Monday, March 25, 2013

Team of Rivals

The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln
by Doris Kearns Goodwin

Whether we like it or not, the United States of America would not exist without politics or politicians.  Our constitutionally defined representative democracy is one of the greatest achievements of civilization.  Unfortunately, what makes it great is also its greatest threat:  it is the responsibility of the people who live under the rule of laws written by elected representatives to maintain the integrity of those laws by participating in the making of them.  Our founders understood how fragile their new form of government would be because it relied on a majority of the  people to agree to play by the new set of rules in order that the country function as a sovereign entity.  The question of slavery dogged the founders, but they found a way to unify the nation by permitting certain southern states to continue the practice.  For the next 80 years, slavery became increasingly divisive as the country began expanding westward.  Slave states wanted the new territories to permit slavery.  Free states objected to any expansion of slavery, and a growing number of abolitionists felt that the practice was intolerable for a nation founded on the principal of liberty and justice for all.

Abraham Lincoln joined the pantheon of great American presidents by winning the Civil War and by ending slavery.  He became president in a way that seemed accidental, because he was the least known of the leading contenders for the presidency in 1860.  Moreover, he was a humble country lawyer, largely self-taught, and quite awkward-looking.  What he lacked in appearance and credentials he more than made up for in intelligence and political skill. Doris Kearns Goodwin’s recent book, Team of Rivals, explains in detail exactly how Abraham Lincoln used politics not only to get elected to the presidency, but also to end the practice of slavery in America.  While ponderous, the book is extremely well written and maintains the sense of urgency felt throughout the United States before, during, and after the Civil War.

In 1858, former U. S. Representative Abraham Lincoln, at the time a Whig, lost a senate challenge to incumbent Stephen A. Douglas after a series of debates highlighted growing divisions in the nation on the question of whether slave owners could move into newly established western territories.  Lincoln opposed the practice of slavery but recognized that the Constitution permitted it in certain states.  Senator Douglas, through a piece of legislation known as the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, undid the Missouri Compromise which set the northern boundary for slavery at parallel 36°30′ north (except within the boundaries of the proposed state of Missouri).  Debate over this law emboldened the southern states because it allowed the settlers of the new territories to decide by majority vote whether or not to permit slavery.  The southern states’ agrarian economies depended on the industrialized cities of the northeast where political power was concentrated.  Both sides recognized that it had the potential to change the political balance of power in the United States by increasing the power of those who depended on slavery.  Meanwhile, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s landmark book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin (published in 1852), enlightened the public on the horrors of slavery, giving traction to the Abolitionist movement in the north and setting the stage for the Civil War. 

Two years after his failed Senate campaign, in 1860, Abraham Lincoln re-entered politics seeking the Republican nomination to the office of President.  The leading contenders – William H. Seward, Simon Cameron, Salmon Chase, and Edward Bates – underestimated the “rail-splitter” from Illinois.  After three ballots Lincoln, through astute political maneuvering, honesty, and good manners emerged the nominee.  The presidential election results revealed how deeply divided north and south had become:  he won the northern states and western territories but not a single southern state.   His election to the presidency, with no constituents in the south, was the breaking point and eleven southern states – South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Texas, Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina, and Tennessee, in that order – seceded from the Union.  Shortly before Lincoln’s inauguration, Jefferson Davis became the president of the Confederate States of America.  

Team of Rivals explains with great clarity the political brilliance of Abraham Lincoln.  He was elected president with less than 50 per cent of the vote; and to offset this vulnerability he brought several of his rivals for the office into his cabinet.  Not only did this lead to better debates, it helped him understand the will of the people from many perspectives.  Throughout his presidency, his rivals both underestimated and attempted to undermine him but he was always two steps ahead of them.  Rather than seek revenge, Lincoln found ways to defuse his opposition which allowed them to save face as he outmaneuvered them.  His first and most painful political lesson happened early on in the Civil War.

