Our Country's Fiery Ordeal

A blog about the American Civil War, written and maintained by historian Daniel J. Vermilya, author of The Battle of Kennesaw Mountain (History Press, 2014) and James Garfield and the Civil War (History Press, 2015)

Dedicated to my great-great-great grandfather, Private Ellwood Rodebaugh, Company D, 106th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, killed at the Battle of Antietam, September 17, 1862.

"And may an Overuling Providence continue to cause good to come out of evil, justice to be done to all men where injustice has long prevailed, and finally, peace, quiet, and harmony to come out of this terrible confrontation and our country's fiery ordeal." -- Albert Champlin, 105th Ohio, Diary entry of June 19, 1864 (Western Reserve Historical Society)

Monday, July 4, 2011

July 4, 1861: "This is essentially a people's contest."

150 years ago today, on July 4, 1861, a special session of Congress convened in Washington D.C. Lincoln had called for this session so as to deal with the enormous threats facing the Union. For the past several months, Lincoln had been acting alone as Chief Executive, without legislative approval for his acts. This special session of Congress was needed to approve Lincoln's actions in dealing with the dual crises of secession and civil war. Among the acts which they would validate would be Lincoln's highly controversial suspensions of the writ of Habeas Corpus.

While this session of Congress was quite important in maintaining the constitutionality of Lincoln's actions, this date is also important because of the message which Lincoln delivered to that session. These were the days when presidential messages to Congress were not delivered on prime time television with an obscene number of applause breaks and standing ovations to satisfy the cameras and the pundits. Rather, messages were written and delivered to be read without the president making the trip to Capitol Hill.

Lincoln's July 4, 1861 message was among the most important documents he would write as president. In it, not only did Lincoln outline the early actions he took to deal with the crisis facing the nation, but he also clearly elucidated the underlying issues of the burgeoning civil war. Some of the most memorable sections of that message came toward the end, when Lincoln laid out the central principles behind both the Northern and Southern causes. Here is a link for the entire address, if you are so inclined to read it. It is well worth your time. What I have excerpted below are my favorite selections, those parts which I feel speak best to the issues that affected the start of the Civil War, issues which 21st Century Americans would be wise to keep in mind as we attempt to maintain that same Union which Lincoln sought to defend 150 years ago today.

On this Fourth of July, we should remember not only those brave Americans who declared their independence from Great Britain to create a new nation 235 years ago, but also those who bravely stood to defend that Union 150 years ago.

Lincoln Memorial

It may be affirmed without extravagance that the free institutions we enjoy have developed the powers and improved the condition of our whole people beyond any example in the world. Of this we now have a striking and an impressive illustration. So large an army as the Government has now on foot was never before known without a soldier in it but who had taken his place there of his own free choice. But more than this, there are many single regiments whose members, one and another, possess full practical knowledge of all the arts, sciences, professions, and whatever else, whether useful or elegant, is known in the world; and there is scarcely one from which there could not be selected a President, a Cabinet, a Congress, and perhaps a court, abundantly competent to administer the Government itself. Nor do I say this is not true also in the army of our late friends, now adversaries in this contest; but if it is, so much better the reason why the Government which has conferred such benefits on both them and us should not be broken up. Whoever in any section proposes to abandon such a government would do well to consider in deference to what principle it is that he does it; what better he is likely to get in its stead; whether the substitute will give, or be intended to give, so much of good to the people. There are some foreshadowings on this subject. Our adversaries have adopted some declarations of independence in which, unlike the good old one penned by Jefferson, they omit the words "all men are created equal." Why? They have adopted a temporary national constitution, in the preamble of which, unlike our good old one signed by Washington, they omit "We, the people," and substitute "We, the deputies of the sovereign and independent States." Why? Why this deliberate pressing out of view the rights of men and the authority of the people?

This is essentially a people's contest. On the side of the Union it is a struggle for maintaining in the world that form and substance of government whose leading object is to elevate the condition of men; to lift artificial weights from all shoulders; to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all; to afford all an unfettered start and a fair chance in the race of life. Yielding to partial and temporary departures, from necessity, this is the leading object of the Government for whose existence we contend....

Statue of Lincoln at the Pennsylvania Memorial, Gettysburg National Military park

Our popular Government has often been called an experiment. Two points in it our people have already settled—the successful establishing and the successful administering of it. One still remains—its successful maintenance against a formidable internal attempt to overthrow it. It is now for them to demonstrate to the world that those who can fairly carry an election can also suppress a rebellion; that ballots are the rightful and peaceful successors of bullets, and that when ballots have fairly and constitutionally decided there can be no successful appeal back to bullets; that there can be no successful appeal except to ballots themselves at succeeding elections. Such will be a great lesson of peace, teaching men that what they can not take by an election neither can they take it by a war; teaching all the folly of being the beginners of a war....

Statue of Lincoln in the Capitol Rotunda

As a private citizen the Executive could not have consented that these institutions shall perish; much less could he in betrayal of so vast and so sacred a trust as these free people had confided to him. He felt that he had no moral right to shrink, nor even to count the chances of his own life in what might follow. In full view of his great responsibility he has so far done what he has deemed his duty. You will now, according to your own judgment, perform yours. He sincerely hopes that your views and your action may so accord with his as to assure all faithful citizens who have been disturbed in their rights of a certain and speedy restoration to them under the Constitution and the laws.

And having thus chosen our course, without guile and with pure purpose, let us renew our trust in God and go forward without fear and with manly hearts.

Abraham Lincoln, July 4, 1861

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