Almost 200 years ago, in the spring of 1828, a young man took a boat down the Mississippi River to New Orleans on a job that promised a good payday. He came across a slave auction there and watched with amazement — disgusted amazement — as a "comely mulatto girl" was brought to be sold. The story goes that she was marched up and down in front of buyers, who pinched her flesh and commented on the way she walked. She was trotted about, like an animal, to see how she moved. The young man from the Midwest seethed.
"If I ever get a chance to hit (slavery)," he told a friend, "I'll hit it hard."
He got his chance to hit American slavery decades later, in the 1860s. And he hit it hard.
How does a country produce such a man? The question arises every time we see a likeness of the 16th president. Early on there is the young man, intense, self-aware, posing for a formal photograph. He could be almost any would-be politician trying on his serious face. Yet even then, perhaps only because we have been granted the gift of foreknowledge, there is something haunting about him, something driven, as if he never really had a youth but only a preparation.
Then, in a photograph taken in February 1865, toward the end of The War and his life, there is the familiar visage of Father Abraham in the broken-glass portrait that so faithfully mirrors the state of the Union at the time. It's an image that still crowds the throat with fear and wonder. And gratitude. Where did he come from?
He was a man of contradictions, like his country. He hated slavery. But his Emancipation Proclamation sounds like it was written by an out-of-sorts bureaucrat. He had little formal education. But he could quote the King James Bible and Shakespeare at will. Historians believe he suffered tremendous bouts of depression. But he told jokes so often he annoyed some in his Cabinet. As in:
Two Quaker women were deciding at the beginning of the Civil War who would win. The Confederacy will win, said the first. "Because Jefferson Davis is a praying man." Said the second in response: "But Abraham Lincoln is a praying man, too."
"Yes, but the Lord might think Abraham is joking."
He was skinny. But skilled with an ax. He was homely. But went into politics. He was a brilliant debater. And lost election after election. That is, until he became president of the United States of America. And vowed to keep the nation together. And did.
We know his early life must have afforded a long, lanky farm boy a lot of time alone — time to read and time to think things through. He would have gone to school maybe 12 months at most between his 8th and 15th birthdays. Yet somehow this son of an illiterate father and an unlettered stepmother acquired an education.
He had something else, too, something instinctive, visceral and marrow deep: an abiding hatred and detestation of human slavery.
Other Americans disliked slavery, too. Some even knew it was evil. But many were willing to accept it as a necessary evil. It's the economy, stupid. What evils mankind will put up with to keep 5 percent growth.
Still others would have destroyed anything to stop slavery, including the Union. But Abe Lincoln was no abolitionist in that sense. With him, ending slavery was a moral necessity, but so was saving the United States of America. Somehow, against all odds and the conventional wisdom of his day, Mr. Lincoln accomplished both goals. He once said he didn't live in the times of miracles. He was mistaken. What else call it when the impossible suddenly happens?
Today the kids and commentariat (but we repeat ourselves) like to say how divided this country is, and how we need a uniter and peace and harmony — and that government officials "need to work together for the American people."
Children, gather around, and let us tell you about divided. It happened in this country circa 1861-1865. For all of today's protests outside congressional offices and the insults coming daily from a certain Twitter account, this ain't divided. Not like during Abraham Lincoln's term. Once upon a time the continuation of this nation was doubtful. And those who'd tear the Union apart were winning. Or at least drawing things out enough to discourage the other side.
No matter what we've heard from certain unreconstructed Confederates over the years, yes, the American Civil War, or just The War as it's known in these latitudes, was about slavery. All one need do is read the correspondence of those who were fighting in it. Or read the declarations of each state in the Confederacy as they voted, one by one, to leave the Union.
Those secession papers are so much more interesting, reliable and honest than some of the books going around today, which create more echo chambers as the writers quote each other. And give each other some sort of paper trail showing how economics and only economics caused The War. Yes, different regions of the country had different economies. Because one was based on slavery, a peculiar institution as American as apple pie, motherhood and violence.
Then the most unlikely of American politicians showed up. And finally won an election.
The man whose birthday we celebrate Tuesday, Feb. 12, wasn't always as popular as he is now. Even before he took office, half the country wouldn't have him. The congressmen who mentioned him in debates — that is, those congressmen who stayed in the Union — treated him with contempt. The papers would make modern editorialists blush. ("Filthy story-teller, despot, liar, thief, braggart, buffoon, usurper, monster, ignoramus Abe, old scoundrel, perjurer, swindler, tyrant, field-butcher, land-pirate." — Harper's Weekly magazine.)
Worse, his generals wouldn't fight. He courted them, waited on them, praised them, pushed them, re-assigned them, badgered them and fired them. ("If McClellan is not using the army, I should like to borrow it for a while.")
Eventually Lincoln would find his Grant. But it would take several bloody years. In which the president's standing with the American people kept falling. Months before the November 1864 election, he told friends he had no hope of winning.
But he held firm. And held the Union firm. With the firmness in the right that God gave him to see the right, and finished off the peculiar institution. And was shot dead for it.
In the end, Abraham Lincoln would manage to win the most decisive battle of all, the one for public opinion. And has managed to leap to the top of most lists of Great American Presidents.
In great part because of Abraham Lincoln, this country is still one, under God, indivisible. And this editorial of Feb. 12, 2019, is being written in a free country, specifically in Little Rock, Arkansas, U.S.A. — not C.S.A.
-- Arkansas Democrat-Gazette