The other day, my friend and colleague, Greg Caggiano, posted an article on a new colorized version of one of Abraham Lincoln’s last photos. Since then, a number of people have commented on the article, debating Lincoln’s presidency on several points. After looking over those comments, I realized that Lincoln still remains a controversial figure to this day. There are many who consider him to be our greatest President, the “Great Emancipator” who freed the slaves in addition to saving the Union. Others view him as a warmonger who used his authority as President to trample on the Constitution, and the rights granted in it, including the right to own slaves. Even though we have discussed Lincoln at some length here on the blog, most of that has covered the casting of Stephen Lang in the role for “To Appomattox,” and a look at how that miniseries and Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln biopic will portray him on film. But sadly, we have not really looked at the man himself. So, for President’s Day, we shall assess the man who led the Union to victory during the American Civil War.
One of the reason’s that Lincoln’s story is fascinating is that, in a sense, it could be described as a “rags to riches” kind of story. Born in 1809 to a poor farm family in Kentucky, his enjoyment for reading and learning, as well as a hard working attitude, helped him to eventually become a lawyer. His family moved several times during his formative years, eventually settling in Illinois in 1830, where Lincoln would finally leave his family, and set out on his own. In 1831, he settled in New Salem, and lived there for six years. In 1832, he served as Captain of Militia during the Black Hawk War. Although gratified at being elected to the position, he and his men saw no action. It was also while in New Salem that he became interested in politics, and in 1834, he was elected to the state legislature. A prominent Whig, he was reelected three times. In 1839, he met Mary Todd, and the two became engaged the following year, and despite some problems, married in November of 1842, not long after moving to his practice to Springfield, Illinois.
Lincoln retired from the legislature in 1841, and took up his law practice once again. But the call to a political life continued for him, and in 1846, he became a Congressman for the state of Illinois. He would only serve one term, a time marred by the controversies of the Mexican War, of which Lincoln was against. But his views did not sit well with the people of Illinois, who began to taunt him with the name “Spotty Lincoln” after his “spot resolutions” he introduced on the floor of the Senate in December of 1847. His support for Zachary Taylor for President didn’t help either. Under the rotation system, the Whig party candidate for Lincoln’s seat in Congress, Stephen T. Logan, was defeated. Discouraged, Lincoln returned to Springfield and his law practice.
But history was not yet done with the 6’4″ tall, lanky and awkward man. In 1856, Lincoln helped to found the Republican Party in Illinois. and became the party’s leader that May. The party would become a force to be reckoned with in the years to come, and from its fruition, Lincoln would once again return to Washington, D.C., this time as President of the United States. The platform of the Republican Party was founded on the abolitionist notions that slavery was a national sin, and should be done away with. But southern slaveowners and politicians viewed the new party as wanting to destroy their way of life, and vowed secession if a Republican became President. Lincoln was elected President in November of 1860; South Carolina voted to secede the following month.
When Lincoln took the oath of office on March 4th, 1861, he was President of a divided nation. Seven states had already seceded from the Union, and formed the Confederate States of America. Although the Republican Party was against slavery, Lincoln was not for abolition at this time. In his inaugural address, he repeated his previous statements about his wish to only prevent the expansion of slavery to the new territories, and not to bother it in those places where it already existed. But he also promised he would defend the Constitution he was sworn to uphold, and that it was in the hands of the South, and not his, that the “momentous issue of civil war” existed. He would not start the war, unless the south started it first. But by the time of his second inaugural address four years later, he would have overseen the bloodiest conflict in American history.
Much has been written about Lincoln’s time in office, possibly more so than any other president in our history. But probably the most debated moment of his presidency was when he issued the Emancipation Proclamation in September of 1862, stating that all slaves in those states still in rebellion were to be free as of January 1st, 1863. This document gave the United States a dual purpose in the war: preserve the Union, and free the slaves. But the question is why Lincoln chose to do this? He had already stated that freeing the slaves was not his intent as President. Why did he change his mind on the subject? Some argue that his sole purpose of making emancipation a war aim was to rob the South of its manpower, since the majority of fortifications and such were built by slave labor. To rob the South of their major work force would cripple them economically. And by making emancipation a war aim, it would also keep European interests out of the war.
However, there are also those who believe that Lincoln’s change of heart came from his religious conversion while in office. When he entered the Presidency in 1861, he was at best an agnostic. But after the death of his son Willie in 1862, it is said that he became a firm believer in God, and may have even felt that God was calling him to end the scourge of slavery.
However, he still was not convinced that black and white could live harmoniously, and planned to have freed slaves colonized either in Africa or Cuba. However, his views were changed once again by the bravery of those men of color who chose to fight for their own freedom. After the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, the first regiment of black troops to fight in the war, showed courage in the face of fire at Battery Wagner in South Carolina, nearly 200,000 African Americans would sign up in order to fight for their own freedom. After this, the colonization idea was scrapped, and Lincoln credited the men of color with helping to turn the tide of the Civil War.
At Lincoln’s second inaugural address on March 4th, 1865, we see a deeply changed man. The four years of war, with over half a million troops dead on both sides, had taken its toll on him. He was frail, looking older than his fifty-six years. But he was also a changed man spiritually and mentally. He had gone to war not wishing to free the slaves, but with the war nearing its end, he was now the “Great Emancipator,” the man who had used the scourge of war to end the scourge of human bondage. He was also closer to his Heavenly Father than ever before, and his speech reflected his changing beliefs. When he spoke, he did not call for vengeance, but for peace. When the war ends, he wanted things to go back to how they were, except for slavery. He did not want to punish the south for the war; both sides had a hand in it, and both sides should share the blame for it. Lincoln wanted the men from both armies to return home, and start their lives anew the best they could, and try to put this awful war behind them. Alas, his views for a peaceful transition were not to be.
So, why is Lincoln such a controversial figure in our history? The Emancipation Proclamation certainly was controversial at the time, and people in his own party viewed it with skepticism. But it was also his decision to suspend Habeas Corpus during the war that has become one of the most controversial decisions of his presidency. But with war brewing, and calls for secession in Maryland, Lincoln knew that to keep the Union from totally collapsing, he would have to take drastic steps in order to do so. While controversial, and against the law in some cases, he did what he thought was right, and in the end, his actions did help to keep the state of Maryland in the Union, preventing Washington from being surrounded by the Confederacy.
The truth is that Lincoln, like all of the great leaders that emerged from the American Civil War, was a flawed man. But what made him great was his commitment to continue the war until the end, despite the heavy casualties. And his decision to make the emancipation of slaves a war aim gave the North a chance to win a moral victory as well, and prevented Europe from coming into the conflict on the side of the Confederacy. He was a fiercely political animal, and used his time in office to great effect. In the end, although stymied by failures and loss, his presidency became one of the most successful, restoring the Union, and helped bring about the end of the institution of slavery. This is why Abraham Lincoln is one of the greatest Presidents our country has ever had.
The task of portraying this controversial and complicated figure in “To Appomattox” has fallen to a man who is, without question, one of the greatest actors of his time: Stephen Lang. Mr. Lang, best known as Colonel Miles Quaritch in James Cameron’s Avatar, is no stranger to the Civil War era, having portrayed the roles of Generals Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson and George Pickett in the Ron Maxwell films Gods and Generals and Gettysburg. Mr. Lang will have to bring all of his talent to bear on the role of Lincoln. But given his exceptional range as an actor, there is no doubt that he can pull off bringing one of our nation’s greatest leaders to life on screen when the series hits the airwaves in 2013. We here at this blog wish him good luck and Godspeed on this endeavor.
McPherson, James M. Abraham Lincoln. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.