Author Harold Holzter makes a strong case for the Cooper’s Union speech being the event that made him President. You could read Doris Kearn’s Goodwin’s book and not come to that conclusion. You would be right to say that had it not been for the Lincoln Douglass Debates, Cooper’s Union would not have happened. You could go back further and say that had Lincoln not seen the slave markets of New Orleans on his one visit to the City in his youth he would never have become President either. But he did become President and he had to grapple with ideas that were foreign to all but a very few Americans and reshape America’s beliefs in the process. What was at the core of this change is what makes me love Groundhog’s Day. Not reinvention, for America was not reinvented by the Civil War. It was redemption. Thomas Jefferson felicitous claim for human rights was hoisted upon Abe Lincoln’s shoulders and given new life. And that is what Harold Holtzer’s book begins to explain. It is a story in part of Abraham Lincoln the historian.
Short pugnacious Stephen Douglass was the darling of the nations politics. Both he and Lincoln had fenced in the State Capitol but the tall homely, gangly, rustic bumpkin that was Lincoln never got much traction in the also ran political party he joined, the Whigs. Douglass, however, as a representative of the ascendent Democratic Party was considered the likeliest man to become President for the better part of a decade before Abraham Lincoln came out of nowhere to beat him in 1860.
The event that kicked of their greatest rivalry was the Kansas Nebraska Act championed by Douglass which undid long standing compromises to keep the north free from slavery. As today in the current southern led GOP southern politicians were intent to force their ways on the north just as they were fearful the North would do the same to them.
Douglass wanted to be President and he promoted the Kansas Act to court Democrats who wanted the possibility of slavery’s extension because demographics were going against them. Part of his reasoning was based on a much repeated historical claim that America’s founding Fathers never really wanted slavery ended.
All my life there have been liberals and conservatives who maintained dubious histories to fortify and justify their political convictions. All nation’s and people’s write their own histories which take great liberties with the truth for the sake of unity.
Some time after his failed Senate campaign in 1958 Lincoln began to research the Douglass claim that the founding father’s were reconciled to slavery. Lincoln spent a great deal of time reviewing the history of the men who signed the Constitution. In doing so he found persuasive evidence which he laid out in New York’s Cooper Union that eviscerated Douglass’s claim that the Constitution did not give the Federal Government the power to regulate slavery in its territories. This was the argument that helped Douglass shelve the famous Compromises that had designated that slavery would be confined to regions south of Missouri. Under Douglass’s popular sovereignty voters of the territories could decide for themselves whether to adopt slavery Congress be damned.
This fine point of History is not what Lincoln was famous for but it gave him the resolve to fight the Civil War for keeps once he was elected President with the conviction that right makes might. That conviction cost 625,000 men their lives in the nation of 31 million people one tenth the size of our current nation.
Lincoln was nearly an atheist. Had it not been for his political ambition he almost certainly would have been one. He was also a great humanist a man who loved poetry, Shakespeare, and who grieved deeply when his sons died. A man who was willing to enforce the carnage to keep the founding father’s flame alive wrestled to justify the war he prosecuted so grimly. He made that justification part of the American psyche in a short speech on the other end of the war at Gettysburg.
He said that America must not allow the dead of Gettysburg to have died in vain. The reason he found for the deaths was the long neglected claim of Jefferson’s that among the rights of men were life and liberty. He came very near saying that blacks should be the equals of whites although he did not yet make this claim. He was in essence picking up the flame of the Founding Fathers which had been passed to France and thence to South America and held it aloft for the nation and its lowest non citizens. He said at other times that the blood of slaves had made it a God demanded necessity for the shedding of white blood. This made the Civil War an act of redemption. It was an act with was very much in keeping with the notion of American exceptional-ism. And yet Lincoln was not the kind of politician who felt the necessity to put a flag pin on his lapel to prove his patriotism.
He would certainly have approved of the Jesus who rebuked the rich for making a display of their generosity and thus sullying their gifts for the sake of vanity.