Could Lincoln have done more to stop the fighting? Was there a middle ground to buy time for ongoing discussions? It was not like the South’s eventual leaders, from Jefferson Davis to Robert E. Lee, were from a foreign land. Davis was a U.S. Senator, and Lincoln asked Lee to take over command of the entire U.S. Military. They were colleagues in government. Couldn’t Lincoln have been more persuasive?
Imagine the public reaction today if either George Bush or Barack Obama stood by and let some six million Americans kill one another in battle. That’s the number of deaths based on today’s comparative population. There would be open revolt and an immediate cry for new leadership. Did Lincoln fail the test then? Oh, he did take action. Lincoln suspended parts of the constitution including habeas corpus, arrested numerous political opponents, and shut down several hundred newspapers.
Was Lincoln obsessed with freeing the slaves? Here are his words in a letter written to New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley on August 22, 1862: “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union.”
So was it a total commitment to keep the union intact? Not if you believe Lincoln’s words a few years before the Civil War began. “Any people anywhere, being inclined and having the power, have the right to rise up and shake off the existing government and form a new one that suits them better. This is a most valuable—a most sacred right— a right, which we hope and believe, is to liberate the world. Nor is this right confined to cases in which the whole people of an existing government may choose to exercise it. Any portion of such people that can, may revolutionize and make their own so much of the territory as they inhabit.”
Professor David Goldfield has written a recent book called “America Aflame, How the Civil War Created a Nation.” He’s a past guest on my syndicated radio show. Goldfield computes the total monetary cost of the war to around $6.7 billion in 1860s currency. He asserts that if “the government had purchased the freedom of four million slaves and granted a 40 acre farm to each slave family, the total cost would have been $3.1 billion, leaving $3.6 billion for reparations to make up for a century of lost wages. And not a single life would have been lost.”
What about the morality of a President declaring unbridled warfare on his own citizens? One can well argue that saving human lives would have been far more important than keeping the Union together. How can a President responsible for so much bloodshed be thought of as the greatest President in US history? I understand that Lincoln wanted to avoid the Civil War. However, was preserving the Union worth the cost of spilling so much blood on both ends of the battlefield?
Lincoln went on to lead the country in reconstruction and offered exemplary leadership as the nation healed its all too deep wounds. Maybe it was because he was brand new at the job as the war began. But it seems clear that when real leadership was called for in an effort to save hundreds of thousands of his fellow citizens, Abraham Lincoln blinked.
The country is, after these 150 years, still reeling from this national tragedy. President Trump was right on in asking why the war was necessary in the first place.
“America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter, and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.”
Peace and Justice
Jim Brown’s syndicated column appears each week in numerous newspapers throughout the nation and on websites worldwide. You can read all his past columns and see continuing updates at http://www.jimbrownusa.com. You can also hear Jim’s nationally syndicated radio show each Sunday morning from 9:00 am till 11:00 am Central Time on the Genesis Radio Network, with a live stream at http://www.jimbrownusa.com.