I spent a few glorious days by the fire last month reading the speeches and letters of Abraham Lincoln. We’re about to enter a period of non-stop Civil War anniversaries, beginning this Saturday with the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s election in 1860. The Post will mark the event with a special section this Sunday, for which I wrote an essay on the meaning of Lincoln’s election and its lasting effects on the country. It tries to connect Lincoln’s sense of the two, competing economies of North and South with a larger idea of national purpose, and history.The way Americans worked, Lincoln seemed to argue, would determine the larger future of the nation:
In an 1859 speech, Lincoln described what he called “thorough work,” which meant not just productive farming, but mental and intellectual engagement with labor. He praised the effects of “thorough cultivation upon the farmer’s own mind,” and by extension, he argued that by “the best cultivation of the physical world, beneath and around us; and the intellectual and moral world within us, we shall secure an individual, social, and political prosperity and happiness, whose course shall be onward and upward.”
The economy of the South, however, wouldn’t take the nation onward, or upward, though it would very likely force us to move outward, as the South looked for new slave territory south of the border and in Cuba. That wasn’t a viable future for America.
The more I read Lincoln the more I sensed his frustration, arguing into the void with political opponents who could offer the larger nation nothing but more of the same, which was dragging everyone down. Have we changed? Here’s how the essay concludes:
If one reads the annals closely, however, it becomes clear that the Civil War legitimized something essential, and dark, that remains with us. Ultimately, the South was fighting for the right to be wrong, for the right to retain (and expand) something ugly and indefensible. It lost the war, and slavery was abolished. But the right to be wrong, the right to resist the progress of freedom, the right to say “no, thank you” to modernity, to leave the fences in disrepair and retreat into a world of private conviction, remains as much a part of the American character as the blood spilled to preserve the Union. Nothing great has been accomplished in America since the Civil War — not footsteps on the moon, or women’s suffrage, or the right (if not the reality) of equal, unsegregated education — without people also passionately fighting for that dark right, too.