Part 3: Abe Lincoln and Leading for the Long Run
One way of measuring a good leader vs. a great leader is that a good leader can make most small decisions correctly, but then not be prepared to properly weigh the full impacts of a big decision, which means that even though they make what seems to be the right decision (and might be the one most people want), it isn’t the right decision in the long-run. It takes a lot of thought, experience, and understanding to make a decision like that, or to use that decision to set a principle. As such, I provide an example here:
There is no grievance that is a fit object of redress by mob law. In any case that arises, as for instance, the promulgation of abolitionism, one of two positions is necessarily true; that is, the thing is right within itself, and therefore deserves the protection of all law and all good citizens; or, it is wrong, and therefore proper to be prohibited by legal enactments; and in neither case, is the interposition of mob law, either necessary, justifiable, or excusable.
Those of you who read the title or saw the picture probably guessed that’s Abe Lincoln. You did well. Have some money.
Now, what’s significant about this quote? Well, a few things. First, it was made in 1838. This wasn’t Lincoln running for president, this was him delivering a speech to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois as a member of the Illinois House of Representatives. Second, it is, for 1838, HEAVILY anti-slavery. While it’s called “The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions,” the title could just as easily have been “Why Slavery Sucks a Big Bag of Donkey Dongs.” It points out that having a law on the books that so much of the country believes was not only wrong but fundamentally immoral made people respect the law less (which any
study of prohibition-era America would support, especially since CONGRESS was one of the biggest violators).
The speech also points out that having politicians and pastors making up lies to support a practice they couldn’t ethically defend lowered the bar for who was eligible for holding offices, both legal and communal. It also pointed out that, rather than trying to support their position through legislation or advocacy, both groups just formed mobs to attack the other. This served to allow for slavery advocates to both openly attack their opponents while also claiming to be the “real victims” who are just standing up against the violent mobs. If this sounds familiar, it’s what every group backing something they can’t defend will do.
But, as the quote above points out, Lincoln expresses an opinion that neither mob was correct. Sure, he stated slavery was evil and needed to be abolished for multiple reasons. However, he believed that it needed to be abolished through the established process, because to do otherwise would set a dangerous precedent that societal change could only be activated or resisted through mob violence. You can’t undermine the entire legal system just to oppose a law you disagree with, because then you’re destroying something bigger that FORMS THE BASIS OF OUR SOCIETY. You’re not just throwing out the baby with the bathwater, you’re throwing the house off of a cliff into a volcano.
Later, after Lincoln was elected president, many of his detractors would point out that he promised in his first inaugural address not to interfere with slavery in any current state, and later in a letter to Horace Greeley stated that he considered his paramount goal to save the Union, not to end slavery. In fact, Lincoln was considered only a “moderate” on the issue of slavery for this reason. He only wanted to propose legislation which would prevent it from spreading to any newly-admitted states (the Dred Scott Decision might have hindered this, however, there were work-arounds available that a legal scholar like Lincoln recognized)… because that would eventually result in a supermajority of electors from non-slave states, and without an economic incentive, Lincoln (likely correctly, given how other countries ended it) believed that the country
would be able to have an amendment passed which would end slavery (which would make most slave states wealthy, because that would be a taking, and would result in the government having to buy the slaves at fair market value under eminent domain). Thus, slavery would end more gradually, but under the authority of the existing system, rather than by violent upheaval. Of course, South Carolina had different ideas (which they’d already threatened on several occasions), and then so did 10 other states, and then there was a Civil War that killed 600,000 people and slavery ended through the 13th Amendment which, since the South had essentially no input on, didn’t require any form of payment to slave-holders.
Why is paying slave-holders important if slavery is de facto immoral? Well, because, immoral or not (it is), it wasn’t ILLEGAL. No one who owned slaves had broken any laws, and they had an economic reliance on it. Instead of compensating slave owners like Britain did, the post-bellum South basically got punished for rebellion, had most of their wealth removed, lost their voting rights, and caused resentment that didn’t end for… I’ll let you know when it’s over. “But that’s just showing them how the slaves felt,” most people said. Yeah, and when the hell has that ever worked to teach someone a lesson? It just makes them angrier, not more empathetic. The “Reconstruction” Era in which African-Americans managed to finally start gaining public office and representation is usually considered to last 11-13 years. After 13 years of feeling only a fraction of the kind of suppression that black people had felt for centuries, the backlash by white people was so over the top it was barely even addressed properly for another 80 years. This is the kind of thing Lincoln was trying to avoid by looking at the bigger picture before establishing a principle. He wanted to avoid punishing the South because he recognized that it would just make racism and hatred more prevalent. He made this evident by saying in his second inaugural address:
With Malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds.
