Honor’s Voice


I have tardily become interested in the American Civil War. I always found American history courses boring when I was in what is now called middle school. Like I wasn’t connected to it, or something. Later on I started paying more attention to politics, and began to realize that current politics is still very connected to what happened then.
I read a two volume history of the politics leading up to the Civil War, which was pretty complicated, but interesting too. One thing I took away from that was that the two parts of the country fought without either really knowing why. Each accused the other of aggression, everyone knew it had something to do with slavery, but it was still such a gigantic event that it could be interpreted in many ways. Some thought Abraham Lincoln a tyrant then, and some still do. One interpretation I’ve read of why Lincoln started the war, rather than let the South break away, is that he believed in the Union, and thought no state should be allowed to break away from it. Perhaps a mystical sort of idea, and it caused a lot of blood to be spilled, but the tensions had been building up since the American Revolution, if not longer. War would have happened anyway, I think. The obvious causes of war are often not the real ones.
Recently I read a biography of Robert E. Lee, who I think had some qualities in common with Lincoln. He too never descended into hatred and bitterness, and did his duty as he saw it. He got some enjoyment out of it too, being able to reach his potential as a soldier, but he wasn’t joyful all the time.
So one of my questions was, how did Abraham lincoln come to be so important that his election as President became the tipping point that began the war? Was the reason for his behavior as simple as belief in the Union? Did other factors enter in? In the North at least, Lincoln is seen as a sort of secular saint. Was this true?
Douglas L. Wilson, in Honor’s Voice, telling of Lincoln’s life from 1831, when he was 22, to 1842, depicts him as a person with some good qualities, but hardly a saint. He had been born in Kentucky, moved with his parents to Indiana when young, where his mother had died when he was just a boy, then left his father to move to Illinois. He was ambitious, and his father wasn’t very sympathetic, so he left his father behind.
His ambition wasn’t clearly defined at that time. He wanted to achieve distinction, but doesn’t seem to have been sure how to do so. He probably entered politics relatively young because that seemed to be a way to achieve something.
He found he had some talent for that line of work. He was a good speaker, able to sway people, and began learning how to organize politically and pass legislation. He did some pretty questionable things, though. One of these was writing anonymous articles about politicians, and one of these led him almost into a duel.
He had written about a politician who was an Irish immigrant, and was trying to rise in the world, as Lincoln also was. He couldn’t allow Lincoln or anyone else to say nasty things about him, because it would detract from his honor. Lincoln apologized, saying he hadn’t intended to make personal attacks, and his friends with the Irish politicians friends decided that was good enough to prevent the duel. It may seem that this was Lincoln’s way of getting out of the situation, but he seems to have recognized that he and the politician were much alike, and that his behavior had been unjust. This made him consider what behavior he thought honorable, and whether he wished to be honorable himself. He decided he did.
One of Lincoln’s deep qualities was compassion. He tried to help both animals and people, and didn’t want to cause pain to anyone, though that was impossible to completely avoid.
So when he became interested in Mary Todd, leading her to believe that they were engaged, though he may not have felt that way, and then backing out of the relationship because he had met someone he found more attractive, he became conscience-stricken because he had deeply hurt Mary Todd. He told his best friend that he had lost the best aspect of his personality, and couldn’t trust himself to do anything important until he had regained it. He regained it by marrying Mary Todd, realizing that in some respects they didn’t really suit each other, but feeling that this was something he had to do. In so doing he became a stronger man for having refused to fall into hatred and resentment, and having resolved to suffer in order to avoid another person suffering because of his actions.
Mary Todd wasn’t the easiest person to live with. Her family had been wealthy, so she’d probably been somewhat spoiled. She also had a temper, and could say cutting things. When she was feeling upset she also liked to spend money, in which she and Lincoln were very different. He was willing for his distinction to include wealth, especially to support his family, but he seems not to have been much concerned about it otherwise. He never made much money before he married, though he had studied law and practiced it a little. He had been too busy with political activities, but once he married money-making became more important.
I know little about his life between 1842 and the beginning of the Civil War, and not a great deal more about his life during the war. I do intend to find out more, though. Great men tend to be somewhat inscrutable: what they do can lend itself to a variety of interpretations. For that reason there have been a tremendous number of biographies of Lincoln, as also about Adolph Hitler. Their actions on the world stage were so large as to fascinate, and often to defy understanding.
In the last chapter of the book Wilson asks how the more mature Lincoln, after his marriage, differed from the younger man. Some of the differences he saw were that Lincoln became more grave and self-absorbed. He continued to enjoy joking and telling stories, but didn’t seem as carefree–understandably enough, since he’d become a husband and father and had more responsibility than before.
Wilson says that he also had greater resolve than before. He had regained his moral compass, and knew that he could make a decision and stick to it. Not that his decisions were easy, but Wilson quotes his wife Mary as saying that when he got a certain expression on his face there was no use arguing further with him. His resolution was one of his essential qualities as President during the Civil War, when he was subject to tremendous pressure from all sides. He was able to steer a course without capitulating to any pressures.
Perhaps the most important thing his marriage had brought him was suffering. He had decided to suffer through a marriage that didn’t entirely suit him, which I suspect enhanced the compassion he already possessed. And that helped prevent him from descending into bitterness and hatred, as so many others in the country did during and after the war.
We’ll never know how he would have handled Reconstruction during his second term. One author thinks he would have done much of what was done anyway, that he intended to be severe enough to prevent the power structure in the South from retaining power after the war. Much the same people did retain power, and the attitudes of the South changed little for over a century.
But had Lincoln been leading the country, dare we think that things might have turned out better? Had he demonstrated his lack of malice and his charity, might not both North and South have noticed, and at least some tried to follow his example? Unfortunately, that’s something we’ll never know.


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