Editor’s note: This is the third of four book reviews to be published in honor of Black History Month.
Abraham Lincoln had not yet arrived in Washington to take up his position as president of the United States after his election on Nov. 6, 1860, when, on Dec. 24, 1860, South Carolina declared its secession from the United States.
”A geographical line has been drawn across the Union, and all the states north of that line have united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery,” South Carolina said in its secessionist declaration.
“He is to be entrusted with the administration of the common Government, because he has declared that that ‘Government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free’ and that the public mind must rest in the belief that slavery is in the course of ultimate extinction.”
Texas said in its secessionist declaration, “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery. … There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or dissolution….”
Texas chose dissolution. And soon afterward, it chose war.
Forces from the secession states overran federal installations at Fort Pulaski in Georgia; Fort Barrancas in Pensacola, Fla.; and Forts Jackson and St. Philip in Louisiana, among others.
Lincoln had a supreme presidential challenge — whether to preside over the dissolution and dismemberment of the United States or to save the Union at all costs. His preference would have been a peaceful resolution of the conflict. But when, on April 12, 1861, Fort Sumter, S.C., was attacked and overrun, President Lincoln realized there was little or no chance of a peaceful resolution.
“In this act, discarding all else, they have forced upon the country, the distinct issue: Immediate dissolution, or blood,” he said.
The secessionist states may have overestimated President Lincoln’s ability and determination to rid the country of slavery, but they certainly underestimated his resolve and determination to “preserve, protect and defend” the United States. This cause became his magnum opus, for he passionately believed he was constitutionally obligated to maintain the United States intact.
William Lee Miller’s thoroughly researched, but highly readable book, “President Lincoln: The Duty of a Statesman,” provides an incisive account and analysis of Lincoln’s moral character and political acumen. It also shows how the moral, political and economic contradictions enshrined in the Constitution for a century would lead ultimately and inevitably to internal conflict as it did in the secession and Civil War.
For his management of the war and the associated political forces, Lincoln, in our estimation, becomes “The Father of the Nation” because his successful prosecution of the war enabled the restoration of the Union. The dissolution of slavery was a collateral outcome, and both were necessary for the United States to become a successful modern republic.
Lincoln himself, reflecting on what lay before him as he departed for Washington, said he would have “a task before me greater than that which rested on (George) Washington.” And he did.
In his book, Miller makes clear that the Confederacy had powerful resources at its disposal, and its armies were, in most respects, the equal of those of the Union’s. The Union lost many, many battles and for a long time seemed to be losing the war.
Many of Lincoln’s generals were sympathetic to slavery, and though the primary purpose of the war was not slavery, it made them dilatory and half-hearted in how they led their armies against the insurgents. Gen. George McClellan, for one, was a notoriously unwilling warrior and ultimately was dismissed by the president.
But besides these generals, there was much support for slavery in the North, for the northern economy was highly entwined with, and dependent on, the slave economy, quite apart from racial ideas. Had Lincoln made slavery central to the war effort, he would have lost support in the North, and as importantly, those border states that had slavery — Maryland, Missouri and Kentucky — and he would have lost the war.
Eventually, emancipation would come to be both a strategic and tactical policy. Frederick William Douglass had been pressing Lincoln to let black men fight in the Union armies. Lincoln came to see the wisdom of it. It would deprive the South of important manpower for civilian and military uses and provide the Union armies with important increments of support troops as well as fighting men.
Inter alia, the Emancipation Proclamation (January 1863) said “….I, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States …. Do order and declare that all persons held as slaves within said designated States and parts of States, are, henceforward and shall be free…..”
And as the black troops distinguished themselves with bravery and military discipline, Lincoln felt more confidence in defending their rights to manhood and eventual citizenship. And the tide of the war gradually turned against the South. The additional troops and some determined military leadership led to more and more union victories.
As the president said on Aug. 17,1864, “ Take from us, and give the enemy, the hundred and thirty, forty, fifty thousand colored persons now serving us as soldiers, seamen, and laborers, and we can not longer maintain the contest.”
Not trusting that his proclamation issued in the exigency of war would stand the test of time, Lincoln turned to working for the passage of a constitutional amendment. The 13th Amendment would be passed after his assassination and it laid the foundation for eventual citizenship for African-Americans and other minorities, fulfilling his moral obligation to the republic.
— Desmond Jolly, a longtime Davis resident, is an agricultural economics emeritus and served as director of the University of California Statewide Small Farm Program from 1995 to 2006.