Thursday, December 24, 2009

A Christmas Gift to My Readers

Abraham Lincoln and the Grand Old Party!
by Charlie Leck

How many times I chuckled during the last election when I would hear various Republicans claim Abraham Lincoln as their own. Indeed, Abe was a Republican; though he was not, believe me, a member of this party of Dick Cheney, Karl Rove and Sarah Palin.

This blog, written on Christmas Eve Day, about just how democracy in America works, by using the 1964 election of Abe Lincoln, a Whig turned Republican, as an example, is my Christmas gift to my readers.

Then, in order to apply myself to shoveling the snow away from the house, keeping the walkways and driveway cleared; and then to enjoy the visits of some of our children, returned from their far-away homes on either coast, I shall take a few days off and resume writing again on Monday. I hope you will all have a wonderful holiday weekend.

“There is no new thing to be said about Lincoln. There is no new thing to be said of the mountains, or of the sea, or of the stars. The years go their way, but the same old mountains lift their granite shoulders above the drifting clouds; the same mysterious sea beats upon the shore; the same silent stars keep holy vigil above a tired world. But to the mountains and sea and stars men turn forever in unwearied homage. And thus with Lincoln. For he was a mountain in grandeur of soul, he was a sea in deep undervoice of mystic loneliness, he was a star in steadfast purity of purpose and service. And he abides.” [Homer Hoch, Congressional Representative of Kansas, in the House of Representatives, 12 February 1923]
Abraham Lincoln was a gift to America, given to her at just the right moment in time – at the precisely right moment in history. Could any other man – any other President – have saved the union? We will never know. We only know that Abraham Lincoln did.

I have just finished reading, for the second time, Doris Kearns Goodwin’s remarkable book, Team of Rivals. Years ago I read Carl Sandberg’s remarkable Lincoln biography, a single volume he pared down from the seven volumes he wrote about Abe’s pre-war and war years. As a boy, in Chester Public School (NJ), the first book report I ever wrote was about Abe by Bernadine Bailey, The Story of Abraham Lincoln. I also clearly remember reading, as a child, a little ditty called Barefoot Abe. Today I can’t find any references to it; yet my mind has pinned that title on the book with a stubborn certainty. In high school, my dear, sweet English teacher and forensics coach, Mae Call, assigned me the task of memorizing and delivering publicly Lincoln’s extraordinary Gettysburg Address. I can still get through it nearly verbatim and completely. Some years after that, when I was a bit more mature, I read and wrote a report on We Knew Abe Lincoln, a biography written by Lincoln’s law partner in Illinois, William Herndon. On the shelves near me, here where I write, I also have a volume of Lincoln’s speeches and letters (from 1859 through 1865). I’ve read most of it. Lincoln has always fascinated me.

None of this makes me a Lincoln expert, by any means; however, it does mean that I am not exactly a piker either when it comes to the subject. So, when I tell you that Lincoln's Republican Party is not the same entity, that is the Republican Party that we view today, I think I know what I'm talking, or writing, about.

A couple of years ago, I spent some delightful time reading the two volume set written by Ernest Duvergier de Hauranne, A Frenchman in Lincoln’s America (originally Huit Mois en Amérique: Lettres et Notes de Voyage, 1864-1865). It was remarkable to read about America, its politics and Abraham Lincoln through the eyes of a European who was a contemporary of our greatest President. This very literary Frenchman was on hand during the year when Abe ran for his second term as President. Duvergier de Hauranne got to live through the campaign hype of that year and the election. His description of those events is stunning and captivating.

“In Cincinnati last night a large Unionist meeting was held, and the streets are still full of huge banners almost as long as the houses are high. There will be a second one Saturday at which Mr. Chase (Salmon Chase), who has definitely declined to run for any office, will speak in favor of President Lincoln. Yesterday, while the Unionists gathered in front of the Court Hall, the Democrats were meeting at Covington, in Kentucky, on the other bank of the river. There again a minor riot occurred: a goodly number of wounded soldiers from a detachment of convalescent troops was present. One of the orators, the honorable Mr. [George E.] Pugh of Ohio, took pleasure in insulting them; he declared that their victories were only lies spread by the telegraph, spoke of ‘Beast Butler’ and of ‘Brute Burberidge,’ and denounced military tyranny in the most energetic terms. As he was describing his pity for the suffering of his Southern brothers, a soldier of Sherman’s army, disfigured by a scar on his face, cried out, ‘You are a traitor!’ – ‘You are cowards!’ replied the orator. That touched off an uproar; the soldiers were furious; they threatened him, crowded around him and would have killed him if he had not fled. In five minutes the crowd had dispersed and the platform was in flames.”
Ah, politics! And we tend to think that the hate-mongers and the venom they spread during our contemporary time is somewhat unusual. There is nothing quite like mixing the exuberance of a hotly contested political campaign with the morality questions of war – an atmosphere we have lived in for a good part of my entire life; but never, of course, was the tone like that of the Civil War days when brother fought brother and state went up against state. Remember, as you read the quote above, perhaps again, that Cincinnati and Covington were in neighboring states, but only about 10 miles apart.

