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.
Abraham Lincoln, conclusion of his First Inaugural Address
A video clip of a movie, The Better Angels, coming out in the fall of this year. The film deals with the boyhood of Lincoln and centers on the death of his mother, Nancy Hanks Lincoln. She died when Lincoln was nine and Lincoln helped his father make her coffin. Throughout his life Lincoln was surrounded by death: his younger brother Thomas who lived only three days, his mother, his beloved sister Sarah who died at age 20 giving birth to a still born son, his son Eddie who died in 1850 age three, his son Willie who died in 1862, age 11 and the grim death toll of the Civil War, larger than that of all other American wars combined until Vietnam. These deaths helped increase the melancholy that always lurked below the surface for Lincoln and which he fought off with his humorous story telling.
Lincoln’s religious beliefs during his life were a subject of controversy and so they have remained after his death. However, all the deaths that he personally witnessed convinced him that God had His own purposes that were unknown to mortals. Lincoln gave this belief immortal form in his Second Inaugural:
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. Continue reading
The culmination of Early’s raid on Washington, the skirmishing at Fort Stevens, one of the many forts guarding Washington, on July 11-12, really didn’t amount to much, Early quickly realizing that the fort was now manned partially by veteran troops of the VI corps from the Army of the Potomac, dispatched by Grant to guard Washington, and that whatever opportunity he had ever had to seize Washington by a coup de main was now gone.
Early withdrew on the evening of July 12 and by July 13 was south of the Potomac, his raid on Washington becoming simply a matter for historians. The attack on Fort Stevens is now chiefly remembered for the visit by President and Mrs. Lincoln during the engagement, and Lincoln becoming the only American president during his term of office to come under combat fire. Continue reading
On July 10, 1864 Jubal Early’s men were approaching the outer suburbs of Washington and panic was seizing the city. Lincoln’s telegram to Grant does not indicate any panic on the part of Lincoln, but worry about whether Early would take the city: Continue reading
On July 4, 1864 Abraham Lincoln had much to pre-occupy his mind. Grant’s drive on Richmond had bogged down into a stalemated siege to the south of Richmond around the city of Petersburg. Grant, due to the appalling Union casualties of the campaign, was routinely denounced as a butcher in Northern newspapers, a charge echoed privately by Mary Todd Lincoln. On June 27 Sherman had been bloodily repulsed at Kennesaw Mountain, and his campaign against Atlanta appeared to be very much in doubt. Lincoln suspected that he would not be re-elected and that the Union might very well lose the war. So what did he do on July 4? He, along with Mrs. Lincoln and most of his cabinet, attended a fundraiser held on the White House lawn to build a Catholic church!
Great principles don’t get lost once they come to light. They’re right here; you just have to see them again!
Senator Jefferson Smith, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
In our struggles for liberty today, we are part of a long and proud American tradition, something that Abraham Lincoln reminded the country of almost 156 years ago:
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.
Abraham Lincoln, August 17, 1858
On September 30, 1859 Lincoln made another speech which I think is very apropos to our time: Continue reading
During the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858, both Lincoln and Douglas, in addition to their joint appearances at the debates, gave many separate speeches. On the evening of July 10, 1858, Lincoln gave a speech in the evening in Chicago. During the course of that speech he touched upon why we celebrate the Fourth of July.
Now, it happens that we meet together once every year, sometime about the 4th of July, for some reason or other. These 4th of July gatherings I suppose have their uses. If you will indulge me, I will state what I suppose to be some of them.
