[Marxism] James Oakes reviews 3 new books on Lincoln (long)

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Mar 23 07:36:34 MDT 2009

(James Oakes is one of my favorite Civil War scholars. James McPherson, 
reviewed in this piece, has been interviewed by WSWS. I am sending the 
entire article because it is only available to NYR subscribers.)

Volume 56, Number 6 · April 9, 2009
A Different Lincoln
By James Oakes

Lincoln President-Elect: Abraham Lincoln and the Great Secession Winter, 
by Harold Holzer
Simon and Schuster, 623 pp., $30.00

Lincoln and His Admirals: Abraham Lincoln, the US Navy, and the Civil War
by Craig L. Symonds
Oxford University Press, 430 pp., $27.95

Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief
by James M. McPherson
Penguin, 329 pp., $35.00

Etched into the pedestal of a statue of Daniel Webster that stands in 
Central Park not far from where I live are the most famous words from 
Webster's second reply to Robert Hayne during their "great debate" of 
January 1830: "Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable." 
Abraham Lincoln loved that speech and greatly admired the man who 
delivered it. For Lincoln, as for most Republicans in 1860, to revere 
the Union was to love liberty and loving liberty meant hating slavery. A 
lifelong Whig, Lincoln always saw his support for economic development 
as part of a larger vision of national unity. But after 1854, when he 
reentered public life as an antislavery politician, just about 
everything Lincoln said about the Union was closely bound up with his 
moral opposition to slavery. Lurking behind nearly every major political 
or military decision Lincoln made as president was his conviction that 
the problem of the Union and the problem of slavery were one and the 
same. So it's not quite right to say that Lincoln cared more about the 
Union than he did about slavery. His concern for the Union was 
inseparable from his hatred of slavery.

"For the sake of the Union," Lincoln argued in his 1854 Peoria speech, 
the old Missouri Compromise restrictions on introducing slavery into the 
western territories "ought to be restored." Opening those areas to 
slavery, he warned, would raise "a grave question for the lovers of the 
Union." More than an anomaly in a nation founded on the principle of 
universal liberty, slavery was for him a threat to the Union's 
existence. In 1858 Lincoln likened the nation to a house at war with 
itself, doomed to bitter strife and unable to sustain itself "half slave 
and half free." He often asked audiences whether any issue had ever 
unsettled the Union the way slavery had done repeatedly since the 
nation's founding. His antislavery politics were guided by a kind of 
Platonic ideal of a Union that—once cleansed of slavery's stain—would 
more closely approximate the true vision of the founders. Restrict 
slavery's expansion, reaffirm the nation's antislavery principles, and 
"we shall not only have saved the Union," Lincoln concluded in 1854, 
"but we shall have so saved it, as to make, and to keep it, forever 
worthy of the saving."
NYR Subscriptions

Lincoln said these things better than most politicians but he was hardly 
the only politician saying them, and not everybody agreed. Northern 
Democrats thought there was something sinister, even treasonous, in all 
the talk of an irreconcilable conflict between slavery and freedom. The 
real threat to the Union, they believed, was not slavery but the 
relentless obsession with it—by zealous supporters in the South and 
fanatic opponents in the North. Most Northern Democrats would fight and 
die for the Union, but they would not wage a war whose primary goal was 
the abolition of slavery. Starting from a very different premise—that 
slavery had destroyed the Union—most Republicans quickly concluded that 
it would be impossible to restore the Union without attacking slavery. A 
war for the Union, then, meant very different things to the loyal men 
and women of the North.

There was a critical sliver of common ground, however. Even if they 
disagreed over the morality of slavery, Democrats and Republicans in the 
North could agree that slavery had caused the war, that single-minded 
devotion to it had inspired widespread disloyalty to the Union in the 
slave states. Democrats really did care more about the Union than they 
cared about slavery, but it might be possible to convince many of them 
that the destruction of slavery was necessary if the Union was to be 
restored. A large part of Lincoln's presidency, and no small part of his 
greatness, resided in his ability to persuade a majority of loyal 
Americans of something he himself had long believed—that the struggle 
for the Union was also a struggle for universal liberty.

