We have Lincoln wrong

tags: Civil War, Lincoln

Excerpted from “A Just and Generous Nation: Abraham Lincoln and the Fight for American Opportunity” by Harold Holzer and Norton Garfinkle. Published by Basic Books.

The United States has just concluded a five-year observance of the sesquicentennial of the Civil War. As in the past, most new books about the period have focused principally on matters military, reexamining the familiar major battles or offering new biographies of generals of the war. A few have explored new aspects of Lincoln’s life and presidency and the political conflicts immediately preceding and during the war.

For all the merits of these recent volumes, too few have provided satisfying answers to an essential question: why was the Civil War really fought? This subject still cries out for serious and informed exploration and analysis. The prevailing arguments—that the war occurred to preserve the American Union for its own sake, to defend or destroy slavery, or to expand or restrict federal authority—fall short because they do not embrace the full vision for the future held by those engaged in the conflict. The most illuminating way to begin this essential conversation is to focus on the commander in chief who chose war rather than cede the democracy to those who would divide it rather than recognize its legitimacy. That ever-compelling figure, of course, is Abraham Lincoln.

True, Lincoln has already inspired thousands of books. Yet while scores of new Lincoln volumes rolled off the presses during the period leading up to the bicentennial of his birth in 2009, and dozens more have appeared to coincide with the sesquicentennial of the years 1860–1865, only a few have actually dealt with the causes of the conflict—the conflagration that consumed nearly every day of his presidency and cost 750,000 American lives. Few have explored Lincoln’s motivations for fighting the war and maintaining the Union when the conflict expanded exponentially from a small struggle to an enormous war unprecedented in world history. The unanswered question remains more crucial to our own present and future than ever. Why would a basically peaceful man who might as easily have allowed the United States to divide in two, with no resulting loss of life or treasure, choose instead to lead a devastating American-versus-American war to maintain a fragile, still-experimental Union? This book offers a direct answer to that unresolved question with a new focus and a new emphasis.

For too long, historians have accepted without challenge the notion that Lincoln determined to preserve the Union primarily because nationhood held a powerfully symbolic, almost “mystical” importance to him from childhood on. Fueled by Weems’s Life of Washington and similarly hagiographic stories of the American Revolution, the young Lincoln is said to have developed early a stubborn passion to cement the foundations of the Republic for all time. Another theory holds that Lincoln entered the presidency—and allowed the country to go to war with itself—to remove the stain of slavery that for more than fourscore years had blighted the original American commitment to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Elements of truth support both arguments, to be sure, but ignore the overwhelming evidence that Lincoln focused his entire political career, in peace and war alike, in pursuit of economic opportunity for the widest possible circle of hardworking Americans. To achieve this ambition he was willing to fight a war to maintain the perpetual existence of the one nation in the world that held the highest promise for people dedicated to this cause. ...

Read entire article at Salon

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