Which sentence best explains Lincoln’s wartime decisions?
adapted from Lincoln the Great
by Wilfred W. McClay
We should remember too that, with events controlling him, Lincoln had to do things as president that he was not equipped to do, either by experience or temperament. He had not only opposed the aggression of the Mexican War but was something of an antimilitarist1 who abhorred1 violence. How then to account for the fact that he became such a remarkably effective war leader, indeed the quintessential2 war president—the only president in our history whose entire term of office was defined by the conditions of war, and the employer and enabler of such legendarily destructive warriors as Grant and Sherman? It is surely one of the many mysteries about this man.
He also excelled in understanding the larger political dimensions of the war, in riding the flow of events and changing Northern public opinion with a consummate3 sense of timing. He understood the importance of isolating and containing the South, keeping the border states out of the Confederacy and European mischief-makers out of the struggle. He gradually and deftly4 redefined the war as an unlimited, total struggle to overthrow the South’s political system, and pushed his military leaders toward a strategy of unconditional surrender that was appropriate to the war’s changing objectives. Such maneuvering helps us appreciate why Lincoln at first so actively suppressed the idea that the war was to be a war for emancipation, to the extent of countermanding5 John C. Frémont’s Missouri Emancipation Proclamation in 1861. It helps us appreciate the mixture of genuine moral idealism and shrewd military calculation that lay behind Lincoln’s decision to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, a document that is often unfairly disparaged6 on the grounds that it refrained from abolishing slavery and technically freed almost no one.
Which brings us to the question of Lincoln’s halfway measures, whose fuller context we need to remember. He rose to prominence as a politician who was antislavery but also anti-abolitionist. The strategy he preferred would have contained the spread of slavery, then gradually eliminated it—as opposed to overturning the institution in one grand liberatory7 gesture. Such a position perhaps seems incoherent now, and it failed in the end, since the South concluded that it could not trust President Lincoln, who received not a single electoral vote from the South, to protect its “peculiar institution.” But it was a position predicated on Lincoln’s belief that the maintenance of the Union was the key to all other political goods.
1 hated; detested
2 most typical
3 supremely accomplished or skilled
4 quickly; skillfully
5 cancelling; reversing
6 disrespected; criticized
7 to grant freedom