Despite superior manpower and war machinery, the Union fought a half-hearted battle to reclaim the wayward states.  This was largely due to the failure of General George McClellan to lead the army.  The Confederate soldiers, on the other hand, fought with passion and bested the Union troops in battle after battle.  It seemed possible that the unthinkable might happen until the deliberative president, with his considerable political skill, reorganized the army’s leadership and rallied the troops behind the cause of preserving the Union.  Lincoln, being a civilian, had to tread carefully among the military leaders in order to keep their loyalty.  It took time and many lives before he was able to remove McClellan from command and replace him with a general who was willing to fight.

As calls for ending slavery became louder in the north and conditions in battle grew worse, Lincoln issued the “Emancipation Proclamation” (1863) ordering the entire executive branch of the government, including the armed forces, to treat the slaves in the Confederate states as free people and used this as leverage to attempt to bring the Confederate states back to the Union.  The Proclamation’s sole purpose was to weaken the Confederacy, not to eradicate slavery from the nation because it did not apply to the five slave states which did not secede.  Lincoln knew that it would take an amendment to the Constitution to abolish slavery from the entire country.    

Senator John B. Henderson of Missouri, on January 11,1864, called for this constitutional amendment which quickly passed in the Senate.  The House of Representatives, however, failed to achieve the two-thirds majority vote required until the following year.  President Lincoln, again used his political skill to persuade just enough Representatives to support it while he simultaneously campaigned for re-election.  He won and shortly after his inauguration in January of 1965, the House passed the amendment by a vote of 119 to 56.  The northern states voted to ratify the 13th amendment in short order, but before it became part of the Constitution, President Lincoln was assassinated on April 14, 1865, as he watched a play at Ford’s Theater in Washington, DC.  Vice President Andrew Johnson assumed the presidency and pushed the Confederate states to return to the Union and ratify the 13th Amendment to the Constitution.  In all, 27 of the (then) 36 states voted to ratify and slavery ended, freeing millions of black Americans from bondage, but not from hardship.

President Lincoln, shortly before his death, had advocated giving black men the right to vote.  Not everyone who opposed slavery and supported the 13th Amendment agreed with this.  Many Abolitionists favored sending the freed slaves to Liberia in Africa where many previously freed slaves had settled beginning in 1820.  This might have appealed to those who had been captured and imported on slave ships, but the majority of slaves in the United States in the mid-1800s were born on American soil and were not inclined to leave the only home they knew.  Thus began a massive migration of freed slaves to the industrialized north which created an entirely new set of problems for the nation’s politicians to deal with for more than a century, in ways both ugly and beautiful, but never with the finesse of Abraham Lincoln.

Today’s politicians are an unpopular lot, and deservedly so, thanks to a political system mired in dysfunction.  Very few Americans seem satisfied with the work being done by the politicians we have elected to do the nation’s business because they are not doing very much that could be called work (and this has been true for far too long).  The so-called “Sequester” is the latest example of politics gone bad in America.  It’s draconian spending cuts and tax hikes were designed to be so heinous that neither political party would let it happen, but they did anyway.  Watching the Washington drama play out is like witnessing a toxic divorce:  the parties cannot even agree on the weather.  Once upon a time, liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, could argue about policy, play a round of golf, and reach a consensus.  Gradually across the past thirty years politicians have stopped using good manners and have become focused on winning – the argument, the tactical maneuver, the debate, the election – by any means necessary.  Today, the American people are more cynical than at any point in our history, and this is a danger to our democracy.

In his first inaugural address, Abraham Lincoln closed with these words:

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 battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone 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.

This country may never again be blessed with a politician of Lincoln’s greatness, but that is no excuse for the mockery we, the people of the United States of America, are making of our miraculous form of government when we allow political organizations to turn us against each other over issues we ought to be able to talk about.

Copyright 2013 Teresa Friedlander, all rights reserved  

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