On Presidents’ Day, I am thinking about a man who led this country in a divided time. This column from my Berkshires Week days led me to learn more about him.
What happens when the heart conflicts with the mind? A week ago we celebrated Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. I have been reading some of his speeches and letters, from his early days stumping in farming towns in Illinois to the exhausted end of the Civil War.
It strikes me how many could air today on NPR with Diane Rehm, exactly as they are, or with painfully little change. Because Lincoln writes clearly, he lets us feel what it was like to be an Illinois lawyer who once could not afford school books — who ended in authority while the country was breaking.
Reading anyone’s words over a long time will show consistency or change, defenses and honesty. Lincoln writes from the beginning: “I am naturally anti-slavery. If slavery is not wrong, then nothing is wrong. I cannot remember when I did not so think and feel.”
He once rode from Louisville to St. Louis on a steam ship with men in shackles, and he had compassion enough to be hurt.
“I see something like it evey time I touch the Ohio or any other slave-border,” he wrote to a self-justifying acquaintance. “It is hardly fair for you to assume that I have no interest in a thing which has and continually exercises the power of making me miserable.”
Why then does he also promise in his first inaugural address not to interfere with slavery in the southern states? Why, even as he repeats that he would abolish slavery if he could, does he ask his congress to hold back, and why is the Civil War half over before he signs the emancipation proclamation?
He answers that the presidency did not give him the right to act on his own thoughts and feelings alone. He had sworn to protect the constitution, and he could not “take an oath to get power and break the oath in using power.”
People have asked whether he signed the emancipation proclamation from conviction or out of political necessity. Only he knew, but I am sure of one thing: He knew the risk he took. He was too intelligent not to know. He knew the consequences it could have for the men and women it touched, and he knew what it would mean for his own career. Whatever he felt, making that act public took guts.
An earlier version of this column first ran as a By the Way observation in Berkshires Week in February 2009. In the photo at the top, a print shows President Lincoln writing the Proclamation of Freedom, Jan. 1, 1863, painted by David Gilmour Blythe. Image in the Public Domain.