The figure of Abraham Lincoln looms large in the mind’s eye of most Americans today. There is debatably no figure in the history of the United States that more works have been written about than this important president. Much of this work praises him, perhaps too much. Some of this work vilifies him and makes outrageous claims attempting to discredit the great work that he accomplished for this country. The unifying factor behind all these works is that Abraham Lincoln was one of the most important and influential men in defining the United States, as we know it today.
One of the things that made Lincoln so successful as president and so prominent in history afterward was his feel for public opinion. The Civil War was an unpopular war in the North. The North was politically divided between the Republican and Democratic parties, which often held very different views on the war. At the beginning of the war, the stated purpose was the preservation of the Union. This goal was especially important to Lincoln, who viewed the American experiment, and the American principles of freedom and democracy as, “The last best hope on earth.” In his annual Message to Congress on December 1, 1862, just one month before the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln argues that the purpose of the emancipation of the slaves was specifically for the preservation of the Union.
There is considerable controversy over Lincoln’s stance on slavery. While it is clear that in the end, he supported abolition of slavery and worked to get the Thirteenth Amendment ratified, many say that such actions were political expedients and that Lincoln’s slowness in beginning these measures are sure signs of his ambivalence towards the issue. If you investigate closely however, the conclusion you are most likely to come to is not that he was ambivalent, but that he was in fact greatly opposed to slavery. What you will find instead of ambivalence is the wiles of a skillful politician. What seems to us, 150 years later, to be caution and reluctance to address the issue of slavery, was really an acute awareness of the status of public opinion. Lincoln said was opposed to slavery, and fought against the expansion of slavery, but he understood that slavery was constitutionally protected. He expressed this view to some prominent abolitionists.
“I did not consider that I had the right to touch the “State” institution of “Slavery” until all other measures for restoring the Union had failed … The moment came when I thought that slavery must die, that the nation might live! … Many of my strongest supporters urged Emancipation before I thought it indispensable and, I may say, before I thought the country ready for it. It is my conviction that had the proclamation been issued six months earlier than it was, public sentiment would not have sustained it.”
Historical study vindicates Lincoln’s view as Democratic gains in the Congressional elections of 1862 exhibited voter dissatisfaction with the preliminary emancipation proclamation. The preservation of the Union was the foremost in Lincoln’s mind, but emancipation was clearly a goal that was to be worked towards as well. The time was simply not yet ripe.
Lincoln had to keep fragile Northern morale from breaking under the strain of the conflict. In order to achieve this, Lincoln had to avoid upsetting the public by premature actions in areas that were not broadly supported, and also had to produce successful results that would energize those flagging and unenthusiastic portions of the Northern coalition. It was because of this necessity that we see the early stages of the war carried out in such a hectic and confused way, particularly in the Eastern theaters. As has been mentioned, Lincoln was extremely attuned to the needs of the people and what was necessary in order to garner their support. What he lacked was a complete grasp of the military necessities. Lincoln was not a military man. He had no prior experience with military operations or strategy, and this affected his decisions as Commander in Chief. Many have argued, and rightly so, that Lincoln was not ideal for the military post he inherited with the presidency.
Lincoln was interested with what the people needed. They needed a quick victory. Fragile moral needs success and decisive victory. It cannot sustain a protracted war. This is what Lincoln pressed his commanders for. He saw the social and political necessities. Conversely, at the start of the Civil War, the military was in no condition to mount the kind of decisive campaigns that the President wanted. A large percentage of the senior officer corps had defected to the Confederacy, and the logistical preparations necessary for the desired operations were simply non-existent. Much of the early blundering and defeat met by Northern commanders in the early part of the war, particularly in the East was the result of hurried or rushed operations to which sufficient preparation time was not allowed. Poor generalship also had a significant effect, but if operations had been allowed to mature, this deficiency might have been lessened somewhat.
These defeats are examples of Lincoln’s strengths and weaknesses. He had an acute sense of timing and understood how to gauge public opinion, making decisions accordingly. He attempted to strengthen moral with quick decisive strokes early on in the war. They were met with disaster. As the war progressed and the tactical initiative slowly shifted towards the North, he was gradually able to achieve some success. One of his most significant successes was the accurate judgment of when the public was prepared to accept the Emancipation Proclamation. His successes showcase his intuition and his national awareness. The military defeats in the beginning of the war, mark examples of the sacrifice of military prudence to the needs of the masses.
In conclusion, Abraham Lincoln was an extraordinary figure. While he does not represent the finest Commander in Chief the nation has known, he cannot be marred by excessive criticism. His political victories expose an agile statesman, if not an agile tactician. What is undeniable is that this man forever changed the nation; and people will forever remember him as the man who preserved the Union.