Lincoln's Unflinching Words
By now, most readers of this site will have seen Steven Spielberg's Lincoln.
Each of us, doubtless, has his own opinion of the film. But all of us, doubtless, were moved by its portrayal of the courage, humanity, intelligence and sheer, rascally wiliness of our first Republican president. Lincoln never boasted: "we are the change we have been waiting for."
He didn't need to. Lincoln knew he was a superior man -- literally, a giant among pygmies, the most consequential president in American history.
Underneath the "scrub" accent (which, perhaps for tactical reasons, he rarely eschewed), Abraham Lincoln was pure steel. As the movie shows, the 16th President of the United States was perfectly willing to use patronage, trimming, and horse-trading to muster the Congressional votes to pass his Thirteenth Amendment. But Lincoln did not compromise on the principle which the Thirteenth Amendment represented.
As Ta-Nahisi Coates wrote in the Atlantic on-line edition this weekend, compromise was the mistake which other Republicans made with the conquered South after Lincoln had been assassinated. The result was an insurgency by former Confederates which continued until, in 1877, the insurgents won.
Abolishing slavery -- made possible by the suicidal stupidity of secession -- was Lincoln's objective. And the abolition of slavery, implanted in the Constitution, was what he got. Everything else, as Lincoln tells in entertaining detail, was...well, politics.
The Railsplitter, as the Spanish proverb goes, wrote straight with crooked lines.
What is the takeaway for today?
Well, the task confronting us is how to assure that there will be more Republican presidents (not to mention a Republican Congress) in the face of a Democratic president and Democratic Party who are hopeful of destroying us over the next couple of election cycles. As it happens, Abraham Lincoln knew something about that too.
Lincoln had seen the first political party he was associated with -- the Whigs -- die. Lincoln then joined, in the mid-1850's, the new Republican Party. At the same time, he also refused to join (or adopt the nativist and anti-Catholic principles of) the Know-Nothing Party.
There it is again: Abraham Lincoln didn't "do" compromise on matters of core principle. To the contrary, President Lincoln accepted a civil war in which over 3% of the population died rather than yield. He also accepted his own death.
In 1865, the matter of principal was abolishing slavery once and for all via a Constitutional amendment. In 1861, however, Lincoln had faced an earlier question of principle: whether to accept the extension of slavery into the territories in exchange for the South's accepting his election to the presidency. Agree to extend the old Missouri Compromise line all the way to the Pacific, the entreaties went, and there'll be no secession.
And no war.
Lincoln refused. Letters, personal visits and even an attempted peace convention which met in Washington as Lincoln was being inaugurated were politely, but firmly, rejected. To do otherwise, Lincoln said, would be to repudiate the Republican platform of 1860 before he even took office and to forfeit the basis on which the American people had elected him.
According to William Seward, his incoming secretary of state, Lincoln explained to a caller that: "By no act or complicity of mine shall the Republican party become a 'mere sucked egg -- all shell - no principle in it.' "
(letter of Senator Charles Sumner, January 28, 1861, quoted in Bruce Catton, The Coming Fury (1961), p. 201, n. 12 ).
Second, perhaps we could cheer up -- just a little. Lincoln always explained that it was his "little stories" and jokes which made him able to function in a moment of extreme crisis. The movie shows that too (especially Secretary of War Stanton's exasperation with them) -- and also something else from the Republican past which could usefully be recovered.
A song. A rollicking song with a very sharp barb in it.
In Lincoln, as the House passes the Thirteenth Amendment, the despair of the Democrats is drowned out by the singing of the Republicans. Republicans singing? What are they singing?
What they're singing is the Republican campaign song of 1864: "The Battle Cry of Freedom."
The song endured for decades -- even as the campaign slogan of the Democratic Party was: "this is a white man's country." First written in 1862, the tune itself proved so catchy the Confederates adopted new lyrics just so they could sing it too.
Here is a recording of the complete song (Union version) performed by the Weavers, with lyrics. And here's the refrain:
The Union forever! Hurrah, boys, hurrah!
Down with the traitor, up with the star;
While we rally 'round the flag, boys, rally once again,
Shouting the battle cry of freedom!
So, perhaps, in 2012, we should heed the example of Abraham Lincoln: no compromise on core principles; and good humor to all.
Except, of course, Democrats. For "government of the people, by the people and for the people" is still threatened. As is the Constitution.
And that, as Abraham Lincoln said, is what the Republican Party is all about.