Mark E. Neely Jr., Lincoln scholar and Pulitzer Prize winning historian, is the author of The Last Best Hope of Earth: Abraham Lincoln and the Promise of America. In his book Neely claims, “The President carefully shaped his words in public letters, papers, and proclamations meant to explain the purpose of the war and to inspire devotion to it. Lincoln acted to shape opinion only occasionally. He was more often reacting…”1 While some scholars argue that Lincoln’s word choice and rhetoric were used to persuade the American public into supporting the Civil War, Neely suggests that his language was merely a reaction to the events of the Confederate revolt and the Civil War that ensued. To Neely it seems that Lincoln was not intentionally producing propaganda, but trying to keep the country together and appealing to the hearts of all Americans through his poetic language.
Many years before Neely’s work, David Herbert Donald, the leading Lincoln scholar to date and respected Civil War era historian published his book, Lincoln Reconsidered. Contrary to Neely’s beliefs, Donald praises Lincoln’s “talent for passivity” and believes that he did not only intentionally wait to react after an event occurred, but that this was an elaborate political strategy he employed to maintain his neutrality as leader of the entire United States of America. During Lincoln’s presidency, the nation was not only divided between North and South, but also between pro-slavery and anti-slavery. It was necessary for him to choose his words very carefully, so that he would not upset one group of people and “because any action would offend somebody, he took as few actions as possible.”2 This apparent passivity was actually an elaborately planned political strategy Lincoln used to keep the United States of America united.
Throughout Lincoln’s presidency, he continuously reaffirms his love for his country and his desire to preserve it as it was modeled in the Declaration of Independence, but his tone changes from indirect and appeasing to commanding over time. In his First Inaugural Address in 1861, Lincoln opens with the statement that “Apprehension seems to exist among the people of the Southern States that by the accession of a Republican administration their property and their peace and personal security are to be endangered. There has never been any reasonable cause for apprehension.”3 He suggests that the people of the Southern states are exaggerating the issue at hand and that seceding from the union is neither justifiable nor a resolution to their concerns. At this point, Lincoln’s sole intention is to keep the country united, and he does not believe that he has done anything to make the Southern states secede. He tries to make Americans aware of the major problems that will arise if states continue to secede and the threat of Civil War. Rather than tell them what must be done, he ends with “In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow-countrymen and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war.”4 He does not implement a law nor a plan of action but rather continues to stimulate the pathos of the American people and reminds them that “The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-filed and patriot grave to every living heart and hearth-stone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”5 In his First Inaugural Address, Lincoln appears passive in his word choice and failure to lay out any plan of action to address the issues at hand.