Lincoln’s Trolley Problem: Fort Sumter And Beyond

by Michael Liss

I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so. —Abraham Lincoln, First Inaugural Address, March 4, 1861

Did we need to have a Civil War? Couldn’t the two sides, geographically defined as they were, simply part before the shooting started? Did Lincoln intentionally choose war for any one of a variety of unworthy reasons that stopped short of necessity, including even something so mundane as a fear of losing face? Or was he faced with an intractable situation for which there was no simple, satisfactory answer—a type of political Trolley Problem?

These questions were suggested by the recent comments from a 3 Quarks Daily reader to a 2020 article by Thomas Wells. While I don’t agree with the premise of Lincoln’s “culpability,” it is an issue that has been continuously debated by historians and opinion writers almost from the moment South Carolina forces shelled Union soldiers led by Major Robert Anderson at Fort Sumter.

Bombardment of Fort Sumter, Charleston Harbor, 12th & 13th of April, 1861. Hand-colored lithograph, Currier & Ives.

In fact, the debate raged both in public and behind closed doors even before the South Carolinians reduced the Fort on April 12-13, 1861. Depending on who does the telling, either Lincoln shrewdly baited the Confederates into firing on Fort Sumter, thus unifying much of the North for a shooting war, or belligerent South Carolina fired on Fort Sumter without good cause, thus unifying much of the North for a shooting war. If you are interested, I’d recommend James D. Randall’s discussion in his 1945 Lincoln The President, but, in either telling, at the end of the day, the war that followed Sumter was not inevitable, but the product of both sides’ choices. Read more »

A Complex Man: Lincoln At The Lyceum

by Michael Liss

My friends, no one, not in my situation, can appreciate my feeling of sadness at this parting. To this place and the kindness of these people, I owe everything. Here I have lived a quarter of a century and have passed from a young to an old man. Here my children have been born, and one is buried. I now leave, not knowing when, or whether ever, I may return, with a task before me greater than that which rested upon Washington. —Abraham Lincoln, departing Springfield, Illinois, for his Inauguration, February 11, 1861

Amphora depicting Oedipus and the Sphinx of Thebes. Greek Classical Period. 450-440 B.C.

“A task greater than that which rested on Washington.” Lincoln as Oedipus? George Washington as Laius, to be slain by his son? There are a lot of myths that have sprung up around Lincoln. Some put him in the company of saints. Others, mostly coming from a Lost Cause perspective, place him a lot closer to Hades. Still, it seems a deep dive into myth to ascribe to a resentment of George Washington the life force that vaulted Lincoln from poverty and obscurity through sectional and then national prominence, then to the White House, and from there to winning the Civil War and freeing millions from bondage.

Yes, it’s the Oedipus myth, say a group of historians, including George Forgie, Dwight Anderson, and Charles Strozier. To Lincoln’s eternal damnation, he unquestionably had an Oedipus Complex, according to the renowned critic and essayist Edmund Wilson. Not so, forcefully, and even a little angrily, argue Richard M. Current, the “Dean of the Lincoln Scholars” (“Lincoln After 175 Years: The Myth of the Jealous Son”) and Garry Wills (Lincoln At Gettysburg).

The “source code” for this dispute largely derives from a speech given by Lincoln on January 27, 1838: “The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions: Address Before the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois. The “Young Men” part applies to Lincoln as well. He is just short of his 29th birthday, and a Member of the Illinois House of Representatives from Sangamon County. If anyone in his audience that day (besides, perhaps, Lincoln himself) thought that he might be a future President of the United States, that listener’s name is lost to history. Read more »

A Tale of Three Transitions: Part 1, Buchanan to Lincoln

by Michael Liss

November 6, 1860. Perhaps the worst day in James Buchanan’s political life. His fears, his sympathies and antipathies, the judgment of the public upon an entire career, all converge into a horrible realty. Abraham Lincoln, of the “Black Republican Party,” has been elected President of the United States.  

Into Buchanan’s hands falls the most treacherous transition any President has had to navigate. The country is about to split apart. For months, Southerners in Congress, in their State Houses, in newspapers ranging from the large-circulation influential dailies to small-town broadsheets, had been warning everyone who cared to listen that they would not abide an election result they felt was an existential threat to their Peculiar Institution. Lincoln, despite what we now consider to be his notably conservative approach to slavery, was that threat. 

The task is made more excruciating because the transition, at that time, was longer—not the January 20th date we expect, but March 4th. Four long months until Lincoln’s Inauguration. Thirteen months between the end of the regular session of the outgoing Congress and the first scheduled session of the incoming one, unless the President calls for a Special Session. Each day, the speeches become more radical, the threats blunter. Committees are formed in many states to consider secession. By December 20, South Carolina leaves the Union. It is followed in short order by Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and, on February 1, 1861, Texas. The Upper South (Tennessee, North Carolina, and all-important Virginia) holds back, as does Arkansas. Unionist sentiment is strong enough to keep them from bolting, but the cost of their loyalty is that nothing aggressive be done by Washington to bring back the seceding states. In reality, that means an acceptance of secession for those that cannot be wooed back. 

Buchanan is not the man for the job. Read more »

Radical Reconciliation: Lincoln’s Second Inaugural

by Michael Liss

He is an enigma. He sits up there in his marble chair, set in a Greek temple, literally larger than life, and he defies us to understand him.

