Sunday, December 04, 2011

Abraham Lincoln by George McGovern - The American Presidents Series.

I seek out this book to read because of 2 reasons:
  • Lincoln who was the hero of Obama.
  • It was also that classic story from Dale Carnegie that said that Lincoln was mad with General Meade for not chasing General Lee of the South, but he wrote a letter to General Meade which he never sent because Lincoln know how futile it is to pick an argument. 
As put out by the editor, the American President Series aims to have books that are compact enough for the busy read, lucid enough for the student, authoritative enough for the scholar.

At only 155 pages long, it was a book that really lived up to the above objectives. I reread 3 times in a single year as it is just so well written – as it was so short and I tried to reread it to write a good review.

The author McGovern was a presidential candidate, perhaps that was the reason why he could elucidate the priorities and choices of Lincoln so well:
  • George McGovern probably have the same high regards and of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution as Abraham Lincoln
    • Lincoln wants to fulfill the principles inside the Declaration of Independence where it is declared “ All men are equal” and yet obey the Constitution which gives the Southern States the right to own slaves.
  • However McGovern understands and yet have to disagree partially with Lincoln’s choice to suspend the writ of habeas corpus.
Team of Rivals:
Lincoln as an adroit politician had been wise to pull is opponents into the White House, whereby skillful leadership he might find ways to work with them rather than be attacked by them by outside critics.

Constitution and the Civil War:

On preserving the Union and why the Southern states cannot choose to secede, Lincoln said:

It is safe to assert that no government proper, ever had a provision in its organic law for its own termination.” This is as confirmed by its own history: the Union was “ formed” by the 1774 Articles of Association; “matured “ by the 1776 Declaration of Independence; and “ furthered matured “ and endorsed by the 13 colonies in 1778. Finally , the founding fathers had “ ordained and enacted “ the Constitution with the words “ In order to form a more perfect Union”

The triads in Lincoln’s speech: “ In your hands, my dissatisfied countrymen , and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. The government will not assail you. You have no conflict,without being yourselves the aggressors. You have no oath registered in Heaven to destroy the government, while I shall have the most solemn one to "preserve, protect and defend" it.

Lincoln revered the Constitution and acknowledged that it protected slavery; this was nothing more than fidelity to the rule of law. The Declaration of Independence ( written before the Constitution) had declared that all men were created equal.

Lincoln patiently explained his position that founding fathers had meant for slavery to fade away. 21 out of the 39 signers of the Constitution had at some point supported congressional regulation of slavery in the territories.

At Gettysburg, Lincoln communicated: The “ last full measure of devotion” would bring about a “ new birth of freedom”
  • “ Save the Union, yes, by all means. But that Union must include liberty for all”


Lincoln stretched the limits of Presidential powers by the Emancipation Proclamation: He had no constitutional right to do so, but it was a war measure taken by the commander in chief, meant to weaken the enemy.

Lincoln never wavered in his devotion to save the Union,. Every action he took was calculated to achieve that end. He didn’t stretch the limits of presidential power because he was interested in power per se.

If he favored a liberal interpretation of the Constitution it was because he wanted to save the Constitution and the country from the chaos of secession. The sacred document so carefully crafted by the framers bestowed upon the excutive great powers, to be used judiciously , in times of great crisis. This, Lincoln understood better than anyone else.

Secretary of State, William Seward, insisted that when emancipation occur was just as important as how and why it should occur. It must be delayed till a Union victory lest the move was merely the " measure of an exhausted government." What made it an even more beautiful moment was that Seward was a bitter rival of Lincoln who despised Lincoln and yet one of his most bitter rivals was the one that gave him the best advice in the end. 

However, with the emancipation, Lincoln had not freed a single slave in the North (the areas he controlled) and had freed slaves in the South ( where he had no control whatsoever).

For most parts, criticisms were unfounded. Because Lincoln acted out of his war power authority, it applied only to states “ in armed rebellion” against the government or those that had seceded from the Union.

In war:

Lincoln was truly the commander in chief. He understood the strength and weakness of his generals and did not hesitate to replace anyone who didn’t function. He came to the firm conviction early in the war that the army must aggressively carry the war to the opposing army. If the enemy retreated, Lincoln insisted that Union General instead of resting, should pursue the enemy and destroy them.

Lincoln when informed of General Grant drinking habits said, "find out what is he drinking and order it for my other generals!"

Other achievements:

Homestead Act, Land Grant College Act, Creation of the Department of Agriculture, all enacted in the middle of the Civil war, formed a tripod on which much of America’s great agricultural success has rested till today.

Lincoln's personal ambition and personality:

Lincoln’s ultimate ambition was to “ link his name with something that would redound to the interest of his fellow man”. His friend Joshua Speed reminded him of that and Lincoln said, I believe that in this measure ( emanicipation) my fondest hope will be realised.”

Last words:

Historian Richard Striner has it right: “Lincoln was a rare man, a fervent idealist endowed with a remarkable gift for strategy.”

The Declaration of Independence: Jefferson authored the sentiment; Lincoln demanded that it be given true meaning. Recognizing the war was fought initially to preserve the Union, and later to free the slaves, he seamlessly combined the two causes into one.

Through the war, the union of states became a nation. Gone was the South’s concept of the Republic: a government of limited power that worked primarily to protect white property owners. In its place, came a strong centralized government that promoted industrial development, competition and free labour capitalism. Government will come to play a bigger role in the lives of Americans as evidenced by the Constitution. 11 of the first 12 amendments limited the powers of the national government; after 1865, 6 of the next 7 amendments expanded those powers, always with a lesser governing role for the states.

This is not a biography by one person but by many. By extracting the most powerful sentences from various books and historians, it proved to be a very readable book.

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