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The Lasting Impact of Abraham Lincoln

 In this temple
As in the hearts of the people for
whom he saved the Union
The memory of Abraham
Lincoln
Is enshrined forever 

Inscription above the Lincoln Memorial

Something for the weekend.  Lincoln and Liberty, Too.  The mortal remains of Abraham Lincoln were laid to rest in Springfield, Illinois a century and a half ago this week.  This is a good time to look at the impact of his life, a life more consequential for his country and the world than that of any other American except for George Washington.

1.  Lincoln ended slavery.  That is a simple three word sentence but what an accomplishment it was.  Slavery, a world wide institution, had existed in the American colonies since their foundation.  By the time of the Civil War the institution was two hundred and fifty years old and had tainted American history from its inception.  It tainted everything it touched, and, in the ringing words of Lincoln:

I hate [indifference to slavery] because of the monstrous injustice of slavery itself. I hate it because it deprives our republican example of its just influence in the world-enables the enemies of free institutions, with plausibility, to taunt us as hypocrites-causes the real friends of freedom to doubt our sincerity, and especially because it forces so many really good men amongst ourselves into an open war with the very fundamental principles of civil liberty-criticizing the Declaration of Independence, and insisting that there is no right principle of action but self-interest.

Slavery was such an entrenched institution in the South that only a mammoth Civil War, with atrocious blood-letting, brought about the conditions that ended it.  In four short years Lincoln lanced the boil of slavery, and if that were his only accomplishment that alone should ensure that his name will be honored by endless generations of Americans.  Critics of Lincoln often pretend that the South would have abolished slavery.  There is no evidence to support that belief, and much evidence to support the contention that slavery was an immensely strong institution and getting a new lease on life by having slaves work in factories.  Vast slave empires arose in the twentieth century, and the Confederacy, if it had won the Civil War, might now be regarded as a harbinger of the future on the issue of slavery, rather than as a rear guard defense of the past.  There is nothing inevitable about history, which is a human creation, and Lincoln ending slavery had global ramifications, and if he had failed opposite global ramifications might likely have occurred, which would have reverberated to this day.

2.  Lincoln preserved the Union.  There would be no United States today but for Lincoln.  There would be two or more nations where the United States of America now is.  Daniel Webster, in his immortal reply to Hayne in 1830 stated:  “Union and liberty, now and forever, one and inseparable.”  For this country and this world I believe his comment was prophetic.  Without a united America I suspect that this nation would not have successfully led the fight against Nazi Germany and then prevailed in the Cold War over the Soviet Union.  I think it all too likely that in addition to the United States and the Confederate States, there would have been other successor states to the original United States.  Allow secession once, and in times of national stress it would have been a “remedy” trumpeted by ambitious demagogues.  The founders of the Confederacy feared this, the drafters of the Confederate Constitution voting down South Carolina’s proposal that a right of secession be set forth in the Confederate Constitution and instead included in the preamble of the Constitution that they were forming a permanent federal government.

3.  Lincoln, the last Founding Father– Lincoln ensured that the Founding Fathers were not mere figures in history books, but rather the beginners of a powerful movement for human liberty.  He concisely, and eloquently, put this belief forward in this speech:

These communities, by their representatives in old Independence Hall, said to the whole world of men: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” This was their majestic interpretation of the economy of the Universe. This was their lofty, and wise, and noble understanding of the justice of the Creator to His creatures. [Applause.] Yes, gentlemen, to all His creatures, to the whole great family of man. In their enlightened belief, nothing stamped with the Divine image and likeness was sent into the world to be trodden on, and degraded, and imbruted by its fellows. They grasped not only the whole race of man then living, but they reached forward and seized upon the farthest posterity. They erected a beacon to guide their children and their children’s children, and the countless myriads who should inhabit the earth in other ages. Wise statesmen as they were, they knew the tendency of prosperity to breed tyrants, and so they established these great self-evident truths, that when in the distant future some man, some faction, some interest, should set up the doctrine that none but rich men, or none but white men, were entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, their posterity might look up again to the Declaration of Independence and take courage to renew the battle which their fathers began — so that truth, and justice, and mercy, and all the humane and Christian virtues might not be extinguished from the land; so that no man would hereafter dare to limit and circumscribe the great principles on which the temple of liberty was being built.