Many have tried. More than 15,000 books have been written about Abraham Lincoln, to say nothing of countless columns, essays, Masters and Doctoral theses. So familiar is the recitation of his story that there is an unmistakable sense of déjà vu when you pick up yet another, turn to a random page, and, after a few words, half-wonder whether the author was unconsciously participating in a form of soft plagiarism.

Yet, if there is any guide to the inner Lincoln, the double-minded Lincoln, the one who could prosecute an incredibly destructive war while engaging in countless acts of mercy, it has to be in the Second Inaugural Address, the one we remember mostly for its closing paragraph, “with malice towards none….”

In this speech, barely 700 words, is the distilled essence of what Lincoln learned through the wrenching years of seeking, and then possessing, the Presidency. He exposes his own inner anguish as he reconciles it. In doing so, in taking responsibility, accepting nuance, and embracing a broader vision, he sets a standard for “Presidential.”

He does all this in about seven minutes. Read more »

In Your Hands, My Dissatisfied Countrymen: The Jaquess-Gilmore Mission

by Michael Liss

“I worked night and day for twelve years to prevent the war, but I could not. The North was mad and blind, would not let us govern ourselves, and so the war came.” —Jefferson Davis, July 1864

By the time Sherman’s armies had scorched and bow-tied their way to the sea, by the time Halleck had followed Grant’s orders to “eat out Virginia clean and clear as far as they go, so that crows flying over it for the balance of the season will have to carry their own provender with them,” and by the time Winfield Scott’s Anaconda Plan was finished squeezing every drop of life out of the Confederacy, there had to be those who wondered what possible logic would lead intelligent men like Jefferson Davis to make such a catastrophic choice.

Yet, the South almost won the gamble. With secession, they had challenged the core of the American Experiment, the democratic principle of equal rights, general (male) suffrage, government by a majority, and a peaceful transition of power when that majority so indicated. They also posed an existential question for the North: Was adherence to a principle, even a cherished one like the Union, worth lives and property?

The Civil War is fascinating on so many levels, but what made it fundamentally different than any other conflict that preceded it was that, for the first time, two peoples with the ability to exercise electoral oversight engaged in a protracted armed conflict. This implied something new. The simplest mechanisms of civic beliefs: the right to disagree publicly, to organize, to place elected leadership on notice that their jobs could be at risk, would all play an unexpectedly crucial role in the manner in which the war began and was ultimately prosecuted. Read more »

Some of the People All of the Time (On Trump’s Legion)

by Akim Reinhardt

You can fool all the people some of the time
and some of the people all the time,
but you cannot fool all the people all the time.

Lincoln quotesFor example, some people will always believe that Abraham Lincoln first uttered this famous aphorism, even though there is no record of him ever having written or said those words.

A French Protestant named Jacques Abbadie authored an early incarnation of the adage in 1684.

In 1754, the French editors Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d'Alembert helped cement its popularity.

The phrase doesn't show up in American letters until some Prohibitionist politicians started using it in 1885. Twenty years after Lincoln died.

Until recently, I simply took at face value the common claim that these were Lincoln's words. It's not a very important issue, so what would push me to question it?

My decision to title this article.

A little healthy skepticism is all it took. After all, lots of famous quotes are misattributed to famous people, ergo the Yogi Berra line: “I really didn't say everything I said.” Which he really did say.

So before titling and publishing this essay, I looked up the maxim at a reputable site with citations, just to be sure. And presto: suddenly I am, at least in this regard, all of the people some of the time, and not some of the people all of the time.

You really don't want to be some of those people who get fooled all the time. Which brings us to Donald Trump.

He's very good at fooling people. At the moment, he's successfully fooling millions of Republican voters into thinking he'd be a good president generally, and more specifically, that if elected he could actually do many of the outlandish things he's claiming, like getting Mexico to pay for a wall.

Thus, the question lurks forebodingly: Are we living through “some of the time?”

Is this the moment when Donald Trump fools all of the people, or at least enough of the ones who call themselves Republicans, that he lands the GOP's presidential nomination?

Read more »

The Birth, Decline, and Re-Emergence of the Solid South: A Short History

by Akim Reinhardt

Slave saleSince the Civil War, the American South has mostly been a one-party region. However, by the turn of the 21st century, its political affiliation had actually swung from the Democrats to the Republicans. Here’s how it happened.

It is not an oversimplification to say that slavery was the single most important issue leading to the Civil War. For not only was slavery the most important on its own merits, but none of the other relevant issues, such as expansion into the western territories or states’ rights, would have mattered much at all if not for their indelible connection to slavery.

Initially, Northerners rallied around the issue of Free Soil: opposition to slavery on economic grounds. Small farmers and new industrial workers did not want to compete with large slave plantations and unpaid slave labor. This was the philosophy that bound together the new Republican Party.

No friends of African Americans, most Free Soilers were openly racist, as were the vast majority of white Americans at the time. Abolitionists, who were fired by religion and opposed human bondage on moral grounds, were actually a small minority of the population However, as the bloody war raged on, Northerners began to seek moral assurance in their cause. For more and more people, the mere political goal of saving the union did not seem to justify the unholy slaughter of men by the tens of thousand. Though preserving the union was always Abraham Lincoln’s primary goal, he astutely played to this concern by issuing the Emancipation Proclamation and establishing abolition as the war’s moral compass. It worked. The North persisted, won the war, abolished slavery, and forced the South to return.

Read more »