I was somewhat amused by Edward Harper's diatribe against Abraham Lincoln [letters, July 30], in which he roasts Lincoln as "cynical" and "an . . . obsessive." Some of the points Mr. Harper raises are certainly true. Sure, Lincoln was great with rhetoric, and sure, he probably did have a swelled head from time to time.
But I take issue with Mr. Harper's belittling of emancipation. To say the South was decimated "in the name of the nation state" and that reasonable men would have let the nation divide is unreasonably simplistic. Perhaps Mr. Harper would do well to gain a broader appreciation for the aftereffects of the war on all cultures in the South, not just those who suffered economically. Maybe with a little effort, he would gain a better appreciation for slavery as something more than just an "abstract ideology."
Edward Harper's letter exhibits a fundamental misapprehension of both U.S. and world history of the past 130 years.
Was it Lincoln who "was responsible for the deaths of some 600,000 men," or was it the separatist firebrands who seized government property and bombarded U.S. forts? Lincoln assiduously avoided calling for troops until after Fort Sumter. As late as his inaugural address in March of 1861, he assured the South: "In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. The government will not assail you. You can have no conflict without being yourself the aggressors." At the time of Fort Sumter, the northern army consisted of about 15,000 men -- and had just lost a third of its officers to secession.
But the question of responsibility for the war raises a larger question. Was it reasonable, as Mr. Harper puts it, for Lincoln to "beat [the South] into submission in the name of the nation state"? The answer to this is, unfortunately, yes. Mr. Harper's reference to Lincoln's early political positions on race is a straw man. Lincoln was an individual constrained by his times, as most of us are; his statements on race during the pre-war Lincoln-Douglas debates were antediluvian as well as antebellum.
Yet politically, as Lincoln again recognized in his First Inaugural, "the only substantial dispute" between the sections was over the expansion of slavery. Abolition was not a viable option in 1858 or even in 1861. This should not obscure Lincoln's personal belief, reflected in his famous Aug. 22, 1862, letter to Horace Greeley, that "all men everywhere should be free."
As an aside: Mr. Harper's incredible assessment of the South that "90 percent of its people wanted to go" ignores the fact that the 4 million southern slaves constituted a third of the "people" living in the Confederacy. Were these slaves not "people," or does Mr. Harper believe 70 percent of the slave population favored secession?
Finally, did Lincoln issue the Emancipation Proclamation, in part, to preempt European intervention? That was undoubtedly one reason, and an excellent reason it was. British and French intervention in the war -- and an independent Confederacy -- would have spelled disaster for the cause of freedom throughout the world in the 20th century.
Even with the help of a united United States, unconcerned with a 2,500-long land border with a hostile Confederate neighbor, the forces of democracy suffered near-defeat in two world wars. Where would democracy be today if the arsenal of democracy had been forced to devote its attention and resources in 1918 to the Potomac Front rather than the Western Front?
JOHN M. BREDEHOFT
Edward Harper would do well to remember several things:
First, Abraham Lincoln, like any other human being, was a man of his times. As such, he was subject to all the existing faults, habits and prejudices of the period. To evaluate him by today's standards is not sound philosophy. By today's standards, the rhetoric of the American Revolution can at times appear paranoid.
Second, American history has several instances in which doing what the majority of the populace wished was not what was best for the country. If we had divided into two separate nations in the 1860s, it is doubtful we would be enjoying the power and privilege we do today.
Third, the punitive measures of the postwar Reconstruction were instituted by the radical Republican congress after Lincoln's assassination. Lincoln prefered a more lenient absorption of the southern states after the war.
I do not worship Lincoln. I do, however, greatly respect what he was able to accomplish within the restrictions of his day.