Lincoln continued the work of the Founding Fathers and ensured that the principles of the Declaration of Independence would be a living inheritance for all Americans rather than patriotic sentiments trotted out on the Fourth of July and then swiftly forgotten the rest of the year.

4.  Lincoln and God-No president, and few rulers, have better enunciated the fact that we are all and always in the hands of a just God:

Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.” If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

If a people are very, very lucky they have a leader of the caliber of Washington or Lincoln once in 500 years.  America had two within 87 years and we had them when we most needed them.

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Donald R. McClarey

Cradle Catholic. Active in the pro-life movement since 1973. Father of three and happily married for 35 years. Small town lawyer and amateur historian. Former president of the board of directors of the local crisis pregnancy center for a decade.

11 Comments

  1. What Lincoln could not foresee was the advent of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. FDR pitted Americans against each other (wealthy versus poor), exponentially grew the Federal Government in both power and scope, interred Americans in, well, let’s be honest – concentration camps (the Japanese Americans who were forced to sell or abandon their property and live in these camps) and his blindness to the evils of both Hitler (until it was almost too late) and Stalin, whose secret service completely infiltrated the US Government.
    The Democrat Party has been following the same playbook ever since and if some parts of this country want out from a truly despotic and inept Federal Government, I don’t blame them.

    We needed someone with the wisdom of Lincoln during the Great Depression but did not get it. We could have used Lincoln’s wisdom in 2008 but we got the worst president in the history of this nation – and reelected him.

    Lincoln saw the South as people who were, are and will be countrymen. Who thinks anything similar of King Putt?

  2. The principle of separation of church and state does not give the state power to separate the human body from his soul. The principle of separation of church and state does not give the state the power to disenfranchise the human soul, because the sovereign person dwells in his body and his soul, from his Constitutional freedom and his civil rights under the First Amendment.
    When a teacher, coach, or other personnel in charge of minor children and leaders of a peaceable assembly who choose to exercise their First Amendment freedom to express their Faith, they are guaranteed their freedom to express their Faith as sovereign persons, individuals as private persons, and not in the office of any state position. The time of their lives spent acknowledging “their Creator” is their private, personal time because these citizens are exercising their First Amendment Civil Rights and as such are giving witness to freedom.
    The atheist, the secular humanist, in being offended by the citizens’ free exercise of his freedom to acknowledge “their Creator” has charged that a state religion is being established by exercising our freedom. In exercising our First Amendment rights, we, the people, as citizens are giving witness to freedom and the power of the state to protect freedom and civil rights, and “to secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our posterity” from The Declaration of Independence.
    Private persons given charge of minor children act “in loco parentis”, and are prohibited by reason of parental authority to teach or witness to anything other than that which the parents authorize the state official to teach or disseminate as truth, principle, or freedom. This would preclude any state official in charge of minor children from imposing his personal, private opinion on the captive audience of minors, who are un-emancipated children, not yet able to discern for themselves the truth of freedom.
    Acknowledging “their Creator” and Natural human rights endowed by Nature and Nature’s God acknowledges too, that the state is not supreme. The state does not own the person. Rather, the sovereign person constitutes the state. Therefore, the state must protect the sovereign person’s sovereignty. If the sovereign person indeed, wishes to exercise his First Amendment civil right to acknowledge “their Creator”, the state is not empowered or authentically authorized to prohibit his exercise. “or prohibit the free exercise thereof.” The First Amendment.
    Every state official in charge of minor children who does not pray as a private, sovereign person is enforcing atheism, precluding the free exercise thereof, and indoctrinating minor children in the prohibition of civil rights.
    It is argued that prayer, acknowledging “their Creator”, has no place on state owned property such as public school, town hall meetings or the public square. This concept of the state gives rise to totalitarianism, the total control of the people by government, the government which the people have constituted.
    All public lands, waterways and public squares, town meeting halls and municipal buildings (meaning the peoples’ building), and public schools are owned in joint and common tenancy by each and every sovereign person, the taxpayer who bought and paid for and built it. The administration administers the tax dollars which belong to the individual tax payer even as his tax dollars are administered by the administration. Possession is nine-tenths of the law.
    In terms of children, however, parental authority, and the choice of the child to survive, his natural will to survive is his civil Right to Life, and with his chosen parents is paramount.
    The florist, Baronnelle Stutzman and Melissa’s Sweet Cakes, who both and all chose to practice their free exercise of their civil rights are being temporarily prosecuted for the crime of “hatred and discrimination” for loving their neighbor as themselves. Being heterosexual and believing that being heterosexual and acknowledging our constitutional posterity as defended in The Preamble to our Constitution, the unchangeable purpose of our Constitution, is the correct path to loving their neighbor as themselves, since they are heterosexual, and exercising their freedom of religion thereof, “or prohibit the free exercise thereof” The First Amendment.

