Abraham Lincoln’s Radical Moderation

What the president understood that the zealous Republican reformers in Congress didn’t

Cecilia Carlstedt

In the opening days of the Civil War, long before Saturday Night Live appropriated the idea, Louis Trezevant Wigfall earned the distinction in Washington, D.C., of being the Thing That Wouldn’t Leave. Elected to the United States Senate from Texas to fill a vacancy in 1859, Wigfall wasted no time in making himself obnoxious to his colleagues and the public alike. He was lavish in his disdain for the legislative body in which he had sought a seat. On the Senate floor, he said of the flag and, especially, the Union for which it stood, “It should be torn down and trampled upon.” As the southern states broke away, Wigfall gleefully announced, “The federal government is dead. The only question is whether we will give it a decent, peaceable, Protestant burial.”

By then Wigfall had been appointed to the Confederate congress, and the only question that occurred to many of his colleagues was why he was still bloviating from the floor of the U.S. Senate. Wigfall was worse than a mere gasbag. As Fergus M. Bordewich points out in his provocative new book, Congress at War, he “passed on military information to his southern friends, bought arms for the Confederacy, and swaggered around encouraging men to enlist in the secessionist forces.” At last, in March 1861, Wigfall quit the U.S. capital and showed up a few weeks later in South Carolina. Commandeering a skiff after Confederate batteries opened fire on Fort Sumter, in Charleston Harbor, he rowed out to present terms for the fort’s surrender. He had no authorization to do such a thing; he was simply following his passion to make trouble and get attention. He went down in history as a triple threat: a traitor, a blowhard, and a shameless buttinsky.

Wigfall, one of the many strange and colorful characters tossed up by the politics of the Civil War, typifies the time in important respects. The years leading to the Civil War, and the war itself, were political intensifiers; radicalism was rewarded and could be made to pay. This was as true of the Republican reformers who are the heroes of Bordewich’s book as it is of secessionists like Wigfall.

Bordewich’s ungainly subtitle—How Republican Reformers Fought the Civil War, Defied Lincoln, Ended Slavery, and Remade America—telegraphs the grand claims he sets out to make for a group of congressmen who mostly styled themselves as Radical Republicans. In his account, it is they who pressed for aggressive military campaigns when the will for war flagged among Abraham Lincoln’s generals; who invented the financial mechanisms that funded the war; who pushed for punitive measures against the southern slaveholders; and who deserve credit (or blame!) for the birth of big government—achievements more commonly attributed to their far less radical president. A popular historian and journalist blessedly free of academic affiliations, Bordewich is a master of the character sketch, summarizing complicated figures in a few swift phrases. But Lincoln himself never comes alive in his pages. Indeed, he scarcely appears. He lurks just offstage, stepping forward now and then to try, briefly and usually without success, to stymie the righteous zeal that propels the Radicals. The last line of the book declares that “a whole generation of politically heroic Republicans … led Congress to victory in the Civil War.” It’s an odd formulation—you probably thought the North won the war.

Bordewich has chosen to tell his sprawling story of legislative activism and ascendancy mainly through four members of Congress: Senators Benjamin Wade of Ohio and William Pitt Fessenden of Maine, and Representatives Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania and Clement Vallandigham of Ohio. Vallandigham is the only Democrat, a leader of an anti-war faction whose preference for the Union was complicated by his pro-slavery sympathies. The rest are Republicans, and two of them, Stevens and Wade, proudly called themselves Radicals and behaved accordingly. Fessenden, at one time a conservative, grew more sympathetic to the Radicals’ aims as the war dragged on.

Congressional power fell in the lap of Republicans, thanks to the departure of Wigfall and his southern colleagues; their seizing of it seems, in retrospect, less a matter of superior gamesmanship than a law of political gravity. Calling for stronger prosecution of the war, immediate liberation of the enslaved, and confiscation of all property owned by the southern belligerents, Radicals quickly took control of the Republican caucus. Perhaps, Bordewich writes, the Radicals “have something to teach us about how our government can function at its best in challenging times, and how crisis may even make it stronger.” Lesson No. 1: Get most of your opponents to leave town before you try anything.

The Radicals were quick on their feet, exploiting national turmoil to break a legislative logjam. For decades Southern Democrats, their numbers swollen by the Constitution’s infamous three-fifths clause, had blocked a series of domestic programs proposed first by the Whigs and then by their Republican successors. Here was the chance to neutralize the Democratic aversion to centralized power and advance a collectivist vision of the commercial republic, laying the foundation, Bordewich writes, “for the strong activist central government that came fully into being in the twentieth century.”

The flurry of legislating was indeed “transformative,” as Bordewich says. He points in particular to four pieces of legislation as landmarks. The Homestead Act promised 160 acres of federal land to any citizen willing to live on it and farm it for five years. The Pacific Railway Act financed the transcontinental railroad and further opened up the western territories to white settlement. The third bill created the federal Department of Agriculture. And the Morrill Land Grant College Act would distribute federal land to states and localities for the purpose of building public institutions of higher learning dedicated to teaching agriculture and other practical arts—a miracle of democratization in the history of American education.

Yet in Bordewich’s telling, Lincoln had little to do with the ambitious measures, as if the bills were signed by autopen during coffee breaks. In fact, two of them were explicitly endorsed in the Republican platform that Lincoln ran on in 1860; he made a special plea for the Department of Agriculture in his first annual message to Congress. Bordewich also downplays the inevitable unintended consequences that accompany government expansion, even what seem to be the most benign reforms. The railway act, with its crony capitalism and funny-money bond issues, led straight to the Gilded Age and the creation of half a dozen robber-baron fortunes. Those “federal lands” that Washington gave away in the railway and homestead acts were not, except in the sneakiest sense, the federal government’s to give away; the land rush they touched off may have guaranteed the otherwise merely predictable genocide of the Native Americans already living there.

