In this temple
As in the hearts of the people for
whom he saved the Union
The memory of Abraham
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.