Off Manchester’s Albert Square stands a copy of George Grey Barnard’s bronze portrait statue of Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865). A gift from Amer- ica, it was shunted off to Manchester, not because of the city’s support for the North during the Civil War (1861-1865), which flew in the face of its own prosperity, but because the gawky representation made it inappro- priate for its original destination in Parliament Square, London. Barnard’s 1916 Lincoln is a gloomy, backwoods figure with sauce-bottle shoulders and ponderous appendages. Its fate is testament to the fact that history has never harmonised its view of America’s great President as folk hero and statesman. Its appearance masks another truth: the vigorous country law- yer, that self-made man of the people, rapidly became a gaunt, careworn President. The journalist Noah Brooks, meeting him again after half a doz- en years – and only midway through the war – recalled, ‘his hair is griz- zled, his gait more stooping, his countenance sallow, and there is a sunken, deathly look about the large, cavernous eyes.’
In our prurient age, when deference is dismissed as servility, we find it almost impossible to believe in moral heroes. Abraham Lincoln is mine. As a national leader, emancipator, democrat (and great prose stylist) and especially as a human being he is magnetic. Lincoln is forever etched in my mind as the apotheosis of the good and greatly talented man in the eye of the hurricane. The military, political, public and personal pressures on him during his terms of office were enormous.
Lincoln summed up his early life, to a political campaign writer, with a line from Thomas Gray’s Elegy: ‘The short and simple annals of the poor.’ He was born dirt poor in Kentucky. As a young man he began to prosper through sheer hard work and self-tutoring, briefly enlisting in a frontier army during the unheroic Black Hawk War (‘I had a good many bloody struggles with the musquetoes’). In 1834 he was elected to the Illinois State legislature, beginning law practice two years later. In 1841 he married the equally ambitious Mary Todd. Five years later he spent a term in Congress and in 1856 helped found the Republican Party. Two years on he was nominated as a Republican candidate for Congress, partly for his powers of oratory:
A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved – I do not expect the house to fall – but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing, or all the other.
Though he failed against the incumbent Stephen A. Douglas, their debates gave him national visibility. By the eve of the war Lincoln was a wealthy man, earning about $5,000 a year from his law practice, though he was a politically disappointed one. However, the national mood was volatile, with the issue of slavery threatening the Union, and new alignments were forming. In 1860 Lincoln famously addressed the Cooper Institute in New York in a speech which outlined his views on slavery and established his ‘presidential’ credentials. Still an unlikely choice – lacking as he did any administrative experience – he was nevertheless nominated as a compro- mise Republican candidate for President when the convention met in Chicago.
The existence of this new anti-slavery Party (‘free labor, free land, free men’) offended the slave-owning South. Lincoln’s election in Novem- ber 1860 was seen as an incendiary act, after decades of sectional rivalry. Although supported solely by the north and west, his victory meant that Congress would be dominated by anti-slavery interests. Despite Lincoln’s repeated avowals not to interfere with Southern slavery, only denying its extension into new territories, South Carolina seceded from the Union in December. It was later followed by Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas, Tennessee, North Carolina and Virginia. The border states with their mixed allegiances were slowly pacified, but Southern sympathies were rife there throughout the war. In February 1861 Jefferson Davis, former US senator from Mississippi, was elected President of the Confederate States of America.
Whether the war was inevitable or not is still a hotly debated issue. In a recent New York Review of Books piece (March 7, 2013) we are told that amongst historians ‘a change of tone’ and ‘a more muted assessment’ of the war is taking place, shifting from ‘full throated unionism’ to focusing on the avoidable loss and enormous suffering. Yet it is likely that the creation of the Republican Party was the tipping point. Some historians also look to the increasingly heated political debates and the evangelical Christian and social reform movements which supported abolition with such fierce rhetoric.
