Archive for Monday, February 12, 2001

Nine score and 12 years ago today

President’s passion for saving union consecrated in historian’s work

February 12, 2001


Abraham Lincoln forever will be known as the president who freed the slaves. And rightly so.

But a prize-winning history professor at Kansas University says Lincoln's fight to save the Union deserves equal billing.

Kansas University History professor Phillip Paludan says Abraham
Lincoln deserves credit for his fight to save the union as well as
his abolition of slavery. Paludan has written four books about
Lincoln and the Civil War.

Kansas University History professor Phillip Paludan says Abraham Lincoln deserves credit for his fight to save the union as well as his abolition of slavery. Paludan has written four books about Lincoln and the Civil War.

"He freed the slaves to save the Union," said Phillip Paludan, who has written four books on Lincoln and the Civil War. "He cared about one because he cared about the other."

Paludan's latest book, "The Presidency of Abraham Lincoln," won the prestigious Lincoln Prize in 1995. The prize is awarded annually to the best published work on the Civil War era.

Today is Lincoln Day, a mostly forgotten holiday commemorating the 16th president's birth on Feb. 12, 1809. Combined with Washington's Birthday, it has become Presidents' Day, observed this year on Feb. 19.

Lincoln hated slavery, Paludan said. But he also thought slavery wouldn't survive if it couldn't expand outside of the South.

If the South hadn't seceded, Paludan said, Lincoln would have been content watching slavery die a slow, confined death. Or, as Lincoln made clear in an Aug. 22, 1862, letter to New York newspaper editor Horace Greeley: "My paramount object in this struggle is to save the union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery."

But the South did secede, and Lincoln's only hope for saving the Union, Paludan said, was to fight the bloodiest war in the nation's history.

Before the Vietnam War, more Americans had died in the Civil War 620,000 than in all other U.S. wars combined, he said.

Even worse, he said, "More people died on a single day Sept. 17,1862, the Battle of Antietam than were lost in the entire Revolutionary War, the War of 1812 and the Mexican War."

Today, slavery is beyond the imagination of most Americans. But in the decades leading up to the Civil War, Paludan said, Southerners were "absolutely terrified" by the prospects of its end.

This terror, he said, sparked passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which stated that territorial residents could vote on whether their respective states would be open to slavery.

Kansas Lawrence in particular was soon caught between pro-slavery raiders from Missouri intent on stuffing the state's ballot boxes and John Brown's bloody campaign to make sure they didn't.

Because of this conflict and the furor caused by Brown's eventual execution, some area historians have argued that the Civil War's first shots were fired in Kansas.

Paludan politely disagrees.

"Kansas was a predictor, a thunderstorm on the horizon," he said. "Civil War was coming, even if none of the events in Kansas had happened. And I don't think the argument can be made that the South seceded because of what happened here, and I don't think the North was willing to fight secession because what happened here. I think what happened in Kansas exacerbated some feelings that were already pretty darn intense."

Coincidentally, Lincoln was in Kansas campaigning for the presidency on Dec. 2, 1859, the day Brown was hanged.

"He was not a fan of John Brown," Paludan said. "And at this time, he firmly believed the slavery issue could be resolved by working within political processes defined by the Constitution."

The Civil War began April 12, 1861 more than 17 months after Brown's execution when Confederate forces attacked Fort Sumter at Charleston, S.C.

Unlike modern presidents, who are shielded from direct public contact by protective staff, Lincoln availed himself to citizens whose families had been torn apart by the war. And he read their heart-stricken letters, often responding with hand-written expressions of sympathy and explanation.

"The whole time he was president, he only had three secretaries," Paludan said.

During his presidency, Lincoln spent less than a month away from Washington, D.C.

Paludan, 63, is working on his fifth book, a textbook on U.S. history. It is needed, he said, because "textbooks tend to reflect scholarship, but scholarship is always changing.

"Most Civil War history has been taught with an emphasis on the North being right about slavery, and the South being right about Reconstruction. You're told that after the war, blacks were manipulated by carpetbaggers and that there was chaos until blacks realized they were incapable and let their former masters take control.

"That's not what happened. It wasn't that the blacks weren't capable there's plenty of evidence that they were. It was that whites responded with violence. Blacks were shot, their homes and businesses were burned. They were scared to death."

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