A New Lincoln

Published January 3, 2013

Thanks to Steven Spielberg and Daniel Day-Lewis, Abraham Lincoln is with us once again.  Actually, in a very real sense our sixteenth president has never really left us.  He is always hovering over us and preaching to us, forever prodding us and haunting us.

To one degree or another, in one way or another, almost every American claims a piece of Lincoln.  A few on the right regard him as a tyrant.  A corresponding handful on the left dismiss him as a racist.  But to virtually everyone else the martyred Lincoln is the “great emancipator” and a secular saint, not to mention a political genius and a great speech maker.

Mark me down among the “virtually everyone else.”  No doubt Mssrs. Day-Lewis and Spielberg belong in this near-universal camp as well.  Good for them—and good for us as well.  The country was fortunate that Abraham Lincoln was on hand between 1861 and 1865.  And we’re fortunate that he’s still with us today.  It surely behooves us to keep Lincoln in our mind’s eye, and to look back to Lincoln more than occasionally.

In doing so, it would also be  good idea to keep in mind that Lincoln himself was inclined to look backwards.  After all, his lodestar was always the Declaration of Independence.

Who doesn’t know the first words of the Gettysburg Address?  “Four score and seven years ago . . .”  Do the math.  Lincoln spoke those words, and a precious few more, in November of 1863.  Subtract 87 from 1863 and what do you get?  1776.  For Abraham Lincoln the founding document of the country was the Declaration of Independence.  As he put it while visiting Independence Hall as president-elect, “I’ve never had a feelings politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence.”

Early on in “Lincoln,” two young soldiers take turns reciting the Gettysburg Address as the president listens.  Throughout the film, the implications behind the words in that address—and in the words of Jefferson that informed them—hover over Lincoln.  They are what drove Mr. Lincoln to prod reluctant cabinet members and preach to recalcitrant congressmen to do the right thing and support the 13th amendment and end slavery.

The most visible villains in this story are not the leaders of the Confederacy, but northern Democratic congressmen, most specifically one George Pendleton of Ohio, who had been George McClellan’s running mate in the Democratic campaign of 1864 to defeat Lincoln.

McClellan was a War Democrat, who favored military victory over the South, but not an end to slavery in the South.  Pendleton was a Peace Democrat, who called for an end to the war against the South, thereby conceding the continuance of slavery in an independent Confederacy.  What a choice.

Lincoln’s old friend and fellow Whig, Confederate Vice-President Alexander Stephens figures in this film as well.  In a climactic scene he meets with Lincoln.  Stephens is prepared to agree to a surrender, if the seceded states could return to the Union with the slave system intact.  No wonder Lincoln was pressing so hard for ratification before the war ended.

Watching this film, we good northerners will have all of our presumptions and prejudices amply confirmed.  This great man from Illinois surely did great things.  Under his leadership, the North saved the Union and destroyed slavery.

But we’d best be careful about pushing this story line into the 21st century.  It’s true that we are a very divided country today.  In fact, in many ways we are more divided today than we were in 1861 when virtually everyone of consequence believed in some version of representative and limited government, some version of a relatively unfettered capitalism, and some version of evangelical Protestantism.  The great dividing line was slavery and its potential expansion.

Prior to the Civil War, a politically ambitious private citizen by the name of Abraham Lincoln let it be known that he didn’t think that a “house divided against itself” could stand.  And it didn’t.  Can a divided America stand today?  We’ll see.

This northerner is not in the prediction business, but I’d suggest that if the United States does find itself in need of salvation at some point in this century it might well be the South that will do the saving.

The issue will not be creeping slavery, but creeping statism—and the inevitable serfdom and soft tyranny that will accompany it.  And where is the heart of the opposition to an advancing statism today but in the American South? 

At the moment there is no secession movement afoot in the country.  But the best recipe for provoking such a movement would be to persist with the nationalizing and centralizing of American life.  Small countries can be successfully nationalized and centralized.  Not so a large country.  Our founders understood this.  A large country with a one-size-fits-all mentality and bureaucracy will either break apart or call forth a real tyrant who will do what is necessary to forcibly keep it together.

Wouldn’t it be ironic if a new secessionist movement did develop in the South and under the twin banners of avoiding serfdom (as opposed to perpetuating slavery) and promoting diversity (as opposed to enforcing uniformity)?   And wouldn’t it be doubly ironic if such a movement were to be led by Republicans—and in the name of the principles of the Declaration of Independence, rather than in opposition to them?

Of course, the charge of racism will be lodged against the South.  But if such a charge was legitimate in the middle of the 19th century, it is bogus today.  Let’s be honest here.  The South mirrored the country then, and it mirrors the country today.  A century and a half ago there was racism aplenty, north and south; today, thankfully, there is precious little racism, north or south.

In any case, let’s hope that a secessionist movement and another civil war will not be in our future.  But before we northerners get too smug, before we assume that only an all-powerful federal government can save us in any number of ways, let’s hope that the country can produce another Lincoln, a southern Lincoln, perhaps a Lincoln whose family reversed the path of the family of Thomas Lincoln by migrating southward, not northward.

This new Lincoln, just like the original Lincoln, will look back to the original Declaration of Independence.  This Lincoln will also have to preach to us and prod us, all in the name of persuading us to recover what we have lost.  And if he—or perhaps she—is successful, this Lincoln will also be able to herald a “new birth of freedom” in the land. 

If we’re lucky, such a Lincoln might even be able to put the country back together without a civil war.  It won’t be easy, and it won’t be quick.  Having preached to us and prodded us, he—or perhaps she—may well have to haunt us and hover over us for a good while.  After all, we’ve been doing nothing but looking forward for a long time now.  Shifting our gaze away from a progressively statist future and back toward our founding won’t be easy.  But it is the only way to achieve a “new birth of freedom” that is consistent with our founding.  And no one understood this better than the original Abe Lincoln of Illinois.  

Dr. John C. “Chuck” Chalberg teaches American history at Normandale Community College in Bloomington, Minnesota. He is also a senior fellow at the Center of the American Experiment in Minneapolis.