150 years after his death, Lincoln is a looming presence

If you know your history, you’re aware that last week brought an important national anniversary: April 14 marked 150 years since Abraham Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth, just a few days after the end of the Civil War. That both is, and is not, a long time ago; writers took the opportunity to point out that many of the themes, ideas and concerns of the time of Lincoln’s presidency remain with us today, or at least still affect our national conversation. Today, we offer edited selections from a few of those for your reflection. — Ron Rollins

From James Braxton Peterson at Reuters:We haven’t gotten over it yet.

How long does it take a nation to recover from the assassination of its president? 50 years? 100 years? 150?

At the time of his assassination, President Abraham Lincoln was directly engaged in what could be considered the second-greatest political challenge of his presidency: the reunification of the United States in the immediate aftermath of a Civil War that had claimed more than 700,000 lives.

No American family was left untouched by the carnage. The plans for Reconstruction were doomed from the start. Confederate sympathizers were defeated, angry and busy developing new systems of restriction and oppression for the recently manumitted Africans in America, even as they wrestled with the destruction of infrastructure across huge swaths of the South. …

One of Lincoln’s prerogatives before, during and for the bit of time he lived after the Civil War was to challenge the nation to acknowledge black humanity.

He didn’t quite frame it that way, but Lincoln wanted black lives to matter as a matter of national policy. He was willing to stake his legacy on the point, and we could argue that his life was taken at least in part because of his commitment to an early iteration of today’s “black lives matter” movement. I am fully aware that both Lincoln historians and the architects and activists of the movement will read this assertion as blasphemy.

To the extent that Lincoln as president was invested in pressing our nation to grasp the humanity of black folks — and given the fact that the GOP’s “Southern strategy” to gain the votes of disgruntled white Southerners still exists, combined with the withering effects of mass incarceration of people of color — Lincoln’s work remains unfinished some 150 years later.

It remains unclear whether or not the United States has or ever will recover from the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The emergence of neo-liberalism, our permanent war footing and the slow rollback of the civil rights agenda of the 1960s suggest that the Kennedy brand of presidential leadership would have been critical to strengthening America’s commitment to social justice in the era of globalization.

Will America ever recover from the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., by some accounts one of the greatest Americans who ever lived?

Though we, as a nation, have done our due diligence to memorialize Lincoln, Kennedy and King, their absences seem eerily pronounced in the 21st century. For so many of the social justice issues that these leaders were deeply invested in continue to plague our great nation.

The permanence of our nation’s greatest challenges: war and institutional racism becomes less and less debatable as the centuries go by. The United States has been at war — hot, cold or clandestine — since the Kennedy administration. And thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court and a host of state legislatures, the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act have been systematically sapped of their legal and political strength.

In an 1858 “Fragment on Democracy,” Lincoln stated: “As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master …” He claimed this dialectic frame as the very “idea of democracy” — the idea being that being a “master” can be as dehumanizing as being a “slave.” As long as men and women were conscripted in bondage, the United States could not be all that it positioned itself to be.

American slavery emptied the concept of liberty of any absolute meaning. The concept of U.S. freedom instead relied exclusively on the notion of not being in bondage or its direct analogy of not being black/African/Negro/African-American.

In the 21st century, we have arrived at a moment when looking back is sometimes better than looking forward. Too often our contemporary politicos cite the great leaders of bygone eras without any inclination to model their courage or their incisive interventions into the American project. Lincoln’s life and legacy unfortunately fall victim to such appropriations.

We would be better served at this 150th commemoration of Lincoln’s assassination to come to terms with the significance of his actual political work as opposed to reveling in our celebratory fascination of time stamps and political platitudes.

From Matt Ford, in The Atlantic: The entire world mourned.

When the full horror of Lincoln’s murder became known, letters of condolence came pouring in from trade unions in Italy, from town councils in Britain, from Masonic lodges in France, and from all other manner of groups and citizens throughout Europe and the New World.

In 1865, the assassination of a head of state still retained its power to stun and horrify. “The blow is sudden, horrible, irretrievable,” wrote the London Evening Standard. “Never … perhaps, since the assassination of Caesar … has a murder been committed more momentous in its bearing upon the times.”

