What would Lincoln do?

February 27th, 2024 by Tom Lynch

Looking at sinners from last to first
The hypocrite seems to me the worst.

For some reason, recent events, unfolding like slow-motion train wrecks, have me thinking about Abraham Lincoln and the way he got things done.

In Team of Rivals, Doris Kearns Goodwin described how Lincoln, considered a “backward bumpkin” by his adversaries, co-opted all of them with the force of his strategic intellect. A pragmatist who played the long-game, Lincoln, with humility I can’t find in politics today, never let his ego or self-interest get in the way of his well-thought-out goals.

William Seward had been Lincoln’s main rival for the presidency, and the recently elected Lincoln knew the brilliant former Governor of New York had much to offer. Consequently he offered Seward the position of Secretary of State, which Seward accepted. When Lincoln was preparing the speech for his first inauguration, he asked Seward for his advice about it. Seward, whose ego was large, read the speech, complimented Lincoln on it, and said he only had three problems with it — the beginning, the middle, and the end. He offered Lincoln a host of suggested edits. Rather than show Seward he was offended, which he must have been, Lincoln thanked him for his counsel, accepted a few of his edits, but rejected all the others. This little interchange let Seward know who was President and who was not and set the tone for their future relationship, a relationship in which Seward was to become devoted to Lincoln.

On 10 August 1863, Lincoln had his first meeting with Frederick Douglas, the ex-slave who was to become perhaps the most influential social reformer, abolitionist, orator, writer, even statesman, of the 19th century. He was certainly the greatest leader of the movement for African-American civil rights.

The previous January, Lincoln had promulgated the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed the slaves in the Confederacy, but not the slaves in the states loyal to the Union. Douglas approved of this, because he could see it as the first step toward total freedom, but he was nonetheless upset with Lincoln for a different reason.

Shortly after Lincoln announced the Emancipation Proclamation, the Government had established the Bureau of Colored Troops to manage what it hoped would be great numbers of newly freed black soldiers. Douglas had been asked to help recruit these potential soldiers for army service. He agreed to do it, and he was successful at it. However, he had discovered the new recruits were not being paid as much as white soldiers. Neither were they receiving the same benefits or promotional opportunities.

This inequality was the source of Douglas’s anger, and he wanted Lincoln to know it when they met for the first time in the White House. He felt he had been betrayed.

Lincoln told Douglas he knew about the inequities and was committed to remedying them, but curing them would take time. Lincoln must have been persuasive, because Douglas believed him. He continued his recruiting endeavors. And, sure enough, the following June, Lincoln convinced Congress to pass a law requiring freed slaves to be paid as much as other soldiers, to receive comparable medical care, and to have the same  promotional opportunities as white soldiers. This opened the door for black soldiers to enter the Officer Corps. In addition, Congress made the new law retroactive to the Emancipation Proclamation.

In their encounter, both Lincoln and Douglas set their personal self-interest aside for the greater good. We don’t seem to be able to do that anymore in America. Putting country above self almost seems an anachronism.

From the triumph of Donald Trump in South Carolina, to his racist comments during his speech at the Black Conservative Federation (BCF) annual gala last Friday, to the falling-all-over-themselves backtracking of stalwart Christian politicians reacting to the Alabama Supreme Court’s in vitro fertilization decision, to the blatantly undemocratic, even treasonous, speeches at last week’s CPAC convention, to the continued nonchalant dismissal of funding to keep Ukraine alive — all of these, and more, are examples of the hypocrisy, selfishness and conceit that overshadows today’s political landscape.

Now, as Donald Trump closes the noose on the Republican Party, the Party of Abraham Lincoln, I do not see his incendiary rhetoric becoming any less unhinged or unbridled. Everyone in the Party seems to be lining up to grab onto his MAGA coattails, climb up into his pockets. You’d think there wouldn’t be any room left in there.

I ask myself, “What would Lincoln do?”
The answer? “How I wish I knew.”