Too often we take good things for granted, Abraham Lincoln noted in October 1863, “bounties so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come.” He suggested the last Thursday of November be set aside as a day of Thanksgiving.
Lincoln did not doubt for one moment the reasons for the turning, during the past summer, in the fortunes of the Union side. God was on the side of the constitutional republic which, while necessarily far from perfect, offered the best chance to spread and sustain the regime of liberty established less than a century earlier. The president pointed out, however, that this was a God at once wrathful and benevolent, capable of “dealing with us in anger for our sins” while “remembering mercy.”
He said man is free to make his own bed. Faith alone and all that might be fine for Sunday sermons, but Lincoln thought more like John Winthrop than Cotton Mather. God is on the side of the big battalions, and that means men must raise and use them effectively. McClellan, Hooker, Pope, Meade had learned that their commander in chief understood that war must be left to the warriors, but responsibility for assessing their warrior virtues must fall upon the president.
Among these virtues the sense of initiative is crucial, and Lincoln, dismayed by the reluctance of the successive commanders of the army of the Potomac to pursue the rebels, judged that in Ulysses S. Grant he at last had found the terrible swift sword needed to finish the war in 1864. Already, as he said in the Thanksgiving proclamation, “the [war] theater has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union.” He was thinking of Vicksburg, where Grant’s victory meant the Confederate forces would henceforth be fighting defensive battles on shrinking space.
As commander in chief Lincoln was completely firm and utterly humble. He showed this in his reactions to the nearly simultaneous victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg. There had to be consequences — including demotions — for the failure to follow up the great battle on the northern front; but he personally apologized to Grant for expressing doubts about his tactics in the strategically crucial west.
On personal responsibility Lincoln was severe. Thanks should be offered for blessings, coupled with “humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience.” Sooner or later, bills come due, and the “lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged” was the price for a half century’s reluctance to deal with the issue of slavery.
This goes to the core of Lincoln’s political thinking. The United States offers the last, best hope for a regime founded in liberty, but men and their political devices remain fragile and fallible. Addressing soldiers nearly a year later, he admonishes them to understand they are fighting for a system that offers the same opportunities to all, even the humblest. This depends, however, on seeing things realistically. “In no administration can there be perfect equality of action and uniform satisfaction rendered by all. But this government must be preserved in spite of the acts of any man or set of men.”
The strong, high sentiments and deep perceptions, tempered by a gritty realism about the shortcomings of human endeavor, render Lincoln perennially — if you will forgive the word — contemporary. In many respects, of course, Lincoln is anything but contemporary: can this man who had to borrow money to get to Washington before his first inauguration and accepted suits offered by an admiring tailor because he was too impecunious to buy his own bear any resemblance to the vain, imperial, double-standard types who now govern — should I say rule? — us, and not only in the White House?
No, fortunately: for so long as we remember how Lincoln is contemporary, we stand a chance, a pretty good one, too, of keeping our Republic.