“But would freeing slaves through eminent domain have been better? It would just have made slave-owners rich” I hear you saying, and also read in W.E.B. Du Bois’s writings. Yeah, it would. And that’s not fair. But it also would undoubtedly have made the slave states less resentful against black people, since they wouldn’t have been economically and politically devastated, and nothing has suppressed the progress of the Black American more than that resentment and the associated violence (e.g. The Greenwood Massacre, the Wilmington Race Riot, and, oh yeah, lynchings). As to whether or not you can pay someone to not be racist, I state the following: The creator of Sea Monkeys, Harold von Braunhut, was born and raised Jewish, became a member of the Aryan Nation, was outed by a news report as a Jewish man, but was allowed to remain in the Aryan Nation (stated goals include eliminating the Jews) in exchange for donations. Yes, you can pay people enough to get over racism.
While the Republican government didn’t agree, Lincoln took the stance that forgiveness, compensation, education, and time would be better in the long run for relations between the races. But, one play with a bad ending later, the government instead decided to punish the South for rebellion, and all of history played out as it did. If only someone, maybe a tall guy in a hat, had repeatedly warned them that, in the long run, that was a bad idea.
Another example of long-term leadership: During the Civil War, Lincoln was granted war powers by Congress that were likely at least partially unconstitutional. Lincoln himself assumed they were unconstitutional, but attempted to limit them as much as possible. He still used them, but made no attempt to ever take any steps to try and have them fully validated, out of concern that it would grant too much power to future presidents. Given how executive authority has grown since then, it isn’t surprising that this was a concern even in 1860.
He also tried to keep others from using the opportunity to wield inappropriate power for political advantage. When General John C. Fremont, the previous Republican Candidate before Lincoln, declared martial law in Missouri in order to advance abolition within the state, Lincoln overruled him, fighting against his own party. However, while many criticized Lincoln for not doing enough to get rid of slavery, showing that he was willing to fight his own party’s reach for power was the right decision: Border state enlistments in the Union Army shot up immediately, ensuring that none of those states would switch to the Confederacy. This was in the Fall of 1861, when that possibility was definitely still in play.
Now, here lies the big issue behind all of this: A lot of people suffered from these decisions. There were the thousands of people imprisoned in the border states for trying to convince the states to join the Confederacy. There were all of the soldiers who were killed fighting to keep together the Union (which Lincoln considered to still include the rebel states, because that way he would not have to enact punitive measures after the war… a bullet kept us from seeing how that would have gone, and instead the South got completely devastated). And, the biggest sufferers, the slaves, who had now been getting the shaft for a few hundred years.
Many would point out that Lincoln’s plan to get rid of slavery by stopping its expansion probably would have taken longer than it took to actually pass the 13th Amendment. This is almost certainly true, although speculation is naturally… well, speculative. Remember, though they didn’t have as large of a profit off of slavery, 4 states in the Union were still Slave States. So, that means that 14 states were going to probably be voting against it (Maryland was starting to talk about abolition already, so that probably would have happened first). There were 34 states at the time, and West Virginia might not have broken off, so… You’d need 8 more states before you had the 2/3 it takes to ratify an amendment. So, yeah, a lot of time. In real life, we didn’t have 42 states until 1889. That’s another 25 years of slavery, even if it’s in decline (though, it might have happened faster without A CIVIL WAR). But, all of this means that it’s very likely that slaves would have kept suffering for a longer time. And, if you were a slave, this was NOT a good price to pay for “keeping belief in the system strong.” Hell, if you were a slave, you probably didn’t care that much about the system’s existence, since, you know, SLAVERY.
Here’s the thing that makes me consider Lincoln a great leader: He knew that these people were suffering unjustly. He didn’t blind himself to the reality of it, though I’m sure it’s impossible for anyone who didn’t suffer something like that to fully comprehend it. He took it into consideration, and he still believed that it was better to try and resolve it through the normal course of government, because he thought that was the only way to keep the country united. I don’t think I’m making too big of a leap if I say that there were probably a lot of slaves and abolitionists who would not have agreed with this decision. They probably would have stated that it was better to just end slavery at all costs, for it’s a fundamental evil. And, honestly, I cannot speak against that, because they had no reason to believe that this would be a worse option. And maybe there wasn’t. The problem with history is you only know what happened, not what might’ve. But, regardless of how bad some of the options may seem, a leader has to make decisions anyway. And a great leader is going to understand the full impact of his decisions to the best of their ability. Lincoln, as much as almost anyone, seemed to be able to see the big picture, even if everyone else couldn’t. He always tried to keep the country going, because he believed that to be the best thing for the long run.
But, what’s the other option? Well, come back tomorrow.
Welcome to the Grouch on the Couch’s ABCs. This will be a monthly series until I can get a rhythm going… and figure out all of the letters. So far, I’ve only got about half.
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