Lincoln is a towering figure in American history. He has become an American
icon. His name is everywhere. A Google search for "Lincoln"
yields 226 million hits (in as little as 50 milliseconds,
another surprising number!).
Domestically he is probably best known for his achievement
to win the Civil War and hold the Union together, along with his moral
fiber. He is widely known as "Honest Abe". His most famous
speech, the Gettysburg
Address, still serves as a model, echoing in countless political
speeches. His simple upbringing in a log cabin is frequently mentioned
as an inspiration and proof that America is the land of opportunity.
Premier Nikita Khrushchev included a visit to the Lincoln Memorial during
his trip to the United States in 1959. There is a famous photograph
from that "encounter" between two powerful men with similar
backgrounds but vastly different moral credentials. Somehow the photo
seems to convey the relative stature of the two men.
Internationally, Lincoln is above all known for abolishing
slavery in the United States. The general perception is that the great
Civil War was about the issue of slavery. The nuances of the conflict
that led to war are probably better understood in America than here
in Europe and other parts of the world, but even some Americans may
be surprised, as I was, upon reading Lincoln's first
inaugural speech, March 4, 1861.
There are two passages that I find particularly disturbing. The first
"I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with
the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe
I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so."
This comes right at the start of the speech. It appears to be the main
message of the whole address. The second statement is:
"No person held to service or labor in one State, under the
laws thereof, escaping into another, shall in consequence of any law
or regulation therein be discharged from such service or labor, but
shall be delivered up on claim of the party to whom such service or
labor may be due."
This is a direct quote from the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. What
it means in plain words is that escaped slaves will be returned to
their rightful owners.
These statements are further strengthened by this long sentence (especially
"I take the official oath to-day with no mental reservations
and with no purpose to construe the Constitution or laws by any hypercritical
rules; and while I do not choose now to specify particular acts of
Congress as proper to be enforced, I do suggest that it will be much
safer for all, both in official and private stations, to conform to
and abide by all those acts which stand unrepealed than to violate
any of them trusting to find impunity in having them held to be unconstitutional."
Does this mean that Lincoln was less dedicated to the abolitionist
cause than he is generally given credit for? - I do not think so.
The speech must be seen in its historical context. Jefferson Davis
had been inaugurated as President of the Confederacy just two weeks
earlier. The speech was a last-ditch effort to avoid civil war with
its horrible consequences and unpredictable long-term effects. Lincoln
warned that secession might lead to the resumption of slave trade
by the Confederate states, while opening the gates to the Northern
states for fugitive slaves.
The transatlantic slave trade had been abolished as early as 1808
by both the British Empire and the United States, for moral reasons.
Considering that two generations had been born since then without
further progress, and with passions running high in the Southern states,
Lincoln cannot have been very optimistic about the prospects for achieving
the abolition of slavery in the near term through the normal democratic
process. Yet he clearly believed that the rule of Law should prevail.
He had faith in the political system. The integrity of the Union was
more important to him than the timetable for reform.
The Civil War precipitated emancipation through the defeat of the
Confederacy, but in the worst possible circumstances. It would take
another century for the descendants of the slaves to be awarded their
civil rights to a degree even approaching the ideal of "equal
justice for all".