The Frenchman eloquently describes the intensity of the differences in political parties during that 1864 election campaign. The following is a description of a campaign scene in New York City.

“Meanwhile a few small Democratic meetings were being organized along Broadway; stones were thrown at the marchers as they passed by. Tempers became heated. Suddenly a movement occurred in the crowd; the noise of firecrackers redoubled and the sound of drums and brasses increased. The ward delegates appeared on the scene, marching with a military step in long columns, led by their chiefs and followed by their cannons and their illuminated wagons filled with orators. These speakers began to hurl abuse; insults to McClellan echoed through the streets. Some ‘peace-men’ protested, interrupting with loud shouts of ‘Down with the Negroes!’ ‘You damned scoundrels!’ ‘It’s a damned nigger war!’ During all of this cannons boomed, the crowd roared and the band played fortissimo: the bellowing orators, foaming with fury and fatigue, still tried to make themselves heard above the tumult. Orators in antiquity were recalled to measure and harmony by a flute player; what is one to think of this American eloquence that takes its pitch from a salvo of field artillery?”
My goodness! We must rethink how awful and how abusive our current campaigns are. Back then we are talking about the progressive Republicans and the extremely conservative Democrats going at each other tooth and nail – and I mean it quite literally.

And, we tend to think that great ideals are at stake in our Presidential elections – that victory and defeat are matters of life and death. Imagine how southerners in 1864 watched the national election and worried about the results. A Lincoln victory would forever change southern culture and mores. We’re talking here about the Republicans (of a unionist bent) and the Democrats (as the champions of southern states’ rights). My, what a mixed up, bent up world!

Quite early on 9 November 1864, the election results were in and the Frenchman is amazed at the calm that has suddenly settled over everything and everyone. From Chicago he makes his observations.

“President Lincoln has been elected by a large majority. Since yesterday it has been evident that the Republicans would carry Chicago. This morning we learned tht they have won in all states except New York and a few other states where the vote, when counted, is likely to go to the Democrats….“The most amazing thing is the profound calm in which the great event has taken place. The newspapers bring us no reports of rioting, no tales of violence or disorder. Over the whole territory of the Union, from Boston to St. Louis and from Washington to Chicago, Election Day was a day of truce, and all parties laid down their arms with astonishing unanimity…”
Then, in a paragraph, Ernest Duvergier de Hauranne tells us the great secret of America, and this, my dear friends around the nation – you Democrats turned Republican and you Republicans turned Democrats – you conservatives and progressives and liberals and independents and moderates and those of you who are just confused or sitting on a fence somewhere or totally disinterested – you who think Abraham Lincoln was a Republican when really the Republicans of this day are someing else entirely apart from the Republicans of that day – this is my Christmas gift to you on this snowy, blowing, white day in Minnesota:

“What, then, is the guardian angel that protects democracy? To what does she owe this spirit of order, perseverance and wisdom which her friends themselves have never counted among her virtues? She owes it to her ‘party organizations.’ These despised words contain the whole secret of American liberty. These slapdash conventions that are convened in the name of the people to nominate candidates and draw up the party’s program, are obeyed with a unanimity that proves the political intelligence of the country. In America there is no issue so local, so private, that it is not connected with the great political and constitutional questions which divide the nation; the questions of war and peace, of Lincoln or McClellan, are linked with the choice of a police chief or a street-cleaner.”
You may be involved in this process if you wish. Just get to the next caucus of your political party of choice or get connected with that party's headquarters and express your wish to be involved. It's not difficult.

God bless America! Happy Holidays to you all!

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