Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Reconciliation ("Our One Common Country" by James B. Conroy)

Any modern book about Abraham Lincoln is published in the shadow of Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals, and rightfully so:  her massive, thousand-page history of not only the president--as a boy, a young Illinois lawyer and legislator, the commander in chief--but also his cabinet and closest advisers is a monumental testament to the powers of research and historical narrative, with each paragraph like a condensed chapter unto itself. One imagines that, had Goodwin had another lifetime to labor over the book, she could've expanded into volumes and still found herself lacking for time, with more and more research left untouched, the archives of even more libraries and collections left unexplored. History, after all, is rich with stories to tell--every moment from ages past its own subject worthy of careful study, every person a president unto themselves--and to say a book on any one of them is conclusive is to misunderstand the dark and winding cave that is our past.

Case in point. Even Goodwin, for all her skills as a writer and researcher,  barely explores one of the pivotal moments of Lincoln's presidency:  the Hampton Roads Conference, an attempt by Union and Confederate leaders to bring about an end to the Civil War at a time when the South's failure was all but inevitable. Organized in a bureaucratic void where objectives had to be couched in indistinctions and assurances of anything except a man's presence were toxic, the conference did something almost unthinkable in today's age:  brought together Confederate secessors--defenders of slavery, treasonists against the Constitution--with the very same American president whose election ignited their bloody disunion. That the commander-in-chief, already so thoroughly absorbed by the gruesome bloodbath that was the Civil War, would himself meet with the opposition--rather than, say, a representative from his cabinet, as is often the custom today--is a demonstration of not just how much American diplomacy has changed, even from one American politician to another, but how the role of the presidency has changed, as well.

In writing about the conference, James B. Conroy examines both sides--Lincoln and his cabinet, reticent to hold any sort of meeting that would weaken their otherwise strong position, and the government of the Confederacy under Jefferson Davis, whose refusal to discuss any sort of surrender frustrated the weary peace-seekers beneath him and now frames the former senator as downright apocalyptic. It's in this vast chasm between both men, not to mention their governments, that we are offered the strongest insight into why the Civil War proceeded the way it did, with the North battered yet able to produce materials while the South's soldiers were left without food, clothes, or ammunition. Lincoln operated the war through careful delegation, making the ultimate decisions himself but always willing to hand over control to other professionals. Davis, on the other hand, was an unprepared narcissist whose management style seems today to have been built on a foundation of delusional paranoia; the conference between Lincoln and Confederate representatives was planned not so much because of Davis but in spite of him, and it's his stubbornness that led to its ultimate failure.*

Which begs the question:  if the conference ultimately failed to achieve its goals, despite the good will of all men involved, why write a book about it? (Perhaps Goodwin was right to gloss over this portion of history if, after all, no resounding peace was struck between Lincoln and the Confederates?) The answer is simultaneously simple and complicated. As a moment in history, the Hamptons Road Conference allows us to understand how the mechanisms of war and politics operated all those many years ago, and regardless of the outcome, it should be studied just as we might study other, more successful gatherings of men. But it's also a look at how those we entrust with power--over us, our family, our country--can so easily use that power against us. Had the Hamptons Road Conference succeeded in ending the war, thousands of lives would have been spared from purposeless bloodshed and destruction; instead, the leader of the Confederacy chose to stake out a position that was self-destructive, if for no other reason than to prove a point to himself and render himself a hero upon an altar of corpses. Had Lincoln not been elected--or re-elected--president, the course of American history would've changed dramatically, and the war may have been conducted by men less able to separate their own egos from the cause at hand. A lesser man than Lincoln may have compromised for peace, left the slavery issue unresolved--in one instance, there is discussion of delaying the end of slavery by years, all to sooth the South's transition towards total emancipation--thereby ensured more war, more division, more death. Lincoln stood firm in his resolve to end the war on his terms, while Davis stood firm only in his backless confidence, and it's this disparity that is the true reason why this one failed meeting is important so many years later.

The title of Conroy's study of this event is Our One Common Country. That phrase comes from Lincoln's belief that no discussion of peace could begin until the Confederacy acknowledged its lack of sovereignty--that it was not a free nation, as its people had exclaimed, but a rebellious collection of states that still belonged, burned and blood-soaked, to the United States, and their president was and continued to be Abraham Lincoln. Until then, Lincoln said, there could be no conference, and there would never be peace. This one simple demand demonstrates everything there is to understand about why Abraham Lincoln continues to be such a revered American figure, so often proclaimed the best president we've ever had. In his second inaugural address, Lincoln--tired, distracted, only weeks away from death--spoke of reconciliation, of joining the divided country together again, not in vengeance but peace, with "malice toward none, with charity for all." After so many years of carnage--hundreds of thousands killed, even more wounded physically and mentally, entire states scorched, homes wiped from the earth--Lincoln looked to the coming years not as opportunity for punishment but as a chance to heal. Lincoln knew that the wounds of the Civil War scarred one body, not two--the body of men united, not men divided--and only the hands of all men could heal it.

*There are other sides to this, as well--Congress, which was itself divided over how to approach a potential peace with Southern delegates; the military, which either refused to intercede in government affairs out of a deference to politics (Robert E. Lee) or interceded so directly that it changed the entire course of the war (Ulysses S. Grant)--but it's Lincoln and Davis' governments that offer the best historical contrasts.