Between November 6, 1860, the day Lincoln was elected president, and 
March 4, 1861, the day he was inaugurated, the United States of America 
fell apart. As soon as the voting results were clear, the South Carolina 
legislature called a secession convention to meet in December. As 
expected, when the delegates met they voted overwhelmingly to secede 
from the Union. By then several other secession conventions had been 
called and, by February, six more Deep South states had followed South 
Carolina's lead. On February 4 representatives from the seceded states 
met in Montgomery, Alabama, where they drafted a new constitution and, 
five days later, elected Jefferson Davis of Mississippi as interim 
president of the Confederate States of America. All of this had happened 
by the time Lincoln left his home in Springfield, Illinois, on February 
11, on his way to the inauguration in Washington, D.C. Whatever else it 
was, this was no ordinary interregnum.

Yet it is one of the strengths of Harold Holzer's Lincoln 
President-Elect that it reminds us of how much of Lincoln's time was 
occupied with the ordinary things any newly elected president has to do. 
Lincoln put up with countless office seekers, held numerous conferences 
with fellow Republicans, selected his cabinet, and drafted his inaugural 
address. It was mostly familiar business. Before the era of civil 
service, presidents-elect got to make hundreds of patronage 
appointments, but because this was the first time the Republican Party 
had ever taken power there was a wholesale turnover of federal 
appointees that made Lincoln's job more onerous than usual. As Holzer 
shows, Lincoln followed well-established tradition by filling many key 
cabinet positions with the men he had defeated for his party's nomination.

But there was no precedent for the breakup of the nation that made the 
interregnum of 1860–1861 different from any other. In the first weeks 
after his election Lincoln scoffed at disunionist rumblings. Southerners 
had been making such threats for years; if he just kept quiet it would 
all blow over. By December Lincoln realized that secession was a genuine 
threat. In public he maintained a "stately silence," urging nothing more 
than obedience to the law. But in private Lincoln resisted any sectional 
compromise that violated the Republican Party's rock-solid opposition to 
slavery's expansion into the western territories. By January, Lincoln 
decided that compromise on any basis was capitulation to secessionist 
blackmail. At some point early in the New Year he probably reached the 
conclusion that war was likely.

In February, when he left Springfield for Washington, Lincoln broke his 
silence and revealed his policy in a series of speeches along the way. 
He summed it all up in his uncompromising inaugural address. He would 
neither "coerce" nor "invade" the South, but he would enforce the law, 
hold on to federal forts, and uphold his constitutional obligation to 
maintain the integrity of the Union. Secession was anarchy, Lincoln 
said, and as president he would not tolerate it. The next day the 
Richmond Dispatch took due note of Lincoln's aggressive tone. "The 
inaugural address," it declared, "inaugurates civil war."

Holzer's account of these events is lively and thoroughly researched, 
but it suffers from some of the occupational hazards of Lincoln 
scholarship. It's too long, and it sometimes attributes to the sixteenth 
president powers and abilities beyond those of mortal men. Holzer calls 
Lincoln "the master puppeteer" who pulled the strings and made 
Republicans dance to his tune even from faraway Springfield, Illinois. 
In fact nothing Lincoln said or did in the months between his election 
in November 1860 and his inauguration in March 1861 was out of step with 
the Republican Party line. Democrats and border state Southerners 
demanded that Lincoln say something, anything, to ease the sectional 
tension. Don't do it, Republicans countered. They bombarded him with 
letters, editorials, and personal visits telling him to keep quiet and 
give no hints of accommodation. Until his inauguration, one Republican 
wrote, Lincoln should "not open his mouth, save only to eat." All but a 
few Republicans resisted any compromise that would allow slavery's 
expansion into the territories, and by January most of them resisted any 
compromise whatever. Anyone who wavers, Benjamin Wade explained, "is 
shot down in an instant by his comrades." The Republican caucus was 
disciplining itself.

