“If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong. --Abraham Lincoln, April 4, 1864
We all have our heroes. Mine is Abraham Lincoln. I spend a fair amount of time asking myself, especially when I’m dealing with a knotty problem in my job, WWLD: What Would Lincoln Do? As a Christian, I also sometimes ask myself WWJD – What Would Jesus Do? – but I tend to find the Lincoln question more arresting. Jesus was divine; Lincoln was mortal. By that I mean not only that he died a tragically premature death (Jesus did that, too), but that he was a fallible human being. I’m not sure, for example, that Lincoln was all that great a husband – he was away from home for long stretches of time, and I believe the stories I’ve heard about shouting matches with his wife at the Lincoln home in Springfield Illinois, where he spent most of his adult life. Nor do I think he was all that great a father. He seems to have had a chilly relationship with his oldest son, Robert, which I suspect was not entirely Robert’s fault (though I must say I never found much to like about Robert Lincoln, who always struck me as chilliness personified). Conversely, Lincoln seems to have been indulgent, to the point of irresponsible, with his sons Tad and Willie when he was in the White House. (Willie, who got sick and died in the White House, was apparently the one who was most like his dad, and it breaks my heart every time I read Lincoln say, “I know he is better off in heaven, but then we loved him so.”) Lincoln’s relationship with his own father wasn’t that great, either. He refused to refused to go see Thomas Lincoln when he was dying, telling his cousin that he suspected the encounter would be more painful for his father than his absence would be.
And that’s just the private Lincoln. Lincoln was racist. (He said so himself: “I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race,” he explained in the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858.) Lincoln misjudged the determination of southern states to secede. He pushed his generals into battle sooner than he should have at the start of the Civil War. You get the idea: the guy screwed up a few things along the way.
But, my God, Lincoln was a deeply admirable man. The clarity of his thinking – the way he was able to slice through to the heart of an issue and frame it not in a persuasive, but deeply moving way. His instinctive sense of generosity toward opponents, a refusal to believe other people were any worse than he was, even when he disagreed with them profoundly. And his sense of humor. Lincoln makes me laugh all the time – “God must love ugly people; he made so many of them”; “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt”; describing Union General Joe Hooker as having his headquarters where his hindquarters should be – the one liners and jokes are sprinkled across various accounts of his life and never fail to amuse me.
But the real reason Lincoln is so important to me is that he has decisively shaped my moral imagination. To put it more simply, he has durably defined the line between right and wrong. And you know what? He hasn’t just done this for me. He’s pretty much set our national standard for morality for the last 150 years.
This is a bold, and somewhat touchy, claim. We Americans, especially of the liberal stripe, get nervous when some of us start making broad statements about good and evil (or even just start tossing around words like “evil”); we tend to call that “imposing our morality” on others. The matter is complicated further by the fact that there’s virtually nothing that’s entirely universal as a matter of morality. Murder, incest, rape: You not only can find people doing these things at any given time, but you can find people justifying them at any given time. Hell, you can even find people justifying them in the United States at different times. Of course a lot turns on context and definitions (does one soldier killing another constitute murder, for example? Is cousin marrying cousin incest? Can a husband assert conjugal rights?), but that’s kind of my point – we tend to shy away from absolutes.
But in at least one case, Lincoln didn’t. It happened late in his life, in an 1864 letter to a supporter who had been upset that Lincoln was recruiting African American soldiers in Kentucky, a slave state that had barely remained in the Union, and one where putting black men in uniforms and giving them guns was controversial, to put it mildly. Lincoln apparently explained his position so effectively that this person, a newspaper editor, that he asked Lincoln to write it down. Here, as Lincoln remembered it, were his first words: “I am naturally anti-slavery. If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong. I can not remember when I did not so think, and feel.”
If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong: for Lincoln, slaveholding is the very essence of evil. For him, this view is “natural,” and it’s one he’s always held. Simple and direct.
Now, at this point I’m going to say two things you probably know but which I think I need to say. The first is that prior to the Civil War, a great many Americans were not anti-slavery. They did not think of it as wrong, and never had. The other is that that Lincoln certainly did not invent the notion that slavery was wrong. That notion had been around as long as slavery itself had been around in the Americas. Nor, until the last three years of his life, was Lincoln regarded as any great champion of ending slavery among the people who cared most about the issue. Indeed, a great many of these people felt Lincoln was too timid in his antislavery beliefs, that he should have done more than he did to bring it to an end.
Lincoln’s great distinction, then, was not his conviction, which represented a minority view but certainly not unique. Instead, it took two forms. The first, of course, is that he’s the guy who actually ended slavery – or, more precisely, he issued the order as the head of the U.S. army that set slavery on the road to destruction in the form of the Emancipation Proclamation, which took effect on January 1, 1863. The other, more subtle but for our purposes more important thing he did was explain the end of slavery in a way that became the prevailing common sense ever since. He did it in a series of speeches in a series of ways, whose essence was that the only real way to save the country he and others loved was to end a practice that was destroying it and to give what he called “the last best hope of earth” a second chance.
Next: Varieties of slavery