  3. 1) Abolished slavery even though he himself knew he had no constitutional authority to do so and did not initiate the war to do it, but only grasped it as a war aim when the “glorious union” meme was not going well in the North (but since slavery was an evil, he gets a pass on this);

    2) Preserved a “union” by invading states who were simply resuming the limited authority they gave to the federal government when voluntarily joining the union after the war against England. What a “glorious union”– enforced at the point of a bayonet, at the cost of 600,000 lives. If it were a marriage, maintaining a union by such means would land someone in jail.

    3) It’s an absurd mockery to put Lincoln in the company of the founders, not one of whom would have remotely envisaged a federal army invading states in order to force their membership in what was a voluntary union of “free and independent states” after the Revolution. Nor would any of them entertained for a moment forcing a state to change a practice lawful under the federal constitution by forcing them at gunpoint to agree to the 13th amendment. Lincoln was the “anti-founder” unravelling the limited, modest role of the federal government envisioned by the founders. Pile on his repeated violation of the constitution during the war, shuttering newspapers he didn’t like; imprisoning political opponents, defying the Supreme Court about his abuse of habeas corpus… no, Lincoln introduced a new form of aggressive centralism that led in a straight line to late 19th, early 20th century progressivism and our modern unconstitutional government.

    Hey, I understand having a hero, but unreflective deification belies a lack of judgment. I love Lee and Davis, but do not hesitate to point out their many flaws, and I would never have the gall to compare them to the founders, even though they have much more in common with Jefferson, Madison, Mason, and others than Lincoln.

  4. “1) Abolished slavery even though he himself knew he had no constitutional authority to do so and did not initiate the war to do it, but only grasped it as a war aim when the “glorious union” meme was not going well in the North (but since slavery was an evil, he gets a pass on this);”

    Lincoln always said that he had no power to interfere with slavery in the states except as a war measure. Once it was clear that the Confederates were in earnest in their attempt to split the country, Lincoln seized the opportunity to emancipate the slaves as an act of War, striking a blow against the Confederacy and liberating millions of people in the bargain. He then sponsored a Constitutional amendment banning slavery to ratify what he had done.

    2. “Preserved a “union” by invading states”
    As Robert E. Lee noted, secession was simply rebellion rather than a right under the Constitution. There was no mechanism for it under the Constitution and several provisions in the Constitution indicate that the Union was meant to be perpetual. In any case, no minority faction had the right to rend the Union without the consent of a majority of the people of the United States, which the Confederates clearly never had. The United States of America was created in a war in which up to one-third of the American people opposed the creation of the country and supported the British. That it took bloodshed against a minority faction of the American people to preserve that Union bothers me no more than the fact that the original establishment of the country occurred against the wishes of the Tories.

    3. “It’s an absurd mockery to put Lincoln in the company of the founders, not one of whom would have remotely envisaged a federal army invading states in order to force their membership in what was a voluntary union of “free and independent states” after the Revolution.”

    Not at all. Various acts of early Congresses while almost all of the Founding Fathers still lived, and the Constitution provided for federal intervention against either rebellion or insurrection. The Founding Fathers were quite familiar with using military force in times of dire necessity against fellow Americans who differed from them, which is precisely the way they suppressed the Tories during the Revolution. Lincoln deserves Founding Father status because of his carrying forward the proposition that all men are created equal and restoring to millions of Americans their God-given rights. As Jefferson stated, in regard to slavery, the Justice of God would not sleep forever, and it did not.

  5. I wish we could get past the cult of Lincoln. He is simply not the saint we all want him to have been.

    Some reasons to discount his sainthood.

    1. Slavery – I tend to believe the man came around to the idea of ending slavery at some point just prior to or right after the start of the Civil War. I think he used it as part of his weaponry against the south. But let’s not pretend he started the whole thing to free the slaves. We know that’s dishonest.