We are now a mighty nation, we are thirty—or about thirty millions of people, and we own and inhabit about one-fifteenth part of the dry land of the whole earth. We run our memory back over the pages of history for about eighty-two years and we discover that we were then a very small people in point of numbers, vastly inferior to what we are now, with a vastly less extent of country,—with vastly less of everything we deem desirable among men,—we look upon the change as exceedingly advantageous to us and to our posterity, and we fix upon something that happened away back, as in some way or other being connected with this rise of prosperity. We find a race of men living in that day whom we claim as our fathers and grandfathers; they were iron men, they fought for the principle that they were contending for; and we understood that by what they then did it has followed that the degree of prosperity that we now enjoy has come to us. We hold this annual celebration to remind ourselves of all the good done in this process of time of how it was done and who did it, and how we are historically connected with it; and we go from these meetings in better humor with ourselves—we feel more attached the one to the other, and more firmly bound to the country we inhabit. In every way we are better men in the age, and race, and country in which we live for these celebrations. But after we have done all this we have not yet reached the whole. There is something else connected with it. We have besides these men—descended by blood from our ancestors—among us perhaps half our people who are not descendants at all of these men, they are men who have come from Europe—German, Irish, French and Scandinavian—men that have come from Europe themselves, or whose ancestors have come hither and settled here, finding themselves our equals in all things. If they look back through this history to trace their connection with those days by blood, they find they have none, they cannot carry themselves back into that glorious epoch and make themselves feel that they are part of us, but when they look through that old Declaration of Independence they find that those old men say that “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” and then they feel that that moral sentiment taught in that day evidences their relation to those men, that it is the father of all moral principle in them, and that they have a right to claim it as though they were blood of the blood, and flesh of the flesh of the men who wrote that Declaration, (loud and long continued applause) and so they are. That is the electric cord in that Declaration that links the hearts of patriotic and liberty-loving men together, that will link those patriotic hearts as long as the love of freedom exists in the minds of men throughout the world. [Applause.] Continue reading
The United States Sanitary Commission was a private organization established in 1861 to aid sick and wounded Union soldiers. During the War it raised 25 million dollars in private contributions, and sent thousands of volunteers, many of them women, to work in camps as nurses and cooks, and to administer hospitals and hospital ships and to establish rest homes and soldier’s homes for Union troops. The Sanitary Commission was quite successful in improving the health and living condition of the common soldiers and was much appreciated by them. Fairs were held by the Sanitary Commission in Northern cities to raise funds and Lincoln spoke at such a fair in Philadelphia on June 16, 1864. Lincoln was a highly unusual politician and we see this in the speech. He does not sugarcoat the horrors of war and while acknowledging that everyone is anxious for the ending of the War, that he, and he assumes the nation, are willing to fight on if it takes three more years to attain the goals for which the War was initially begun. Here is the text of Lincoln’s speech: Continue reading
Kyle Cupp at The Week has an interesting post in which he celebrates Pope Francis for bringing uncertainty about God to Catholicism:
In fact, Pope Francis has explicitly endorsed doubt in the life of faith. In a 2013 interview published in America Magazine, the pontiff said that the space where one finds and meets God must include an area of uncertainty. For him, to say that you have met God with total certainty or that you have the answers to all questions is a sign that God is not with you. Be uncertain, he counsels. Let go of exaggerated doctrinal “security.” A devout faith must be an uncertain faith:
The risk in seeking and finding God in all things, then, is the willingness to explain too much, to say with human certainty and arrogance: “God is here.” We will find only a god that fits our measure. The correct attitude is that of St. Augustine: seek God to find him, and find God to keep searching for God forever.
The pope has taken a risk with all this, but not without reason. If God really is infinite and indescribable, as Catholicism and other religious traditions imagine, then an uncertain faith makes sense. At the end of the day, those who talk about God really do not know what they’re talking about. People refer to God with symbols and metaphors, stories and analogies, believing that these limited expressions disclose a limitless reality, but even if these expressions are true, they nonetheless differ infinitely from any infinite being. Undoubtedly, a lot gets lost in translation. Continue reading
When You Go Home, Tell Them Of Us And Say, For Your Tomorrow, We Gave Our Today
Inscription on the memorial to the dead of the British 2nd Infantry Division at Kohima.
On this Memorial Day I thought that we might want to look at Eisenhower’s Gettysburg Address. On the 100th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address on November 19, 1963, President Kennedy had to beg off appearing due to his trip to Texas, a trip that would end in tragedy on November 22, 1963 in Dallas. Former President Eisenhower, a resident of Gettysburg, agreed to speak in his place. Eisenhower in his brief address viewed Lincoln’s speech not as of merely historical interest, but rather an ongoing challenge to the nation. Here is what he said:
We mark today the centennial of an immortal address. We stand where Abraham Lincoln stood as, a century ago, he gave to the world words as moving in their solemn cadence as they are timeless in their meaning. Little wonder it is that, as here we sense his deep dedication to freedom, our own dedication takes added strength.
Lincoln had faith that the ancient drums of Gettysburg, throbbing mutual defiance from the battle lines of the blue and the gray, would one day beat in unison, to summon a people, happily united in peace, to fulfill, generation by generation, a noble destiny. His faith has been justified – but the unfinished work of which he spoke in 1863 is still unfinished; because of human frailty, it always will be.
Where we see the serenity with which time has invested this hallowed ground, Lincoln saw the scarred earth and felt the press of personal grief. Yet he lifted his eyes to the future, the future that is our present. He foresaw a new birth of freedom, a freedom and equality for all which, under God, would restore the purpose and meaning of America, defining a goal that challenges each of us to attain his full stature of citizenship.
We read Lincoln’s sentiments, we ponder his words – the beauty of the sentiments he expressed enthralls us; the majesty of his words holds us spellbound – but we have not paid to his message its just tribute until we – ourselves – live it. For well he knew that to live for country is a duty, as demanding as is the readiness to die for it. So long as this truth remains our guiding light, self-government in this nation will never die.
