United States has only one president at a a time, nor did he publicly discuss the kinds of deals he might be willing to make once he took office.

Although he is generally revered for his leadership once in office, Lincoln has often been criticized for not doing and saying more during the transition to try to either prevent the Civil War or prepare the country for it. Harold Holzer has recently produced a book-length treatment of those four months, titled: “Lincoln President-Elect: Abraham Lincoln and the Great Secession Winter 1860-1861,” (from which the dim assessment quoted above on Buchanan is taken) and comes to the conclusion that Lincoln did a great job, even during the transition, with his few public statements and his behind the scenes activities.

Before the election, Lincoln had apparently believed that talk of secession was a bluff by southerners to extract a new deal for the westward expansion of slavery. He was wrong about that, and during the weeks of the transition that became clearer and clearer. Moderates urged Lincoln to offer compromises to lure the seceded states back into the union. Hard-liners wanted him to engage in tough talk about using military means to deal with the problem. He worried about saying anything too conciliatory that threaten the unity of his party or anything too militant that would drive border states to secession. Obama may worry about saying something that might scare the markets or set off a media storm. But Lincoln had bigger worries about what might happen if he said something ill-advised. He was particularly worried about provoking Virginia to secede.

So he mostly said nothing except to restate the Republican position: slavery would not, and could not be abolished in the states where it then existed, but it could and should be prevented from spreading into new states or federal territories as the westward expansion of the United States continued.

Lincoln did seem to be trying to signal the southern states that he would not free their slaves and they therefore had little to fear from him nor any reason to secede. (Lincoln also believed, and never wavered from his belief, that secession was legally and constitutionally impossible, and that therefore the acts of secession passed by the southern states were a nullity.)

Lincoln authorized Illinois Sen. Lyman Trumbull, in a speech that the public understood to reflect Lincoln’s thinking, to indicate that under a Lincoln administration “each and all of the states will be left in complete control of their own affairs respectively, and at as perfect liberty to choose, and employ, their own means of protecting property, and preserving peace and order, as they have ever been under any administration.”

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Lincoln was most definitely not an abolitionist. In fact, he won the Republican nomination in 1860 over his better known rivals William Seward and Salmon P. Chase in part because he was more moderate on the issue, had not recommended equal rights for blacks in the north (as Chase had) and had not suggested that the slavery issue must lead to an “irrepressible conflict” between north and south, as Seward had. (Lincoln had, in fact, stated that he did not favor allowing negroes to vote or run for office, fact that President-elect Obama will probably not emphasize when he pays tribute to his great Illinoisan predecessor.)

It’s true that southern newspapers often misstated Lincoln’s position to make him appear a more immediate threat to slavery than he was. But the Republican Party, and Lincoln, the first Republican president, did believe that by limiting the spread of slavery, the institution would be placed on the road to “ultimate extinction.” And Lincoln had stated, in one of his most famous pre-presidential speeches (the 1858 “House Divided speech), that “this government cannot endure permanently half slave, half free.” So southerners who believed that Lincoln’s election was a threat to slavery were not delusional.

By way of appeasing the South, the president-elect also authorized Seward, who was in Washington and in the Senate while Lincoln remained in Illinois, to float a package of compromises, although Seward was instructed not to associate the proposals with Lincoln, and did not. The most amazing suggestion, considering it came from a man who would become known as the Great Emancipator, was a proposal to amend the Constitution to make explicit that Congress had no power and could never acquire the power to abolish slavery.

(A few weird problems with that idea. Lincoln believed that the Constitution already protected slavery from congressional action, so the proposed amendment would not actually change the Constitution, as Lincoln understood it. It was apparently supposed to also preempt any future change in the Constitition that would threaten slavery in the states where it existed. But if you could amend such language into the Constitution, you could presumably later amend it back out. And one great irony about the idea: If it had been approved, it would have become the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. Instead, the Constitution went unamended until after the Civil War, and the 13th Amendment became the amendment that did indeed abolish slavery, once and for all.

Rumors of war, coups, assassination

Lincoln’s transition was also a time for very ugly rumors. The Obama transition is under a shadow over fears that he might be an assassination target, mostly because he is the first African-American president. In 1861, the nation was abuzz with rumors that Lincoln would not live to take office, and a second set of rumors that southerners would seize Washington by coup before Lincoln could be inaugurated. As Lincoln finally set off on the 12-day train trip from Springfield to Washington, he had to balance precautions against those rumors with giving the impression that he was slinking fearfully into the White House.

