Constitution Daily

Smart conversation from the National Constitution Center

The trouble with Abraham Lincoln

April 19, 2011 by Dr. Steve Frank


I confess to being someone who reveres Abraham Lincoln.

Adam Goodheart (left) and Dr. Richard Beeman at the Center last week. Photo by John Holzworth.

But as Adam Goodheart, author of the remarkable new book 1861: The Civil War Awakening, pointed out to a rapt, sell-out audience at the National Constitution Center this week, not all Americans love him as I do.

Some criticize him for his repression of civil liberties; others for not averting a Civil War that claimed the lives of 620,000 Americans; and still others for being a tardy and reluctant emancipator. (In one of the many fascinating chapters of his book, Goodheart shows how emancipation was thrust on Lincoln. He vividly describes how enslaved people freed themselves, flocking to Union lines and forcing the question of whether they should be returned to slavery or freed?)

But as he said at the Constitution Center and as he shows in his book, there is, for all his flaws, something about Lincoln that “speaks to our humanity” – his personal story, his magnificent words, the way he grew into greatness after becoming president.

Fort Sumter

Listen Up

Hear Goodheart talk about his book on Radio Times, recorded just across the street from the National Constitution Center

One of the most striking stories Goodheart tells of Lincoln’s humanity and growth came as he grappled with the crisis at Fort Sumter 150 years ago this month.

Maj. Robert Anderson, who commanded the fort in Charleston harbor, advised Lincoln that the military situation was hopeless. The rebels’ heavy cannons would destroy a naval squadron attempting to navigate the harbor to resupply the fort. But an obscure former navy captain named Gustavus V. Fox had earlier met with Lincoln and proposed a risky plan: keep the warships out in deep water and send two shallow-draft tugboats that could slip through the harbor under cover of darkness.

Who was the president to trust – Anderson, a Southerner whose loyalty might be doubted but whose military expertise was unquestioned, or Fox, whose loyalty was indisputable but whose grasp of military strategy seemed tenuous? Goodherat picks up the story:

The starkness of this decision, and the magnitude of the stakes, seemed too much for Lincoln to bear. The past few weeks had already taken a physical toll; those who knew him well had been astonished at how drawn and haggard he seemed. Not long after the cabinet meeting [where he announced his decision to try Fox’s plan] broke up, the president collapsed into bed again, incapacitated by a migraine “sick headache” such as he hadn’t had in years. For the next three days, he plunged into one of the spells of profound depression that had plagued him periodically his entire life.

But, as in previous such moments, Lincoln’s acute mental pain seems to have culminated in a flash of clarity. Sometime during that awful weekend, the president had an epiphany: he needed to trust neither Fox nor Anderson—only himself. If the tugboat mission succeeded, it would be a blow to secession, a victory for the new administration, and a rallying point for Unionists (and Republicans) everywhere. Even if it failed – if the rebel guns succeeded in driving off his fleet—it would at least be proof of the administration’s resolve. Moreover, it would bring war. And this, Lincoln had come to believe, was no longer a result to be dreaded. At least not if the rebels fired the first shot.

We have all been reminded last week how the events at Fort Sumter played out. And when the bombardment started and the war finally came, Goodheart told his Constitution Center audience, Lincoln and many Northerners breathed a “collective sigh of relief.”

But as clearly as they understood the import of what had happened when those shots were fired and the mounting tension broke, no one foresaw the terrible war that lay ahead.


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