Another reason for the war was government intransigence. Lincoln had no mandate to dissolve the nation. To him, saving the Union served a higher moral purpose, in preserving popular government and democracy. Seceders were wrong in believing their rights trumped the Federal Union, because the Colonies had united before they were states. Because Lincoln lived by the Constitution, it initially slowed him on the great question of the time. ‘I think Slavery is wrong, morally, and politically,’ he explained in an 1859 speech but, ‘I say that we must not interfere with the institution of slavery in the states where it exists, because the constitution forbids it’. Further, in August 1862 he famously responded by letter to a New York Tribune editorial:
My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to 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.
This was pragmatism. Time and again Lincoln’s caution in preparing the public mood served him well. Even as late as August 1864, he explained to Frederick Douglas, freed slave and abolitionist editor, that if the South sued for peace and a return to the Union whilst keeping their slaves, he would not have the power to continue the war until abolition, because the Northern people would not support it.
Lincoln was inaugurated as President in March 1861 with a speech that at- tempted to divert the coming war. ‘I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our na- ture’. Yet when the new President ordered the provisioning of the Federal garrison at Fort Sumter, South Carolina fired the first shots of the war.
The most dramatic pressures on President Lincoln were, of course, mili- tary. It has been estimated that the war, in proportion to today’s population, cost more than five million lives. 600,000 soldiers were to die in four years, destroyed by advances in military weapons, the poor state of sanitation and the prevalence of disease that took many more lives than the bullets. The North, prosperous from business and industry and fed by waves of immi- gration, could just about sustain its losses. It had also almost three times the population of the South, which was locked in its slave economy. The South could not sustain unending losses. Its only realistic chance of success was to ensure the intervention and arbitration of European powers.
As Commander-in-Chief Lincoln assumed responsibility for the conduct of the war. In July 1861 the Bull Run battle became the first in a series of Union defeats. George B. McClellan then assumed command of Northern troops, a man reluctant to accept the human cost of war. Lincoln was later to write, ‘No general yet found can face the arithmetic’. Eventually a gen- eral was found: U. S. Grant, who took Fort Donelson in 1862. In Virginia, where much of the fighting took place, McClellan became bogged down in the Seven Days Battles and in August a second battle at Bull Run (the Confederates under the legendary Stonewall Jackson) led to another defeat for the North. In September McClellan, who had a terminal case of ‘the slows’, according to the President, failed to capitalise on halting Robert E. Lee’s invasion of the North at Antietam. The success of this battle afforded the President the opportunity to publish his Emancipation Proclamation the following January, which freed the slaves in those states in rebellion. ‘If my name ever goes into history it will be for this act, and my whole soul is in it,’ he declared.
Prior to that, the luckless Burnside, McClellan’s replacement, was defeated at Fredericksburg and the next year his replacement, Hooker, at Chancel- lorsville. Fortunately for the Union, in July 1863 came the victory of Vicks- burg and the three day Battle of Gettysburg, which proved the turning point of the war. In 1864 ‘Unconditional Surrender’ Grant moved on Richmond, capital of the Confederacy, eventually grinding down Lee’s Confederate armies while Sherman’s made his destructive march ‘from Atlanta to the sea’. The year ended with Lincoln decisively re-elected. His conciliatory Second Inaugural speech on March 4 was delivered on the eve of victory:
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds.
1865 began with the passage of the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery. In April, Grant captured Richmond and Lee surrendered the Army of North- ern Virginia at Appomattox Courthouse. Six days later Lincoln was assas- sinated by an embittered, racist actor at Ford’s Theatre in Washington.
As President, Lincoln’s problems had been exacerbated by political dis- sent and the constant need to buoy public morale, each of which took its temperature from the military situation. It served him well to be both a cautious moderate in politics and a patient man. As his early biographer Lord Charnwood wrote in 1916: ‘He accepted the institutions to which he was born, and enjoyed them. His own intense experience of the weakness of democracy did not sour him’. He lived by no political theory except the ‘dignity of common man.’
