Saturday, May 11, 2013

Presidential Character: Week Sixteen, Lincoln

Do you know how hard it is to come up with a quirky blog entry title for a man whose eloquence made him possibly the greatest orator/wordsmith this nation's ever produced?  I mean, I could have gone with "The Better Angel of Our Nature" or "Time is a Great Thickener of Things" or "Honey, You Sure We Couldn't Take This Evening to Avoid The Theater and Go Shopping Instead?"

...okay, that was rude.  I'll start over.

In my railings about the failings of the 14th and 15th Presidents - Pierce and Buchanan - I pined for the intervention of an Active-Positive (or a pro-Union Active-Negative) President.  In the facts of the slow slog towards a civil war I noted that an Active-Positive - with the character traits of Adaptive forward-thinking, willingness to Compromise, eager to take great leaps of action - could well have delayed or countered the move to civil war... or at least hang the SOBs trying to start one before it got underway (yeah, even an A-P would do that.  An Active-Negative surely would have blunt and to the point, but at least an Active-Positive would have done it with some style and panache).

Pity of it all it, in the end it was the election of such an Active-Positive character in the form of Abraham Lincoln that basically gave the Southern agitators the excuse they needed to secede from the Union.

In reviewing the materials James David Barber came out with to categorize Presidential Character, I found at least one place online where a fellow student of Barber's work listed Lincoln as an Active-Negative.  Which I found odd.  While Lincoln's personal habits veered toward chronic depression - I'll grant you serving as President during the nation's bloodiest war would make such depression worse - Lincoln's character traits fit well into the corner for Active-Positive.

Lincoln was first and foremost self-deprecating ("does not take himself too seriously") and quick to tell humorous tales.  Lincoln may have committed such acts as suspending Habeus and issuing a Emancipation Proclamation that had questionable legal authority, but he exercised such use of power not to his benefit but to that of others (again, A-P traits).

Lincoln also got his opponents - both the Southern oligarchs and rivals within his own party - to self-immolate, usually by him taking flexible positions on an issue and then waiting for his opponents to either stake a radical claim against it that would fall under its own weight, or else using that flexibility to isolate that opponent and end the debate.  His handling of an inter-Cabinet squabble between his biggest rivals - Seward, who was competent but ambitious, and Chase, who was ambitious and... well, with a sizable faction backing him - was a very shrewd, adept political move that only an A-P could pull off.

As for getting the Southern slave-owners - the power-brokers that sought secession if there were any threat to their political dominance of the past 40 to 60 years - to self-immolate, it was easy.  In his own Cooper Union speech, Lincoln noted full well the South threatened to rebel if any Republican won the White House that election year of 1860: 
Your purpose, then, plainly stated, is that you will destroy the Government, unless you be allowed to construe and enforce the Constitution as you please, on all points in dispute between you and us. You will rule or ruin in all events.
Likening it to extortion - "My way or the highway" - Lincoln was able to carve out a moral high ground against the true radicalism of slave-owners.  He was able to constantly find a moral high ground against a group that resorted more to mob mentality and violent bullying, and in a way far opposite of other abolitionists like John Brown who succumbed to violence as a first action and thus lost any moral authority to speak against secessionists.

You can argue when or where the Civil War technically started - maybe Lincoln's election, maybe Bleeding Kansas, maybe the Mexican-American War... if you follow the argument back far enough you could take it all the way back to 1776 when John Adams predicted the Founding Fathers' failure to end slavery as they signed a Declaration of Independence would doom the nation in 100 years (he was off by a decade) - but the fighting itself started with the South firing on Fort Sumter.  Up until then peaceful resolutions could be had.  Whereas Lincoln's predecessor Buchanan allowed seceding states to seize land forts, seaborne forts such as Fort Sumter in Charleston and Fort Pickens in Pensacola were still under Union control... and Lincoln wasn't about to surrender them as he could claim they were federal land thus federal control.  And, crafty that he was, he settled on the forts being supplied with non-weapon material (food, potable water, construction) and let the South know that it was all he was sending, just to keep the troops properly stocked.  All he had to do was wait for his Southern rival Jefferson Davis to get an itchy trigger finger... and Davis, facing a situation where inaction would cost him and his nascent Confederacy much-needed membership of Virginia (which both voted against secession YET also voted a resolution noting they would join the Confederacy if fighting started) as well as weakening resolve of member states (every state save South Carolina had its pro-Union movements), decided to take the shot and go to war (Davis would have done better to wait for the shooting to start at Fort Pickens because that fort was being relieved with a gunship whereas Fort Sumter wasn't, but I digress).  While the South did - and still does much to this blogger's continual annoyance yo rednecks WAR'S OVER YOU LOST - claim a war of "Northern Aggression", Lincoln and the Union/Abolitionists could well argue it was the South that wanted a fight - and the track history of Nullifiers like John C. Calhoun is Courtroom People's Evidence A - and by gum they got one.

