Thursday, February 12, 2009


Abraham Lincoln, the sixteenth President of the USA, was born two hundred years ago today, in a one-room log cabin in Hardin County (now part of LaRue County), Kentucky. The cabin is no longer standing, but a replica has been built at the site of his birth.

Lincoln was the first President born outside the original thirteen colonies. There are a few odds and ends concerning his life, some not generally known:

• Also born on this very date was Charles Darwin, naturalist and author of On the Origin of Species.

• While espousing Christianity as an adult, Lincoln did not formally belong to a denomination. As a boy, his family attended a form of Primitive Baptist congregation known as "Hard-shell Baptist," or simply "Hard-shell."

• Following hard times, the family left Kentucky and settled in Indiana. His mother fell ill and died, his father remarried, and the family then moved to Illinois, where Lincoln was to come of age.

• In 1842, Lincoln married Mary Todd, daughter of a prominent Kentucky family. She had also been courted at one point by Stephen Douglas, who would later become a great political rival of Lincoln -- both during the 1858 race for the Senate (the occasion for their historical debates), and the 1860 Presidential race.

Conventional wisdom, and the textbooks of American schoolchildren, would have us believe that Lincoln preserved the Union by challenging the succession of Southern states in forming a separate Confederate States of America. The assumption is that the Civil War was entirely over the issue of slavery. Others (including this writer) consider slavery as the catalyst, but not the sole cause of the War, as economic and social tensions between the pre- and early-industrial North and the agrarian South, had been festering since the founding of the Republic.

Some scholars, among them Joseph Sobran, maintain that Lincoln overstepped his bounds as President to hold the nation together:

He outraged many Northerners by raising troops and money himself for several months, without summoning Congress, whose powers he was usurping. He suspended the writ of habeas corpus, thereby usurping another congressional prerogative; and when Chief Justice Taney ruled that this was a violation of the Constitution, Lincoln not only defied the ruling but wrote an order for Taney's arrest! He later offered the lame argument that a part of the Constitution might have to be violated in order to preserve the whole. But Taney, in this case, was on firm ground: the suspension of habeas corpus during war or insurrection had always been a legislative, not an executive act. Lincoln was acting as a dictator, for which there was absolutely no provision in the Constitution. But, as he ominously put it: "The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present."

We assume that Lincoln was very popular in his day, when the truth is far from it. Many fellow Republicans thought he was too quick to wage war to accomplish his ends. Such was the unpopularity of the conflict between the States among those in the North, that there were riots against the military draft in New York City and other cities. For a time, the South might have won, were it not for some key victories by General Ulysses S Grant in the latter days, as well as the industrial and logistical superiority of the North. The South had the "home field advantage," better military leadership in the minds of some historians, and the rural upbringing of most of their soldiers made for better marksmen.

At the end of the conflict, Lincoln sought no revenge upon the South, but endeavored "to bind the nation's wounds." An assassin's bullet cuts his plans short, and the period of Reconstruction that followed plunged the South into economic hardship. It also fanned the flames of resentment toward newly-freed people of color, and a culture of "Jim Crow" laws, and an American apartheid, would prevail for as long as a century after the War's end. It was only in 1968, for example, that interracial marriage was finally legalized in Virginia and other Southern states.

To this day, many Southerners refer to the American Civil War as "The War of Northern Aggression," and scholars will still argue over whether the Southern states truly had the right to secede under the Constitution. Whatever position one may take, there can be no dispute that the 1860s were the defining decade for this Nation. Before that time, the United States would commonly be referred to in the plural, as in "The United States are..." Afterwards, they would be referred to in the singular, as in "The United States is..." As Washington is considered "The Father of Our Country," Lincoln is considered "The Savior of Our Country." Their likenesses would appear together on a mountainside in South Dakota, seventy-five years after the great conflict ended.

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