Thursday, February 23, 2012

"I"ve managed to ... save most of them": The Limits of Lincoln's Mercy



A little background here since, unless you follow my wargames blog, you won't know that I have a longstanding fascination with the American Civil War. For me one of the many compelling things about that period is the character and leadership of Abraham Lincoln, and the humanity of the man seen so luminously in his careworn, homely, and wonderful face.

The New York Times' Opinionator section has been running a regular series of historical vignettes marking the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, which you can follow on Twitter. Today's piece by historian Ron Soodalter, "The Limits of Lincoln's Mercy", got my attention.

Lincoln was famous for his clemency, and regularly commuted death sentences for Union soldiers. "Gen. Joseph Hooker once sent an envelope to the president containing the cases of 55 convicted and doomed deserters; Lincoln merely wrote “Pardoned” on the envelope and returned it to Hooker." While his mercy often frustrated his war leaders, Lincoln held firm, once telling a friend:

I reckon there never was a man raised in the country on a farm, where they are always butchering cattle and hogs and think nothing of it, that ever grew up with such an aversion to bloodshed as I have and yet I’ve had more questions of life and death to settle in four years than all the men who ever sat in this chair put together. But, I’ve managed to get along and do my duty, as I believe, and still save most of them.

However, in a case I had never heard of before, Lincoln refused to cancel the execution of Nathaniel Gordon, the only man in US history to be sentenced to death for slave trading. The normally merciful Lincoln refused requests from the condemned man's wife and mother, justifying his decision on these grounds:

I believe I am kindly enough in nature, and can be moved to pity and to pardon the perpetrator of almost the worst crime that the mind of man can conceive or the arm of man can execute; but any man, who, for paltry gain and stimulated only by avarice, can rob Africa of her children to sell into interminable bondage, I never will pardon.

I'm grateful to Soodalter for this little gem of history. It gives a new perspective on Lincoln's character, and challenges a conventional wisdom (as I understand it) that his approach to slavery was essentially pragmatic. The approach may have been pragmatic, but the quotation about Gordon suggests that his personal feelings about slavery were resolute and unchanging.

4 comments:

Thomas Nissvik said...

Padre, please post this on TMP. It is always fun to poke the "War of Northern Aggression" crowd by any claim that Abe was anything less than the Anti-Christ.

mad padre said...

I'll decline your suggestion, Thomas, but please feel free to post a link to the NYT piece there yourself.
In my experience, arguing with people on the internet about the Civil War only leads to carpal tunnel syndrome.

The Angry Lurker said...

I liked that and Thomas's suggestion up to a point, prodding the wargamer bear is a long time sport.....

Conrad Kinch said...

Interesting stuff Padre. I tend to find that there are only two Lincoln schools, those who think he's Christ and those who think he's the Anti-Christ.

Mad Padre

Mad Padre
Opinions expressed within are in no way the responsibility of anyone's employers or facilitating agencies and should by rights be taken as nothing more than one person's notional musings, attempted witticisms, and prayerful posturings.

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