True to democracy’s basic principle that all are created equal and endowed by the Creator with priceless human rights, the good citizen now, as always before, is called upon to defend the rights of others as he does his own; to subordinate self to the country’s good; to refuse to take the easy way today that may invite national disaster tomorrow; to accept the truth that the work still to be done awaits his doing.
On this day of commemoration, Lincoln still asks of each of us, as clearly as he did of those who heard his words a century ago, to give that increased devotion to the cause for which soldiers in all our wars have given the last full measure of devotion. Our answer, the only worthy one we can render to the memory of the great emancipator, is ever to defend, protect and pass on unblemished, to coming generations the heritage – the trust – that Abraham Lincoln, and all the ghostly legions of patriots of the past, with unflinching faith in their God, have bequeathed to us – a nation free, with liberty, dignity, and justice for all.
Soon we will remember D-Day on June 6, this year being the 70th anniversary of that longest day. Here is what Eisenhower wrote to the troops who were embarking on, as he termed it, the Great Crusade:
Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force!
You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you. In company with our brave Allies and brothers-in-arms on other Fronts, you will bring about the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over the oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world.
Your task will not be an easy one. Your enemy is well trained, well equipped and battle hardened. He will fight savagely.
But this is the year 1944! Much has happened since the Nazi triumphs of 1940-41. The United Nations have inflicted upon the Germans great defeats, in open battle, man-to-man. Our air offensive has seriously reduced their strength in the air and their capacity to wage war on the ground. Our Home Fronts have given us an overwhelming superiority in weapons and munitions of war, and placed at our disposal great reserves of trained fighting men. The tide has turned! The free men of the world are marching together to Victory!
I have full confidence in your courage and devotion to duty and skill in battle.
We will accept nothing less than full Victory! Good luck! And let us beseech the blessing of Almighty God upon this great and noble undertaking.
Sacrificing for freedom for Eisenhower was not just an empty political phrase. As he wrote these words he knew that many of the men who read it would be paying the ultimate price so that people long after they were dead, generations unknown to them, would enjoy the freedom they were about to die for. Continue reading
I always find questions that begin “What Would Jesus Do?” rather obnoxious for two reasons. First, because they are usually posed by people absolutely certain that Jesus follows their views in lockstep, and second, because Christ of course is God and the mind of the All-Mighty is unknowable to us. As Lincoln put it so well in his Second Inaugural:
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.
So questions that begin “What Would Jesus Do”?, strike me as presumptuous at best and blasphemous at worst.
Johnathan Merritt at The Atlantic seems very confident as to the position of Jesus on the death penalty. He would be against it:
Many forget that Jesus once served as a one-man jury on a death-penalty case. In a famous New Testament story, an adulterous woman was dragged to Jesus’ feet. The woman was guilty of a capital offense and had been caught in the act by at least one witness. The law mandated her death but Jesus prescribed a different response: “Let whoever is without sin cast the first stone.” He was teaching that only a perfect being—only God—should have power over death and life. Continue reading
One hundred and fifty years ago Lincoln knew that 1864 was likely to be the decisive year of the War, as the people of the North had an opportunity to pass judgment on him at the polls. With the Democrat party adopting an anti-war position, Lincoln was likely to be defeated unless radical progress in the War could be demonstrated by November. Additionally he had to justify his policy of abolishing slavery and enlisting black troops, as many pro- Unionists in the North looked with considerable misgivings on both policies. So on April 4, 1864 Lincoln took up a pen to defend his decision to enlist black troops to a Kentucky Unionist who with the Governor of Kentucky and a former Senator from Kentucky, also Unionists, had protested to Lincoln the enlistment of such troops in Kentucky. The end of the letter foreshadows language Lincoln would use in his Second Inaugural regarding the ending of slavery: Continue reading
During this sesquicentennial of the War Between the States a very old question arises: What was the impact of John Wilkes Booth on the outcome of the War Between the States? My response is none.
The assassination of Lincoln by Booth certainly shocked the nation. A President had never been assassinated before, and to have it happen while the President was at ease, enjoying a play at Ford’s Theater, added an element of the grotesque that magnified the horror. Booth, unknown to all but his closest intimates, had been a Confederate sympathizer throughout the War. Whether his murder of Lincoln was an act of impulse or a carefully planned conspiracy remains a subject of heated debate. Nevertheless, whether he decided that evening or after days or weeks of deliberation, Booth, using two pistols, ended the life of Lincoln, Mr. Lincoln and his entourage occupying a theater box on stage, and presenting a target that Booth could not, and did not, miss. Booth himself being shot to death immediately thereafter ensured that he took whatever planning he engaged in with him to the grave, and made this assassination an endless source of conspiracy theorists ever thereafter. The aptly named play The Marble Heart, starring Booth, will remain forever etched in American memory, along with the date of November 9, 1863 when the first president of the United States to be assassinated died.