Above all, the forward-thinking: Lincoln was an ardent abolitionist.  Although he wasn't a pure Radical in the regards of "full equality" (and his early Presidential attempts to have freed slaves relocate elsewhere wasn't a very enlightened position), Lincoln viewed slavery as abhorrent to the Republic's principles of freedom.  And yet even there Lincoln demonstrated his Adaptive, compromising nature: while he couldn't before 1864 make an open move to free the slaves (lest he lose border states like Kentucky, Missouri and Maryland), he worked his way towards the Emancipation Proclamation where he only declared the slaves in the Confederate states freed and only as a means to fight and end the civil war.  As he wrote to Horace Greeley, the Glenn Beck of the age:

My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union. I shall do less whenever I shall believe what I am doing hurts the cause, and I shall do more whenever I shall believe doing more will help the cause. I shall try to correct errors when shown to be errors; and I shall adopt new views so fast as they shall appear to be true views.
I highlighted that last bit.  I see in that statement the view of an A-P with Adaptive tendencies.  Not a flip-flopper who tries to say one thing and then another without cause or merit, but someone who would seriously consider the issue, and change his mind where and when it needed to change.

Lincoln also presided over one of the earliest liberal federal government tenures in history.  Even during the time-consuming and life-devastating Civil War efforts, Lincoln and a Republican Congress - freed rather ironically from the obstructionist forces of Southern states - passed a slew of forward-looking bills and oversaw more growth and expansion of the nation's economic power.  He signed the Homestead Act to encourage settlers into the expansive Western territories; he signed the Land-Grant act establishing state public colleges and universities, the first major expansion of higher education across the nation; he signed the funding for the Transcontinental Railroad, a major transportation bill akin to previous acts that created roads and canals that benefited trade and industry and made it easier for the nation to become connected to itself.

Of course, the signature element of Lincoln's administration was the Civil War, and the conduct thereof.  In leadership as Commander-in-Chief he acquitted himself well: unlike Davis who meddled frequently and made  command decisions often by personal bias favoring ill-suited generals over more competent ones - the lone exception was with Robert E. Lee, who proved himself the best commander they could hope to have on the Virginian front - Lincoln relied on the military advisers he had - General Scott for starters, Secretaries Gideon Welles and Edwin Stanton later - to conduct the war.  If he meddled it was because he had to: his East Coast army generals were not a desirable lot with flaws aplenty.  The first one McDowell proved unready for battlefield command.  McClellan was a better organizer, but proved cautious to the point of cowardice and even worse treated his civilian boss with disdain (and occasional open contempt).  Pope was headstrong but foolish.  McClellan got promoted back up... and then still screwed up, even WITH one of the luckiest breaks of the war landing right into his lap (Lee's plans to invade Maryland and northward by recklessly dividing his army at their most weakest).  McClellan delayed for 18 key hours, and by the time he confronted Lee at Antietam all advantage had been lost.  McClellan's army won the battle but failed to follow up, driving Lincoln to go with Burnside next.  Nice guy, lousy general.  Joseph Hooker was next, a better general than the previous lot but still got his ass handed to him by Lee.  Meade replaced him, with Meade finally being the general who knew what he was doing and secured a Union victory at Gettysburg (the point of the war where the South truly lost: sheer stubbornness over slavery, outright racism, and fantastical belief that France and England would recognize a slave-owning Confederacy kept the war going for two more bloody years).  But even Meade proved too slow to stop Lee's escape, leaving Lincoln to bring up U.S. Grant.  And from there on Lincoln had the right general for the job.

One thing to note about Lincoln's A-P trait was the leniency he showed towards troops charged with desertion, sleeping at post, and cowardice.  A good number of officers hated it that he let so many cases be pardoned - they wanted discipline and the occasional punishment they felt would get it - but rules were rules, such matters had to pass the President's desk... and in his own words "Must I shoot a simple-minded soldier boy who deserts, while I must not touch a hair of a wiley (sp?) agitator who induces him to desert?"  To me, in the whole madness of the war itself, is the best measure of the man.

Much can be said about Lincoln's eloquence.  Much to be said about his compassion for others.  Still more to be said about his hopes of what he would do once the bloody business of the war had ended: he spoke of traveling west to California and be the first President to reach the far coastline and measure the size and strength and diversity of the nation itself.  It had become a massive place even with the strife... and with the binding of the nation's wounds it would have been again.  If only...

Of his Active-Positive traits, I have no doubt.  What would have happened with that trait had he avoided that fate waiting for him at Ford's Theater... speculation is all we have now.  That and the better angels of our nature which he sought to introduce to ourselves.

Next time: Another Reason Why Vice Presidents Really Aren't That All Needed...

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