Thursday, February 12, 2009

Abraham Lincoln's 200th Birthday

Today, February 12, 2009, is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president of the United States. Lincoln was born in Kentucky. His family moved to Indiana and later to Illinois. At 22, Lincoln made a trip to New Orleans via flat boat to sell a variety of goods with friends. The scenes of slavery that he saw in New Orleans scarred his mind and haunted him for the rest of his life.

Lincoln started his political career at 23 as a member of the Whig Party. He was elected to the Illinois State Legislature in 1834. He read the law, and was admitted to the Bar in 1837. He moved to Springfield and began a practice of law that would ultimately become very successful. Lincoln had a number of impressive clients, including railroads. He served four terms in the Illinois Legislature, and in 1846, Lincoln was elected to a term in the U.S. Congress. He went on record both against slavery and against the Mexican War. In the 1850s, Lincoln became involved in the formation of the Republican Party. In 1858, Lincoln made one of his most famous speeches alluding to the biblical quotation that “a house divided against itself cannot stand.” Lincoln compared the government of the United States to the house that would not stand saying the US would not survive if it tried to remain half slave and half free. He believed that either the entire Union would come to allow slavery, or would abolish it. The divided Union could not remain. Future legal events bore him out. The Supreme Court’s Dred Scott opinion had implications, which if unchecked, would have forced the spread of slavery to all of the states and territories.

In 1858, Lincoln engaged in a series of famous debates with national political figure, Stephen Douglas. One of these debates occurred in my own home town, Quincy, Illinois, where there is still a large monument commemorating the debate in the town’s old Central Park. Lincoln lost the Illinois Senate race, but he won the 1860 presidential election also against Stephen Douglas. Lincoln received fiery criticism from both sides. He was hated by those who favored slavery for his statements on the immorality of slavery and the need for its eventual abolition. He was likewise despised by the radical abolitionists for his unwillingness to immediately end slavery through force. At the time Lincoln was elected president, the country was already firmly divided over slavery and the South had already repeatedly threatened to secede from the Union and make war against the northern states in order to preserve slavery and to avoid the North’s regime of industry protecting tariffs. It’s easy to see now that the South would have been better off economically if they had renounced slavery, turned their former slaves into employees, and industrialized by building their own cotton mills to produce thread, fabric, and clothing. The South was caught in a delusion. They saw a false image of themselves and of their northern opponents. The north failed to deal well with the problem of slavery because of greed. The evil of slavery had warped the understanding of law and culture in both north and south. Faced with Lincoln’s election, the South seceded from the Union and began attacking Union outposts among the southern states. This, of course, was an act of war which began the terrible Civil War of the United States between the southern states and the northern. Lincoln led the country through the horrible cataclysm of the Civil War.

Lincoln famously noted in his second Inaugural Address that the horrible suffering of the Civil War was in some way a chastening from God for the horrors of slavery as practiced in the South and long encouraged and tolerated by the North. Lincoln ended slavery through his sponsorship of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution. During the war Lincoln ordered the freedom of slaves in Confederate controlled territory through the Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln is justly famous for arguments against slavery. We would consider those arguments to be natural law arguments. Lincoln argued from the nature of human beings and the implications of their choices to say that slavery was improper. He noted slavery’s incompatibility with the Declaration of Independence and slavery’s incompatibility with morality and sound public policy.

Lincoln is still resented by some today because of his centralization of power in the federal government and his resistance to the secession of the southern states. Some Southerners still resent the destruction of the south meted out by the Union Army, acting under Lincoln, in its attempt to demoralize the south and end the war. It is often forgotten that Lincoln did not threaten to attack the South, but that the South did, in fact, attack the northern outposts in southern territory, triggering the war. Lincoln tended to be a pragmatic incrementalist, seeking to make changes a bit at a time. The Civil War forced quicker and more radical changes.

Shortly after the end of the war, Lincoln was assassinated. The bitterness of the war led to harsh treatment of the south. After early attempts at promoting racial equality in the south, the United States abandoned those efforts and left political control of the south to the almost entirely Democrat white population. It was not until the civil rights movement of the 1950’s that legal inequality was finally dealt with once again. We still suffer from the damage to law and society done by the evils of slavery and discrimination.

The young Lincoln was not known as a particularly religious person, though his parents had been Baptists and he himself attended a Presbyterian church from time-to-time. Lincoln began reading the Bible during the war, and admitted to friends that this most sublime document had a transformative effect upon his life. He was also strongly influenced by the Declaration of Independence and its statement that “all men are created equal, and are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” America will always remember the eloquent way in which Lincoln reminded us of that and other timeless truths.

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