Freedom, Union, and Power: Lincoln and His Party during the Civil War

By Michael S. Green | Go to book overview

2
Free Labor, Freed
Labor, and Free Capital

IN THE WINTER of 1861, Abraham Lincoln sent his first annual message to Congress. Between a lack of military success and what he called "unprecedented political troubles, " he seemed to have little good news to report. Nor did the prose soar with the turns of phrase that glittered in many of Lincoln's later pronouncements as president. He recited a litany of government actions that would serve as a precursor to one of the most activist administrations, executive and legislative alike, in the nation's history. He defended the choice of George McClellan as general-in-chief and sought to assuage concerns about how the "Little Napoleon" displaced the legendary Winfield Scott, part of broader Republican concerns about whether the military could be trusted to accept civilian authority. These subjects were intimately related to the party's ideology but, in this case, seemed to matter far less to Lincoln than trying to provide some meaning for or understanding of the war, in addition to the quest for the preservation of the Union itself. Then he launched into an analysis of free labor that opened a window into the Republican mind. These words revealed him for what he was: the lynchpin or centerpiece of his party's thought. They also demonstrated the beginnings of the evolution of the party's ideology and the circumstances that helped to create it.1

Lincoln's commentary began with an attack on those who were, in his and his party's mind, at war and at odds with their free labor ideology. He accused the South and its sympathizers of waging "a war upon the first principle of popular government—the rights of the people, " a view that he later expressed with more majesty at Gettysburg. Charging rebel leaders with limiting the consent of the governed in order to free themselves to pursue their own ends, he indulged in what might be called a leaden, halfhearted attempt at demagoguery: "Monarchy itself is sometimes hinted at as a possible refuge from the power of the people." These

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