The screws of party discipline were fastened tight by the intense 
hostility to compromise welling up from the Republican base. Local 
Republican editors published exhortations and individual voters wrote 
impassioned letters to their congressmen demanding unbending allegiance 
to the party's antislavery platform. "For God sake," one anxious voter 
wrote to Republican Senator John Sherman of Ohio, "don't Compromise." As 
president-elect, Lincoln felt this pressure more than most Republicans. 
He received at least as many letters as he sent out counseling silence 
and resistance to compromise. It required no nerves of steel for him to 
tow the party line.

It was also easier for Lincoln to hold his tongue in Springfield than it 
was for the Republicans who convened in Washington when Congress came 
back into session in December. Confronted each day by the belligerent 
speeches of Southern congressmen, and forced to take positions on 
various proposals for sectional compromise, Republican politicians began 
to break their silence and by March most of them were on record 
denouncing secession and opposing any compromise of the party's 
antislavery principles. When Lincoln himself began to speak out, 
beginning in mid-February, he said the same things most Republicans were 
saying: the Union was perpetual, secession was illegal, and the laws 
would be enforced.

If any group was responsible for holding the line against compromise it 
was the party radicals. They were the "stiffbacks" of the Republican 
organization. For the sake of building a winning political coalition 
they had accepted "free soil" (i.e., opposition to extending slavery 
rather than abolition) as the party's ideological bottom line, though 
their own antislavery principles went much deeper. Having adhered to 
that minimal position they would compromise no further—especially not 
now, at the very moment of the Republican Party's first great triumph. 
When a tumbling stock market prompted jittery merchants in New York and 
Boston to call for sectional reconciliation, it was the radicals who 
strongly objected. They are asking us, Charles Sumner complained, " to 
surrender our principles." Ohio radicals warned that they would bolt 
from the party if Republicans backed away from their own antislavery 
platform. "We will repudiate it with a full heart, and counsel all our 
friends to do the same." Now was the time to stand firm, Joshua Giddings 
insisted. "We have degraded ourselves enough."

Lincoln agreed. The consummate pragmatist steadfastly rejected any 
sectional compromise that conceded a constitutional right to own slaves 
in the territories. "Entertain no proposition for a compromise in regard 
to the extension of slavery," he warned in a private letter in 
mid-December. "Have none of it. The tug has to come & better now than 

In rejecting compromise Republicans knowingly accepted the possibility 
of war. But war would require the enthusiasm of many Northerners who had 
voted against the Republicans, and Lincoln used his trip to Washington 
to build that support. His February speeches rang with a new militancy. 
Indeed they stand out in the Lincoln corpus for their bellicose and 
emotional appeal to nationalism. Lincoln riled up crowds by flattering 
them for their love of country and then inviting them to shout in 
uproarious approval. He asked leading questions. You will support me, 
won't you? he would say. Won't you? He protested the sincerity of his 
hopes for peace, "but it may be necessary," he warned legislators in 
Trenton, "to put the foot down firmly." He invoked the sanctity of the 
Union to rally support for an impending war even among those who did not 
really care about slavery.

But a war fought primarily to save the Union could not avoid the problem 
of slavery. For Lincoln it came down to this: he could not win without 
the support of the War Democrats and the loyal border states (the slave 
states of Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri), but neither could he 
win the war on their terms—by leaving slavery alone. How could a war for 
the Union become a war for emancipation without losing their support? It 
would require, among other things, a skillful politician and an 
uncommonly effective communicator. It would also require, as Craig 
Symonds and James McPherson show, a commander in chief who understood 
that military and political strategies for winning the war could never 
be separated.

