Walter Berns: Why America Celebrates Lincoln





[Mr. Berns is professor emeritus of government at Georgetown and a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. This is adapted from a Bradley lecture given last week at AEI.]

Abraham Lincoln did great things, greater than anything done by Woodrow Wilson or Franklin Roosevelt. He freed the slaves and saved the Union, and because he saved the Union he was able to free the slaves. Beyond this, however, our extraordinary interest in him, and esteem for him, has to do with what he said and how he said it. And much of this had to do with the Union -- what it was and why it was worth the saving.

He saved it by fighting and winning the war, of course. But his initial step in this was the decision to go to war. Not a popular decision, and certainly not an easy one. His predecessor, the incompetent fool James Buchanan, believed that the states had no right to secede from the Union, but that there was nothing he could do about it if they did. Thus, by the time Lincoln took office, seven Southern states had seceded, and nothing had been done about it. Led by South Carolina, they claimed to be doing only what they and the other colonies had done in 1776. To oppose them might bring on the war, and Buchanan had no stomach for this.

Lincoln knew that the time had come when the only way to save the Union was to go to war. But could he say so and retain the support of the people who had voted for him? The abolitionists, for example. For them, slavery was a sin, and the slaveholders sinners. But their leading spokesman, William Lloyd Garrison, was no friend of the Union. He said the Constitution was "a covenant with death and an agreement with hell." During the Fort Sumter crisis, Garrison said "all Union saving efforts are simply idiotic."

The country's leading antislavery editor, Horace Greeley of the New York Tribune, said much the same thing. As he put it, "if the Cotton States shall become satisfied they can do better out of the Union than in it, we insist on letting them go." But suppose we had let them go. How, then, would Greeley free the slaves, except by going to war with them? The self-righteous journalist did not say -- perhaps he would have had us enter into "real" negotiations with the Confederates -- but it was his desire to avoid war that led him to say what he said....



comments powered by Disqus

Subscribe to our mailing list