‘Douglass and Lincoln’ and ‘President Lincoln: Duty of a Statesman’ portray a master of statecraft
HISTORY: New books portray the Civil War president as a master of statecraft
12:00 AM CST on Sunday, February 17, 2008
The old debate over how and why Abraham Lincoln waged the Civil War gets a fresh look in two well-written and well-reasoned new titles.
In Douglass and Lincoln, historians Paul and Stephen Kendrick examine the symbiotic relationship between the Civil War’s foremost black leader and its foremost political leader.
Frederick Douglass, a former slave who became an abolitionist, believed the war should be fought to end slavery. Lincoln, a self-taught lawyer who became president, believed the war should be fought to preserve republican government. For four years, the heat of Douglass’ idealism helped refine the steel of Lincoln’s actions.
The relationship began badly. In his inaugural, Lincoln promised to leave slavery alone where it existed. Enraged, Douglass called the new president an “excellent slave hound.” But here, Lincoln’s reach exceeded Douglass’ grasp. The president understood that he had to keep the border slave states in the Union. Lose them and the war was lost before it began. Lincoln’s thinking may have shocked Douglass, but it saved the Union.
As the war evolved, so did the president’s thinking, with Douglass’ help. After their first White House meeting, Douglass was charmed: “I felt big in there.”
The two men began an ongoing conversation about the war’s meaning. As the battles raged, the abolitionist urged the president to use the last, great untapped source of manpower: African-Americans. Lincoln did, and black soldiers helped win the war.
But the president influenced Douglass, also. By the war’s end, Douglass decided that only Lincoln could have saved the Union and ended slavery. The authors conclude that the abolitionist finally appreciated the political minefield Lincoln navigated and understood his effort to balance “public opinion and justice.”
In President Lincoln: Duty of a Statesman, William Lee Miller explores this intersection between Lincoln’s moral vision and his pragmatic actions. Unlike Woodrow Wilson, Lincoln possessed both idealism and realism. He wanted to do the right thing; but he also wanted to do the thing right. “The morality of statecraft,” Mr. Miller writes, “entails layers of action and an awareness of sequences of consequences.” Mr. Miller, a noted Lincoln scholar at the University of Virginia, re-examines Lincoln’s decisions using the bifocal lens of morality and reality.
Not one day into his term, Lincoln confronted his first crisis. Fort Sumter, a Union army garrison in South Carolina, was surrounded by rebels. In his inaugural, he had promised the South that the “government will not assail you.” He had also promised the North that he would “preserve, protect and defend” the Union. How would he do both?
He began by overruling his military adviser, Gen. Winfield Scott, who told him the fort could not hold. The president didn’t disagree. But he saw Sumter in moral, not just military, terms. To surrender the fort would demoralize the North. And it violated his own pledge to protect the Union.
Since he had also promised not to attack the South, Lincoln supplied the fort with food, not ammunition. And, in a masterstroke, he informed the governor of South Carolina, thus tempting the rebels to commence “firing on bread,” as he put it. They did. The war began. And Lincoln’s policies had matched his principles.
“Morality in statecraft,” Mr. Miller writes, “does not lead one away from reality but requires one to attend to it.” No American ever mastered statecraft with more precision, more purpose or more power than Abraham Lincoln.
Kasey S. Pipes, a former speechwriter for President Bush, is the author of Ike’s Final Battle: The Road to Little Rock and the Challenge of Equality. He lives in Fort Worth and can be reached at kaseyspipes.com.s96387.gridserver.com.