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Sunday, November 18, 2012

The Price of Fame (Part Two)

(Note:  This is the second segment in a series introducing readers to Abraham Lincoln.  The first segment followed Lincoln's political ascent to the highest civil office in the land.  Yet the South believed it had the right to nullify the results of an election which it did not win.)

And you thought you were having a bad day?  How were the political fortunes of President Lincoln transformed from an initial state of jubilation upon his election in 1860 to one of despondency in two short years?  Did President Lincoln have any friends, any political supporters by the time the 1862 Congressional midterm elections rolled around?

In 1861, on his way to Washington as the president-elect, Abraham Lincoln’s oratory was called into serious question during a series of random, unconnected speeches he made at stops along the route:

These speeches thus far have been of the most ordinary kind, destitute of everything, not merely of felicity and grace, but of common pertinence.  He is evidently a person of very inferior cast of character, wholly unequal to the (secession) crisis.

From there things would get much worse.  Just how unpopular was President Abraham Lincoln during the early prosecution of a Civil War which involved 11 rebellious Southern states?   Indecisive if not incompetent Union military commanders were the cause of great angst among the Northern people.  Union armies had been frustrated at best, humiliated at worst.

To some, President Lincoln himself was said to be indecisive, too slow, hesitant, weak, lacking proper energy.  He was a “patronage disaster,” naming the wrong kind of people and dishonest men who agreed with them.  On reconstruction, he was far too lenient toward the South.  To others, he was even a worse disaster than that.  He was a “coarse joker, an imbecile guilty of ‘damnable blunders.’”  It went on from there:

He lacked backbone, encouraged corruption, squandered millions, and was a flat failure as a military commander-in-chief.  The best any of them could say of him was that he was ‘too angelic for this devilish rebellion,’ … .  Too kindhearted and well-meaning --- that was the trouble.

And that was the praise among his friends!

President Lincoln’s cabinet was comprised mostly of men who had presidential ambitions of their own in 1860, each of whom felt he and not Lincoln should be president.  Perhaps the most obvious of these men was Lincoln’s Secretary of the Treasury, Salmon Chase.  Chase’s learning was rooted almost entirely in books.  As a lawyer and politician, however, he was both an awesome and convincing advocate.  But despite all his learning, he was neither a student of or well versed in the science of human nature.

Secretary Chase believed the president to be a political accident, a mistake whose duty he sought to rectify in 1864.  His hunger for the presidency was said to be palpable, “glaring out of both eyes,” one politician had remarked.  Another, US Sen. Ben Wade, R-OH, said of him: “Chase is a good man, but his theology is unsound.  He thinks there is a fourth person in the Trinity.”

Among the Democrats whose kinship formed the Southern secessionist base, the catchphrase in the campaign to the 1862 Congressional midterm elections was “the Constitution as it is and the Union as it was,” with slavery unimpaired.  They flatly rejected President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, set to take effect January 1, 1863 as to those states still in rebellion.

In their view, the Executive had trampled upon individual rights in the act of waging war against both external and internal enemies.  Among the grievances were arbitrary arrests, imprisonments and violations of habeus corpus.  This meant that citizens could be detained indefinitely without sufficient cause or evidence.  Democrats saw these as a shameless, cynical, dangerous misuse of administrative power.  They portrayed Lincoln as a tyrant and his administration a dictatorship.

These factors in combination proved to be a disaster to President Lincoln and his party at the ballot box in the autumn of 1862.  The Congressional midterm elections gave Lincoln one of the longest nights of his presidency.  Five of the key states he had carried in 1860 --- New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, all heavy hitters --- had sent Democratic majorities to Congress two years later.  A solid chunk of Northern states from the Mississippi to the Atlantic that had gone for Lincoln in 1860 had turned to the Democrats in 1862.  Had the results in 1862 been extrapolated back to 1860, Lincoln would not now have been president.

By March 1863, Charles Dana, Lincoln’s ambassador to Great Britain, had written:

As to the politics of Washington, the most striking of these is the absence of personal loyalty to the President.  It does not exist.  He has no admirers, no enthusiastic supporters, none to bet on his head.  If a Republican convention were to be held tomorrow, he would not get the vote of a State.

President Lincoln and the “Union” cause had hit rock bottom.  But the president’s vision yet extended far enough into posterity to issue an executive order closing government departments, setting apart the last Thursday of November, 1863 in national recognition to a local day of thanksgiving.  Henceforth, a day of “Thanksgiving and Praise” would become permanently etched into American custom and tradition.

(In next week's third and concluding segment readers see the clouds finally start to lift following a pair of signature military victories by Union armies in the summer of 1863, as the war grinds along toward conclusion.)

-Michael D’Angelo

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