The Wepner Blog

The blog of the Wepner Program on the Lincoln Legacy at the University of Illinois Springfield. Home to news, links, and commentary related to the legacy of the 16th President of the United States. This blog is maintained by Gene Giannotta, Assistant to the Wepner Professor. Learn more at!

Last week, the New York Times’ Disunion blog touched on the 150th anniversary of the Lawrence Massacre. While many think of battlefields like Gettysburg and Antietam when they think of the Civil War, it played out differently in Missouri and Kansas. 

Both states saw extreme levels of violence among their populations. Missouri faced its own civil war, as it was split between Union loyalists and Confederate sympathizers, but remained under federal control for the duration of the conflict.

Two years ago, the Wepner Symposium featured a couple talks on these states and how they were affected by the Civil War and Lincoln’s actions as president. Doug Nehring touched on how Lincoln handled the secession crisis in Missouri, while Richard Lawrence Miller looked at the use of mercenaries in Kansas. (Unfortunately, we only have a digital copy of Nehring’s paper in our archives.)

For more on the Lawrence Massacre, here is an article from a 1968 issue of the Kansas Historical Quarterly.

Army Pfc. Bradley Manning was sentenced last week to 35 years for leaking a substantial number of classified documents to Wikileaks, which then proceeded to publish those documents on the Internet.

The case gained quite a bit of attention, part of which was due to the interesting fact that it was the first time since the Civil War that the government leveled the “aiding the enemy” charge. Basically, the prosecution asserted that Manning, through his illegal distribution of secret documents that covered everything from diplomatic cables to details of controversial military operations, had provided aid and comfort to the enemy (i.e., terrorist groups).

Back in January, the Washington Post reported on the connection between the Manning trial and the Civil War, saying:

It was in Union-occupied Alexandria in 1863 that Pvt. Henry Vanderwater, a member of the 1st District of Columbia Volunteers stationed there to defend Washington, got himself in trouble. He gave a military roster to a local newspaper, which promptly printed it. For the offense of aiding the enemy — the roster would indicate how well or poorly the town was protected — he faced a court-martial, was found guilty and received a sentence of three months hard labor and a dishonorable discharge.

The prosecution argued that the Vanderwater case was a valid precedent, showing that publication of secret information can “indirectly convey information to the enemy,” and thus aid its cause.

Many critics claimed this was a strained, antiquated comparison, but it’s interesting to see how a case from the 1860s can still have relevance today.  The medium might change, but whether newspapers then or the Internet today, we find ourselves confronted with similar problems of information getting into the wrong hands.

Barack Obama has made no secret of his admiration for Abraham Lincoln, and it’s certainly true that the sixteenth president has served as a model for many of his successors. But which of his predecessors did Lincoln look to as guides during his turbulent tenure in the White House?

Constitutional law scholar Michael Gerhardt has some answers.

The sixteenth President has been in the news lately. Here are a few recent articles from around the Web:

"A Mother’s Letter to Lincoln"

Princeton professor Tera Hunter wrote at the New York Times’ Disunion blog about a letter written by an African American mother 150 years ago, expressing concern about her son to President Lincoln. She was worried that even though her son had given so much to be a soldier in the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, he would not get the respect and recognition he deserved after the war.

"Abraham Lincoln and the Birth of Stand Your Ground"

At the New Yorker, Adam Gopnik writes on how cultural norms in the early days of the Republic and Lincoln’s sentiments expressed in the Lyceum Address relate to the Stand Your Ground laws that have been in the news recently.

"Lincoln Memorial shut down after vandals splash paint on it"

You might have heard that, for the first time since it was dedicated in 1922, the Lincoln Memorial was vandalized a few weeks ago. A woman was arrested last week in connection with a series of green paint vandalism, after she allegedly splattered the stuff at the National Cathedral too.

Yale political scientist Stephen B. Smith recently discussed the concept of “Lincoln as leader.” Abraham Lincoln has been cited as one of the greatest American presidents quite a few times. Smith specifically points to one recent example, that of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s 2005 book Team of Rivals and her subsequent distillation of leadership lessons.

Goodwin’s book was part of the inspiration for last year’s Oscar-nominated film, “Lincoln,” so her interpretation is both relevant and timely. The film showed a Lincoln that maneuvered the structure of republican government to attain his ends - in that particular case, the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment in the House of Representatives. Lincoln was bound by constitutional requirements but also forced to push the boundaries to whatever extent he could to get the job done. 

Smith takes aim not at this view of Lincoln, but rather Goodwin’s simplistic, self-help-styled list of leadership lessons. It isn’t necessarily the case, he argues, that the sixteenth president serves as a sound basis for modern business leadership. Why? Because Lincoln’s leadership was borne of a need to function within a specific form of institution - a constitutional government.

