, Newburyport, MA


November 24, 2012

Watson: Lincoln and the elixir of politics


But the pro-slavery South wasn’t tempered by the election. Before Lincoln’s inauguration on March 4, 1861, seven Southern states had already seceded and formally created the Confederacy. The Civil War began on April 12 when Confederate forces attacked the Union-held Fort Sumter.

Although Lincoln was opposed to slavery — believing it evil, contrary to man’s instinct for justice and in violation of the Declaration of Independence — his primary responsibility was to preserve the United States. He had to defend his ethics against the fiery abolitionists who were willing to jettison the South in order to disassociate themselves from slavery. He also believed that only by keeping the Union whole could politics — not war — properly, legally and permanently resolve the slavery question.

Toward that end, in 1865, Lincoln persuaded his Republican Party in Congress to debate and consider passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. He believed that the measure, which abolished slavery, was necessary to establish the legal imperative that the restored Union would have to find ways to implement — slowly — after the war.

The amendment was audacious for its time, and it barely passed Congress. Lincoln had to convince bigots of its merit and had to calm skittish abolitionists who felt it didn’t go far enough.

This is where his shrewdness and humanity blended effectively. He had always understood that people need leading, but that human nature sometimes resists following. Within each of us, he knew, is the capacity for good and ill; and change in a democratic society often asks individuals to reconcile self-interest against broader measures of fairness.

He knew that politics — with its visions and proposals — could easily outpace the people. But Lincoln’s patience, the even speed at which he worked, his ever-constant reference to the nation’s founding principles and his canny timing caused citizens and pols alike to support the anti-slavery and Union-saving measures he proposed.

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