What They Didn’t Teach Us in School, Carl Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln, and the History of the United States

I am continuing my reading of “Abraham Lincoln: The Prarie Years, The War Years” by Carl Sandburg. I’ve decided to share some of the content of this amazing book as I go along, as well as some of my learning from it. It is an incredible book, one of the best books I’ve ever read on any subject. What makes it unique is that Sandburg’s study and obsession with telling the story of Lincoln and that era of history was exhaustively thorough. Carl Sandburg was born in 1878, so his telling of this history was not far removed from its occurrence. Anyone who endeavors to understand, to know, the history of politics in the United States, the history of the Democratic party, the origins of the Republican party, anything about The Civil War, ought to read this book prior to entering discussion of said subjects. This book should be taught as a year-long course to every high school freshman in the United States by teachers who comprehend what they’ve read and further understand the importance of history. It is my opinion that any person of even marginal intelligence who reads this book will be angered by the realization of all that was previously unknown to them regarding the history of politics in this country and how often falsehoods about the same are perpetuated based upon the hope that the common man is ignorant enough to believe such without question and unwilling to further educate himself with regard to such matters.

The Civil War was one hundred percent about preserving the Union from division regarding one issue, slavery. It is my opinion that those who want to argue that the Civil War was about “states rights” should read what all fighting was going on with regards to slavery in the years leading up to the Civil War. The Democrats of the era were not only for slavery, but they were also for expanding slavery into new territories whenever and wherever possible. In 1854 Democratic Senator Stephen A. Douglas introduced what came to be known as “The Nebraska Bill.”

Quoting “It created two territories, Kansas on the South, Nebraska on the North; in each, the voters would decide whether it should be free or slave soil. Nebraska then stretched far and wide, its area including all or part of the later states of Nebraska, North and South Dakota, Wyoming and Montana. There, in the future, under “popular sovereignty,” said Douglas, “they could vote slavery up or down.” Southern members had insisted on, and got, a provision expressly repealing the hitherto sacred Missouri Compromise; the line it drew between slave and free soil was wiped out.”ย  end quote, pg 117.

Reading the above quote, I think it’s important to understand the inherent problems with “popular sovereignty,” or a flat up or down vote, majority rule vote, with regard to certain issues. Imagine if slavery had been voted in by “popular vote.” Would the fact that the majority of people had voted for it have made it morally right or correct? No, it would not have. It would have made slavery legal in those territories. A majority of people might be convinced to vote for the legalization of murder, but would that make it a morally correct thing to do? It’s an important principle in understanding why we do not decide all things by “mob rule” in the United States, why the founders of this country organized this country as a Republic and not a Democracy.

Politics then were no different than today when it came to matters requiring a vote, as soon as a matter was to be settled by a vote, the opposing sides began angling and fighting for how they wanted things to go. The Democrats wanted to expand slavery into the Kansas and Nebraska territories. They had wanted to expand it into territories acquired as a result of the Mexican-American War. (Another subject upon which the majority of folks seem to be largely uneducated.) Missouri was a slave state. The Missouri Compromise allowed Missouri into the Union as a slave state on the compromise ( because abolitionist Whigs did not want more slave states) that Maine would be allowed into the Union as a free state and that a line was drawn through the former Lousiana territories clearly defining what were free and slave states or territories. When the Nebraska Bill passed, it negated this compromise, allowing for the potential expansion of slavery.

The Northern Whigs were generally abolitionists. During this time, several other political parties began to form, one of which was known as, quoting, “the Know-Nothings, members of the secret “Order of the Star-Spangled Banner.” When asked what they stood for, members answered: “I know nothing.” Each member on joining swore he would never vote for a foreigner or a Catholic for any office. Their slogans were, “Americans must rule America” and “No Papacy in the Republic.” Of the millions of Irish and German immigrants, a large part were Catholic and they had become a power in large cities, throwing their strength most often to the Democrats, such as Douglas, who were more friendly to them than (were) the Whigs in general. Two Catholic churches in Massachusets had been wrecked and gutted and a convent burned.ย  A Protestant procession of 2,000 people inย  Newark, New Jersey met an Irish mob and the fighting left one man dead and many wounded. Hibernian parades had been broken up by rioting Know-Nothings. Being secret in their operations, it was hard to guess what the Know-Nothings would show in the year’s elections. Being openly anti-Nebraska (bill) and anti-slavery, they had drawn toward them many Democrats and an element of the Whigs.” end quote, pg 118

Lincoln was a member of the Whig party, he was against the expansion of slavery. He was already learning to be a savvy political man as he educated himself in matters of the law and logic and reason. He was careful in his speech as he was teaching himself how to craft the arguments for the truths he held dear. Quoting; “Lincoln gave out no word publicly but when Know-Nothings called on him he was reported as saying the red man in breechclout and with tomahawk is the true native American. “We pushed them from their homes, and now turn on others not fortunate enough to come over so early as we or our forefathers.” He told of an Irishman who was asked why he wasn’t born in America, and the answer, “Faith, I wanted to, but me mither (mother) wouldn’t let me.” end quote, pg 118

