Abraham Lincoln Almost Failed
All week on the OUPblog we will be celebrating the Lincoln Bicentennial. Be sure to check in daily for original posts from Allen C. Guelzo, author of Lincoln: A Very Short Introduction and Craig L. Symonds, author of Lincoln and His Admirals. Also click through and read the posts that have already gone live by Guelzo and an excerpt from Abraham Lincoln by James M. McPherson. Jennifer Weber, author of Copperheads: The Rise and Fall of Lincoln’s Opponents in the North, wrote the post below which looks at how Lincoln almost failed.
Abraham Lincoln is in the news a lot these days, and justifiably so. This year marks the bicentennial of his birth. That would have gotten a fair amount of attention under any circumstances, but the event has attracted even more interest because of the recent inauguration of another tall, lanky, up-by-his-own-bootstraps son of Illinois. Barack Obama, whom some see as a sort of heir to Lincoln, is, at the very least, the logical consequence of Lincoln’s actions. No Lincoln – no emancipation, no black troops, no civil rights (or at least an early promise thereof) – no Obama, at least not now.
In this season of Lincoln celebrations, in the avalanche of new books on our 16th president, it is easy to lapse into unquestioning adoration. From the moment John Wilkes Booth shot him on Good Friday, Lincoln became the American Jesus.
The truth is that, for the first four years of his presidency, Lincoln was a deeply controversial figure. He did not receive a single electoral vote from the South in 1860, and even after the war began many people in the North thought his actions, such as suspending habeas corpus and emancipation itself, were those of a tyrant.
But it was the losses that nearly did Lincoln in politically. The summer of 1864 was grim in a way that Americans today can hardly imagine. Ulysses S. Grant alone had taken 64,000 casualties in a little over a month of the Overland Campaign. What did he have to show for the bloodletting? A siege outside of Petersburg, Virginia. William T. Sherman was stalled on the outskirts of Atlanta, another siege. Nathaniel Banks had made an effort of going into Texas, but got turned back at Shreveport, Louisiana, in the spring and spent the summer sitting on his hands in New Orleans.
Many Northerners were screaming for an end to the war. Democrats who had long supported Lincoln’s actions abandoned him for the antiwar wing of their party. Even Republicans abandoned him. By August 1864 – a mere eight months before his death and martyrdom – the nation’s leading Republicans were certain that their candidate could not win re-election in November. Lincoln himself was resigned to losing. Under tremendous pressure to abandon emancipation as a war aim, Lincoln refused to reneg on his promise to the slaves. He would be “damned in time and eternity” if he did, he explained. He would go down with his principles intact.
Lincoln’s re-election was sealed with Sherman’s victory in Atlanta at the very beginning of September. Public opinion made a complete turnabout with that single event. Northerners were convinced that victory was theirs, and the rest of the war would be a mop-up operation. The national change of heart is startling in its totality, speed, and conviction, even from this distance.
But let’s say that Atlanta did not fall until after the election, and that Phil Sheridan, another Union general, did not stage his romp through the Shenandoah Valley later in September. Lincoln would surely have gone down to defeat. The first thing his opponent, the former general George B. McClellan, would have done would be to jettison emancipation as a condition of war. I believe he would not have had the stomach to continue to prosecute the war, just as he had no stomach to wage it as head of the Army of the Potomac, and he would have given the Confederates their independence. Historians would regard Lincoln, the same man many of them consider the greatest American president, as a failed president.
Lincoln’s enshrinement is testimony to the contingent nature of history. Sherman did take Atlanta before the election, and Sheridan did strip the valley bare, also before the election. Lincoln’s re-election guaranteed that the war would continue to the point of unconditional surrender. His assassination came just days after Robert E. Lee’s surrender. His death, by any measure, is one of history’s greatest tragedies, but it also froze Lincoln in time – and in marble. He did not have to deal with the bulk of Reconstruction, which was sure to be messy even for someone with Lincoln’s great political gifts. Instead, he died at the moment of his triumph, his reputation immediately sealed as the nation’s greatest president. One has to look no further for his legacy than 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.