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Lincoln’s Birthday Blogging

By Matthew Yglesias

"Lincoln’s Birthday Blogging"

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Lots of people have noted Bill Kristol’s efforts to argue that 1858-vintage Barack Obama would have been a slavery supporter. The really noteworthy thing here, however, isn’t Kristol’s novel take on race relations, but his continuing effort to paint Abraham Lincoln as some kind of Kristol-style war enthusiast. Clearly, Lincoln was no pacifist, but nothing could be further from the truth. He was a staunch opponent of the Mexican War which he saw as driven by the political power of slaveholders and a desire to expand the same, rather than by the moral principles of international relations or a sound assessment of the national interest. Nor was he eager to embrace a military conflict with the South. He believed that slavery was a great evil, but also saw that civil war would be incredibly destructive, a great evil of its own. Lincoln opposed Stephen Douglas’ compromise-at-any-cost mentality that would merely serve to further entrench slavery. His hope, however, was to preserve the union peacefully and end slavery through the methods of the political process.

It’s harder to imagine anything more un-Kristolian than Lincoln’s reflections on all this in the second inaugural address:

On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war. All dreaded it, all sought to avert it. While the inaugural address was being delivered from this place, devoted altogether to saving the Union without war, urgent agents were in the city seeking to destroy it without war—seeking to dissolve the Union and divide effects by negotiation. Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish, and the war came.

One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war, while the Government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it. Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.” If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

It’s hard to avoid the impression here that Lincoln was a leader who genuinely did despise war, and genuinely did adopt a war policy as a last resort; the only available alternative to a path that he thought would lead to the moral and physical destruction of the country. The contrast with George W. Bush’s “bring it on” mentality couldn’t be clearer.

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