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Lincoln's Moral Courage

Taylor Stockdale
I just saw Spielberg’s Lincoln. It was a movie I long anticipated, and it did not disappoint. At the same time, I am currently rereading Larry McMillin’s wonderful account of Sawney Webb (Thompson Webb’s father). The Schoolmakeris a work of art, and in it, Mr. McMillin describes in detail Sawney’s war years as a confederate soldier from 1861-1865. Sawney’s school making years were preceded by hellish times in the trenches of battle. He was wounded badly, and taken as a prisoner of the Union just prior to the conclusion of the war. By the time he began building a school in the late 1860’s – 1870’s, it was in the backdrop of the Reconstruction in the Deep South. Nonetheless, with his brother John, he slowly constructed a school in Bell Buckle, Tennessee that soon became known for producing more Rhodes Scholars per capita than any school in the nation.

Watching the movie and reading the book has made me think about Lincoln’s wonderful example of moral courage – a trait central to Webb’s mission today.

Throughout the summer of 1862, President Lincoln resolved he would issue a presidential proclamation emancipating slaves. He knew that this action would be highly controversial and that many would call for his impeachment as a result. The war was not going well for the Union at that time, and he did not want this action to be interpreted as an act of desperation. So he waited for a military victory in the field before acting. The war at that moment was being pursued solely to save the Union, a cause that united the North. Abolition, though popular in his own Republican Party, would risk dividing the North. Outside of his cabinet, no one was aware of Lincoln’s intentions.

At that moment, while waiting for a victory, Lincoln was publically attacked by Horace Greeley, the editor of the New York Tribune, then the most popular Republican newspaper in the country. Greeley chastised him not striking at the very source of the rebellion, the ultimate cause of the war, slavery. Obviously, Lincoln could not reply that he would soon be doing exactly what Greeley wanted. Instead, he used that opportunity to prepare the ground. He replied publically by saying that while his own personal opinions were antislavery, that his sole public duty as the president of all Americans was to preserve the Union and that whatever he did or did not do on the subject of slavery would be designed to save the Union, nothing more. At that moment, his reply seemed only to validate Greeley’s accusation. But Lincoln had his eye on the ball. He knew that following his proclamation, many in the North would be calling for his impeachment, but he provided the needed defense in his response to Greeley. On September 17, 1862, news arrived that a tremendous battle had been fought in northern Maryland at a place called Sharpsburg, along Antietam Creek, a one-day battle that is still the single most bloody day in all of U.S. history. Lincoln saw his chance as the Confederate army retreated, and several days later he issued his Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation.

Many professional historians have joined Greeley in castigating Lincoln as being too timid. The fact that his first Emancipation Proclamation of September 22, 1862 was only a warning to the South was used against him. Lincoln said that if the South would surrender before January 1, 1863, there would be no emancipation. Of course, President Lincoln knew that the Confederacy would not take this bait. At that moment, the South was generally performing well on the field of battle. Lincoln’s ploy was solely to appear reasonable while performing the most radical constitutional act ever undertaken by any American president before or since.

On January 1, 1863 Lincoln took great relish in signing the real Emancipation Proclamation as a war measure to save the Union. But the drama was not yet over. As late as the summer of 1864, a year after the Union victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, the war was going badly for the North, and Lincoln mused privately that he might lose his bid to be reelected in November of that year due to war weariness. Jefferson Davis, serving a six year term as president of the Confederate States of America never had to face that kind of political challenge. Lincoln came under great pressure even from some in his own party to renege on his Emancipation Proclamation. And the leader of those demanding that he make such an offer to the South was none other than Horace Greeley. Lincoln refused to budge, and in the end several key military victories in the field helped restore Northern confidence. Lincoln won reelection and went on to oversee Congress sending the 13th Amendment to the states for ratification, making the destruction of slavery a permanent part of the American Constitution.

Throughout the entire course of the war, Lincoln acted creatively and boldly to nurture the hatching of what first was just an egg into a full-fledged rooster. He never lived to see the final result, as he was assassinated in April of 1865 and a sufficient number of states did not ratify the 13th Amendment until December of that year. But he left us an important example of moral courage under the most difficult of conditions. He did not care how he might appear in the press. He did not care how those living in the future might view his actions. All that he cared about was being persistent, following through and doing what was necessary to bring about a better day. Unlike Greeley, he was not a “fair-weather friend,” but rather a “man for all seasons.”

I am proud of our schools’ mission that encourages “acting with honor and moral courage” and “leading with distinction.” The reason why many regard Lincoln as our greatest president is that he demonstrated these values so well. His example also illustrates to me how complex the world can be, and how important it is to stick to what is right, even when it can be the far more difficult path.
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