Worthy of his reputationCONRAD BLACK
In advance of Steven Spielberg's highly anticipated film about Abraham Lincoln, Conrad Black takes the measure of America's most revered president.
Lincoln was born on the Sinking Spring Farm in Hardin County, Ky., on Feb. 12, 1809, received only about a year of formal education, and moved with his family to the frontier country of Indiana, and then, at 21, to Illinois. He largely educated himself as a voracious reader, worked at a variety of jobs, had his first disturbing look at slavery on a trip down the Mississippi in 1831, and toiled in a law office until he became a member of the Illinois Bar in 1836. His mother died when he was young and he had little rapport with his father. But he got on, was a tall and rugged man, companionable and a fine raconteur with a good sense of humour, who gradually built up his legal practice and became a leading attorney.
He was troubled by slavery as fundamentally wrong: "I hate it because of the monstrous injustice of slavery itself. I hate it because it deprives our Republican example of its just influence in the world." This seems an obvious position to hold now, but America was largely founded and built by slave-holders. Although Lincoln did not at first consider African Americans to be equal in talent and intelligence to Caucasians, he eventually amended that view, when he came to know more of them.
Lincoln came gradually to believe that the incongruity to proclaimed American values, and the outright evil of slavery, were so profound that the nation could not survive. He was for, above all, the preservation of the Union, and favoured various methods of curtailing and gradually eliminating slavery. These included support for the original idea of paying for the emancipation of slaves and their voluntary return to Africa, to the purpose-created country of Liberia.
The Democratic-Republican Party (a faction of which would go on to become the modern Democratic Party) devised, under Thomas Jefferson and then Andrew Jackson, the formula of guarantying the continuation of slavery in the South, where it was part of the life and political culture, and permitting its spread to the West, south of the line established by the Missouri Compromise of 1820. But the Democrats pledged to the North that secession of the slave states would not be tolerated. The Democrats won 13 of the 15 presidential elections from 1800 to 1856 on this arrangement.
Given Lincoln's views of slavery, it is little wonder that he was in the opposition Whig Party and served four terms in the Illinois legislature and one as a congressman. The Whigs were a catchment for people who weren't Democrats. Its greatest leaders were lions of the Congress, especially Henry Clay and Daniel Webster, who ran for president a total of four times, unsuccessfully.
After the Compromise of 1850, the Union definitively began to crack apart. That measure strengthened the ability of slaveholders to hunt down fugitive slaves in the North, and established the principle of squatter sovereignty, by which territories voted whether to apply for statehood as slave or free states by referendum, ensuring miniature civil wars in each such territory, starting with Kansas in 1854. This inspired the South to claim the right to spread slavery to the North, where there was no economic rationale for it.
In 1858, Lincoln ran for the U.S. Senate from Illinois against the leading Democratic senator in the nation, Stephen A. Douglas. Douglas was a proponent of squatter sovereignty — the above-described proposition that organizing territories could become slave states by an improvised majority of southern settlers. And in a famous series of seven debates that took place throughout the state and received nation-wide publicity, Lincoln forced Douglas to admit that even the 1857 Dred Scott decision of the Supreme Court — which effectively denied rights even to emancipated slaves, and required the federal government to permit slavery anywhere — would not help spread slavery, because public opinion opposed it everywhere outside the South.
This scandalized the pro-slavers. Lincoln had split the Democratic Party like a rail, and shattered the Jefferson Jackson Democratic consensus that had held for more than 50 years. At the time, however, the election of U.S. senators was done by the state legislature, and Douglas was narrowly re-selected.
Lincoln toured the northern states making thoughtful speeches about slavery, more moderate than the militant abolitionists, but focusing on the right of the federal government, i.e., the North, to restrict the evil's spread. An improbable dark horse at first, he gradually emerged as the most sensible of the Republican presidential candidates.
Lincoln skillfully arranged for the second nominating convention of the Republican party to take place in the rapidly burgeoning city of Chicago (it had grown from 20 families to over 100,000 people in barely 25 years). Here, his organization, which controlled the Illinois Republicans and Whigs, packed the galleries, even changing railway timetables to bring in supporters from around the state, some on trains that exceeded the then-astounding speed of 60 miles per hour.
