Friday, November 16, 2012

Lincoln's Second Greatest Speech

Plaque of the Gettysburg Address, Gettysburg National Cemetery, photo by Andrew Tremel
November 19, 2011 wreath laying at Soldiers' National Monument, Gettysburg National Cemetery, taken by Andrew Tremel
November 19, 1863 is a date that stands in the minds of (hopefully) most Americans--the anniversary of the Gettysburg Address.

Before I continue, I want to dedicate this blog entry to the memory of Tony Zusman, a coworker, historian, Civil War re-enactor, fellow fact of the day junkie, and friend. Every day at work, he provided a sheet with various "facts of the day," always highlighting something with Elvis. I always appreciated references to Mel Brooks' greatest works, Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein. One of his last sheets featured the birthday of Hedy (not Headly) Lamar. Tony was always positive, upbeat, caring. I can't say enough good things about the guy, and I can't express how much me and my coworkers will miss him. I couldn't find an event related to pop culture that I knew enough to blog about. Hopefully he'd be okay with me blogging about the president of the Union, as Tony was a Confederate re-enactor and long time officer in Longstreet's Corps. Requiescat in pacem, Tony.

I've actually had this particular entry in mind since I started the blog. The Gettysburg Address is Lincoln's most famous speech. It's even etched into the walls of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC. At least when I was in school (hopefully still, but I doubt it), we had to memorize Lincoln's immortal words. The speech defined the meaning of the war:

Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

As great of a speech it was--one of the best in American history--I consider it to be Lincoln's second best speech. If it weren't for a speech he delivered more than three years earlier, Lincoln never would have had the chance to speak at the dedication of Soldiers' National Cemetery in Gettysburg. The speech that I consider Lincoln's best is what he delivered at the Cooper Institute in New York City on February 27, 1860. It became known as the Cooper Union speech, about which Harold Holzer wrote an excellent book, titled Lincoln at Cooper Union: The Speech that Made Abraham Lincoln President.

Invited to speak in New York, Lincoln took full advantage of the situation and it was a make-or-break moment in his rise to the presidency (this was Lincoln's East Coast debut). Lincoln earned some national attention because of his performance in the famed debates with Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas in 1858. Douglas was once again Lincoln's target in his Cooper Union address. Douglas had made the claim that the Founding Fathers supported the idea of popular sovereignty--that residents of a territory could decide the slavery question for themselves. Wrong, Lincoln argued in his hour long address. A slow, serious, and methodical researcher, Lincoln cited the congressional votes of signers of the Constitution on the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, the Missouri Compromise, and other measures that prohibited slavery in new territories. He denounced John Brown's raid on Harpers' Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia) and said if the South resorted to secession, the blame for disunion would rest squarely upon their shoulders. But Lincoln showed that the Republican Party's idea of barring slavery in the territories was in line with the Founders' thoughts on expansion. The Dred Scott decision and Douglas's "popular sovereignty" were a break with political and legal tradition.

He concluded emphatically, "Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it."

This speech likely remained in the minds of delegates in Chicago at the Republican Convention that May. Thanks to capable floor managers, Lincoln clinched the nomination and led the nation through the Civil War. If you have a free 90 minutes check out Sam Waterson recreate Lincoln's delivery on C-SPAN's website. Or, if you don't, you can read it at your leisure, here. But take a moment this weekend--look at Cooper Union or the Gettysburg Address and remember the sacrifice of those who fought in the Civil War and those who protect our Union today.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

November 10

Happy 237th birthday United States Marine Corps!

Also today in history...

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Electoral Chaos

1860 Electoral election that ultimately changed the nation,
The last thing I want this blog to become is a place for political rants. I want to stick with history, thus, in this post, I'm not going beyond the 1800s.

I'll confess: I'm sick of it all: the news, the debates, the ads, the phone calls, the yard signs lining highway medians. I have election fatigue. Yet the nerd in me wants to see a little bit of electoral chaos after the polls close. I thought it would be fun to take a brief look at some of the contested presidential campaigns in years past.

Election of 1800

In the days before the Twelfth Amendment, presidential electors cast two votes. Whoever had the most votes was president; the runner-up became vice president. It led to President John Adams having his chief rival, Thomas Jefferson, as his vice president. John Adams ran for reelection in 1800, but came in third place to Jefferson and New Yorker and future duelist Aaron Burr. Jefferson and Burr tied with 73 electoral votes.

The House of Representatives met in February to do their constitutional duty and settle the election. On February 17, after thirty-six ballots, Thomas Jefferson became president and Aaron Burr ended up as vice president. Jefferson went on to serve two terms in the White House, while Burr fought a duel with the former treasury secretary and later faced a treason trial. The country reacted to the election by ratifying the Twelfth Amendment, leaving the presidential and vice presidential candidates on separate ballots.

Election of 1824

With only factions and no organized political parties, four men ran for president: Andrew Jackson, the hero from the War of 1812, Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, Secretary of the Treasury William Crawford, and Speaker of the House Henry Clay. Jackson finished first in the popular vote, but could not attain a majority in the Electoral College. Adams was second, Crawford in third. The House of Representatives would decide the election, but Clay would not be on the ballot: only the top three moved on. Crawford had suffered a stroke, so it was a two man race.

To say that Clay didn't get along with either Jackson or Adams is an understatement. He used his influence as speaker, however, and swung the election to Adams. Clay saw the secretary of state as the lesser of the two evils. Adams subsequently appointed Clay as secretary of state. While there was likely at most an unspoken agreement over that arrangement, Jackson and his cronies were able to use accusations of a "corrupt bargain" to defeat Adams in 1828.

Election of 1860

This was probably the most chaotic election in history, simply because seven states reacted to the results by seceding from the Union. I put it on the list not so much because of the election itself, but because of the outcome. This election, like the 1824 contest, saw four candidates. In May, the Democratic Party split. Southern delegates bolted from the convention after a majority of Northerners and Midwesterners adopted a platform based on popular sovereignty (residents of a territory would decide slave or free status on their own). The remaining Democrats nominated Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas. The Southern Democrats held their own convention and nominated Vice President John C. Breckinridge on a platform that called for territories to be open to slavery. The Republicans nominated Abraham Lincoln, a little known former congressman. The Constitutional Union Party formed to avoid most of the controversial issues and took slave holding Senator John Bell as its candidate.

Lincoln won with a majority in the electoral college and 40% of the popular vote. He won 52% of the Northern vote and didn't even appear on the ballot in most Southern states. After his election, Lincoln assured the South that he would not interfere in slavery where it already existed. Seven states ignored the threat, seceded, and in February 1861, formed the Confederate States of America.

Election of 1876

Democrat Samuel Tilden faced off with Republican Rutherford B. Hayes. As the election returns trickled in, there were three states whose electoral votes were in dispute: South Carolina, Louisiana, and Florida. Tilden was one vote short of clinching the Electoral College vote; Hayes needed all three states. When ballots were counted, Hayes was declared the winner by one vote, but Democrats made accusations of fraud (Tilden did win the popular vote, after all). Congress set up the Florida Commission, made of five senators, five representatives, and five Supreme Court justices. It ended up that parties were split evenly and the fifth of the justices was to be Justice Joseph Bradley, believed to be independent-minded. The commission voted 8-7 to award Hayes with the 20 disputed electoral votes. To assuage the Democrat-dominated South, Hayes promised he would remove all federal troops from the South, thus bringing Reconstruction to an end.