It was during this time that the anti-slavery, abolitionist, Republican party was formed. The Whig party became fragmented after the Democrats passed the Nebraska Bill, by groups like “the Know-Nothings.” Most Northern Whigs eventually joined the newly formed anti-slavery Republican party. It is important to understand this fact, the Republican party was formed as an anti-slavery party, it was the primary issue for the formation of the party. People tend to think that the Civil War sort of happened all at once without giving much consideration to all the discord and fighting that led up to it. It was an extremely violent time. Whig ( later Republican and then Liberal Republican) Senator Charles Sumner verbally lashed out against Democratic Senator Andrew Butler in a speech, “The Crime Against Kansas” saying that Butler “had chosen a mistress… who, though ugly to others, is always lovely to him, I mean that harlot slavery.” He then went on to criticize Butler’s manner of speaking, in a demeaning and scathing manner, essentially calling Butler a pimp for slavery. Democratic Congressman Preston Brooks, who was Butler’s nephew, walked into the Senate Chamber and caned Senator Sumner, striking him with blow after blow, beating him nearly to death over the matter. Southern pro-slavery Democrats were gleeful over this physical beating of a Senator who had dared to raise his voice against one of their own.

“In 1856, on the Missouri and Kansas border, 200 men, women and children were shot, stabbed, or burned to death in the fighting between free and slave state settlers and guerrillas. The money loss, in crops, burned, cattle and horses stolen or killed, ran about $2,000,000. Each side aimed to settle Kansas with voters for its cause. In May, as the first state convention to organize the Republican party of Illinois was meeting in Bloomington, the town of Lawrence, Kansas, had been entered by riding and shooting men who burned the Free State Hotel, wrecked two printing offices and looted homes.” end quote, pg. 121

Think about that in terms of the context of our current times, “Each side aimed to settle Kansas with voters for its cause.” I find it stunning that people don’t want to believe the same kind of thing is still going on today, that it is about votes and voters and getting more of each. Not that it always is, but sometimes, it most certainly is about no other thing.

Lincoln was cautious. He was considered by many to be too moderate to begin with. Reading Sandburg’s telling of things, however, I thus far have the impression that Lincoln understood that if he gave too much away one way or another it wouldn’t be helpful. He was trying to find reasonable, logical, arguments that were irrefutable. He was constantly working the problem in a time of great tumult and change. Lincoln wrote to his good friend and confidant, Joshua Speed, quote, “I think I am a whig; but others say that there are no whigs and I am an abolitionist … I now do no more than oppose the extension of slavery. I am not a Know-Nothing. That is certain. How could I be? How could anyone who opposes the degrading of negroes, be in favor of degrading classes of white people? Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we began by declaring ‘all men are created equal.’ We now practically read it ‘all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics.’ When it comes to this I should prefer immigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving Liberty – to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocracy.” end quote, pg. 120

I’m about a hundred and twenty-five pages into this book. It’s about 1856 and Lincoln has been called to the floor of a convention as many conventions were being held to organize a national Republican party. Lincoln has been called to the floor to take up the platform of the party denouncing the Nebraska Bill, denouncing the spread of slavery. According to Sandburg, reporters who were there to take notes, forgot themselves as Lincoln spoke. Lincoln said, “I read once in a law book, ‘A slave is a human being who is legally not a person but a thing.’ And if the safeguards to liberty are broken down, as is now attempted, when they have made things of all free negroes, how long, think you, before they will begin to make things of poor white men?”

“He summarized history to show that freedom and equality, sacred to the men of the American Revolution, had become words it was fashionable to sneer at…… Applause came regularly. He (Lincoln) was saying what the convention wanted said. He was telling why the Republican party was being organized.” quote, pg. 122


I’m telling you, if you want to understand American History and the politics of the United States, and the current politics of the United States read this book. I’m fascinated. I’m grateful to Carl Sandburg for having written it, this book is a gift to understanding ourselves as a nation, for understanding histories we hope never to repeat. I think every American, and every American voter, should take it upon themselves to educate themselves. I am looking forward to continuing this read.




The Nebraska Bill

Mexican-American War

The Missouri Compromise

Abraham Lincoln; The Prarie Years, The War Years,ย  by Carl Sandburg

Note: Carl Sandburg supported the Civil Rights Movement and was the first white man to be honored by the NAACP. Of note also is that he reportedly considered a run for president, as a Republican, against Franklin D. Roosevelt, a fact that would seem to contradict ideas as to his politics leaning toward socialism. Perhaps Carl Sandburg is no less fascinating and enigmatic a subject than Lincoln.

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