It was paramount, in his mind, to maintain legitimacy derived from the framework defined by the Constitution. Despite pressure to do away with elections (surely inefficient and dangerous given the civil war?) and to push harder for radical changes through the use of executive power, Lincoln saw it as critically important to uphold the United States as a country based on consent. As opposed to Stephen Douglas’ conception of “popular sovereignty,” in which voters in a local area could decide for themselves all manner of policies (in this case, that of slavery’s very existence), Lincoln’s belief was that the American people had bound themselves together through the Constitution. 

So failing to respect that document while attempting to perpetuate the government it defined was not an option. That course would lead to the destruction of the Union one way or another. If states could not secede because of that constitutional bond, then neither could the legally-elected, constitutionally legitimate government undo that legitimacy through its actions.

This argument is not novel. But Smith is right to point out that the circumstances Lincoln faced were quite different from those faced by contemporary businessmen (or even contemporary politicians). Still, Lincoln’s example shows that one critical task for any leader, in any case, is the strengthening of the institution he is charged with leading. Fitting his actions within the context of the American Constitution and over seventy years of precedent ensured that the United States government would not die by suicide - and indeed would have a renewed foundation from which to endure for another century and a half.

The topic of Lincoln’s leadership is one that the Wepner Symposium has dealt with quite often over the course of the past three years. We’ve posted a few in our ongoing Wepner Papers Series here on the blog. But if you’re interested in reading more about the topic, here’s a handy list of links to all of them:

Also check out this op-ed from the New York Times on “Lincoln’s School of Management” for another perspective on how the sixteenth president can serve as an example for modern leaders.

The next paper in our series from the archives is from 2011’s symposium on the theme “The Civil War: Conduct, Causes, and Consequences.” Stewart Winger of Illinois State University delivered a talk on the topic of Lincoln’s leadership, comparing the differing interpretations of Allen Guelzo and Eric Foner. 

Winger’s paper explored the two: Guelzo’s LIncoln as pragmatic leader who used his skills in the political arena to steer the country toward emancipation, and Foner’s Lincoln whose racial views evolved over time as the weight of war and abolitionist pressure pushed him toward emancipation and the beginnings of a conception of racial equality. 

But Winger sees the two views as more similar than Guelzo and Foner might like to admit. Instead, he offers a vision of Lincoln’s leadership as an example of the Christian concept of kenosis. Rather than a Randian leader of full, self-assured ego, Lincoln was willing to sacrifice his own ego for the sake of what he felt needed to be done. He opened himself to others and their opinions. He may have been a “closet racial egalitarian,” as Winger argues, but knowing the political realities he faced, he was willing to embrace a more pragmatic, and less radical, course of action. And so, his leadership took on a tragic cast at odds with the sometimes harshly critical or overly praiseworthy.

Read Winger’s paper in full here.

At our 2011 Symposium, Thomas Schneider addressed the issue of Lincoln’s support for colonization as a solution to the problems posed by emancipation. The young Republican Party had arisen from northern distaste with slavery and its entrenched position in American politics, so it was no surprise that the idea of abolition was on the minds of many even if Lincoln repeatedly asserted his view that he could not and would not interfere with slavery where it already existed.

As the Civil War dragged on and emancipation became more and more inevitable as a strategic decision, Lincoln began to think about the practical considerations. If slaves were freed, what would happen to them? Where would they go? How would they integrate in the rest of (white) American society? Or could they?

Lincoln was a proponent of colonization - the idea that freedmen would be sent to live amongst themselves rather than with whites beset by deeply-held prejudices. Schneider looks at this fact through Lincoln’s moral reasoning as well as the very stark political realities that the president faced, and which made any moral desire for integration and full equality hard to swallow as a matter of policy.

He also touches on the views of two key African American leaders of the time - Frederick Douglass and Martin Delany. The former was a strong opponent of colonization, while the latter advocated for it prior to the war. It’s an interesting dynamic to read about it in the context of the larger emancipation debate going on with Lincoln and the political situation he faced with whites during the Civil War.

The movie "Lincoln" highlighted the legislative politicking that occurred during President Lincoln’s attempt to get the Thirteenth Amendment through the House of Representatives in early 1865. But of course that wasn’t the only political battle waged over civil rights in the 1860s.

A few years later, against the backdrop of Reconstruction, Congress took up the Fourteenth Amendment, which included the clause defining citizenship:

All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.

This was a reaction to the controversial Supreme Court decision a decade earlier that had asserted black citizenship was unconstitutional. Political scientist Richard Valelly of Swarthmore College addressed the politics of the Fourteenth Amendment’s Citizenship Clause in his 2010 Wepner Symposium paper, "Deflecting the Ex-Post Veto Player: The Strategy of the 14the Amendment Dred Scott Override.” Touching on the “why” of the clause, he says

Dred Scott v. Sandford [60 U.S. (19 How) 394] (1857) has long been seen as the Citizenship Clause’s target. The Citizenship Clause is, in other words, a congressional override of a Court decision, undertaken via the Article V amendment process and orchestrated by the Republican party at a moment of political dominance.