Hannibal Hamlin, forgotten Vice-President, thus became President. On his narrow shoulders many have heaped blame for the defeat of the Union. Rubbish! A careful examination of the historical record reveals that he acted in a way almost certainly no different than Lincoln likely would have. Continue reading
Thomas E. Marshall, Vice-President under Wilson, summed up the historical fate of most Vice-Presidents in this joke he used to tell: There were two brothers. One was lost at sea and one became Vice-President. Neither were heard from again. That was certainly the case with Hannibal Hamlin, Lincoln’s first Vice-President. In an administration where almost everything has been examined endlessly by tens of thousands of historians with magnifying glasses, Hamlin is a complete void. At the time Hamlin knew that he simply did not count in the Administration, although Lincoln was cordial on the rare occasions they met. I am the fifth wheel of a coach is how Hamlin described his non-role in shaping the affairs of the nation during his term as Vice-President.
The most prominent politician from Maine, both before and after his term as Vice-President, perhaps Hamlin regretted his four years in political oblivion as Lincoln’s Veep.
Hamlin began his political career in 1836 when he won election to Maine’s house of representatives as a Democrat. Serving in the Federal House of Representatives in 1843-47. Appointed to serve out a term in the US Senate in 1848, Hamlin elected to a full term in his own right in 1851. In 1856 he became a national celebrity when he broke with the Democrat party over slavery, and joined the Republicans. Elected as a Republican as Governor of Maine in 1856 and serving briefly, he resigned to take up a seat next year as a Republican, being one of the few members of the Senate to serve in that body as both a Democrat and a Republican.
He was placed on the Presidential ticket for regional balance and for the fame he had won as a former Democrat who left the party over slavery, a natural vote getter among anti-slavery Democrats. Hamlin and Lincoln did not meet for the first time until after the election. During the campaign Democrats spread the rumor that Hamlin was a mulatto. Hamlin did have a swarthy complexion, but there was no truth in the allegation. The same charge was made against Lincoln, racism being a weapon wielded freely by Democrats in both 1861 and 1864.
Hamlin as Veep advocated Emancipation and the use of black troops. Less presciently, he also supported placing Fighting Joe Hooker in command of the Army of the Potomac. Hamlin was left off the ticket in 1864 in order to broaden the ticket. Hamlin was firmly associated now with the radical wing of the Republican Party, and Lincoln believed that a War Democrat would be a better choice in what was likely to be a close contest. Andrew Johnson thus ultimately became President and Hamlin missed his opportunity to be something other than an historical footnote. Continue reading
Most orations of historical figures are lost to us if they lived prior to the Nineteenth Century. Usually we have summaries or reports of speeches, but the exact words are often lost. Even in the Nineteenth Century, with the advent of mass papers and stenographic reports, many speeches of even major figures are lost to us. So was the case with Abraham Lincoln, with his most famous lost speech being a stem winder of an attack on slavery that he made on May 29, 1856 at an anti-Nebraska convention that ended with the founding of the Republican party in Illinois. Lincoln spoke for ninety minutes denouncing slavery, and calling on the creation of a Republican party in Illinois to do battle against the advocates of slavery. His speech was frequently interrupted with cheers and standing ovations as Lincoln deeply moved his audience.
Other than very brief summaries in the press, the speech is completely lost, which is rather odd. The convention was attended by representatives of the press, and Lincoln usually prepared his speeches in writing beforehand, although he was a master of revising them on the fly as he spoke.
In 1896 Chicago attorney Henry Clay Whitney wrote an article that he claimed contained the text of the speech from his notes that he took at the time. Lincoln’s former secretary John Nicolay immediately denounced the text as a fraud, devoid completely of Lincoln’s style, and almost all historians have shared his conviction that Whitney made his text up.
Why the speech was not reported is a matter of conjecture. It has been claimed that the reporters present were so stunned by Lincoln’s eloquence, and so swept up in the moment, that their pencils fell from their fingers. Perhaps, although considering the hard bitten nature of most members of the Fourth Estate in Lincoln’s day, rather unlikely. Lincoln’s law partner William Herndon who was present thought that the speech was such a radical attack on slavery that Lincoln agreed to its suppression so as not to hurt attempts to preserve the Union. I personally find both explanations wanting. A more likely explanation is that Lincoln did speak completely extemporaneously on this occasion, he was perhaps the finest stump orator of his time, and that the reporters present did not take down his words, assuming that he was using a text based upon his usual practice, and that he would give them a copy at the conclusion of his speech. It is also possible that Lincoln’s enthusiastic audience was making so much noise that the reporters gave up attempts to take down Lincoln’s words because they could not clearly make out what he was saying.
In any event, the speech is truly lost to history and the most complete account of it is this brief summary in the Alton-Courier which appeared on June 5, 1856: Continue reading