Tuesday, March 23, 2010
Each of the six speakers were interesting enough that each deserves their own individual post. So as not to offend anyone, and because it's only fair, we'll take each in order of their appearance behind the microphone beginning with Larry Tagg, author of 1998's "The Generals of Gettysburg" and the critically acclaimed "The Unpopular Mr. Lincoln," which debuted in 2009, both of which were published by Savas Beattie LLC.
Larry Tagg still does some session work and still has his head in music, but the days when he played with the band Bourgeoise Tagg, and bass for Todd Rundgren, and Hall and Oates are for the most part behind him. In fact when I asked him about music and he mentioned he still played a bit, his hands reached for an invisible bass guitar, the left hand fingering the fret while the right struck an imaginary string. For anyone who listened to music in the 1980's you'll know the song "I Don't Mind At All" by Bourgeise Tagg. If you need your memory jogged in remembering what was and still is a truly great song, click on this link.
Tagg teaches English and drama at a Sacramento, California high school, which necessarily explains why he opened with the statement, "I always get nervous in speaking to an audience that's paying attention to what I'm saying."
Personally subscribing to the belief that Lincoln was the greatest President the United States has yet seen, Tagg set out to explore the opinions and assessment of contemporary politicians, newspapers, and the American public. What he discovered may make the modern public wonder how someone held in such low esteem, who was so pilloried by the Northern press, who was under such constant attack by the left and right wings of his own party, could attain such a level of greatness that an average of 100 books a year have been published about the man over the last 145 years.
Lincoln was up against it from the moment victory in the 1860 election was his. His hometown paper, The Salem Eagle, called him "a braying ass." Edward Everett labeled him "inferior," while the closest thing America had to a blue blood, Charles Francis Adams, remarked, "his speeches have fallen like a wet blanket." By capturing only 37.8 of the popular vote one needs only to look to George McGovern and Barry Goldwater as candidates who amassed lower vote totals, the rub being both were flat out rejected by voters in their White House bids. While Tagg pointed out that public opinion surveys didn't exist at the time, he speculates that Lincoln's popularity slipped to a 25 per cent approval rating after he "snuck" into Washington prior to his inauguration. Rumored assassination plots abounding in Baltimore aside, that little maneuver resulted in Horace Greeley's once friendly New York Tribune firing a broadside salvo. "Mr. Lincoln may live a 100 years without having so good a chance to die."
While second guessing over Lincoln's election ran rampant throughout the North, the South presented a united front from the get go. Simply put, Lincoln didn't garner a single vote from the solid South. In an era when ballots were clearly marked as representative of a particular voting choice and then deposited in a clear glass bowl, there's little wonder that any one man might have felt intimated to cast a ballot for anyone other than a John Breckinridge or a John Bell. Politics was a rough and tumble "sport" ruled by party bosses backed by "Rude Boys," who sought to keep voters in line through verbal threats and beatings. It wasn't unusual for gangs of rival toughs to engage in all out brawls in an attempt to ensure victory for their candidate.
Lincoln came along at a time when the expectations for the chief magistrate were at an all time low and one dark horse candidate or incompetent followed the other into the executive mansion. George Templeton Strong commented that James Polk "was nominated because he had never said anything of consequence," while Zachary Taylor "admitted he had never voted in his life and ran on a platform vowing he would not dictate to Congress." Millard Filmore was totally forgettable, Franklin Pierce, who was "too fond of alcohol and bullied by his own party," was a compromise candidate selected after 47 ballots, who was, in turn, succeeded by James Buchanan who "oversaw the breakup of the nation and a corrupt government" and has traditionally languished near the bottom of Presidential rankings. To many, particularly in the East, Lincoln "appeared to be the worst of the lot," a man with no administrative experience save running a two man lawyer's office, and worse, as someone who "stole the election from Seward."
That Lincoln was a nobody in Republican politics was borne out by a list of 45 potential nominees produced by the Philadelphia Inquirer in December 1859. Lincoln was not on that list. Five months later he'd secure the Republican nomination by no other means than "dirty tricks" cleverly orchestrated by Norman Judd. It was Judd who secured the Republican convention for Chicago, Judd who secured Lincoln's favorite son status among 22 Illinois delegates a week prior to the national convention, Judd who conceived of the image of Lincoln as the "rail-splitter," Judd who arranged the delegate seating at the national convention thus keeping Seward's delegates separated, Judd who was behind printing up counterfeit tickets which allowed Lincoln supporters to crowd out all others inside the Wig Wam, Judd who herded together men whose bellow could be heard on the other side of Lake Michigan to yell, scream, and stomp for Lincoln. When Lincoln's name was entered into nomination a Cincinnati newspaper reporter wrote "The uproar was beyond description. Imagine all the hogs in Cincinnati giving their death squeal at the same time." Too, it was Judd's staff that never slept, but buttonholed other State delegations throughout the wee hours of morning, while Seward's forces popped champagne corks in premature celebration. Tom Corwin, a Pennsylvania congressman lamented Lincoln's Chicago victory. "It's a shame we can't nominate statesmen and have to nominate someone who can barely read and write."
Tagg paused for a moment and threw this out to the audience. In the last election "Sarah Palin was the candidate most like Lincoln in the way people thought of Lincoln" at the time. Lincoln "talked weird" and was from a "weird State."