McPherson notes that Lincoln's problems with his generals are famous, 
and Symonds now adds the six Union admirals to the familiar story. This 
could be told as a simple tale of clashing personalities—of George 
McClellan's arrogance, David Dixon Porter's ego, John C. Frémont's 
incompetence, and Lincoln's frustration. But as Symonds points out, much 
of the problem was structural. In 1861 there was neither a Pentagon nor 
a Joint Chiefs of Staff—no command structure capable of coordinating the 
movements of different branches of the service, no bureaucracy that 
could ensure the simultaneous movement of different armies in different 
theaters of war. Only the president, as commander in chief of the army 
and the navy, could fill that role. But because Lincoln had no military 
training and almost no military experience, he had to learn on the job, 
and he made mistakes.

Lincoln put in long hours of study mastering the theory of war and the 
principles of combat. In truth they weren't all that complicated. First, 
wars are won by defeating armies, not capturing territory. Second, to 
overcome the South's strategically defensive position, the North had to 
take advantage of its superior numbers by launching simultaneous attacks 
that would prevent the enemy from consolidating its forces. But Lincoln 
was frustrated by generals who, though often trained in those elementary 
precepts at West Point, nonetheless failed to act on them.

Lincoln's first general in chief, Winfield Scott, imagined that a naval 
blockade would be enough to strangle the Confederacy into surrender. But 
the South could always feed itself and as long as its armies held the 
field Confederate independence was feasible. Yet Lincoln had a difficult 
time getting Union generals to understand that merely capturing 
Richmond, or kicking Confederates out of Maryland or Pennsylvania, was 
no replacement for destroying Robert E. Lee's army. Nor did Lincoln have 
much better luck getting different generals, or generals and admirals, 
to coordinate their movements by launching simultaneous attacks.

Sometimes the problem was sheer military incompetence. Sometimes it was 
the lack of what military historians call "moral courage"—the 
willingness of a commander to send his men to their deaths in combat. 
But more than a few of the problems were political. The West Pointers 
were bad enough, but in the earliest years of the war Lincoln often felt 
compelled to appoint "political generals"—militarily inept, many of 
them, but nevertheless appealing to Massachusetts Republicans, Illinois 
Democrats, or German-Americans. Sometimes national political strategy 
dictated undesirable military strategy—as in Lincoln's decision to press 
ahead with the disastrous Red River campaign in Louisiana instead of 
following Ulysses S. Grant's preference for closing off Mobile Bay. "It 
was impossible," Craig Symonds writes toward the end of Lincoln and His 
Admirals, "to keep politics and strategy completely separate."

Slavery posed the largest political problem of the war, however. Within 
weeks of Fort Sumter it became clear that the Confederacy could not 
secure its independence without the assistance of slave labor and that 
the North could not restore the Union without depriving the Confederates 
of that labor. Symonds's discussion of slavery and the naval war is both 
original and important. Because of the navy's early success in capturing 
some of the most densely populated plantation districts of the South 
Atlantic and Gulf coasts, it was a pioneer in the establishment of 
"contraband" camps for escaped slaves behind Union lines. Unlike the US 
Army, the navy had never excluded black sailors from its ships and as 
the number of contraband slaves swelled the navy began absorbing more 
black servicemen, months before black soldiers were able to join the 
Union army. Yet although the navy "had played its part," Symonds 
concludes, "it had been mainly an army war."

The "army war" is the focus of McPherson's new book and, like Symonds's, 
it reflects the unusually high standards of Civil War military history. 
But McPherson also brings special strengths to the subject. He began his 
career with two sympathetic books on abolitionism and a pathbreaking 
study of The Negro's Civil War. That broad background enriched his two 
one-volume histories of the Civil War. Over the years McPherson has 
become a great admirer of Abraham Lincoln, and his admiration reflects 
the trajectory of his scholarship. As a young historian and a student of 
the abolitionists, "my own attitudes" toward Lincoln "reflected their 
continuing criticisms of him," McPherson has recently explained.

