Not so hidden among the volumes in my library is a shelf devoted to my favorite American, Abraham Lincoln. Many a birthday and Christmas have added to its number, and I’ve considered such gifts true treasures. Amid the finer contemporary works is the favored “Team of Rivals” by Doris Kearns Goodwin, a gift from my wife several years ago. If you are a connoisseur of history and politics, you are at a loss without this book. With the theatrical release of Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” Goodwin’s masterpiece, and inspiration for the motion picture, has once again garnered the praise of masses. With every good historical rendering come those moments when the reader takes pause, contemplates and perhaps even gasps. Page 294 delivered such a moment. Goodwin, in referring to the chasm between the day Lincoln was elected and the day he was sworn in as president, initiated the most thought provoking revelation. She writes; He declared at one point that he would be willing to reduce his own life span by “a period of years” equal to the anxious months separating his election and the inauguration. The author does not elaborate on the potential repercussions of this wish, but at once I knew that I had only to do the math to discover how profoundly impacting was this presidential desire, were it to be granted. But before you grab the calculator and the calendar, I think it helpful to revisit the condition of the country Lincoln was about to command.
It would be an oversimplification to suggest that the tension that permeated our national conscience was merely the matter of slavery. Indeed the tentacles of this wretched practice were seeking a strangle hold on the western territories, even as abolitionists sought to block its expansion. Ultimately at issue was bona fide states’ rights vs. perceived human rights, and the potential casualties included the complete collapse of the south’s economy. The well being of the southern states was predicated on the health of the plantation and slave owners controlled nearly everything south of the Mason-Dixon Line. This made for a very powerful lobby in our young representative democracy, thus the northern states felt threatened by the expansion of slavery. On the other hand, the north’s rapidly increasing population now encroached upon the proslavery vote in Washington. Add to this recipe for war the Kansas-Nebraska Act, an 1854 brainchild of Lincoln rival Senator Stephen A. Douglas, which infuriated the north for its perceived expansion of southern power. This legislation gave birth to the Republican Party, whose cause it was to sever once and for all the thirsty tentacles of slavery.
Enter the Republican president-elect, Abraham Lincoln. The national climate of civil unrest was palpable and perpetuating, as though the collective states were a vat of oil being brought to a boil. Just what kind of man possesses the nerve to think that he could treat such a wound, let alone heal the disease? If Lincoln was anything, he was a thoughtful, pensive man, a calculating man. He was not unaware that if he was to save the patient, an amputation might be necessary. Once the south was dealt the news of an incoming Republican administration, the states started to fall like dominoes into secession. To say that Lincoln took such bulletins with increasing concern would be to greatly understate his anxiety. For while he was a thoughtful man, he was also a haunted one, feeling the weight of an entire nation gasping to breathe while he yet remain powerless to do anything about it. And so, in the midst of a war-in-waiting, the commander-in-chief to-be offered an aspiration… that he would be willing to reduce his own life span by “a period of years” equal to the anxious months separating his election and the inauguration. This amazing scenario begs the question, what if Lincoln had gotten his wish?
Doing the Math
The 16th president of the United States was elected on November 6th, 1860. Four months would plague his emotions before he would be inaugurated on March 4th, 1861. That is four months the president-elect, every one of those months engulfed by a desire to trade a month of waiting for a year of life. Let’s take those four months and equate them with years. Lincoln died at the hands of an assassin on April 15th, 1865. So what was the president up to exactly four years earlier? It was exactly four years earlier to the day, April 15th 1961, that he penned the Proclamation Calling Militia and Convening Congress. This was for all intents and purposes, the first presidential act of the Civil War, and came on the heels of the Confederates opening fire on Forte Sumter three days earlier. Lincoln had been president for all of forty two days by this time. When I first came to grasp this series of events, equating them with Lincoln’s wish, I was at once struck… intrigued by the proposition, and gratified by its dismissal, for clearly and for good reason, providence purposed that such a wish should go in one of God’s ears and out the other. Had Lincoln’s higher power granted his wish, the president would have been rendered lifeless just when he was needed the most, and I venture to say that all that would come of history hinged on the fruit of the next four years. Let me illustrate.
In the Absence of Father Abraham
It is reasonable to assume that had the Civil War been lost to the south or averted altogether, the resulting “two state solution” would have created what might now be referred to as the Confederate States of America and the United States of America, the harmony of which would likely remain a delicate challenge. Hypothetically speaking, it is further reasonable to consider that the northern states would have continued on their upwardly mobile trajectory, while the south would rely increasingly on the fruit of slave labor and the export of that fruit. You can draw your own conclusions in this alternative ending, but imagine for a moment the generations of incessant animosity between the north and the south in this scenario. Had the secession succeeded, would our two countries be allies? Would the diminished American union possess the moral resolve, the capacity and the capital necessary to meet the challenges of two world wars? And what of Hitler? It has been speculated that had Lincoln failed to preserve the union, there would not have been a United States strong enough to defeat the Nazi’s. What would this world look like if the Jew was a modern day, man-made extinction? What if the iron curtain never fell and the Berlin wall never came down?
Add to this the almost countless and exceeding contributions that a strong America has made in areas of science, medicine and agriculture, exporting not only knowledge, but the eradication of disease and elevation of the poverty stricken. The sheer number of nations that have been lifted out of lack and employed as a result of American investment abroad is staggering, and the record of charitable giving as a percentage of GDP by Americans to needy nations around the world is more than double the giving of the second most generous country, the UK. The United States has exported a higher standard of living, equality of the masses, the pursuit of happiness by means of opportunity, education, and the dignity that comes with religious liberty and the freedom of speech and the press. This is the America that Lincoln sought to save. One that represented what he called “the last best, hope of earth.” Some may call that nationalism… I call it loving thy brother.
My favorite president would never enjoy the reconstruction of the United States, though he did see the end of the Civil War just six days before John Wilkes Booth took his life. Like Moses being denied passage to the promise land, Lincoln left this world without tasting the true and lasting fruit of victory gained in the preservation of the states. He had once said “…In the end it’s not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years.” As books like “Team of Rivals” and films like “Lincoln” continue to remind us of the life in Lincoln’s years, I am grateful that while his hope to trade months of worry for years of life went unheeded, it did not go unanswered. For the Almighty’s plan was to sustain the leader of a great nation, so that a great nation could then lead.
~André French © 2012
The Moral Liberal Guest Writer, André French, is a husband and father of three from Sharon Springs, NY. He is a small business owner, musician, songwriter, and worship leader, and writes regularly on history, politics, culture, faith, and family.
The Moral Liberal recommends: Lincoln, Speeches and Writings (2 Volume Set) : Vol I: 1832-1858 (Speeches, Letters, and Miscellaneous Writings, The Lincoln-Douglas Debates) ; Vol II: 1859-1865, (Speeches, Letters, and Miscellaneous Writings Presidential Messages and Proclamations)