Recently my family urged that I watch the Spielberg movie, “Lincoln.” It dealt with the political efforts leading up to Congressional approval of the Thirteenth Amendment. That Amendment abolished slavery in the United States. I found the movie fascinating, and have done some additional research on some of its themes. I believe that there are some valuable lessons to be learned from that era and battle. Here are some brief observations regarding the Congressional fight to enact the Thirteenth Amendment.
- History isn’t always what we learned in school. I remember being taught that President Abraham Lincoln set the slaves free by issuing the Emancipation Proclamation. The “Emancipation” was simply a Presidential Order issued under questionable circumstances. The Union maintained that it was not at war with the Confederacy, and that it was simply an insurrection or rebellion. Consequently many argued that Lincoln didn’t have the authority to emancipate the slaves using his “Presidential War Powers.” He recognized the merit in those arguments and pushed to have Congress enact the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery. Otherwise, slavery might have been re-established upon the cessation of hostilities.
- Compromise and take what you can get (Part 1). Congress was split into three factions. One faction supported the President and the Thirteenth Amendment. Another faction opposed the abolition of slavery, and wanted to negotiate a peaceful re-unification of the nation. The third faction wanted full legal rights for those who had been slaves, and thought the Thirteenth Amendment didn’t go far enough. Consequently, the vote to abolish slavery was extremely close. Lincoln recognized that the best he could do right then was to abolish slavery. The battle for full legal rights was fought (and won) after Lincoln’s assassination.
- Compromise and take what you can get (Part 2). I also remember being taught that Lincoln was more interested in preserving the Union, than in freeing the slaves. However, it is clear that Lincoln rejected a negotiated peace with the Confederacy that would have permitted slavery to continue to exist. Lincoln clearly believed that slavery was morally indefensible. Consequently, he subordinated expediency (a negotiated peace) in order to achieve the abolition of slavery. At the time he was held responsible for the deaths of thousands of soldiers because he allowed the fighting to continue.
- Better the devil you know, than the one you don’t. The die-hards in the Confederacy held Lincoln responsible for the Civil War and the abolition of slavery. That prompted John Wilkes Booth and others to their assassination conspiracy. However, their irrational hatred of Lincoln blinded them to the fact that he was much more moderate than many other northerners. If you doubt that, you should read Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address where he calls for “with malice towards none, and charity towards all,” rather than calling for retribution. After Lincoln’s death the radicals seized control of the Republican Party and enacted harsh “Reconstruction” laws. The defeated Confederacy would have been much better off with Lincoln. They didn’t realize that until it was too late.
- Choose your poison. There are times when those in leadership must choose between options that are bad, worse and worst. None of the options are appealing or popular. Lincoln was faced with exactly that situation. What was most important? Was it ending the war, abolishing slavery, or resisting those who wanted revenge against the Confederacy. Ultimately, he persevered against strong opposition and achieved what history views as a great victory. At the time he was reviled, vilified and accused. His letters and journals reveal his struggles with isolation and rejection. Leaders frequently find themselves lonely and misunderstood.
Today America is deeply divided. Perhaps almost as deeply divided as we were during the Civil War. We need leadership that is as practical and wise as that provided by Abraham Lincoln. Certainly there are issues important enough to fight and die for. However, you don’t fight and die over every issue. There must be room for debate, compromise and negotiation regarding methods and objectives.