His chief rivals, especially Senator Seward from NewYork, were more aggressively hostile to slavery than Lincoln was. But Lincoln emerged as the most knowledgeable expositor of an anti-slavery position that aimed at preserving the Union, and he was nominated on the third ballot. By this time, the Democrats had nominated Douglas, which caused the southern states to defect and hold a separate nominating convention that chose incumbent vice president John C. Breckinridge for president. A fourth party — the Constitutional Union Party, composed of fragments of former parties — nominated former Tennessee senator John Bell.
Lincoln won almost 40% of the vote, and the northern states. Douglas won 30% and only Missouri. Breckinridge took 18%. Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee went to Bell. The electoral College vote was decisive: 180 for Lincoln, 72 for Breckinridge, 39 for Bell and 12 for Douglas. Indeed, Lincoln would have been elected even if all his opponents' votes had been cast for the same candidate, as he had assembled an absolute majority throughout the North.
By inauguration day, March 4, 1861, when Lincoln made a conciliatory address, seven southern states had seceded and four others had said that they would also if there were any attempt to prevent the first seven from withdrawing from the Union. The North was not overly solicitous of the welfare of the slave, but was concerned for the Union. Lincoln arranged for the first shots to be fired by the South at Fort Sumter, S.C., as the North resupplied a Union fort there, and Union support firmed up for suppressing the insurrection. Lincoln and the long-serving commander of the Union Army, General Winfield Scott, worked out the "anaconda strategy" of starving the South with a naval blockade, placing the main northern army between Washington and Richmond to hold the main Confederate Army there, cutting off the Mississippi from New Orleans and down the Mississippi from southern Illinois and slicing off a quarter of the Confederacy; then slicing southeast through Tennessee and Georgia to the sea and severing the lower half of what was left, and driving north through the Carolinas and destroying the surviving Confederate armies in Virginia.
Throughout, though Lincoln supported and ordered the total war of his commanders against the South, as the only way to break its rebel spirit, he addressed the war with steady firmness and even a conciliatory spirit, and with such eloquence that he was probably rivalled, if at all, only by Cardinal Newman, as the greatest nonfiction English prose writer of the 19th century.
Only 82 years after it gained its independence as vulnerable colonies on the Atlantic littoral, America emerged as — with the British and about-to-be-created German Empires — one of the greatest powers in the world. As all the world knows, Lincoln was assassinated at Ford's Theatre in Washington on April 14, 1865 (he died the next day), just days after Lee's surrender to Grant. He was 56.
His strategic management was masterly at every phase. Yet so unassuming and free of egotism was Lincoln, that like a great circus performer, it was only obvious after he had left the stage how brilliant his strategic conceptions, command decisions and tactical initiatives had been.
His greatness lies also in his rare human qualities. He was an intellectual, but an autodidact, a self-made man but never chippy or bumptious; good-humoured always even though sometimes morose and constantly under great strain, utterly ethical but never a prude nor above a modest political ruse. He was not worn down despite the presence of a nagging wife, the death of two sons in their youth and a horrible war. He was only saddened and never angry at the many betrayals and disappointments he endured. His profoundly sympathetic personality, the nobility of his cause, infallible eloquence and his astounding virtuosity as a statesman explain Lincoln's immense, universal and permanent prestige.
Reprinted with permission of the National Post.
Conrad Moffat Black, Baron Black of Crossharbour, OC, KCSG, PC (born August 25, 1944) is a Canadian-born member of the British House of Lords, and a historian, columnist and publisher, who was for a time the third largest newspaper magnate in the world. Lord Black controlled Hollinger International, Inc.
He writes a regular column for Canada's National Post and contributes to The American Spectator, National Review Online, The Huffington Post and The Catholic Herald. Conrad Black is the author of A Matter of Principle, The Fight of My Life, The Invincible Quest: The Life of Richard Milhous Nixon, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Champion of Freedom, A Life in Progress, and Render Unto Caesar: The Life And Legacy Of Maurice Duplessis.
Beginning in 2005, Black was the subject of a highly-publicized prosecution in the United States. Having initially faced 17 charges of misconduct and of defrauding the company he led, Hollinger International, of $60 million, he was eventually found guilty of one count of mail fraud and one count of obstruction of justice and sentenced to a prison term of 42 months and a fine of US$125,000.
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