    No question though that the Civil War did end slavery in the south.

    2. Sheer cost – Lincoln has some things to answer for in terms of morality of the war – before, during and after – the loss of 630,000 souls, the slaughter of civilians – the “mainstreaming” of total war, the utter destruction of the social structure in the south – flawed and horrific as it was, the destruction of the awful reconstruction of the south. Who could answer yes to these things being ok to start a war? Wouldn’t it have been better to find another option? Lincoln could have bought every slave their freedom for the price of the war and saved all those lives. Furthermore, what about all the other countries who ended slavery peacefully?

    3. Economic incentives – please be honest about the economic policies and incentives the Lincoln administration had regarding the south and the American System. It’s simply not fair to act like Lincoln was holding the south just to preserve the union. Part of the issue was that he didn’t want to lose the South’s tariff revenue.

    4. Constitutional interpretation – It’s open to debate whether what he did was constitutional or not. Do we want to praise constitutional innovators just because they “found” some new penumbras? Seccession had been openly understood as an option for the states and considered by many others than just the south prior to the Civil War. Lincoln won this debate because he outlasted the south. But the arguments are not still not overwhelmingly conclusive.

    These are just a few of the things we need to highlight about Lincoln’s run. I will leave aside the discussion of Lincoln’s personal ambition and even his faith as those are probably much lower on the list of things to worry about. I’m just trying to point out that he is not the saint we all hoped. And by doing so I hope to avoid putting our trust or our hope in any princes. Lincoln was a man with moral flaws just like the rest of us. It was a tremendously ugly time and Lincoln’s hands are stained with blood less than righteously shed at least as much as many others of the time. I do not know if the Civil War could pass Just War criteria prior to the war. And it definitely did not pass Just War criteria for prosecution of the war.

  6. “But let’s not pretend he started the whole thing to free the slaves.”

    No one said that he did, least of all Lincoln. As he stated in his First Inaugural, the question of Civil War was in the hands of the Confederates and not his. Once the War started he seized upon ending slavery as a War measure to preserve the Union. That it ended slavery benefited the country greatly and was in line with Lincoln’s own belief that all men, everywhere, should be free. A lesser leader would have lost the War and seen slavery a fixture upon the continent for the foreseeable future.

    “Lincoln has some things to answer for in terms of morality of the war –”

    Those who fired on Fort Sumter and seceded in order to protect slavery bear the guilt of starting the War. In a larger sense Lincoln of course thought that both North and South were guilty for the War because of tolerating slavery for so long.

    “the slaughter of civilians”
    Lincoln never slaughtered civilians and the War was mercifully largely free of such atrocities.
    As for total war, both sides used stern measures by the end of the War, as Chambersburg, Pennsylvania could attest.

    “Part of the issue was that he didn’t want to lose the South’s tariff revenue.”

    Tariffs were at a low point prior to the War and simply were not an issue North or South. The War cost the North far more than any revenue that could be raised from the South in tariffs in a century.

    “Seccession had been openly understood as an option for the states and considered by many others than just the south prior to the Civil War.”

    More accurate to call it a highly debatable option on which there was no agreement in the country. Both Jackson and Taylor, two Southern presidents, viewed secession as treason to be met with military force.

    “Lincoln could have bought every slave their freedom for the price of the war and saved all those lives.”

    Lincoln proposed compensated emancipation throughout the War. The border states were not interested, let alone the Confederates.
    “I’m just trying to point out that he is not the saint we all hoped.”
    Someone who is both an attorney and a politician would find it hard to claim a halo! I do claim that Lincoln was a great man a very great president. He lived in controversial times, and what he did will remain controversial for centuries to come.

  7. “That it took bloodshed against a minority faction of the American people to preserve that Union bothers me no more than . . . .”

    Mr. McClarey, please say that the deaths of 280,000 Southerners makes you sad. For the sake of your Southern readers, just say so.

  8. The deaths of all Americans in war makes me sad MR. However, if the Tories had prevailed in the American Revolution there would be no United States. If the Confederates had prevailed in the Civil War, their descendants would not be my countrymen and might well be my adversaries. History took the right course in 1783 and 1865 and the blood price on all sides was not too high to pay.

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