Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Lincoln Legacy

Now David? Is this really something in the news? Well, it depends on what you mean by "news" I guess. (Thanks Mr. Clinton!) There are lots of subcultures operating beneath general attention that are still very interesting. One of them is the Lincoln legacy debate.

They're quite different from anything available on news channel programming. No shouting or personal attacks; just people passionate about a cause, and devoted to furthering their position. And Lincoln's birthday this week produced the expected flare-up, so I guess it's in the news...

History is about revision, else we historians wouldn't have much to do. Eisenhower: Mostly played golf and took naps for eight years. Then somebody comes along saying no, IKE was really cool. It's about like repainting the Mona Lisa once per generation, in efforts to show what she actually looked like. And it's worse than that really. Battles rage about "brushstrokes" if ya know what I mean. There've been historians who spent careers arguing that some previous, prominent historian did sloppy scholarship. It's fun to observe people who have such concentration on one topic, especially for me with my restless curiosities.

Nowhere is it more evident than Abraham Lincoln. Other than Jesus Christ, there is no more controversial person in American culture than good ol' Abe. Not convinced? Well look here? Debate still rages over the proper name for the war Lincoln prosecuted against the South. It really wasn't a Civil War; England's War of the Roses was a legit civil war, contest between factions over governing power. What happened 1861-1865 is more correctly characterized a rebellion, insurrection or revolution. And it's Abe's conduct during the big war that attaches controversy to him.

He suspended Habeus Corpus, a cherished right tracing its roots back to the 1215 Magna Carta. At one point he had the Governor of Maryland under house arrest. It goes deeper than that though. Some really educated folk maintain Lincoln had no right to war against the Confederacy. They're wrong there.
Others anchor around the South's Constitutional right to secede, and they're correct actually. Nothing in the US Constitution bound any member state to perpetual membership. Had it contained such language, never would've been ratified.

My take is more complex. Had the South remained calm around secession, taken it before the Supreme Court, they'd have won the case. The North would've been forced to spit on the Constitution. Of course the South was a sovereign nation, from the day they seceded. That means at Ft. Sumpter they fired on the soldiers of another sovereign nation and started a war.

By rules of war understood since ancient times, two nations clashed. One was eventually subdued, and its territories were appropriated by the victor. That's a dispassionate view of the conflict and outcome of what's known as the Civil War.

Think I'd ever advance that in the hornet's nest of Lincoln scholarship? Well, I'll jump out of an airplane, but some things, even I ain't crazy enough to do. Most of these folk actually know what color dress Mary Lincoln was wearing at Ford's theatre.

Here's what they're really arguing about. After the War Between Brothers, our country changed in fundamental ways, so was the change good or bad? Well... There's one constant in our nation's history. Each time an existential threat has been perceived, the Federal government has drawn to itself rights that belong to the citizens. Every time the threat recedes, the people never get back all their rights. So any time Americans enter full war, it should be with realization one outcome will be a lasting change in the internal balance of power.

Hey, hey! Wanna hear a funny on Abe? Of course you do! When Lincoln memorial was first opened, well see? They have this really shiny floor around the statue, lighting came down from above and bounced off the floor, hitting the great man's marble visage. So it really looked like our 16th President had a shocked expression, as if he was surprised you came to visit him. They alternated the lighting and now he looks all soberly ruminating. I hate I missed marble Abe's "A surprise birthday party for me?" look though.

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