On February 28 at 7:30pm, Dr. William C. Harris presented the 2013 Lincoln Lyceum lecture to an audience of college staff and students as well as members of the public. The talk, entitled “Lincoln and the Border States: A Test of Presidential Leadership,” took place in the College Union Building of the Gettysburg College Campus. A two-time Gilder Lehrman Lincoln Prize winner for his books With Charity for All: Lincoln and the Restoration of the Union and Lincoln and the Border States: Preserving the Union,1 Harris has published eleven works concerning the American Civil War and Reconstruction and is professor emeritus at North Carolina State University (retired 2004).
Presented as an abridged version of Harris’s arguments in Lincoln and the Border States, his lecture focused in on the main issues and controversies that faced Abraham Lincoln in the Border States and that served to test both Lincoln’s skills and judgement during the course of his presidency. In particular, Harris focused on the problems facing Lincoln in wartime Maryland, Missouri, and Kentucky. His examination began with the Border States’ first “wake-up call” to the severity of their involvement in the system of slavery, which came in the form of John Brown’s raid in 1859.
Moving into the war years, Harris then studied Lincoln’s practice of placating Southern whites. This was a tradition begun in his First Inaugural Address on March 4, 1861, when Lincoln advocated a policy of good will toward the South, despite the flames of rebellion spreading through the slaveholding white population of the region. Indeed, Border State whites were not immune to the fear and paranoia that so tightly gripped their sisters to the south: “Border State whites feared that Lincoln would upend their communities and destroy the economic, racial, and political fabric of border state society,” detailed Harris. To complicate matters, unionism in the Border States was believed to be almost entirely dependent on Lincoln’s promise to preserve slavery where it already existed, a promise that would prove difficult to keep.
Eventually, Lincoln would adopt a policy of gradual compensated emancipation in 1862 in the hope that its drawn-out nature would prevent the psychological and societal shock that would eventually manifest with the deliverance of his more abrupt Emancipation Proclamation in January 1863. Gradual emancipation was overwhelmingly rejected by Border States voters, whose investment in the institution of slavery was not conducive to the presidents repeated attempts to compromise on the issue of emancipation.
In analyzing Lincoln’s wartime involvement in the Border States, Harris gave much attention to inspecting three particular character traits of the president that would serve him well while struggling to tread on political eggshells amidst the boom of cannon. Harris listed these three character advantages as being Lincoln’s uncommon intelligence (“he had an extraordinary mind and good judgement to go with it”), his excellent memory of people, political issues, etc. (allowing him to be deliberate and planned in his statements and decisions), and his sense of humor that developed from his aforementioned uncommon intelligence and memory.
It is these three character traits, so argued Harris, that provided Lincoln a distinct advantage in his political dealings with the Border States, and ultimately enabled the preservation of the Union and the emancipation of approximately 4 million black Americans from the bonds of slavery.
1. “2012 Gilder Lehrman Lincoln Prize winners announced”. Gettysburg, PA: Gettysburg College, 2012. http://www.gettysburg.edu/news_events/press_release_detail.dot?id=3315630 (accessed Match 6, 2013).