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Jefferson and Lincoln -- Editorial

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Jefferson and Lincoln -- Editorial

Angus MacDonald

Jefferson was one of the Founding Fathers of the United States, the principle author of the Declaration of Independence, passionate about individual liberty, father of the University of Virginia, an outstanding intellect with a wonderful pen.

Born April 13,1743, he inherited about 5,000 acres of land and dozens of slaves. At the age of nine he began studying Latin, Greek, and French. At a school twelve miles from his home he received a classical education and studied history and science. At 16 years of age he entered the College of William and Mary and studied mathematics and philosophy. He perfected his French, carried his Greek grammar books wherever he went, practiced his violin, and kept reading the classics. He learned Gaelic in order to translate Ossian.

Jefferson was six feet, two-and-one-half inches tall but not a good speaker. He mumbled, due in part to a lisp, giving only two speeches during his presidency. On becoming president, he rode to the White House on horseback without attendants, and then walked to the Senate. When Mr. Merry, British minister, came to present his credentials, President Jefferson met him:

. . . in slippers down at the heels, and both pantaloons, coat and underclothes indicative of utter slovenliness, and indifference to appearances, and in a state of negligence actually studied.

He discontinued delivering the State of the Union Address, preferring to send a written message. He greeted visitors to the White House in a robe and slippers. He relaxed White House protocol by changing formal events into casual entertainments. In spite of these limitations, he had grace and an endearing charm. He was quick with sympathy and vivacious in conversation.

As Secretary of State in Washington's cabinet he was respectful of Washington but a bitter enemy of Hamilton. Hamilton influenced Washington and the two combined to destroy the Republic, said Jefferson, with their affection for the English government. They were monarchists, said Jefferson, and Hamilton's founding of a national bank was a centralizing of the country and a denial of States' Rights. As Hamilton substituted order for confusion, he was creating a powerful political machine, and Jefferson was alarmed. Washington told him that his fears were unfounded, but it made no difference to Jefferson. He was dedicated to what he called a Republic, not a monarchy. He changed his party name to Democrat rather than Republican, which was accurate. Jefferson believed in the supremacy of the people, not the law of the land. If the two were in contrast, the law must be changed to express the will of the people.

Jefferson was an extremist. Between a government and the press, the press was to be dominant. If one or the other had to be abolished, he preferred government to go in favor of newspapers. Even when the French Revolution sank to widespread hatred of tradition and widespread murder in the name of the people, he continued to argue that this must be permitted until the will of the people became dominant. Shay's Rebellion in 1786, a rebellion of farmers in Massachusetts against taxes, prompted that state to the approval of the Constitution. General George Washington put down the rebellion, saying that:

I am mortified beyond expression when I view the clouds that have spread over the brightest morn that ever dawned in any country. . . . What a triumph for the advocates of despotism, to find that we are incapable of governing ourselves and that systems founded on the basis of equal liberty are merely ideal and fallacious.

If the farmers had a grievance, and they had, there had to be a better way than armed insurrection. Jefferson, on the other hand, thought that a rebellion now and then was good for the country.

In dreamy affectation Jefferson preferred that the United States shun commerce, importing manufactures from Europe, sending it food, and keeping the citizens here busy in agriculture for "those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God." This incredible nonsense flowed from his "comprehensive love and benevolence" of the people. Notwithstanding, he had the good sense to carry on what Washington and Hamilton had given him. He had no choice. If the stability of the Founders was rejected he would have to redo what they had done, but he had no talent for that. The only good thing he did during his presidency was the Louisiana Purchase that he thought unconstitutional but needed if we were to prevent France from occupying the western United States. Common sense triumphed over theory.

He was unable to defend the country, and despised the thought of a navy. Because of the trade embargo, which hurt the country a great deal, British ships entered our ports at will, bombed cities, captured ships, cargo, and sailors. Jefferson prattled about peace but eventually ordered American boats into combat. The boats of Jefferson were cheap little things kept in sheds out of the sun and rain until the enemy approached. Then they were to be carted down to the water, manned by the citizens, to attack the fleets that had won at Trafalgar, shattered the French navy at the Nile, and battered Copenhagen to ruin. He was utterly helpless when the clouds of war gathered.

Jefferson was a superb politician, ruling the country as a dictator, but without the people knowing what he was doing. In the words of historian John T. Morse, Jr.:

His influence was singularly shadowy and mysterious. He simply communicated suggestions and opinions to this or that selected one among those who believed in him. The suggestions and opinions were followed not with any consciousness of discipline, but from a true feeling of admiration and confidence toward the statesman who seemed always to speak wisely and think virtuously; who had many times been proved to plan with unrivaled astuteness for the good of the party.

Jefferson believed in the wisdom of the people, and this belief flattered everyone, giving him enormous popularity. He sincerely believed he was honest in spite of suggesting that elected officials should be aristocrats, such as he was, separate from the rubbish of the masses. Safe in his base he criticized vehemently those of persuasions other than his, being the first partisan of the United States -- he utterly destroyed the Federalist Party.

*****

Abraham Lincoln did not inherit wealth. He did not inherit anything, certainly not slaves. His home was typical of the place and period, a little more comfortable than the red man's wigwam: Crude beds were made, as were stools and tables. The wife had a few kitchen utensils, and a washtub. As wealth increased a smoke house and stable might be added. The man had a plow to break the soil and an axe, saw, and a knife.

A young Lincoln worked under the direction of his father until his "coming of age," and he split rails:

. . . four hundred rails for every yard of brown jeans dyed with white walnut bark that would be necessary to make him a pair of trousers.

