Top critical review
The story behind Abraham Lincoln's magisterial Second Inaugural Address does not deliver.
Reviewed in the United States on March 31, 2020
I just finished reading a new book that I acquired within the past month about President Abraham Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address, Every Drop of Blood; The Momentous Second Inauguration of Abraham Lincoln, by Edward Achorn. This is a new history about the back story to President Lincoln's incredibly short, five minutes at the most, speech that he gave up on his inauguration to his second term of office on Saturday, March 4, 1865.
On that chill, wet Saturday in early March, the nation that Lincoln led was on the verge of final victory against the southern tier of states then in rebellion against the federal Union, their attempt at creating a new Confederation of like-minded states devoted to the preservation of slavery battered into submission by the sheer military power and resources fielded by the 24 states of the federal Union that chose, with several border states more or less unwillingly, to remain under President Lincoln's leadership.
Members of the Lincoln Administration, their friends and families, and those seeking to benefit from the administration's portending victory, wanted to celebrate; and many of the newcomers in town were looking for ways to latch onto the anticipated spoils of that victory to enrich themselves. Standing glumly aside were embittered partisans of the rapidly-waning Southern cause, among them the conspirators will eventually succeeded in assassinating the President some six weeks later.
Mr. Achorn uses a timeline beginning the Friday before the inauguration, and then moves by blocks of time the following day through the Inauguration ceremony to the parties and celebratory balls that followed until late Saturday evening. But this is a complicated book that attempts to shoehorn the social history of the City of Washington during the Civil War through flashbacks of time, ongoing military campaigns, and other digressions. It is a technique that is most often seen in the genre of grand, panoramic motion pictures like Gettysburg, The Longest Day, and a legion of others, whether as standalone productions or in miniseries format, that weave complicated threads of individual tales into a tapestry that purports to tell the story of the whole.
Mr. Achorn's research is thorough and magisterial; his depiction of individual personalities is colorful and detailed; and his parsing of the President's all-too-brief speech is cogent and accurate. That is the good part of the book. The morning-noon-evening, ‘you-are-there’ expository device quickly wears on the reader's patience; and it becomes positively irritating when he comes to describe the depth of detail regarding the life and career of John Wilkes Booth, conspirator and future presidential assassin. The length and breadth of Achorn's extensive discursions becomes a catalog of Civil War era trivia that I found profoundly unhelpful. Much of what he includes is either redundant or simply additive padding to what has already gone before. Undoubtedly, each of these items adds coloration and death to the reader's understanding of the social and political context of the times, but their cumulative inclusion also adds to the confusion of authorial objectives, and essentially steps on its own story.
If Lincoln's inaugural speech is the key to understanding what the Civil War was all about, then it should have been the point of departure for what comes next in Mr. Achorn's narrative. That speech, in its own time, was either largely misunderstood or maliciously misconstrued, depending upon the politics of the listener or reader. It was not celebratory in any sense; rather, the speech embodied a sense of sorrowful resignation and profound regret harkening back to the biblical prophets as reproach and divination of God’s judgment against the American people for having allowed slavery to become so intertwined in American life that whole sections of the country would be at war with one another over whether that vile condition of unending servitude, based upon race, and race alone, would be allowed, not only to continue, but to expand its influence where before it had been abolished. Based upon what has happened in the matter of race relations since 1865, no one has yet proven Mr. Lincoln wrong.
Mr. Achorn makes it clear that the very nature of the country after four years of bloody warfare had changed beyond return to what it was before the war. What Mr. Achorn fails to mention is any acknowledgment of the previous 70-odd years preceding the Civil War being so indelibly tainted with the slavery issue that there could be no returning to the mythology that controlled the American mindset before the outbreak of war. The 13th Amendment to the federal Constitution, rushed through Congress and passed on to the individual States for ratification of the month preceding the President's inauguration abolished slavery forever. As 'Lincoln', the full-length motion picture depicting those events amply showed, the President had good reason to believe that only a constitutional amendment could preserve the moral victory that the North had achieved in defeating the South.
The final paragraph of Lincoln's address focused on reconciliation. "With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds…" So, it begins. Lincoln's policy of reconciliation with the defeated South is not examined in any meaningful way, except as an inferential expression of the victorious president's magnanimity and generosity of spirit. That policy of generosity and reconciliation died with Lincoln, to be followed by a punitive policy of occupation of the South than lasted until the contested presidential election of 1876. It was the Radical Republicans of the late 1860s and early 1870s that passed the 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution had finished the job that Lincoln's 13th Amendment had begun. Scholars and historians have long speculated whether Abraham Lincoln, had he lived, would have been able to bridge the racial divide that has existed for the past century and a half following his untimely death.
Abraham Lincoln was a man of his times, born in the border slave state of Kentucky, whose personal and professional outlook in politics and in law carefully tracked the prevailing attitudes of Whig voters. Born poor, self-educated, and highly self-conscious of his shortcomings as a stump-speaker, Lincoln strove to succeed in politics as a 'party man'. He firmly believed in an America dominated by white men, an America in which people of color had no voice in her governance, and no future beyond providing labor at the lowest rungs of the economic ladder.