To some of Lincoln’s contemporaries it seemed woefully inadequate to the times. He may sit alone in white marble today, but in his day there was a cacophony of voices to be heard. It began with the cabinet, which included his major rivals for the Republican nomination for President in 1860, men who at first felt he was undeserving of office and who had to be restrained from rhetoric and actions that could have lost them the border states and embroiled them in a war against England. Of these, Lincoln later came to rely on the company of William H. Seward, his extrovert Secretary of State. He also appreciated the hard work of Edwin Stanton (War) and Gideon Welles (Navy).
The cabinet’s grudging loyalty was much needed, as Lincoln’s enemies numbered more than Southerners or Democrats. To some Republicans, as J. G. Randall has written, Lincoln was a President:
who offended moderates without satisfying extremists, who issued a tardy and incomplete emancipation proclamation after showing a willingness to conserve slavery, who suppressed civil rights, headed a government marred by corruption, bungled the war, and then lost the peace, his postwar policy being blocked by congressional leaders.
From his first use of emergency executive powers at the time of Sumter and onwards, Lincoln found it difficult to work with the powerful group of radicals who led the joint congressional committee on the conduct of the war. Other influential Republicans, like Representative Thaddeus Stevens and Senator Charles Sumner, were offended by Lincoln’s cautiousness, his regard for border state opinion, his leniency to Southerners and the com- position of his cabinet. He was also abused by leading abolitionist orators and journalists like Wendell Phillips and William Lloyd Garrison. Even as late as 1864 Lincoln’s re-election prospects were hurt by members of his own party trying to prevent his re-nomination or demanding his withdrawal after re-nomination.
Eventually Lincoln would come to enjoy great public popularity, but early in his administration he lived with pressures beyond the North’s grief at war losses. After the defeat at Fredericksburg in December 1862, for ex- ample, the Chicago Tribune declared, ‘Failure of the army, weight of taxes, depreciation of money, want of cotton … increasing national debt, deaths in the army, no prospect of success, the continued closure of the Missis- sippi [River] … all combine to produce the existing state of despondency and desperation.’
Lincoln was always responsive to the national mood. Early in office he held what he liked to call his ‘public opinion baths’, where he made himself ac- cessible to petitioners each day at the White House. It exhausted his time, but gave him something of the temperature of public opinion. In fact he generally tried to move at the speed of public opinion, leading it by reason rather than rhetoric. His biographer Richard Carwardine referred to this as possibly his greatest achievement: ‘to take a stethoscope to Union opinion and read it with such skill that he timed to perfection his redefinition of national purpose.’
The President’s sympathy endeared him to the people. In a letter to Stanton in March 1864 the President wrote, ‘My dear Sir, A poor widow, by the name of Baird, has a son in the army, that for some offence has been sen- tenced to serve a long time without pay … I do not like this punishment of withholding pay – it falls so very hard upon poor families.’ Lincoln never failed in human kindness and it is a central theme of his image. To Rep- resentative Schuyler Colfax he remarked on one occasion: ‘some of our generals complain that I impair discipline and subordination in the army by my pardons and respites, but it makes me rested, after a hard day’s work, if I can find some good excuse for saving a man’s life, and I go to bed happy as I think how joyous the signing of my name will make him and his family and his friends.’
The moral wisdom and the grace of Lincoln’s writings have also contribut- ed to his image. Lincoln loved the elegance of reason, its mathematical so- briety. He was, as biographer Fred Kaplan wrote, ‘a genius with language at a time when its power and integrity mattered more than it does today’. Key influences on Lincoln were Shakespeare, ‘The Bible’ and the Classics, to which he wedded American plain speaking. ‘Lincoln lived, above all, off the spiritual capital of his words’ which served to recreate ‘the promise of the nation’s origins’, wrote Merrill D. Peterson. We can hear that incandes- cence in his 1862 message to Congress, ‘Fellow citizens, we cannot escape history… The fiery trail through which we pass, will light us down, in hon- our or dishonour, to the latest generation’. His most famous speech was the inspired two minute address at Gettysburg, in which the bloody sacrifice of war becomes a metaphorical birth: ‘we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain – that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.’
