By Seth Grossman. Reprinted from Shore News Local.
In 1968, President Lyndon Johnson and Congress adopted the Uniform Monday Holiday Law and made Columbus Day a new national holiday. Washington’s Birthday is now part of ”Presidents Weekend” and no longer a national holiday on February 22. Abraham Lincoln’s birthday on February 12 is almost forgotten.
A recent study by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) found that only 9 percent of fourth graders correctly identified a photograph of Abraham Lincoln and state two reasons for his importance.
This is a tragedy. Every American child should know that Abraham Lincoln was important and why. Like George Washington, Abraham Lincoln is a classic example of how one individual can change the course of history.
Had there been no George Washington or Abraham Lincoln, there would be no United States. Without the United States, there would be no democracy strong enough to defeat the Nazis and Japanese in World War II, or contain Communist Russia or China during the Cold War.
Abraham Lincoln also has special importance for Americans today. He had a unique understanding and talent for applying conservative American traditions to bring about revolutionary change.
Abraham Lincoln was born in 1809 in Indiana, nearly ten years after George Washington died in Virginia. In his first known speech to a group of young people in 1838, 29 year old Abraham Lincoln recognized that his generation of Americans was lucky to be “in peaceful possession of the fairest portion of the earth” with “a system of political institutions” with more “civil and religious liberty” than any other nation in history. However, Lincoln feared Americans were in danger of losing everything because they were forgetting the principles of the people who created America.
At age 29, Abraham Lincoln was deeply committed to respect for the Constitution and laws of the United States. Lincoln also opposed slavery. Lincoln believed that the enslavement of blacks in the South was an evil that violated natural law, and that would destroy America if it continued.
This was a problem for Lincoln. Slavery was permitted by the U.S. Constitution and the laws and state constitutions of the southern states.
Lincoln’s genius was ending the evil of slavery in America, while respecting and complying with our Constitution and laws which at one time permitted it.
Abraham Lincoln knew that America was created by our Declaration of Independence. That document clearly opposed slavery. It held these truths to be self-evident: “All men are all created equal, and endowed by their Creator with certain ‘unalienable’ rights”.
Before his game-changing “Cooper Union Speech”, Abraham Lincoln carefully examined letters and documents written by the Founding Fathers who signed our Declaration of Independence and framed our Constitution.
Lincoln proved that the overwhelming majority of the delegates who framed our Constitution in 1787 opposed slavery, and wrote the Constitution with its “ultimate extinction” in mind.
For example, most them specifically voted for federal laws that banned slavery in the Northwest Territories in 1787. The Constitution limited the voting power of slave owning states, allowed the Constitution to be amended to end slavery, and permitted Congress to end ended the ending the importation of new slaves after 20 years (which it did). Ironically, New Jersey’s Richard Stockton, the grandson of the Richard Stockton that Stockton University is named after, was the first American navy captain to capture illegal slave ships and free slaves under that law.
It seemed likely that slavery was on the verge of gradually and peacefully ending in America when George Washington was President. Washington, like many of the Founding Fathers from the South who owned slaves, not only freed his slaves on or before his death, but made sure they were economically independent. Tragically, all that changed after cotton was brought to America and Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin in 1793. This made cotton and slavery as obscenely profitable then, as drug dealing is today, and made slavery far to profitable to stop without violence and bloodshed.
Lincoln knew that opponents of slavery could not legally and constitutionally end slavery in the South. Lincoln did respected the Constitution and the law and not support violence, revolutions or slave rebellions to free slaves in the southern states. Abraham Lincoln opposed white abolitionist John Brown for doing that.
However, Lincoln did oppose the expansion of slavery into new federal territories like Kansas and Nebraska. He opposed the Dred Scott decision of the Supreme Court which allowed southerners to bring their slaves with them in and out of any non-slave state or territory they wanted. Lincoln also helped form the Republican Party in 1854 to stop the spread of slavery.
Southern leaders agreed with Lincoln that slavery would die out if it did not expand. Cotton robbed the soil of nutrients, and new fields had to be cleared to continue production. Populations in free states were growing much faster than in slave states, and outvoting slave owners in elections for President and Congress.
This became obvious when Lincoln was elected President and his new Republican Party took control of both houses of Congress in 1860. Before the Lincoln and the Republicans even took office, the legislatures of most of the fifteen slave states immediately adopted state laws declaring that their states were no longer part of the United States.
At this point, neither Abraham Lincoln nor the Republican majority in Congress had any power under the Constitution to free any slaves in the 15 states where state laws recognized black slaves as being the property of their owners.
However, on April 12, 1861, the South Carolina militia opened fire on federal soldiers on Fort Sumpter outside of Charleston. That began the Civil War. The war to end that armed rebellion against the U.S. government gave Union soldiers and President Lincoln, their commander-in-chief, the Constitutional right to free slaves.
Under established military law, soldiers can seize “contraband of war” –property used by enemy soldiers to wage war. Since the Confederate Army used black slaves to bring them food, ammunition, and equipment, President Abraham Lincoln for the first time had the power under military law to “seize” those slaves as “contraband of war” and then free them.
After this was done, Lincoln and the Republicans began the much slower process of amending the United States Constitution to end slavery (13th Amendment of 1865), guarantee equal civil rights for freed slaves (14th Amendment of 1868) and specifically guarantee equal voting rights for former slaves (15th Amendment of 1870). Those three Constitutional Amendments protecting the rights of blacks were overwhelming supported by voters and elected officials who were almost all white men. Most of those white men served in an army that had just fought a four year war to end slavery. Roughly 350,000 mostly white men in that army fighting to end slavery died in that war. How much of this is being taught in our schools and colleges today?