He was hired to guide a cargo of hogs, pork, and corn down the Mississippi to New Orleans for fifty cents a day and a $60 bonus shared with other workers. He saw Negroes "in chains, whipped, and scourged" and developed an unconquerable hatred for the institution. On another trip he saw "ten or a dozen slaves shackled together with irons." Said Lincoln, "If ever I get a chance to hit that thing, I'll hit it hard." Fourteen years later, writing to his friend Joshua Speed, he wrote, "That sight was a continual torment to me; and I see something like it every time I touch the Ohio or any other slave border."

Some details of his early life are of note. When he was keeping store a women overpaid by a sum of four pence. He walked several miles to restore her loss. He walked six miles to get an English grammar book. There was little to no formal education but a lot of argument and speech making in local taverns and grocery stores. Lincoln was a part of these discussions with a fondness for political debates, a sense of humor, and many tales, so that he was a popular figure in every store he entered. He was always close to people.

Lincoln was ambitious for learning and politics. He became a lawyer and sought election and was successful in both. He was never learned in law and practiced only case law, meaning he studied the details of a particular case and argued to the best of his ability. He arguments were always simple and clear. It was said by his biographer, "His power over the jury was very great."

Lincoln made this famous comment:

We are now far into the fifth year since a policy was initiated with the avowed object and confident promise of putting an end to the slavery agitation . . . . It is my opinion it will not cease until a crisis shall have been reached and passed. A house divided against itself cannot stand.

The reaction was violent, including in the North, which detested slavery. The whole nation detested the notion of a divided country and wanted peace, declaring the nation could stand, should stand as one, must stand. The Copperheads of the North wanted Lincoln and the Republicans blocked from power, seeing Lincoln as a tyrant destroying the republic with despotic and arbitrary actions. Lincoln was opposed by the ruling of the Supreme Court in the Dred Scott decision that said slaves were the property of the owners and the court could not permit the destruction of property. Douglas said Lincoln would set aside the ruling of the Supreme Court by the actions of the people. The Democrats, said Douglas, were a national party while the "Black Republicans" were a sectional body whose creed could not be accepted south of the Mason Dixon line.

A resolution of the pro-slavery faction was the Missouri Compromise (1820-21) that allowed states to decide whether or not slaves could be defined as property. Earlier in the century Jefferson said:

. . . this momentous decision . . . filled me with terror. It is hushed, indeed, for the moment. But it is a reprieve only. A geographical line, once conceived and held up to the angry passions of men, will never be obliterated, and every new irritation will mark it deeper and deeper.

Lincoln was willing to accept as fact that the Negro might not be the equal of the white man for, obviously, at the time he was not, due to the conditions enslavement. Lincoln was willing to pay the white man compensation for the loss of the slaves, and he was even willing to consider sending the slaves back to the country from which they came, but he never swayed from his conviction that slavery was wrong. He said to Judge Douglas there is no reason why the Negro is not entitled to all the natural rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence, the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The division of the country, to Lincoln, was a division between right and wrong. If slavery was wrong and if the South demanded its continuance, and if the country outside of the South believed slavery was wrong, the country could not continue divided. One or the other must be supreme. Lincoln said:

The union of these states is perpetual. . . . No State, upon its own motion, can lawfully get out of the Union; resolves and ordination to that effect are legally void.

The Union defeated the South. Few people believe the outcome was in error, but they have forgotten that Lincoln's success was in spite of bullying Republicans in his own party, Democratic reaction to everything, Copperhead extremism in the North, mob violence, and a Supreme Court that said Negroes were property on a level with other material possessions. Violent passions moved everyone, but the common sense of the people cut to the core of the underlying issue and supported the president rather than the bombastic yakkers. President Lincoln led two lives, one that of a simple, ignorant man of the frontier, and the other as a clear thinking, moral leader who shamed and led the country -- the one man growing into the other.

On March 4, 1865, Mr. Lincoln came back to the White House, but with less than five weeks of life before him. Anonymous threats to his life came daily that were later found in his desk labeled "Assassination Letters." Anyone could call on him in the White House, for he was unguarded, and he moved through the streets of Washington like any private citizen. Later, when a guard was forced on him, he complained about the limitation on his freedom and submitted with little grace. April 9, coming up the Potomac and nearing Washington, Mrs. Lincoln said "that city is filled with our enemies." "Enemies! We must never speak of that," he replied.

Good Friday, April 14, Lincoln and his wife went to Ford's theatre to see a play with two friends, sitting in the Presidential box. The vestibule adjacent to the box had been prepared, with a hole to see who was inside, and a lock to keep others out. Just after ten o'clock John Wilkes Booth entered the vestibule, shot President Lincoln at the back of the head and then jumped on the stage, injured, got to a door at the back of the theatre, kept open by an employee who was part of the plot, to a horse waiting for him, and rode into the night. He was later captured, as were other conspirators. Booth was shot. A military tribunal found seven guilty, including one woman. She was hanged with three men. Five were committed to hard labor for life in a military prison. One was given only a six-year imprisonment.

*****

By and large the two political parties in the United States are reflected in Jefferson and Lincoln. The Democratic Party, illustrated by Jefferson, appeals to the people and aims at popularity. Their weakness is that they can descend into mob rule and may achieve a popular dictatorship. The Republican party, illustrated by Lincoln, is less interested in popularity and addresses problems, trying to say something sensible. This method leaves them open to criticism. The Republican Party would like to be popular but puts principle ahead of popularity. Success is difficult in a democracy when truth is not popular. *

"Happily for America, happily, we trust, for the whole human race, they pursued a new and more noble course. They accomplished a revolution which has no parallel in the annals of human society." --James Madison

The quotes following each article have been gathered by The Federalist Patriot at: http://FederalistPatriot.US/services.asp.

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