By the time of his re-election, Lincoln was an American icon. The Times noted the ‘universality of popular sentiment in favour of Mr. Lincoln. The faith of the people in the sound judgment and honest purpose of Mr. Lin- coln is as tenacious as if it were a veritable instinct.’ Yet there were hidden pressures that wore away at Lincoln the man. He had always been given to bouts of depression and, inevitably, the deaths of two of his sons Ed- ward (1850) and Willie, who died from typhoid fever in February 1862, led him to despair. For Lincoln, carrying the burdens of a war, grief was compounded by his wife’s reaction. Mary Todd Lincoln took to her bed for three weeks, then cried for months at the mention of Willie’s name, and ignored her surviving young son, Tad. For nearly a year all the Lincoln social activities had to be cancelled.
Previously Mrs Lincoln had been fiercely supportive of the President. Though her allegiance to the North was indisputable, she carried the burden of war losses in her own affluent Kentucky family, which straddled both sides of the conflict. An intelligent, cultured woman, Mary Lincoln was nevertheless the butt of criticism in society in Washington for her Western manners. She was also subject to mood swings, pains and migraines. Lin- coln could hardly console her. They had little time together, because of his exhausting days, and that little was marred by strained trust, resulting from her public indiscretions and excessive spending including a $27,000 debt incurred in refashioning the White House.
Besides, Lincoln tended to keep emotional distance from others. As his former law partner, William Herndon, put it in an 1887 letter, ‘Probably, except in his scrapes, Lincoln never poured out his soul to any mortal crea- ture at anytime and on no subject. He was the most secretive – reticent – shut-mouthed man that ever existed.’ This was possibly connected with his ambition, ‘a little engine that knew no rest.’ Nevertheless, Lincoln’s troubles seemed habitually etched in his face, which generated sympathy whilst reflecting his lifelong fatalism. He liked to quote Hamlet’s ‘There’s a divinity that shapes our ends/Rough-hew them how we will’. He believed in the Christian spirit rather than in the truth of the biblical story, though by the end of the war he was beginning to speak of himself as ‘an instrument in God’s hands’. In a rather poignant comment the literary critic Alfred Kazin suggested, ‘something of the Calvinism so natural to the hardships of the frontier clung to the churchless and fatalistic Lincoln – nothing was assured in his life, and everything good in it was a surprise, a gift’. It is no surprise that Lincoln put his trust in reputation and the judgment of history, rather than heaven.
For a solitary man Lincoln was, paradoxically, also gregarious. Some of his famous humour was a little off-colour for its time, mostly it was pictorial (‘I don’t like to hear cut and dried sermons. No – when I hear a man preach, I like to see him act as if he were fighting bees!’). For Lincoln humour was the engine of conversation and, as Lord Charnwood pointed out, ‘This was the way in which he had grown accustomed to be friendly in company; it served a purpose when intrusive questions had to be evaded, or reproofs or refusals to be given without offence’. There are a number of instances of this in the records. Lincoln once turned down a farmer’s request for a horse to replace one the army had stolen, by telling him of a steamer pilot who was approached by a small boy whilst wrestling the rapids. The boy requested him to stop the boat while he retrieved an apple that had gone overboard.
For many, Lincoln’s lack of vengefulness toward his enemies and his hu- mility made him as popular as his humour. ‘I happen, temporarily, to oc- cupy the White House,’ he said in an address in 1864. ‘I am a living witness that any of your children may look to come here as my father’s child has.’ Senator Sumner once remarked that ‘his simple presence was like a Proclamation of Human Equality.’ In another instance Lincoln intimated to General Sherman near the war’s end that he would be privately happy for the Confederate leaders to escape the country. He told the story of the man who asked for lemonade because he had signed the pledge. When his friend said the drink would taste better with a little brandy in it, the man replied that he would not object if it could be added ‘unbeknown’ to him.
Whenever I am passing Barnard’s statue in Manchester, it cheers me to think, not of Lincoln the ‘man of sorrows’ to quote his friend Ward Hill Lamon, but of the greatness of his character, of that decent human being who knew when to look the other way.