Lincoln and the Broken Politics of His Time

On this day in 1809, Abraham Lincoln was born.  He was born into an American heyday, when the new United States (having fended off the British in the War of 1812) were mushrooming.  In 1809, the nation consisted of seventeen states, the westernmost being Ohio, along with a vast territory that pioneers were flooding into, appropriating from natives, and organizing.  Lincoln was born to one such pioneer family and grew up in Illinois, which became a state when he was nine.

By the time Lincoln became president, the number of states had doubled.  The nation stretched to the Pacific.  His milieu was morphing as quickly as he was, a reckless proliferation the politicians could barely control.  The gargantuan Lincoln, with his terrible grooming, was a perfect embodiment of this rough hasty time.

He rode the crest of the chaos, educating himself, becoming a frontier lawyer, marrying well.  Perhaps the explosive growth he witnessed accounts for his devotion to the Union.  In a makeshift, transient world, he held to the nation’s founding ideals as a moral compass, a sure philosophy, maybe a path to fame.

Not surprisingly, Lincoln identified with the Whig Party,  a going concern when he first entered politics.  The party stood for moral self-control, a positive central government, and “internal improvements” (what we would call infrastructure today).  Whigs opposed the expansionist and laissez-faire Democrats, who favored decentralization, defended slavery, and resented any form of federal “interference.”  In the view of Democrats, the Union had little function except to uphold property rights and liberate the aggrandizing American will.

The Whig view of the world didn’t have enough takers, though, and when Lincoln was about 40, his party began going into decline.  Whig leaders, famous men like Daniel Webster and Henry Clay, wanted to keep the northern and southern branches of their party together; they wanted to preserve cordiality between the South and the North, and they wanted to keep their powerful positions in national politics.  To do otherwise would allow the pro-slavery Democratic Party to prevail.  So, the Whigs tried to live with an expanding slave power through compromise.  They tried to limit the expansion of slavery into the territories in exchange for a law that required northerners to cooperate in the return of fugitive slaves to bondage.  To preserve the Union, they opted to collaborate with slave-holders.  Many northern Whig voters were enraged.

After 1850, militants like John Brown became active in anti-slavery, and Whigs began dwindling in number, as the political middle ground with respect to slavery began disappearing.  Old Whigs died.  Younger ones became defunct, unelectable.  Lincoln was himself was a victim of this, serving one term in Congress as a Whig (1847-49) before returning to the provinciality of Springfield, Illinois.

For the next decade, Lincoln threaded his way through a political maelstrom very similar to the one engulfing America now.  His world was too polarized for the political leaders of his youth to govern.  They were stuck clinging to power, fused to outmoded visions and ideologies.  Lincoln became a man without a party, but he still had a large circle of political connections and friends.  Gradually, this network of political allies began coalescing into a new political party—one that opposed slavery, and particularly opposed its expansion onto the free soil of western territories.  These new “free soilers” gradually broadened their platform to attract northern white voters who cared mainly about their own interests and prosperity.

Thus, the Republican Party was born.  The party explicitly favored abolishing slavery, but it coupled that disruptive aim with an ideological vision attractive to white voters, many of whom didn’t care much about the fate of slaves, but did care about the harms that slavery’s continuing existence might impose on them.  Republicans argued, as Lincoln did in his famous “House Divided” speech, that slavery imperiled the entire nation, undermining the integrity of its institutions and threatening to corrupt even the part of the nation that was ostensibly free.

Lincoln was not the most radical Republican, but he rose regardless, becoming the party’s first successful presidential candidate in 1860.  He was moderate and had a good nose for where the middle ground lay.  His style of expression, though terse, could be explosive, but he coupled its blinding clarity with eloquent appeals to harmony, fellow feeling, and a shared reverence for the Union and its underlying ideals of self-government, equality, and personal sovereignty.

Nonetheless, Lincoln’s ascent and that of his party was threatening.  The South’s ruling class could not envision a future for itself without slavery.  Even before Lincoln was sworn in to office, Southern states began asserting their right to secede.  Ultimately eleven states participated in organizing the so-called Confederate States of America.  Neither Lincoln nor anyone in the political establishment recognized the right of a state to nullify or defy the US Constitution. Therefore, they never formally accepted Southern secession.  Instead, the Southern states and their officials were treated as being in rebellion against the US and federal authority.

The remainder of Lincoln’s life, prior to his assassination on April 15, 1865, was spent reunifying the nation he had partly caused to divide.  The conundrum of his time was preserving the nation, which, he came to believe, could only be achieved through abolition, even if it meant a civil war.  The war had been over only a week when John Wilkes Booth shot and fatally wounded Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre, stunning a nation already reeling from many cataclysmic years of political brinksmanship and war.

Throughout Lincoln’s relatively brief life, political disorder, instability, and intransigence were the norm.  The political landscape was shape-shifting, laid out over two geographic sections that grated violently against one another like two primordial tectonic plates.  These forces broke up old political parties and constellations.  Under their pressure, the old political certainties ossified—or were evaporated or pulverized—, leaving citizens and even statesmen atomized, powerless, their lives straitened for want of a common cause.

Ultimately, Lincoln’s fidelity to the Union was a guiding star, the prize he kept his eye on throughout the harrowing conflicts, disappointments, and astounding collective sacrifices his course required.  His devotion, his boundless belief in a Union that is indivisible and ennobling, shines down through time, brightening our trek through a new landscape of terror, temporizing, and treachery.

Image: Alexander Gardner’s portrait of Lincoln,
taken on February 5, 1865,
and known as the last photograph of Lincoln from life,
from this source.