But Valelly goes further in his explanation of the override, arguing that the clause was the product of a strategic view to the possibility that the Supreme Court might still defer to Dred Scott, saying that

the Citizenship Clause resulted more than we have known from the discovery of a startling possibility by Senate Republicans – that they had to worry about the Supreme Court and whether the Supreme Court would, at some future point, undermine the citizenship gains of the Civil War by declaring Dred Scott a relevant precedent that bore on African-American citizenship after the War.

Valelly points to the role of Senator Reverdy Johnson and his pro-Dred Scott legal arguments during the debate over the amendment as a key force in alerting the Republican majority to that possibility. The paper digs deeper into the details of the legislative battle - a key example of how individual members of Congress can change the course of policy.

Oftentimes, public perceptions of a president can be widely divergent. Partisan supporters, unsurprisingly, often have a much better view of their man than those identifying with the opposing party. Here's a good example from a recent Pew poll of how this works with President Barack Obama - 95% of Democrats rate him as “trustworthy” as opposed to just 32% of Republicans.

Of course, sometimes detractors and supporters alike can be surprised by a president. Quite a few liberal Democrats were unhappy with the pace of progress in Obama’s first term, while many conservative Republicans soured on George W. Bush when his administration failed to put the brakes on “big government.”

Abraham Lincoln was no different. After seeing him firsthand at the Peace Convention of 1861, Virginia delegate William Rives challenged the southern assumption that the president-elect was a pushover, nothing more than an unintelligent western bumpkin:

He has been both misjudged and misunderstood by the Southern people. They have looked upon him as an ignorant, self-willed man, incapable of independent judgment, full of prejudices, willing to be used as a tool by more able men. This is all wrong. He will be on the head of his administration, and he will do his own thinking.

The Republican victory had been feared and hailed by radicals both north and south. But while his competence impressed his opponents, he also disappointed some supporters by taking a more moderate line than they had anticipated.

In Team of Rivals, Doris Kearns Goodwin describes the disappointment brought on by the perception of “an appeasing tone” on the part of the new president. Frederick Douglass had originally seen Lincoln’s election as a sign of “a rupture in the power of the slaveocracy.”

"It has taught the North its strength, and shown the South its weakness. More important still, it has demonstrated the possibility of electing, if not an Abolitionist, at least an anti-slavery reputation to the Presidency.” But when Douglass read the inaugural, beginning with Lincoln’s declaration that he had “no lawful power to interfere with slavery in the States,” and worse still, no “inclination" to do so, he found little reason for optimism.

Lincoln had paid careful attention to avoid doing anything that would provoke the looming civil war. His inaugural, like the rest of his actions as president-elect, was crafted to walk the precarious tightrope that he found himself on, caught between southerners agitating for secession and northerners demanding abolition. He couldn’t possibly make everyone happy - but his goal was rather to avoid disaster, if at all possible. 

While this could be seen as a wise bit of political pragmatism given the harsh realities of the time, Douglass didn’t see it that way:

The whole tone of the speech, Douglass claimed, revealed Lincoln’s compulsion to grovel “before the foul and withering curse of slavery. Some thought we had in Mr. Lincoln the nerve and decision of an Oliver Cromwell; but the result shows that we merely have a continuation of the Pierces and Buchanans.”

Douglass’ views, like Lincoln’s and others, would change over time. But then, as now, passions of the moment made contemporary opinions of the president more complex than just a function of pure partisanship. Depending on circumstances, presidents can sometimes gain or lose respect in unlikely places.

The 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s second Inaugural Address is not until March 4 - back then presidents were sworn in later - but given all the attention to Barack Obama’s inauguration on Monday, it’s a good time to reflect on what was said in 1865 and how its relevance today.

Lincoln’s re-election in 1864 was far from a sure thing. In fact, the president and others had strong doubts that he would serve more than one term. Not until General Sherman took Atlanta in September was Lincoln’s victory a more realistic outcome. After the election and with Sherman’s March to the Sea and the Confederacy’s collapse over the course of the winter, the end of the war finally seemed to be near by March 4, 1865.

So with Reconstruction on his mind, Lincoln decided to cast a more conciliatory tone for his second Inaugural. He did not take long to expound on specifics, instead using faith as a means by which to tie the two warring regions together. Lincoln’s eloquence is on full display as he delivers a speech remembered as one of the greatest in inaugural history.

He concluded with:

Fondly do we hope — fervently do we pray — that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether”

With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan — to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.

Most second inaugurals are rather unremarkable, but Ronald C. White, Jr. identifies Lincoln’s as “one important exception.” It was only 701 words and lacked policy specifics, but Lincoln masterfully wove the common bond of religion into his narrative introducing a second term full of challenges after a long and bloody civil war:

If his listeners expected a triumphalist address heralding a victorious North, they were instead asked to help initiate a new era of reconciliation — one marked “with malice toward none, with charity toward all.”