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Allen Guelzo: How Lincoln Saved the 'Central Idea' of America
Mr. Guelzo, professor of history and director of the Civil War Era Studies Program at Gettysburg College, is the author of Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America (Simon & Schuster, 2004).
What the American Revolution began, the Civil War completed. That, at least, was Abraham Lincoln's view of what was at stake in the Civil War, and especially what was at stake in the Emancipation Proclamation he issued on Sept. 22, 1862—150 years ago this weekend.
"I consider the central idea pervading this struggle," Lincoln commented to his secretary, John Hay, in May 1861, "is the necessity that is upon us of proving that popular government is not an absurdity." In other words, as he told a special session of Congress on July 4, the American republic was an "experiment" to see if ordinary people, living as equals before the laws and without any aristocratic grades or ranks in society, really were capable of governing themselves.
One way of falling over into "absurdity," Lincoln knew, was by breaking up a republic whenever any sizable minority of its citizens didn't get their way—as when the Southern states seceded. The other way was when those same people excluded an entire race from self-government.
Slavery, as Lincoln had said in 1854, was "the one retrograde institution in America." Whether it comes "from the mouth of a king" or the mouth of an American slaveholder, he added in his last debate with Stephen Douglas in 1858, "it is the same tyrannical principle." For more than a year of civil war, Lincoln struggled to treat those two paths to absurdity as separate problems.
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