     Only after years of studying the powerful crosscurrents of 
political and military pressures on Lincoln did I come to appreciate the 
skill with which he steered between the numerous shoals of conservatism 
and radicalism, free states and slave states, abolitionists, 
Republicans, Democrats, and border-state Unionists to maintain a steady 
course that brought the nation to victory—and the abolition of 
slavery—in the end.[*]

Lincoln's successful navigation of these crosscurrents is the theme of 
Tried by War, a study of Lincoln as a commander in chief. But the book 
is also a distillation of McPherson's wide-ranging scholarship and a 
demonstration of how effectively, and unpretentiously, he brings 
together his unparalleled command of the social, political, and military 
history of the Civil War.

Lincoln's greatness as commander in chief derived from much more than 
his increasingly sharp instincts as a military strategist. For one 
thing, as good as they were, Lincoln's instincts were never infallible. 
His obsession with the naval capture of Charleston, for example, nearly 
destroyed two good admirals. But Lincoln's grasp of politics, and with 
it the interplay of military and political strategy, was unsurpassed. 
Lincoln quickly saw the "military necessity" of emancipation and, from 
the earliest weeks of the war, he helped set in motion and guide the 
long process of slavery's eventual abolition. He knew that a crucial 
part of this process involved preparing the political ground for popular 
acceptance of emancipation as a war aim. But he also understood that no 
matter how much political skill and verbal dexterity he could muster, 
popular support for the war depended on the ability of his generals to 
win battles.

Many Northern minds would have to be changed before a war caused by 
slavery could become a war to abolish slavery. Radicals, whose stock 
rose dramatically once the war started, argued from the beginning that 
emancipation was a military necessity essential to the restoration of 
the Union. Their efforts became organized through "union leagues" that 
worked to build support for the war and emancipation—for Union and 
liberty. Lincoln relied on this radical campaign. Years later the 
abolitionist Moncure Conway recalled a meeting with the President in 
early 1862. "We shall need all the anti-slavery feeling in the country, 
and more," Conway remembered Lincoln saying. "You can go home and try to 
bring the people to your views; and you may say anything you like about 
me, if that will help. Don't spare me!" But it wasn't only radicals who 
strongly opposed slavery.

Congregations in the North published memorials declaring that God would 
not end the bloodshed until the sin of slavery was erased from the 
national conscience. Lincoln joined this propaganda effort. He began 
writing letters, not for private consideration but for public 
consumption—letters designed to be published, to be read aloud, to 
persuade, to mold public opinion, because in a democracy, Lincoln 
believed, public opinion is everything. These letters are minor 
masterpieces, without parallel in the annals of the American presidency.

The first of them, cited by McPherson, was in reply to an editorial by 
the influential publisher Horace Greeley imploring Lincoln to issue an 
emancipation proclamation. In his response Lincoln declared that 
although it always had been his personal wish to see slavery abolished, 
his primary charge as president and commander in chief was to restore 
the Union. He spelled out what appeared to be three possible ways to 
achieve his goal: by freeing all the slaves, by freeing none of the 
slaves, or by freeing some of the slaves. Presumably Lincoln would 
choose whichever option would most rapidly restore the Union.

But in fact the three options were bogus. Lincoln had already declared 
that the slaves who had escaped to Union lines were "liberated" and 
could never be returned to slavery, and he had already signed a law 
abolishing slavery in Washington, D.C. It was no longer possible to 
restore the Union without freeing any slaves. Lincoln had also said on 
numerous occasions that the federal government had no power to force 
emancipation on the four border slave states that had remained loyal to 
the Union. Constitutionally, then, he could not free all the slaves. The 
only possibility left was that he would restore the Union by proclaiming 
the emancipation of some but not all of the slaves. And although Greeley 
did not know it at the time, Lincoln had already decided to do just 
that. So whatever else it was, the Greeley letter was anything but a 
straightforward recitation of Lincoln's three options.