Why was Lincoln’s death mourned so deeply in foreign lands? He never traveled overseas, either before or during his presidency. Except for the ministers and consuls who journeyed to Washington, few Europeans ever had the opportunity to meet him. Television and radio did not yet exist to carry his face and voice throughout the world. Foreign mourners could only know him through newspapers and word of mouth.

For many, this was enough. In both Lincoln and the American experiment writ large, many Europeans saw an idealized view of their own aspirations. Sympathy came easily in Italy, where a war for national unification had also just been completed. “Abraham Lincoln was not yours only — he was also ours,” wrote the citizens of Acireale, a small town in Sicily, “because he was a brother whose great mind and fearless conscience guided a people to union, and courageously uprooted slavery.” For the German states, whose own national unification would come within the decade, the American conflict was also their own. “You are aware that Germany has looked with pride and joy on the thousands of her sons, who in this struggle have placed themselves so resolutely on the side of law and right,” proclaimed members of the Prussian House of Deputies in their memorial for the fallen president. The U.S. consul in Berlin noted that one of the deputies had a son currently serving in the Union Army, while another had lost his only son at Petersburg.

Workers and activists in Europe’s nascent socialist movement felt they had lost a genuine ally. The International Workingmen’s Association in London had saluted Lincoln, “the single-minded son of the working classes,” upon his re-election in 1864 and its “triumphant war cry (of) ‘Death to Slavery.’” Now they lamented the murder of “one of the rare men who succeeded in becoming great without ceasing to be good.” Among the condolence letter’s signatories was the group’s secretary for Germany, Karl Marx: “Abraham Lincoln is entitled to the gratitude of all mankind.”

Lincoln’s approach to slavery evolved over the course of his presidency, and he only pushed for full abolition in the closing year of his life. This nuance was lost on overseas mourners, who frequently hailed him as a martyr in the struggle against slavery. “As the emancipator of all the slaves in the United States, Abraham Lincoln is entitled to the gratitude of all mankind,” wrote the leaders of the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society in London. Colombian President Manuel Murillo praised Lincoln for “erasing the stigma of an odious institution.” Emancipation societies throughout Europe hailed his struggle and sacrifice.

The Lincoln-as-martyr narrative was irresistible, even in the most anodyne of analyses. “Had Lincoln been a vain man he might almost have ambitioned such a death,” mused the London Morning Star. “The weapon of the murderer has made sure for him an immortal place in history.”

Rebuilding the Union would not captivate the world as much as the great struggle that saved it. The war faded in the international mind, but the memory of its greatest leader never did. “When his assassin took flight, he is said to have exclaimed, ‘Sic semper tyrannis!’” wrote the editor of l’Epoque in Paris. “God grant that the American government may never have any other but tyrants such as he.”

From Patrick T. Reardon, in the Chicago Tribune: More than martyrdom made him great.

For a century and a half, Lincoln has been seen as a national martyr, as the final casualty of the Civil War. And that’s how he was viewed in the hours and days following his killing — but not by everyone.

As historian Martha Hodes notes in her new book “Mourning Lincoln,” there was a significant portion of the American populace, even in the North, happy the president had met his death.

“In Boston,” Hodes writes, “an Irish cook made her politics known in front of her employers by ‘laughing all day’ when the news arrived.”

Even some fire-breathing, antislavery members of Lincoln’s own Republican Party, afraid of the president’s conciliatory tone toward the former Confederate states, were glad rather than sad over his assassination. One disgusted congressman wrote in his diary: “Universal feeling among radical men here is that his death is a godsend.”

In surveys of historians on the rankings of the American presidents, Lincoln is almost always in the top position, just ahead of George Washington. He fought and won the Civil War. He reunited the nation. He was the moving force in the emancipation of American slaves. In the Gettysburg Address, he gave the nation a vision of almost Biblical grandeur and depth.

Yet, if the 16th president had survived his second term, he certainly wouldn’t have been seen as a national saint. His legacy would have been much less clear.

After all, Lincoln was one of America’s most controversial chief executives — criticized for acting unilaterally to limit civil liberties, suspending the writ of habeas corpus and imprisoning without trial thousands of rebel sympathizers.

