Saturday, July 23, 2011

"Lincoln for the Ages" Edited by Ralph G. Newman

The "stacks" of a local library hold more forgotten history than can be learned in a lifetime. History moves so quickly that often much of it is left behind. And many of these "lost" pieces of the great puzzle can often be found in the "stacks." I go there often.

In this long forgotten and obscure book, published in 1960, are the views and anecdotes relating to President Lincoln, written by 76 distinguished Americans of the time. Many of the stories told here, as in the instances of his law partnership with William Herndon, cast more light on the character of Abraham Lincoln than anything written about him since.

His legal expertise has never been questioned, as in the Patterson case, a murder trial. Lincoln was able to show the innocence of his client through the use of an almanac, proving that the Prosecution's witness was lying when he said he observed the killing in the light of the moon. The almanac showed that there was no moon that night, thus freeing his client.

The Lincoln-Douglas debates, which arose out of the Kansas Nebraska Act debates show his uncanny ability to turn the tables on the most cunning of opponents. Lincoln had previously argued both sides of the Fugitive Slave Act, winning for both sides in different trials of the same charge. Out of the fierce debate roiling the country concerning the Kansas Nebraska Act, Lincoln was able to rise to national prominence with his scathing oratory and homespun appearance, both of which he used like scapels.

The plot to kidnap him enroute to Washington, D.C. on the eve of his inaguaration is more fully explained here in 3 pages than anywhere else. The plan was to hold him for ransom, the release of the Southern States from re-joining the Union would be the price. The plot was uncoverd in Philadelphia, and folied in Baltimore.

During his Presidency, Lincoln learned to use the press to his advantage, encouraging them to visit with him often. He would usually greet them with a hearty, "What news have you?" He would then go on to grill them, and in the process gave out far less information than he received. His relationship with the press would become the launching pad for the Presidential news conferences, which were first held by his sucessor to the Presidency, Andrew Johnson.

Lincoln's foreign policy is largely ignored in light of the Civil War, but on that frontier he was most active, and astute. Knowing that England could easily ally itself with the South posed a tricky situation for Lincoln. He could not afford to fight them, which would haved tied up the naval resources necessary to fight the Confederacy, as well as run the blockade against privateers. Yet, when 2 Southern envoys were being transported via an English ship to London for a conference with the Queen, the United States Navy, without the President's authorization, seized the ship and imprisoned the men. Lincoln took this situation and turned it to his advantage. He released the ship, and later the men, with a word to the British that we would brook no meddling in the ongoing conflict. He then issued his controversial Emancipation Proclamation, turning our own Civil War into a moral cause which Britian already supported, thus turning them into an ally. Prior to this, Britian had already shipped 8,000 troops to Canada for insertion in the Civil War, intending to fight for the South. After the Proclamation these troops were withdrawn.

France was posing a problem as well. They had invaded Mexico, with promises from the Confederacy that they could gain a foothold in America if they would support the South. Lincoln solved that one as craftily as he did the British problem.

We have all been taught about "Seward's Folly", the seemingly silly purchase of Alaska from Russia. But what we weren't taught was the relationship of Russia at the time to France and England, with which Russia had just lost a war. She needed two things badly; the first was cash, hence the sale of Alaska. The second thing they needed was to get their navy into a safe harbor. Lincoln allowed them to moor their fleets off San Francisco and Norfolk, thus covering two perimeters with a seemingly neutral force at no expense to ourselves. The mere presence of the Russian fleet made certain that no country would attempt to intervene on behalf of the Confederacy.

In politics Lincoln had no equal. Confronted by men such as Salmon Chase, William Seward, Edward Bates, and Simon Cameron as rivals, he made them all members of his cabinet, where he could keep an eye on their political ambitions.

Lincoln never considered the South to have left the Union, so there simply was no provision in the Constitution for punative action against the Southern states after the war had ended. Thus, his last directive was to "Let 'em down easy." Evidently no one was listening, and the next 100 years would see the South mired in racial discontent and constant upheaval. Had Lincoln lived, this may not have happened.

This is a wonderfully enriching book for any Lincoln scholars to sink their teeth into. Remember, the only thing new is the history you don't know.

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