Obama, by the way, who has introduced a long list of Lincoln homages into his inaugural plans, retraced the late stages of that train trip over the weekend.

Lincoln, who had said so little in public during the transition, spoke several times a day during the train trip to crowds that came to cheer him on his way. (In some cases, he left the train and spoke to the legislatures of states through which he passed.) Some of the talks were bland, as Lincoln tried to be non-committal but confident and reassuring, and to stick to his earlier belief that the crisis would blow over.

The best example of what he said, if you want to hear the real tone he employed and marvelous euphemisms he adopted (for example, he referred to the secession crisis as “the troubles across the river”), is probably from his remarks at Pittsburgh on Feb. 15, 1861. This is an excerpt:

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“Notwithstanding the troubles across the river [Lincoln pointed southwardly across the Monongahela and smiled], there is no crisis but an artificial one. What is there now to warrant the condition of affairs presented by our friends over the river? Take even their own view of the questions involved, and there is nothing to justify the course they are pursuing. I repeat, then, there is no crisis, excepting such a one as may be gotten up at any time by turbulent men aided by designing politicians.

“My advice to them, under such circumstances, is to keep cool. If the great American people only keep their temper on both sides of the line, the troubles will come to an end, and the question which now distracts the country will be settled, just as surely as all other difficulties of a like character which have originated in this government have been adjusted. Let the people on both sides keep their self-possession and just as other clouds have cleared away in due time, so will this great nation continue to prosper as heretofore. But, fellow-citizens I have spoken longer on this subject than I intended at the outset.”

Late in the train trip, the rumors intensified that Lincoln’s life was in danger.  His security chief, Allan Pinkerton, became convinced that an assassination attempt would be made when the train passed through Baltimore. The tracks were closed to other traffic, the schedule changed and the telegraph wires even cut to heighten security. Historians are still debating whether the threat was real. The evasive measures Lincoln took at Pinkerton’s urging, which may have included some form of disguise, would haunt Lincoln with rumors that he had behaved like a coward.

Washington at last

The train did, of course, reach Washington safely, arriving in a city with the Washington monument and the Capitol Dome under construction. (Lincoln insisted on continuing the Capitol Dome project even after the war broke out, as a symbol of confidence that the nation had a future.)

On March 4, 1861, on the Capitol steps, Lincoln took the oath of office and delivered the inaugural address that he had written before leaving Springfield, then revised, with Seward’s help, after arriving in Washington.

(Obama said recently that he had been reading  Lincoln as he worked on his own inaugural address, but joked that it had become an “intimidating” exercise because Lincoln’s speeches were so great.)

Lincoln’s second inaugural is generally viewed as his masterpiece. But the first inaugural is no hack job. It combines poetry with passion, conciliation with firmness, and an overall attitude of humility and sweet reason in an almost conversational tone. Almost all of the speech is addressed quite directly and explicitly to the South and Lincoln didn’t bother discussing any issue other than the preservation of the Union. Lincoln even reads verbatim the language of the relevant portion of the Republican platform, as if he still believes that if southerners know his position on slavery, they will realize they have no need to secede. (It is hard not to cringe a bit when the future Great Emancipator explicitly promises that the fugitive slave laws will continue to be enforced, requiring northern states to return escapees to their owners.)

I highly commend to you the full text. It’s not that long nor difficult a read. But if you don’t have time for that today, here is the closing:

“In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. The government will not assail you. You can have no conflict without being yourselves the aggressors. You have no oath registered in Heaven to destroy the government, while I shall have the most solemn one to ‘preserve, protect, and defend it.’

“I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearth-stone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

The whole world will be watching the Obama inaugural address. I don’t doubt that he will mention Lincoln. And he will very likely talk also about the need for unity in a crisis.  But frankly, the difficult challenges he faces, and we face in the next four years, cannot match those faced by Abe Lincoln and the people who heard and read his speech.

When Lincoln reached his White House desk (no Oval Office yet) on the second day of his presidency, the first document with which he dealt was a report from Major Robert Anderson, commander of Fort Sumter, South Carolina, indicating that Lincoln would have to choose very quickly between resupplying the troops at Sumter (and risking battle with Confederate troops) or abandoning the fort.

Answer to trivia question: Lincoln’s first-term vice president was Maine Sen. Hannibal Hamlin. (Lincoln dumped Hamlin for the re-election campaign of 1864, choosing Tennessee Democrat Andrew Johnson as a gesture of national reconciliation. The choice of Johnson didn’t work out well.)