In summer 1863, following the July 4 victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, he was riding high, but, a year later, he was so downhearted about his prospects for a second term that he wrote that it seemed “exceedingly probable that this administration will not be re-elected.”

Lincoln’s violent death, coming as it did in the days just after the Civil War had been won, deeply affected the way Americans of later generations came to view him. He’s on the penny. He’s on the $5 bill. He’s Honest Abe, Father Abraham. He’s remembered for his final sacrifice, not for all the political head-butting that left his reputation bruised and battered until the very end.

Later presidents have suffered in comparison. How do you compete with a martyr?

The lesson of Lincoln’s life as president — those years leading up to his death — is that every resident of the White House has successes and failures. And that’s worthwhile keeping in mind during Barack Obama’s second term as political commentators work overtime creating a cottage industry of evaluating his legacy.

Almost from the beginning of Obama’s second term, we’ve been treated to opinion pieces with headlines such as “Obama is the worst president ever” and “12 reasons why Obama is one of the best presidents ever.”

As always in such second-term handicapping, no matter the president, this is a case of premature evaluation.

At some point, far in the future, well after Obama has left the White House, historians will have the critical distance to be able to adequately weigh his successes and failures and get a fairly legitimate sense of his place in American history. But not now.

Consider this: If Lincoln had come home from the play that night 150 years ago, he probably would have found on his breakfast table, some morning a few months later, a newspaper with this headline:

“Lincoln is the worst president ever.”

From Jamelle Bouie, at Slate: The commemoration needs black voices.

Without black voices and stories, we’re left with a narrow and impoverished portrait of the end of the Civil War.

But missing in this remembrance, and in the audience as well, were black Americans. Of the thousands of re-enactors and thousands more spectators, only a handful were black. And while this may seem minor (or worse, a needless invocation of race), it’s a terrible disadvantage. The real Appomattox wasn’t just about reunion; it was about emancipation as well. Hannah Reynolds, an enslaved woman, was wounded during the battle of Appomattox, the victim of cannon fire. But while she was injured a slave, she died a free woman, three days after Lee’s surrender.

Without these voices and stories, we’re left with a narrow and impoverished portrait of the end of the war, to say nothing of the whole conflict. But that’s where we are in our public commemoration of the Civil War. And unfortunately, that’s where we’ve been for a long time.

By the beginning of the 20th century, this meaning of the war had faded from mainstream memory, replaced by the Lost Cause and its vision of dutiful soldiers, honorable leaders and white supremacy. A thoroughly racist public had no interest in black memory of the war.

Hostile to black Americans, tired of sectional conflict and committed to white supremacy, white Americans, North and South, had written emancipation out of the legacy of the war and embraced a new mythology of honorable soldiers and glorious combat, a synthesis of Confederate remembrance and Northern sentiment for the Old South. Their Civil War was a white man’s fight, for the ideals of a white nation. “It was slavery that raised the question of State sovereignty; but it was not on behalf of slavery, but on behalf of State sovereignty and all that it implied, that these men fought,” wrote the editors of the Outlook, a liberal magazine. “Both sides,” it concluded, had fought for “the same ideal — the ideal of civil liberty.”

The mythology remains. For all its trappings of authenticity, the Civil War showcased at the 150th Appomattox anniversary was divorced from the reality of the conflict, and what it meant for those involved. By 1865, as historian Chandra Manning shows in “What This Cruel War Was Over: Soldiers, Slavery, and the Civil War,” Union and Confederate soldiers agreed they were fighting over slavery. “Now I am ready for the war to be over,” said one federal soldier in a letter to his sister, “as the great cause, Slavery, is abolished.” Likewise, as a Texas chaplain wrote, the “amendment of the Constitution abolishing slavery” had “awakened” soldiers “to the solemn reality of the situation.” As they had four years prior, the white Southern man would refuse “to stretch out his hand for Northern fetters, and bow his dishonored head for the yoke which abolitionism stands ready to place upon him.”

All of this leaves us in an odd place. In our history books, the war is a conflict over slavery. But in our remembrance, it’s still a fable, where valiant white men fought each other over abstract principles. The difficult reality — the facts that made this war so vital — is absent. At the sesquicentennial of the surrender at Appomattox, we weren’t commemorating our history; we were celebrating a myth.

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