Monday, July 04, 2011

The Civil War’s First July 4th: Lincoln and Congress.

In his message to an extraordinary session of Congress 150 years ago, President Abraham Lincoln built his administration’s case for going to war against his own countrymen. Presenting these words – if you haven’t read them in a long time, you ought to read them now, today – is no different than other American Presidents in other national crises. This, however, was the first time.

Lincoln reviewed the circumstances leading up to his post-Inaugural decisions. He recapped the surrender of Fort Sumter to elements of the rebellious states. He pointed out: In this act, discarding all else, they have forced upon the country, the distinct issue: "Immediate dissolution, or blood.’’

He said to the US Congress:

This issue embraces more than the fate of these United States. It presents to the whole family of man, the question, whether a constitutional republic, or a democracy – a government of the people, by the same people – can, or cannot, maintain its territorial integrity, against its own domestic foes. It presents the question, whether discontented individuals, too few in numbers to control administration, according to organic law, in any case, can always, upon the pretences made in this case, or on any other pretences, or arbitrarily, without any pretence, break up their Government, and thus practically put an end to free government upon the earth.

He said to the US Congress, and to the free people of this nation, that the war is:

…a People’s contest...a struggle for maintaining in the world, that form, and substance of government, whose leading object is, to elevate the condition of men...”

Although much has been written about this message, the great commanders and the great battles have gotten far more ink. Also, 6,500 words long…it’s not going to be recapitulated here, on this 4th of July.

Yet Lincoln’s message is as detailed and layered a presentation of US government aims as has ever been presented. Never let the fact that this message is a century and a half old blind you to the facts of its sophistication, its nuance and its sheer argumentative force.

The President calls for the enlistment of 500,000 men – Congress authorizes that call. Seventeen days later, Confederate troops defeat the Union Army under Irvin McDowell at First Manassas southwest of Washington. Federal troops fall back into Washington and Lincoln realizes the war will be a long one: “It’s damned bad,” he comments.

This brief series of initiating events is hard to think about today. In wishing you the best possible 4th of July, after a tumultuous year in our country (and a redeeming one, in my opinion), I ask you again to read Lincoln’s 6, 500 words. They are about freedom, about the preservation of our way of life. They are about (in Lincoln’s fine turn of phrase), “the unanimous firmness of the common soldiers, and common sailors.”

The message is, most of all, about “the patriotic instinct of the plain people” of America. Happy Independence Day.

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