For Lincoln, New England-style abolitionism was anathema. From the 1840s, he enthusiastically supported the American Colonization Society, whose the avowed purpose was to persuade free Blacks to voluntarily repatriate themselves back to Africa, to the country we now call Liberia. It did not seem to occur to those who supported the Colonization Society that it was an exercise in mass delusion. President Lincoln himself, in his Annual Message to Congress in December 1862, eighteen months into what was then a bloody stalemate, went on at great length on the unresolvable difficulties presented by slavery, now complicated by civil war. Nowadays, most people, including Lincoln scholars, tend to remember the President's ringing proration calling them to action:
Fellow citizens, we cannot escape history. We of this Congress and this administration, will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance, or insignificance, can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation. … In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free – honorable alike in what we give, and what we preserve. We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth. ….
As inspiring as the President's rhetoric might be, Lincoln’s program of time-limited and condition-laden emancipation which he was recommending to the Congress had no chance whatsoever of success, so convoluted was the process, and so expensive as it threatened to be. The solution that Lincoln proposed would have involved a plan of gradual emancipation spreading over a span of thirty-seven years, compensation to slaveholders to be paid for through the issuance of interest-bearing bonds, the overall cost of which would have been incalculable, and the success of which in accomplishing a gradual emancipation would have been highly problematic.
An explicit feature of Lincoln's plan included the prospect of voluntary emigration of former slaves to countries outside the United States, whichever of those countries would accept them. As a personal aside, Lincoln stated: "I cannot make it better known than it already is, that I strongly favor colonization."
It comes as no surprise that the twenty printed pages of President Lincoln's Message to Congress betray an incoherence and wishful thinking born of desperation. This is not the Lincoln of the Gettysburg Address, nor of his masterwork, his Second Inaugural. Lincoln was trying to square the circle that defied the efforts of all previous statesmen going back to the Constitutional Convention of 1787 delegates who failed to resolve that conundrum themselves: Slavery and the political union assembled from the original American States were inherently incompatible; without accepting slavery, unification into a different form of Union would have been impossible from the outset, but with the creation of the federal Union, the rivalries and tensions generated between slave states and free states made continuation of that Union impossible to continue. Lincoln and his fellow Whigs were committed to maintaining the union, on one hand denouncing slavery as immoral, while on the other hand, tacitly accepting it as necessary to continue the Union, and at the same time partaking of the economic benefits that slavery itself created; indeed, the word 'hypocrisy' cannot begin to describe the distance traveled between the pietistic rhetoric and the reality.
During that era, the only statesmen of note who understood the true implications of that concession to the slaveholding states in the framing of the Constitution happened to be John Quincy Adams, the son of John Adams, the Second President of the United States. John Quincy Adams had an illustrious career himself, as diplomat, later as President in his own right, and following his defeat for a second term as President, he was elected as a Member of the House of Representatives representing his native Massachusetts. Today, he is mostly known for his role in persuading the Supreme Court in February 1841 to free fifty-three African captives aboard the ship Armistad, trafficking enslaved Africans in violation of American and International law that had drifted into American waters after they had mutinied and killed most of the crew. The younger Adams had long contended that the only way slavery would end in the United States would be through the Civil War.
Abraham Lincoln was a fervent follower of the Whig leader, Representative Henry Clay of Kentucky; even before Lincoln had been old enough to vote, he had already memorized many of Clay's speeches. Clay was most known for what he called the "American Plan": federal money for infrastructure; a national bank and banking system; and a tariff against foreign manufactured goods to protect and encourage domestic industry. He and Lincoln had never met; it was not until Clay gave a speech toward the end of 1847 in Lexington, Kentucky, with Lincoln in attendance in the audience, that Lincoln heard Clay's voice for the first time. It is reported that Clay's powerful rhetoric made an enormous impression on Lincoln, then just beginning his national political career; and there is every reason to believe that Lincoln's encounter with Henry Clay's rhetorical voice and speaking style prompted Lincoln to emulate his idol's sublime oratorical manner.
Clay's speech concerned war and slavery. He, as with Lincoln and fellow Whigs strongly opposed President James Polk's war with Mexico, and he also opposed expansion of American slavery into the enormous territory of the North American Southwest ceded by Mexico to the United States because of that war. Nonetheless, with United States Government in firm control of the lands between the Mississippi River and the Pacific Ocean, the western two-thirds of the North American continent was now open to American settlement and exploitation. The more land that the United States acquired, the harder slaveholding interests fought to upset the delicate balance between free states and slaveholding states that had existed since the Missouri compromise of 1820.
