© 2022 NPR Illinois
Stand with the Facts
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Illinois Issues
Archive2001-Present: Scroll Down or Use Search1975-2001: Click Here

Essay: 150 Years Later

A gun at the arsenal in Washington, D.C.
WUIS/Illinois Issues

If today Abraham Lincoln could see what has become of his country — and of the world — since the Civil War, which began 150 years ago, how might he react? That conflict began as a struggle over states’ rights in general and the right to secede in particular. He would doubtless be pleased that the doctrine of secession is dead in the United States. To be sure, a few outliers have forlornly suggested that it be revived, but they have gained no traction politically. 

On the question of states’ rights, Lincoln might feel some concern. Though emphatically a nationalist, he did not favor an all-powerful central government. In January 1865, when Massachusetts Sen. Charles Sumner was filibustering Lincoln’s attempt to implement a Reconstruction program, the president remarked that Sumner “hopes … to change this government from its original form” by “making it a strong centralized power.” 

Some recent critics on the right, such as economics professor Thomas Di Lorenzo of Loyola University Maryland, mistakenly argue that Lincoln created the strong federal government that since 1865 has drastically reduced the power of the states. Such criticism is unjustified. The modern bureaucratic, administrative state, with power concentrated in Washington, D.C., is a product of post-Civil War industrialization and urbanization, along with the subsequent emergence of the United States as a world power. In fact, the federal government during the generation after Lincoln’s death was quite weak. The foundations of the modern centralized welfare state were laid by the Progressives in the early 20th century and were strengthened dramatically during the New Deal of the 1930s, the Fair Deal of the 1940s and the Great Society of the 1960s. Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson — not Lincoln — are the true fathers of the current strong federal government. 

To be sure, Lincoln expanded the powers of the presidency to meet a great national emergency, but he insisted that what was appropriate during a Civil War was inappropriate for peacetime. Among his most controversial acts was to suspend the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus. To justify that decision, he cited the Constitution’s provision that “The Privilege of the Writ of Habeas Corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public Safety may require it.” To Democrats who objected that he was paving the way for a dictatorship, he replied that he could “no more be persuaded that the government can constitutionally take no strong measure in time of rebellion, because it can be shown that the same could not be lawfully taken in time of peace, than I can be persuaded that a particular drug is not good medicine for a sick man, because it can be shown to not be good food for a well one.” 

Though the Civil War began as a struggle to maintain national unity in the face of a secessionist rebellion, it also became a conflict to end slavery once Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. If alive today, Lincoln would be glad to see that chattel slavery is dead and that blacks enjoy full citizenship rights. 

Lincoln was murdered because he publicly endorsed the enfranchisement of some blacks. On April 11, 1865, when he made that announcement in a speech at the White House, one member of his audience — John Wilkes Booth — said to his companions: “That means nigger citizenship. Now by God I’ll put him through! That is the last speech he will ever make.” Three days later Booth carried out his threat. Lincoln thus should be considered as much a martyr to the cause of black citizenship rights as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers or the other champions of the civil rights revolution who were murdered in the 1960s.

Lincoln’s support of emancipation and black citizenship rights led Frederick Douglass to call him “emphatically the black man’s president.”

A group believed to be slaves on a plantation in South Carolina.
Credit WUIS/Illinois Issues
WUIS/Illinois Issues
A group believed to be slaves on a plantation in South Carolina.

During the Civil War, the Union Army initially refused to allow blacks to join. In time, that policy was changed. As Lincoln watched one of the first black regiments march past the White House, he was asked what he thought of them. Obviously pleased, he said: “It’ll do! It’ll do!” He would probably approve equally strongly of a black president, of blacks in Congress and black officeholders on other levels of government, all elected in part by the votes of black men and women. 

On the other hand, Lincoln would surely condemn forms of slavery that persist to this day. As Ron Soodalter, co-author of The Slave Next Door: Human Trafficking and Slavery in America Today, has pointed out: “There are an estimated 27 million people enslaved in the world today. That’s more than twice as many as were taken from Africa in chains during the entire 350 years of the Atlantic Slave Trade. It is one of the three most lucrative criminal enterprises, along with drugs and guns. And in the United States, it has reached epidemic proportions. Victims are trafficked here from at least 35 countries and are held in bondage — and under the radar — in every state, working at a variety of jobs. They are of all races, all types, all ethnicities, sharing in common only the inability to leave. They are controlled by violence and are exploited to make money for their controllers. These people are, in the most literal sense, slaves.”

Lincoln might also be displeased with the fate of democracy in recent times. He hoped that the Civil War would vindicate popular government and that other countries would emulate the American example of granting common ordinary people a significant voice in their governance. A few weeks after the war began, he told presidential secretary John Hay: “Some of our northerners seem inclined to think that this war is to result in the entire abolition of slavery.” He added that a “venerable and most respectable gentleman, impresses upon me most earnestly the propriety of enlisting the slaves in our army.” But Lincoln demurred: “For my own part, I consider the central idea pervading this struggle is the necessity that is upon us, of proving that popular government is not an absurdity. We must settle this question now, whether in a free government the minority have the right to break upon the government whenever they choose. If we fail it will go far to prove the incapacity of the people to govern themselves.” 