In the name of designating the Radicals as the forerunners of contemporary liberalism, Bordewich tries to draw a continuous line from the Civil War Congress to the New Deal and the Great Society. Yet the line has too many zigs and zags and ups and downs to clinch a causal connection. And in fact, many of the features of big government (19th-century style) fell away before long. Calvin Coolidge, for instance, 60 years after the Civil War and a few years before the New Deal, oversaw a federal government that was in most respects closer in size and scope to the antebellum government than to the modern state that was soon to emerge.

If Bordewich oversells the legacy of the Radicals in Congress, his more fundamental misapprehension lies elsewhere: His version of events shortchanges the greatness that humanists of all stripes—not only historians—have found in Lincoln. The problem is partly a failure to appreciate that the Radicals were kibitzers, as many legislators are. But misjudging Lincoln’s role as executive and his commitment to larger obligations is Bordewich’s more telling mistake. Lincoln the executive shouldered the responsibility to lead an entire government and, just as important, an unstable political coalition. From Radicals to reactionaries, Republicans were held together by a single strand: a hostility, varying in degree, to slavery. A collapse of this delicate alliance—brought on by a sudden call for immediate, nationwide abolition, for instance—would have doomed the war effort.

Lincoln was required to be more cautious than a Radical congressman had to be—more serious, in a word. Bordewich credits the Radicals with forcing Lincoln year by year to pursue the war more savagely, culminating in the elevation of General Ulysses S. Grant in 1864. But his evidence is thin that Lincoln paid anything more than lip service to the Radicals’ pleas for bloodshed. Bordewich is a particular admirer of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War—“this improvised vigilante committee,” Lincoln called it, “to watch my movements and keep me straight.” It was put together by Benjamin Wade and stocked with his fellow Radicals.

The committee researched and rushed into print massive reports after failed and sometimes catastrophic military engagements. The accounts totaled millions of words and accused officers and bureaucrats of horrifying lapses in military judgment and execution. Some of the accusations were implausible; others were all too real. Historically, the reports are invaluable. At the time, however, their primary effect was to second-guess generals disliked by the committee’s majority and to advance the generals with whom the majority was politically aligned. The committee’s “greatest purpose,” Lincoln told a friend, “seems to be to hamper my action and obstruct military operations.”

Shelby Foote, in his history of the Civil War, tells a story that illustrates why Lincoln and the Radicals were destined to be so often at odds. One evening Wade rushed to the White House to demand that Lincoln fire a weak-willed general who had failed to press the Union advantage. Lincoln asked Wade whom he should enlist to take the general’s place. “Anybody!” Wade cried. “Anybody will do for you,” Lincoln replied, “but I must have somebody.” Lincoln had to be serious.

As Bordewich concedes, the Radicals were as bloody-minded as the Wigfalls of the world. “Nothing but actual extermination or exile or starvation will ever induce [southern rebels] to surrender,” Stevens once said, in a speech Bordewich doesn’t quote. There can, of course, be no moral equivalence between Stevens and a slavery apologist like Wigfall. One of them was on the side of the angels, and it wasn’t Wigfall. But both were radicals.

Radicalism is more than a packet of views or policies. The contents of the packet will change with circumstances and over time. (One reason Bordewich admires the Radical Republicans is that their views on race are so close to current mainstream attitudes; today’s radicals, valorizing group identity above all else, will likely find both the views and the politicians who held them hopelessly retrograde.) Radicalism is a disposition. The same is true of its contrary, moderation. Lincoln’s moderation was so infuriating to the Radicals because it reflected a hierarchy of values different from theirs.

The ultimate concerns for Stevens and his fellows were the liberation of the enslaved, the punishment of the enslavers, and the reorganization of southern society. The ultimate concern for Lincoln was the survival of the Union, to which he had an almost mystical attachment. The old question—was the war fought to preserve the Union or to free the slaves?—underestimates how closely the two causes were entwined in his mind. Lincoln’s goal was to uphold the kind of government under which slavery could not in the end survive. This was a government, as Lincoln said, dedicated to a proposition.

In a hectoring letter written at a low point in 1863, a Radical senator insisted that Lincoln “stand firm” against conservatives in his government. It was a common complaint of the Radical Republicans that Lincoln was hesitant, easily led, timid—weak. “I hope to ‘stand firm’ enough to not go backward,” Lincoln replied, “and yet not go forward fast enough to wreck the country’s cause.” Lincoln struck this balance with unmatched skill and sensitivity.

It was a feat of leadership peculiar to self-government, captured most famously by the only 19th-century American who could rival him as a prose artist and a statesman. Frederick Douglass was an enthusiastic admirer of Lincoln, once calling him, not long after the assassination, “emphatically the black man’s president: the first to show any respect for their rights as men.” Years later, Douglass’s enthusiasm had cooled—and ripened.

Lincoln “was preeminently the white man’s President, entirely devoted to the welfare of white men,” Douglass now said. “Viewed from the genuine abolition ground”—the ground, that is, from which Bordewich and many of today’s historians want to judge him, and the ground from which the Radicals did judge him—“Mr. Lincoln seemed tardy, cold, dull, and indifferent.” Douglass knew, though, that Lincoln never claimed to govern as an abolitionist, and Douglass knew why. “But measuring him by the sentiment of his country, a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult, he was swift, zealous, radical, and determined.”

The italics are mine, but the insight belongs to Douglass. Lincoln was radical without being a Radical—and never more radical than a leader can afford to be when he leads a government of, by, and for the people.