Wednesday, February 22, 2017

The Rude Republic: How They Saw Abraham Lincoln

Candidate Lincoln

Some regard the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue as the least qualified and most divisive president in United States history, but oddly enough the honor actually goes to the man considered by most historians as the greatest U.S. President, Abraham Lincoln.

Lincoln was a dark horse candidate to become the nominee of the Republican Party in 1860.  Although one of the highest paid lawyers in America, with a gift for connecting with the common man in his speeches, Lincoln had little formal education or political experience, having been largely self-educated and having served only two years in the U.S. House of Representatives.  Lincoln defeated an impressive line-up of opponents for the nomination which included four Senators and a Governor.  Lincoln won on the third ballot.  His principal opponent William H. Seward was aghast, but fell in behind the party’s nominee.

Lincoln won the presidency by convincingly winning the Electoral College vote.  However, Lincoln won less than forty percent (39.8%) of the popular vote, with the balance being spread amongst three other candidates.  In the original #NotMyPresident movement, seven southern states seceded from the United States between Election Day and Lincoln’s inauguration.  Shortly after his inauguration four more states seceded and the nation was plunged into four years of bloody civil war.  That was "resistance" with a capital R.

Although now universally beloved and acclaimed, throughout the Civil War Lincoln was derided as unqualified for office by prominent Northerners.  George Templeton Strong, a prominent New York lawyer wrote that Lincoln was “a barbarian, Scythian, yahoo, or gorilla.”  The abolitionist preacher Henry Ward Beecher blasted Lincoln’s lack of refinement.  Some Northern newspapers called for Lincoln’s immediate assassination.  General George B. McCllellan called Lincoln “an idiot,” and “the original gorilla.”  ElizabethCady Stanton, the famous abolitionist, called Lincoln “Dishonest Abe” and bemoaned the “incapacity and rottenness” of his administration.  Elizabeth Cady Stanton vowed that if Lincoln “is reelected (1864) I shall immediately leave the country for the Fijee Islands.” Lincoln was re-elected.  Stanton did not move to the Fiji Islands (the more things change, the more they stay the same).

Although we now regard Lincoln as the original “Great Communicator”, during his own lifetime editorial writers sometimes described Lincoln’s speeches as, “… involved, coarse, colloquial, devoid of ease and grace, and bristling with obscurities and outrages against the simplest rules of syntax.”

A Pennsylvania newspaper had this to say about Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, “We pass over the silly remarks of the President. For the credit of the nation we are willing that the veil of oblivion shall be dropped over them, and they shall be no more repeated or thought of.” A correspondent for the Times (London) wrote, “Anything more dull and commonplace it would not be easy to produce.”

This is what media savants had to say about Lincoln’s words now carved in marble at the Lincoln Memorial ("With malice toward none, with charity for all …"), contained in the second inaugural address, “a little speech of ‘glittering generalities’ used only to fill in the program.”(The New York Herald), and “We did not conceive it possible that even Mr. Lincoln could produce a paper so slip-shod, so loose-jointed, so puerile, not alone in literary construction, but in its ideas, its sentiments, its grasp.” (The Chicago Tribune).

Democracy is rowdy and has not become less so with the passage of time.

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