This past week and weekend, July 21-27, I made some good progress on my current work-in-progress, Documenting America: Civil War Edition. I completed four chapters (out of a probable 30-32), and did the source document editing for Chapters 5 and 6.
That source document is Lincoln’s address to Congress, which he called into a special session to begin on July 4, 1861, to deal with the Southern rebellion. Lincoln faced a tough situation, the toughest, I believe, of any president. At the time of his inauguration, six states had seceded. One more would join them in the next month, and four more after the bombardment of Fort Sumter. Lincoln faced what no other president before or after faced: the dissolution of the Union.
I’m not sure we can fully appreciate the predicament, in our 21st Century comfort, safety, and security. Possibly we are less safe and secure than we were thirty years ago, but we are certainly more comfortable. For three or four decades before the Civil War, threats of secession had been made, not always over the slavery question. The prevailing opinion of many was that any state could leave the Union at any time and become independent.
Lincoln rightly realized the danger in this. What’s to keep one state from extorting the others, saying “Do this for us, or we will secede?” Or for the other states to do an involuntary secession of one? “We don’t like how you run your state. You are no longer part of the Union.” He said that the South “sugar-coated” the rebellion, and that for thirty years the leaders had been drugging their people with thoughts of secession. So when the time came to do it, everyone in the South thought, “Well, of course we can pull out of the Union when we want to. We’ve been talking about it for thirty years, haven’t we?”
Lincoln said, in his inaugural address, that his policy was one of discussion, waiting, and ballots. He wanted to resolve the conflict without resulting to war. But he also wanted to hold the four Federal forts on the coast that had not yet been seized by rebellious forces. Three of these were in Florida, and one—Fort Sumter—was in South Carolina. Unfortunately, the South wanted this last vestige of the USA out of the CSA, so they bombarded Fort Sumter rather than allow it to be resupplied.
The immediate result of this bombardment was for four more states to secede, for Lincoln to call for an expanded military and to allow generals to suspend habeas corpus, and to prepare for war to put down the rebellion.
I found much to inspire me in Lincoln’s speech to Congress on that 85th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. In the next couple of articles I’ll focus on a couple of phrases and the issue contained in them, and how they inspire me today.