Monday, March 07, 2011

What We're Reading: Lincoln, President-Elect by Harold Holzer

Lincoln, President-Elect: Abraham Lincoln and the Great Secession Winter of 1860-1861 by Harold Holzer

One of the reading habits that enriches historical experience for me is reading an account of events as they unfolded day by day roughly in sync with the dates on which they occurred long ago--in this case, the events we commemorate this year that led to the beginning of the American Civil War 150 years ago. I’ve recently finished Harold Holzer’s fine account of Lincoln’s period as President-Elect, Lincoln, President Elect: Abraham Lincoln and the Great Secession Winter of 1860-1861, reading it beside the calendar of events contained in his narrative that culminates with Lincoln’s inauguration on March 4, 1861. For me, this reading strategy seems to spark the imaginative element necessary for understanding historical events. I recommend it.

Perhaps most readers of Civil War history are attracted to the subject of the war itself, the battlefield logistics and heroics, but there are some, this reader among them, who find the politics of what leads to war more interesting, as well as the aftermath known as “Reconstruction." These periods present issues that are more complex, and result in explications more uncertain, than the outcomes of particular battles. Such issues of causation and motivation are the key to understanding what happened and why, and yet these are the matters that so often elude us. They are the landscape fought over most vigorously by contemporary historians.

In the 19th century, there was an even longer period of interregnum between the term of a newly elected president and his predecessor. The national election was held in early November, as it is today, but the so called “lame duck” period for a sitting president extended all the way until the inauguration on March 4 of the following year. This Constitutionally directed hiatus proved particularly disastrous in 1860 as the country drifted towards Civil War. The Buchanan administration failed to act effectively, and Lincoln was without Constitutional power to exercise control over events. It may be that neither at this time had it within their ability to stem the tide of events that were transpiring in the American South, but Lincoln has received his greatest criticism from historians for his perceived “inactivity” during this time. Indeed he was under much pressure from friends and foes alike to make public statements that might help reassure the South concerning the consequences of his election and help ameliorate the crisis.

Lincoln remained silent, and as Holzer demonstrates in his narrative, this was by design. Lincoln felt that he had made his positions clear leading up to the election, that they were embodied in the Republican platform, and that any reassurances he offered now about not wishing to interfere with slavery in the existing slave states would fall on deaf ears again, or worse, only be misinterpreted by partisans on both sides and serve to inflame the crisis. Publicly, he remained resolutely silent. It may be argued that this choice was wrong, but it would be difficult for anyone after reading Holzer’s account to argue that it was not considered and deliberate. Holzer’s interpretation of Lincoln’s actions addresses as well the accompanying criticism made of him during this period, that his reluctance to make conciliatory public statements was rooted in his misreading of the seriousness of the national crisis. Holzer’s explanation for Lincoln’s sometimes optimistic-sounding private pronouncements and those that he made publicly on his inaugural tour to Washington are plausible. It does, however, present an interesting question: Most Southern firebrands were contemptuous of the notion that the North would ever contest their secession with force of arms. And one wonders if leaders both North and South really could imagine, after an extended time of peace in America, either the likelihood of events coming to armed conflict or the horrendous costs that would come from a Civil War. Did anyone fully understand what was at stake, and if they did, would things have been different?

The most important understanding that emerges from Holzer’s account is that of Lincoln’s toughness regarding the principles on which he had run, and on which he had been elected. This portrait emerges from his private correspondence during this period to important leaders North and South, and particularly the letters and statements he made to key members of his own party. It is perhaps one of the great ironies of the period that Lincoln, who was nominated because he possessed a seemingly more moderate public persona than William Seward, ended up being, unlike Seward, the person who was unwilling to compromise on what was for him the fundamental issue of the extension of slavery into the territories. He was elected on a platform that opposed that, and he would not be blackmailed by the political threat of a seceding minority into conceding on the very issue upon which he had been elected. For him the compromises and concessions being demanded negated the tacit agreements that were the very essence of the democratic process.

There are other highlights of Holzer’s account, particularly the image of Lincoln that emerges as he tries to put together his cabinet and the public levees he held at Springfield where he was accosted continuously by legions of office seekers (the patronage opportunities of a newly elected president regarding the Federal bureaucracy were huge at the time and key to maintaining political power). Holzer’s account of the triumphant inaugural train journey to Washington also provides a fascinating look at the way 19th-century American politics worked. The trip was designed for Lincoln to meet and rally his political base on the way to Washington, and it is a fascinating bookend to the similar journey of Lincoln’s funeral train on its journey back to Springfield after his assassination (see my review of Bloody Crimes: The Chase for Jefferson Davis and the Death Pageant for Lincoln’s Corpse, by James Swanson). It gives the reader some insight into the reasons for Lincoln’s appeal and suggests the depth of impression he made on a large segment of voters. The exchanges between Lincoln and his supporters along the route also shed light on the fundamental values that he shared with them, values that they both found at issue in the impending national crisis. Those affinities and affections allowed Lincoln to maintain their loyalty and support through a long, tragic, and costly war, one that remains the defining event in our nation’s history.

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