The cause of the Civil War: With Mr. Lincoln, the spin stops here

January 14th, 2011

For a century and a half, Americans have argued over the causes and purposes of the American Civil War. Even now, we scrap over what to call it. In three recent Examiner posts on this topic though, we’ve seen that the simple answers don’t fit, that it really wasn’t all good versus all bad, and that the causes and purposes of our deadliest war are to this day easily “agenda spun.”

Shame on us.

But then all we have to do is consult the ultimate source. Mr. Lincoln, why was this war fought? Indeed, what did “Honest Abe” say?

"I would save the Union. I would save it the shortest way under the Constitution. The sooner the national authority can be restored, the nearer the Union will be ‘the Union as it was.’ … My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that. What I do about slavery and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union. I shall do less whenever I shall believe what I am doing hurts the cause, and I shall do more whenever I shall believe doing more will help the cause. I shall try to correct errors when shown to be errors, and I shall adopt new views as fast as they shall appear to be true views."[1]

That would seem to define the matter, to end the discussion. But Lincoln wrote these well known and oft-quoted words to Horace Greeley on 22 August 1862, in response to Greeley’s widely read, scolding open letter to Lincoln entitled “The Prayer of Twenty Millions,” published three days earlier in his New York Tribune. As fate would have it, Lincoln’s response to Greeley was precisely a month before he would issue his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation.

Revisionist historians in recent decades, especially in the aftermath of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, have emphasized that Lincoln expanded his goal of saving the Union with a newer, far nobler goal of ending slavery. Notes James McPherson, “The Civil War started out as one kind of conflict and ended as something quite different” because now “from the time the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect at the beginning of 1863, the North fought for the revolutionary goal of a new Union without slavery.” As the Pulitzer Prize winning author asserts, “despite the grumbling and dissent of some soldiers who said they had enlisted to fight for the Union rather than for the ‘n—–‘, most soldiers understood and accepted the new policy.”[2]

But in his conclusion, McPherson differs with such noted historians as James G. Randall, T. Harry Williams, and Norman Graebner by subtly revising Lincoln’s war aims with his own nuanced phrase arrangement: Lincoln “was a pragmatic revolutionary who found it necessary to destroy slavery and create a new birth of freedom in order to preserve the Union.” That would seem to put saving the Union in second place.[3] Is that what Abe said?

When abolitionist author James Oakes reviewed the emancipationist literature over the last 75 years, he lauded McPherson’s first book, The Struggle for Equality: The Abolitionists and the Negro in the Civil War and Reconstruction (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1964), as “one indication of how the civil rights movement of the sixties inspired a new generation of scholarship on abolitionism.”[4] New interpretations, if accurately documented by primary sources, certainly expand the discussion and our understanding of the past. But as the Washington Post’s E. J. Dionne reminds us, we need to “avoid spin.” Even the subtle stuff.

Well, what did Mr. Lincoln say?

On 19 August 1864, almost two years to the day after he replied to Horace Greeley’s open letter, the president invited former Wisconsin governor Alexander Randall and Judge Joseph T. Mills to the White House. To both men, as he had to Greeley, he emphatically reiterated his resolute war aim.

"My enemies say I am now carrying on this war for the sole purpose of abolition. It is & will be carried on so long as I am President for the sole purpose of restoring the Union. But no human power can subdue this rebellion without using the Emancipation lever as I have done. Freedom has given us the control of 200,000 able bodied men, born & raised on southern soil. It will give us more yet… My enemies condemn my emancipation policy. Let them prove by the history of this war, that we can restore the Union without it."[5]

Three weeks later, in a letter to Buffalo, New York Postmaster Isaac Schermerhorn, Lincoln hammered it home again, graphically laying out the guts of his war aim as it applied to colored troops. “…the administration accepted the war thus commenced, for the sole avowed object of preserving our Union; and it is not true that it has since been, or will be, prosecuted by this administration, for any other object … We can not spare the hundred and forty or fifty thousand now serving us as soldiers, seamen, and laborers. This is not a question of sentiment or taste, but one of physical force which may be measured and estimated as horse-power and steam-power are measured and estimated. Keep it and you can save the Union. Throw it away, and the Union goes with it.”[6]

Saving the Union remained paramount. Proclaiming emancipation and then employing colored troops in the cause was just another war “lever” Lincoln utilized on the road to reunion. But Carl Sandburg was uncomfortable with such language and he “reshaped” the Randall/Mills interview when he published his multi-volumed biography of Abraham Lincoln 72 years later. Instead of Mr. Lincoln’s coarser “Emancipation lever” version as cited above, Sandburg polished it into “Emancipation policy.”

My enemies pretend I am now carrying on this war for the sole purpose of abolition. So long as I am President it shall be for the sole purpose of restoring the Union. But no human power can subdue this rebellion without the use of the emancipation policy as I have done, and every other policy calculated to weaken the moral and physical forces of the rebellion … Let my enemies prove to the country that the destruction of slavery is not necessary to a restoration of the Union. I will abide the issue.[7]

But spin can be pervasive. In his biography Frederick Douglass, another Pulitzer Prize winner, William S. McFeely, notes that Douglass was also at the White House on 19 August 1864, waiting for a presidential interview when Randall and Mills were ushered in to meet Lincoln. McFeely selectively edited Judge Mill’s diary to omit Lincoln’s referencing the “Emancipation lever” phrase to win the war, thus subordinating Lincoln’s goal of restoring the Union in favor of his determination to reward colored military service with promised freedom.[8] Again, subtle but effective spin.

So who are we to believe? How do we know what’s spun … and what is not?

We know by going back to the source, the ultimate source. And for all who visit the nation’s capital, the truth is easily found in that Memorial at the western end of our National Mall dedicated in 1922 to our 16th President. There, in a modest museum a floor below the words of his epic Gettysburg Address, you can read for yourself Abraham Lincoln’s answer:

My enemies pretend that I am now carrying on this war for the sole purpose of abolition. So long as I am President it shall be for the sole purpose of restoring the Union.

Abraham Lincoln, 19 August 1864.

Visit the Lincoln Memorial and read those words. They are the WHAT and the WHY. And they will always be there for you and your descendents

…because they are carved in stone.

[1] As quoted in Carl Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln: The War Years, Vol. 1, (New York: Harcourt, Brace & Company, 1939), 567.

[2] James McPherson, Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 25, 34-5.

[3] Ibid., 23-4, 41.

[4]James Oakes, The Radical and the Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics, (New York: W.W. Norton, 2007), 297.

[5]Roy P. Basler, ed., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume VII, (New Brunswick, NJ, 1955), 506-508.Also published inNew York Tribune, 10 September 1864.

[6] Ibid., Vol. 8, 2.

[7] Sandberg, Lincoln: The War Years, Vol. 3, 212.

[8] William S. McFeely, Frederick Douglass, (New York: W. W. Norton, 1991), 232-3.

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