At the time of President Lincoln’s death, abolition of slavery under the 13th Amendment accomplished little more than abolishing the legal status of persons born into servitude and freeing them from bondage, but lacking enforcement. It was entirely unclear whether newly-freed slaves could even claim American citizenship by virtue of their birth here, or even citizenship of the states within which they might find themselves. Each of the states had its own standards and procedures for establishing state citizenship that allowed for a great deal of official discretion within its boundaries
It is possible to win a war, and yet lose the peace. That is what happened with President Lincoln’s policy of reconciliation; it happened after Lincoln’s death and it continued long into the post-Civil War America, where Southerners played upon Northerners' antipathy towards the formerly enslaved black. Unsurprisingly, Boston abolitionists, adamant in their furious opposition to slavery, could not reconcile their social world would look like once slavery had been officially ended, and future generations of blacks chose to relocate to Boston and surrounding towns.
Could a post-Civil War President Lincoln have made the path smoother, and promoting reconciliation and a lasting peace; perhaps. Had he lived, Lincoln might have been able to make some decent progress, but nothing like legal and social equality that the Constitution demanded. The 14th and 15th Amendments, as we know them today might offer less protection to those disadvantaged by race, poverty, national origin, or previous condition of servitude.
The portrait of America that Achorn paints is that of a war-weary people seeing victory close at hand, and looking for diversion and entertainment in the Inauguration ceremony of the President to a second term, and the gaiety and entertainments scheduled to follow.
Then, without warning, Achorn transforms the narrative of Lincoln from elected political leader into someone akin to the biblical prophet Jeremiah through his implication of God's judgment and just punishment of the American people. Lincoln is not evenhanded, making slavery the cause of the war, and questioning the motives of those who justified slavery; but backing off at the last moment. Lincoln saw the Union as sacred bonds of trust between the government created by the Constitution and the people, a sacred trust could not be broken by a small group of southern insurgents intent on breaking up the Union in order to preserve the abomination of slavery.
Both sides had profited from slavery; both sides had trafficked in slaves. The first great fortunes accumulated by colonial American colonists in British America were either agricultural exports from slave-holding states (i.e., tobacco, indigo). In the North, decades before the Revolutionary War, many merchantmen and their crews enlisted from New England seafaring towns, were active in the slave trade, in what was known as the Triangle Trade, transporting African captives from West Africa to the British West Indies to work sugarcane plantations that extracted cane juice from which they distilled rum; then transporting that rum to New England, and carrying some of that rum then back to Africa on the return journey.
In 1794, Eli Whitney received a patent for his cotton, a machine that would mechanically remove cotton seeds from raw cotton bolls, the round fluffy clumps of plant fiber found in the flowering cotton stalk. That singular invention provided powerful economic justification for the South to maintain and expand slavery to feed the needs of King Cotton. The bulk of that cotton fiber was sent to New England textile mills where it was turned into thread and thereafter woven into cotton cloth.
Regardless of whether slavery was lawful or prohibited in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Connecticut, or Maine, the economic benefits that slavery provided during that era during which American textile mills depended upon cotton fiber grown and harvested by slave labor, the cotton trade itself gave a powerful economic boost to New England specifically, and to the United States generally. While New Englanders might deplore the existence of slavery, they could not reject the benefits that slavery provided to them, providing much of their livelihood and building their economic fortunes. Both sides excused slavery, or turned a blind eye to slavery’s obvious cruelties, even as Northern, and Southern states and their respective citizens diverged in their respective support for the institution of slavery’s legal primacy. Neither side would be persuaded by the arguments of the other. When the South overplayed its hand, resting its case on the strict language of the Constitution, and using the courts to give their imprimatur to the South’s most extreme interpretation of slaveholders’ rights under the Constitution, war became inevitable. Southern tyranny against blacks became a self-justified tyranny against all who opposed it. Caught in the middle where the American people, some of whom were southern, but the majority of whom were northern; and when the war eventually did come, the voice of that majority – sick to death of hearing about Southern states’ rights – did eventually prevail. But prevailing was not easily accomplished; and not without cost. And, that cost was paid in blood and treasure; and it would continue to be paid for so long as the war went on.
Abraham Lincoln saw this contest for the American soul as a battle between right and wrong; not all the right was on one side; not all the wrong was on the other side; and he might have suffered a failure of nerve. But we will never know.
As was Jeremiah, the Hebrew prophet, disregarded, rejected and abused by his own people, Lincoln was constantly vilified by those who ought to have known better; his valedictory address at his second Inauguration ceremony, warning of God’s wrath, was widely ignored and criticized by those living in America at that time; and with reference to the vanquished South, the truth of his words was officially denied as soon as they were uttered, long before the Radical Republican-imposed strictures of Reconstruction were removed across the South. Lincoln's death at the hands of a violent assassin forced a change in attitudes, at least in the North; but that did not percolate down to the policies that Lincoln favored.
Like the prophet Jeremiah, Lincoln was more revered in death than he was in life. But that underlying conflict for which Abraham Lincoln is most closely associated in the minds of his countrymen, first over the existence of slavery, and following that, the enduring legacy of slavery that Abraham Lincoln identified of giving offense deserving of Divine punishment, are still with us. And, like the ancient prophet, Abraham Lincoln is also still with us, more now than he was in life, pointing a guiding finger in the direction of righteousness in our lives; and so, may we all be the better for it.
Verdict: Achorn’s book is less than the sum of its parts.