As for abolishing slavery or enlisting blacks into the army, Lincoln said: “There may be one consideration used in stay of such final judgment, but that is not for us to use in advance. That is, there exists in our case, an instance of a vast and far reaching disturbing element [slavery], which the history of no other free nation will probably ever present. That, however, is not for us to say at present. Taking the government as we found it, we will see if the majority can preserve it.”

Throughout the war, Lincoln emphasized that the struggle was more than just an instance of a rebellious province being subdued in the name of national unity, nor was it simply a crusade to eliminate slavery. Above and beyond those important goals loomed a greater one: proving that people were capable of self-government. On July 4, 1861, Lincoln told the newly assembled Congress that the war “is essentially a People’s contest.” For Unionists, “it is a struggle for maintaining in the world, that form and substance of government, whose leading object is, to elevate the condition of men — to lift artificial weights from all shoulders; to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all; to afford all, an unfettered start, and a fair chance, in the race of life. Yielding to partial and temporary departures, from necessity, this is the leading object of the government for whose existence we contend.” 

The following year, Lincoln offered Congress a variation on that central theme. He had already announced his intention to issue an emancipation proclamation. In urging Congress to pass constitutional amendments facilitating emancipation, he said: “The fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation. … In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free — honorable alike in what we give, and what we preserve. We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth.”

In 1863, Lincoln reiterated his central point at Gettysburg, where he described the Civil War as a struggle to assure that “government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth.”

The next year, Lincoln told troops who had called at the White House: “I almost always feel inclined, when I happen to say anything to soldiers, to impress upon them in a few brief remarks the importance of success in this contest. It is not merely for to-day, but for all time to come that we should perpetuate for our children’s children this great and free government, which we have enjoyed all our lives. I beg you to remember this, not merely for my sake, but for yours. I happen temporarily to occupy this big White House. I am a living witness that any one of your children may look to come here as my father’s child has. It is in order that each of you may have through this free government which we have enjoyed, an open field and a fair chance for your industry, enterprise and intelligence; that you may all have equal privileges in the race of life, with all its desirable human aspirations. It is for this the struggle should be maintained, that we may not lose our birthright. … The nation is worth fighting for, to secure such an inestimable jewel.” 

Surveying the American scene, Lincoln today would probably feel gratified that democracy flourishes in the United States, but he might well be dismayed by the assault on it being waged by its opponents, most notably Islamic totalitarians. He would likely see striking parallels between today’s War on Terror and the Civil War. The Confederates were, in his view, the enemies of democracy, for they rejected the fundamental principle of majority rule. The jihadists of today are also enemies of democracy, for they do not believe that governments are based on the consent of the governed but rather on the word of Allah. Laws are not to be made by popularly elected legislatures, enforced by popularly elected executives and interpreted by judges chosen by the people or appointed by popularly elected executives and confirmed by popularly elected legislatures. Instead only Sharia law, as divinely revealed in the Koran and in the sayings of the prophet Muhammad, must be obeyed.

The main enemies of democracy in the 20th century — German nationalists, Nazi bigots, Japanese imperialists, Communist totalitarians — have been replaced by Islamists bent on establishing a worldwide caliphate. Lincoln resisted the Confederates with steely determination because he above all wished to vindicate democracy. He would probably be pleased to see that the United States is resisting the radical Islamists and trying to nurture democracy in lands where despotism has long reigned. 

At the same time, Lincoln might be dismayed by the recent “democracy recession” around the world. Fraudulent elections in Burma, Egypt, Haiti, the Ivory Coast and elsewhere dishearten supporters of democracy. Popular government has also suffered setbacks in Russia, Venezuela, Turkey, Thailand, China and other nations. According to Freedom House, which monitors democratic developments around the world, political and civic freedom has been waning rather than waxing internationally during the past four years.

Much as Lincoln might be gratified by the survival of the intact American union, the elimination of chattel slavery in the United States, the implementation of black citizenship rights and the general spread of democracy abroad, he might be disappointed that “government of the people, by the people, and for the people” is not more universally enjoyed. 


Lincoln might also be displeased with the fate of democracy in recent times. He hoped that the Civil War would vindicate popular government and that other countries would emulate the American example of granting common ordinary people a significant voice in their governance.

Michael Burlingame is the Chancellor Naomi B. Lynn Distinguished Chair in Lincoln Studies at the University of Illinois at Springfield and the 2010 recipient of the Lincoln Prize for his two-volume biography,Abraham Lincoln: A Life.

Illinois Issues, February 2011

Related Stories