What, then, was Lincoln up to? It's impossible to be sure, but the 
letter to Greeley has all the earmarks of a skillful public relations 
ploy. Lincoln knew that the proclamation he was about to issue would 
provoke hostility among those Northerners who would willingly fight to 
restore the Union but who would object to a war to free the slaves. By 
making it appear as though he had options to choose from regarding 
emancipation, and that he would choose the option most likely to restore 
the Union, Lincoln tried to nudge Northern public opinion along the path 
he had already decided to take.

Where the Greeley letter of August 1862 was coy about abolition, 
Lincoln's letter of August 1863 to the Illinois politician James 
Conkling was a remarkably blunt defense of what was by then the explicit 
emancipation policy of the federal government. Thousands of freed slaves 
were already putting that policy into effect by enlisting in the Union 
army. Lincoln directly addressed those who objected, sometimes 
violently, to the transformation of a war to restore the Union into a 
war to emancipate the slaves. "You say you will not fight to free 
negroes," Lincoln wrote to his critics. "Some of them seem willing to 
fight for you; but no matter. Fight you, then, exclusively to save the 

It was the same debate he had engaged nearly a decade earlier, between 
those who wanted to keep slavery and the Union separate and those who 
thought the issues were inseparable. At Peoria, in 1854, Lincoln had 
imagined a Union without slavery and therefore "worthy of the saving." 
The same sentiments reappeared in the Conkling letter a decade later. He 
looked forward to a peace that would be "worth the keeping in all future 
time." When that time comes, Lincoln said,

     there will be some black men who can remember that, with silent 
tongue, and clenched teeth, and steady eye, and well-poised bayonet, 
they have helped mankind on to this great consummation; while, I fear, 
there will be some white ones unable to forget that, with malignant 
heart, and deceitful speech, they have strove to hinder it.

It was a familiar theme, and it is no surprise that Lincoln returned to 
it in his last and greatest speeches. But by then the tone was 
different. Gone was the bellicose strain that had seeped briefly into 
his language while he was president-elect. The war had changed Lincoln, 
chastened him. Speaking at a mass grave in Gettysburg where only months 
before 50,000 Americans had been killed or wounded in a ferocious 
three-day battle, Lincoln invoked a nationalism that was hopeful rather 
than belligerent. With emancipation—"a new birth of freedom"—now one of 
the war's aims, Lincoln believed that the Union had rededicated itself 
to the nation's founding proposition that all men are created equal. The 
war was a test, he said, of whether the nation the founders had made, 
"or any nation, so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure." 
Lincoln thereby folded universal freedom into the defense of democratic 
republicanism. Thousands of men had died at Gettysburg, Lincoln said, to 
ensure that "government of the people, by the people, for the people, 
shall not perish from the earth."

Darker and less exalted was the unionism of the astonishing Second 
Inaugural Address. There Lincoln not only rejected the tub-thumping 
patriotism of the secession winter but also avoided any hint of national 
triumphalism. We "all knew," he said, that slavery was, "somehow, the 
cause of the war." But no one could have imagined the staggering price 
we would have to pay to rid the nation of the thing that had brought the 
war on to begin with. The suffering has been unspeakable, Lincoln said:

     Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by 
the bond-man's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be 
sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid 
by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, 
so still it must be said, "the judgments of the Lord, are true and 
righteous altogether."

The war was about to end. In a few days Lee would surrender his army at 
Appomattox. Lincoln had every reason to revel in his triumph, but hubris 
would have been out of character with the man and with the tone he set 
on that occasion. Instead of screaming eagles, the unionism Lincoln now 
invoked was one of shared national responsibility for the "offence" of 
slavery. In 1801, after the bitter partisanship of the preceding 
presidential election, Thomas Jefferson appealed for national unity by 
declaring famously: "We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists." 
But the words of national unity that echoed from the Capitol steps on 
that late winter day in March 1865 registered Lincoln's more sobering 
sentiment: we are all guilty.

[*]Abraham Lincoln (Oxford University Press, 2009), p. x.

More information about the Marxism mailing list