“Anyone who embarks on a study of Abraham Lincoln … must first come to terms with the Lincoln myth. The effort to penetrate the crust of legend that surrounds Lincoln … is both a formidable and intimidating task. Lincoln, it seems, requires special considerations that are denied to other figures.”
— Robert W. Johannsen
Lincoln, the South, and Slavery
Indeed, it would not seem a safe time to critique the wisdom, motivations, and character of Abraham Lincoln. Steven Spielberg’s reverential motion picture epic Lincoln fills screens across America. The public increasingly accepts him as America’s greatest leader. Academics from the Left — and Right — compete to bestow the grandest laurels on the 16th president.
Yet, such a pursuit is ever more important for a people hurtling forward into an uncertain future, to learn from past mistakes or merely become aware they made them. One growing consensus regarding Lincoln seems credible: He has exerted more influence over the development of this nation than any other person, including the Founders. If Washington be the father of our country, surely Lincoln is its stepfather.
This article will examine the significance of this truly larger-than-life figure’s actions regarding three of the many important issues of his time: 1) the Constitution, in particular during the War Between the States, 2) emancipation and blacks, and 3) the Radical Republicans and Reconstruction.
“I am the President of the United States of America — clothed in immense power!” Spielberg’s Lincoln thunders. The real Lincoln proved the truth of that claim within days of the April 12, 1861 attack on Fort Sumter. In fact, the attack might have been avoided if he had not decided to reinforce Sumter. Once it occurred, he quickly unleashed a series of watershed actions that forever altered the nature of American government.
On April 13, he declared the seceding states in a condition of rebellion and called for 75,000 troops to deal with them — a declaration expressly reserved to Congress by the Constitution: “The Congress shall have the power … To provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions.”
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