Sunday, September 04, 2011

Why Lincoln Thought The Civil War Worth Fighting

In November 1863, near the end of his third year in office, Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address. I think it is interesting to think about what that short message says about why he thought we were fighting the Civil War. The speech begins:
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. 
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. 
Lincoln refers to 1776, which was neither the year of "the shot heard round the world", 1775, nor the year in which the Constitution was promulgated, 1789. Rather it was the year that the Declaration of Independence was promulgated. His first sentence thus refers to Jefferson's statement, and specifically I believe to"
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. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
Jefferson clearly emphasizes liberty and that the American government would be instituted to secure liberty. The Declaration clarifies that men are created equal in the sense that all have the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Clearly, neither Jefferson nor Lincoln believed that all people were created with equal physical or mental endowments, nor in families which could offer equal social and economic opportunities to their children. Jefferson would not have considered that the 13 states, all slave holding, that were about to create a new, democratic nation would soon abolish slavery. Indeed, he was a Virginian slave holder himself. The new United States government would surely work first to effect the safety and happiness of its white, male citizens.

In his second sentence, Lincoln states clearly that the war is about the survival of the United States as the kind of nation envisioned in Jefferson's Declaration. Remembering that there were no other democracies in the world of 1863, it seems clear that Lincoln was saying that if the secession of the Confederate States succeeded, that success would challenge the entire concept of a democratic nation seeking liberty for its citizens and securing their basic human rights. No other nation might be so conceived in the United States failed in Civil War.

Thus, from Lincoln's perspective, the Civil war is about both liberty and basic human rights and about union. Saving the union would not have been worthwhile had it not also meant saving the principles upon which the union was founded.

Lincoln could not have expressed that message more clearly. Of course, not everyone in the North and very few if any in the South understood so clearly what was at stake in the Civil War.

Jefferson's view is clearly of a government founded on certain principles which would evolve over time, and that must have been Lincoln's as well. Indeed, the Constitution was adopted "in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity".

Lincoln, in the Emancipation Proclamation issues on January 1, 1863, used his power as Commander in Chief under the Constitution only to emancipate the slaves in states or designated areas of states that were in rebellion against the federal union. The 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which abolished slavery in the entire country permanently. was signed by Lincoln and approved April 1, 1865. It was declared to have been ratified by enough states to come into effect on December 18, 1865. Lincoln recognized that the Constitution of 1861 accepted slavery, that he as President governed under the Constitution, and that the abolition of slavery would require an amendment to the Constitution. I believe that Lincoln saw the Amendment ending slavery as contributing to the perfection of the Union as a work in progress.

We see clearly now that slavery was incompatible with a nation that guaranteed basic human rights; Lincoln I believe also saw that the institution of slavery decreased the rights of even those who were free to fully engage in the pursuit of happiness. Our understanding of basic human rights has evolved and is still evolving. Lincoln fought the Civil War both to secure liberty and human rights and to preserve the union; he probably saw even in 1861 that the Union would in the long run end slavery, but it was only later in his administration that he saw that it could be done in his administration. Thus Lincoln probably began the Civil War seeking both to protect liberty and human rights and to save the Union, but did not seek to amend the Constitution to abolish slavery until late in his presidency. Indeed in his first Inaugural Address, Lincoln stated:
I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.
Those who actually participated in the battles probably fought more in solidarity with their comrades rather than from Lincoln's deep understanding of their cause. Their bravery and their commitment to their comrades deserves respect and honor, even if they fought in a cause we now see as wrong.

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