Eastern political leaders caught their first glimpse of the President elect when he arrived in Washington. George Templeton Strong admitted, "I was somewhat startled at his appearance" and would later use the word "gorilla." Reporter Don Piott called Lincoln "a skeleton." Another remarked his "awkwardness is uncommon in men of intelligence," while another stated Lincoln was "an unhappy marriage between a derrick and a windmill." Lincoln's poor grammar and mispronunciation of words signaled to virtually every Eastern powerbroker that the 16th President to be was not the second coming of Daniel Webster they'd all hoped for.
Those fears were apparently realized through the first eighteen months of war, which were "seemingly badly managed." When Lincoln announced his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation a Columbus, Ohio newspaper declared, "Is this not a death blow for the Union?" The Chicago Times chimed in by adding "A criminal wrong. An act of national suicide." Other newspapers screamed that this war had been a "war for the Union only," barked that Lincoln was "an odious dictator," while another predicted "the army will fight no more."
That the Northern people were at war with themselves and had lost confidence in Lincoln's policies and administration was no more evident than in the 1862 mid-year elections. Indiana, Ohio, and New York all fell to Democratic majorities. In fact, six of the most loyal Republican states slid back into the Democrat column. Lambasted in the press, and with blame falling squarely on his shoulders for the Fredericksburg debacle, with desertions averaging 5,000 men a month, Lincoln still pressed on with his plan to issue his final Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, even though he doubted its ability to withstand a Constitutional challenge.
Even an attempt to do good, to do right, drew fire. Frederick Douglass was openly critical of Lincoln, saying his "heart wasn't in it." Karl Marx likewise saw a lack of conviction and eloquence, calling the document "a dry summons from one lawyer to another." Seemingly undermined by his own cabinet, Lincoln was likewise seemingly friendless and lacked virtually any allies in Washington. Riddle of Ohio, one of the President's true supporters at the time, said he was aware of only two members in the House of Representatives who would support Lincoln. Charles Henry Dana was taken back by "the absence of personal loyalty" and concluded that if the Republican convention were reconvened Lincoln "wouldn't get a single vote." This at a time, too, when Copperheads in Ohio and Indiana first began rearing their ugly and traitorous heads.
Copperheads were incensed with profits Eastern businessmen were reaping at their expense. With the Mississippi River virtually choked off to waterborne commerce, farmers were forced to ship grain, beef, and pork by rail. Sentiment grew in favor of a Northwest confederacy, a confederacy that would create their own break from the Union and form relations with their traditional trading partners to the south. There was talk of pulling in New York and Pennsylvania, while casting New England fanatics adrift. With army enlistments virtually at a standstill and a draft being threatened, civilian disenchantment with Lincoln grew proportionately. Civil liberties and freedom of the press were all under threat from King Abraham I. The country was going to hell in a hand basket. Draft enrollment officers were going house to house, a sign certain that the Republican form of government was nearing an end, to be replaced by dictatorship.
New York City and other large American cities exploded in riot and flame shortly after the battle of Gettysburg. Gotham's, though, was the largest civilian insurgency in history and was only settled when army veterans were sent in and loosed musket and cannon fire upon the mostly Irish mob that terrorized the city for three days. Prior to the troops being called in, Lincoln had mirrored Nero. While Gettysburg and Vicksburg seemingly put the Union on the path to victory, 1864 only saw the slaughter increase, with 36,000 men falling in the first six weeks of the Overland Campaign alone.
With cries for an end to the slaughter and doubts there was an end in sight growing louder and more pronounced, Lincoln faced re-election. Radical Republicans saw their chance to relegate Lincoln to dishonorable obscurity in Springfield. Lincoln tried to beat the Radicals at their own game by stacking the Republican convention clearly to his own liking, but they struck back in August 1864 with the Wade-Davis manifesto, which attempted to wrestle control of Reconstruction policies from the President's hands. While Lincoln called it an "outrage of legislative authority," he and everyone else knew, including George McClellan the Democratic nominee, that he was a beaten man. Then, just three days after the latter's convention, Sherman sent his now famous telegram, informing Lincoln "Atlanta is ours and fairly won." As one observer so astutely remarked, that victory created "the most extraordinary change in public opinion ever known to man." Suddenly Republicans rallied fully behind Lincoln, not because they wanted to see him re-elected, but as Henry Winter-Davis of Maryland put it, "To keep out worse people."
Sherman's victory aside, as Tagg pointed out, Lincoln's popular vote in the North was only one per cent higher than in 1860 and in nine states his totals actually decreased. The margin in New York City was two to one against. Sherman's victory aside, "a slight shift in major states would have thrown the election to McClellan."
Aside from the soldier's vote which was decidedly in favor of Lincoln, there was little joy in Mudville. The LaCrosse Democrat hissed, "We hope a bold dagger will be found to plunge into Lincoln." Tagg expressed his own sense of disbelief that a Northern paper, not a Southern paper, but a Northern paper would openly call for the President to be assassinated.
Tagg reflected back to a question posed by one reader, who was half way through the book. "When do we get to see the good things about Lincoln?" Tagg's response to that reader and his audience at the conference was that "it was only with death that Lincoln's popularity soared." With death he became "the American Moses who led people out of the land of slavery." Even New York City, which had itself considered succeeding from the Union prior to Ft. Sumter and harbored deeply sympathetic sentiments toward the South throughout, swathed every building in black crepe and turned out by the hundereds of thousands to mourn at his open casket. "New York City never saw such a day."