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“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, and 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.” Abraham Lincoln in 1862

This book represents the confluence of certain very strong streams in American history. Having the world’s first truly secular government we have never had the cultural luxury of states that have an established religion and can look there for their icons of moral rectitude. One of the results of this has been our tendency to make icons out of political, military and cultural figures and, like most searches for moral rectitude in the public arena,  it has led to more than a few mistakes and more than a little historical egg on the face when the truth wins out.

In some cases the “myth” surrounding our icons is so firmly entrenched in the justification of social policy that those who defend it are lionized and those who reduce it to its true dimensions are dismissed – or worse yet cast out. Probably the central myth of American history is that Lincoln was the man who died to make slaves free – and the imagery of the day is every bit as compelling as Christ having been crucified and dying for our sins – and the use of that fact to support the suppression of first the South, then of Republican government for the nation as a whole and finally of the Constitution – as devised by the founders – with the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments which have been used to invert the meaning of everything preceding them and which were ratified at the point of a bayonet rather than by free people.

One of the real ironies is that Lincoln – the true apparatchik of realpolitik – proposed an entirely different 13th amendment less than two weeks after he was sworn in. A recently “discovered”  copy of a letter dated March 16, 1861 and signed by Abraham Lincoln imploring the governor of Florida to rally political support for a constitutional amendment that would have legally enshrined slavery in the U.S. Constitution.

Actually, the letter is not at all “amazing” to anyone familiar with the real Lincoln and while the celebrated copy may have been recently “discovered” it was by no means unique. It was a copy of a letter that was sent to the governor of every state urging them all to support the amendment, which had already passed the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, that would have made slavery constitutionally “irrevocable,” to use the word that Lincoln used in his first inaugural address.

Lincoln’s slavery forever amendment read as follows:

“No amendment shall be made to the Constitution which will authorize or give to Congress the power to abolish or interfere, within any State, with the domestic institutions thereof, including that of persons held to labor or service by the laws of said State.  (See U.S. House of Representatives, 106th Congress, 2nd Session, The Constitution of the United States of America:  Unratified  Amendments, Doc. No. 106-214) …

Not only did Lincoln support this slavery forever amendment, but the amendment was his idea from the very beginning. The truth of the matter is that all Lincoln wanted was a transcontinental railroad and a central government that could regulate it and profit from it. Everything else is part of the myth and the system that derives from it.

Striner’s “scholarship” of stringing together edited stump speeches to selected audiences from the campaign trail is about as useful as the ghost written biographies candidates issue promoting their virtues and decrying their worthiness for office. Lincoln had to cement himself as the candidate of abolition to have any chance in the 1860 election and he used some pretty high language to get there. To find out what he really thought look at what he did – not what he said.

Father Abraham : Lincoln’s relentless struggle to end slavery    New York : Oxford University Press, 2006  0195183061 Richard Striner Lincoln, Abraham, 1809-1865 Views on slavery Hardcover. 1st ed. and printing.  ix, 308 p. : ill., ports. ; 24 cm. Includes bibliographical references.  Clean, tight and strong binding with clean dust jacket. No highlighting, underlining or marginalia in text. VG/VG

Lincoln is the single most compelling figure in our history, but also one of the most enigmatic. Was he the Great Emancipator, a man of deep convictions who ended slavery in the United States, or simply a reluctant politician compelled by the force of events to free the slaves?

In Father Abraham, Richard Striner offers a fresh portrait of Lincoln, one that helps us make sense of his many contradictions.

Striner shows first that, if you examine the speeches that Lincoln made in the 1850s, you will have no doubt of his passion to end slavery. These speeches illuminate the anger, vehemence, and sheer brilliance of candidate Lincoln, who worked up crowds with charismatic fervor as he gathered a national following.

But if he felt so passionately about abolition, why did he wait so long to release the Emancipation Proclamation? As Striner points out, politics is the art of the possible, and Lincoln was a consummate politician, a shrewd manipulator who cloaked his visionary ethics in the more pragmatic garb of the coalition-builder. He was at bottom a Machiavellian prince for a democratic age. When secession began, Lincoln used the battle cry of saving the Union to build a power base, one that would eventually break the slave-holding states forever.

Striner argues that Lincoln was a rare man indeed: a fervent idealist and a crafty politician with a remarkable gift for strategy. It was the harmonious blend of these two qualities, Striner concludes, that made Lincoln’s role in ending slavery so fundamental.

Father Abraham challenges recent portraits of Lincoln as an essentially passive politician and reluctant abolitionist. Exhaustively researched and crisply argued, this superb book gives us a new appreciation of Lincoln as moral leader.


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