We Cannot Escape History

December 5, 2012

“We Cannot Escape History”—Revisiting Abraham Lincoln

Abraham LincolnWith the release of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, our attention as Americans has once again turned to our nation’s 16th president. Spielberg’s Lincoln is a statesman. Though firm in his convictions, Lincoln is never disdainful of the challenges of politics – some must be persuaded to see truths that may appear self-evident, others must be persuaded to accept smaller victories on the way to larger changes. Lincoln’s statesmanship appears, among other places, in his Second Annual Message to Congress.

This month, Ashbrook’s Ellen Tucker addresses Lincoln and his 1862 message to Congress.

Abraham Lincoln’s Annual Message to Congress in 1862 is evidence of his statesmanship. (Prior to the modern age of presidential politics, where every presidential address — particularly the state of the union address to Congress — is like a campaign speech read before a national audience, presidents would report to Congress on the state of the union in written messages like Lincoln’s Message.) It shows his vision for the Union as it should be, as well has his capacity for employing careful policy analysis and his skills of persuasion in service of that vision.

Despite his preoccupation with the Union war effort, which in 20 months had seen no clear victory, and despite disappointing results for the Republican Party in the November 1862 elections, Lincoln draws a confident and comprehensive view of the national situation. He envisions a unified republican government that spans the continent, ultimately reunited in peace as well as in a common understanding that the human labor needed to build the country must be free.

Lincoln reports on the mundane business of the nation: the creation of the Agriculture Department, the fiscal soundness of the Post Office and the federal balance sheet — which, strikingly, remained in the black, despite war expenditures. Much of the speech discusses national projects that the Civil War had interrupted, such as the opening of new western lands to settlement and the building of the transcontinental railroad. These remarks lead Lincoln to detail practical reasons for continuing to prosecute the war against the rebel states. While in earlier speeches Lincoln argued from political principle against the southern secession, here Lincoln relates the inviolability of the Union to America’s westward expansion. He notes that Americans have come to expect their commerce and travel to be freely conducted across the whole continent, and he reminds Congress that prior to the Civil War the country had exhausted all its practical options for living as a single nation with two different labor systems: free labor in the North and slave labor in the South.

He devotes the latter part of the message to a proposal for gradual and compensated emancipation of all the nation’s slaves, arguing that this action would render continuance of the rebellion pointless to the seceding states. Two months earlier, Lincoln had publicized the Emancipation Proclamation, due to become effective on January 1, 1863. An executive action by the commander in chief, it would weaken the Confederate states’ war effort by freeing their slave labor force. For much of the previous year, however, Lincoln had pushed the plan he details in the annual message, earnestly believing it could shorten the costly war.

In sum, the message is a minutely reasoned argument for pursuing a difficult policy that many in Congress, both staunch abolitionists and those who wished to abandon the war, would not find appealing. Lincoln reiterates to Americans that there would be no easy way out of the tangle created by the nation’s initial acceptance of slavery. He concludes sternly yet optimistically, with the words Aaron Copeland would memorialize in his Lincoln Portrait:

The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.

Fellow citizens, we cannot escape history.

Ellen Tucker, Ph.D., Publications Editor, Ashbrook Center

Interested in having a webinar for your students about Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War? Click here to learn more about Ashbrook’s Student Webinars.

Celebrate Bill of Rights Day – December 15

Teachers of American history and government – Celebrate Bill of Rights Day, December 15. On this day 221 years ago, the Virginia assembly added its assent to that of ten other states who had already ratified a set of amendments to the new Constitution, producing the three-quarters majority necessary to make these amendments law. For more of the story, click here.

A valuable resource for study of the Bill of Rights is now available on the TAH website: an interactive exhibit designed by Professor Gordon Lloyd to complement his exhibits on the Constitutional Convention and the Ratification debates. Celebrate Bill of Rights day by exploring our new exhibit.

Enroll Today in a Spring 2013 Live Online Graduate Course in American History and Government

Ashbrook’s Live Online Graduate Courses in American History and Government are designed with the social studies teacher in mind. Courses are live and online – no boring recorded lectures, and no assignments that you complete anonymously and send to a professor you never see. Courses are condensed and conveniently scheduled so you can earn two graduate credits in just eight weeks! Use these credits to update your skills and credentials, to apply to a Master’s degree, or apply them toward our Master of Arts in American History and Government.

For course listings, or to enroll, click here.

Live Online Saturday Seminars for Teachers – Sign Up for this Saturday’s Webinar on George Washington

The Ashbrook Center is pleased to offer social studies teachers a series of FREE online seminars this school year. These seminars are on Saturday mornings throughout the fall and spring semesters. Seminars are designed to give teachers the opportunity to learn about and discuss important topics and texts in American history and government with nationally recognized scholars and teachers.

The Live Online Saturday Seminars will be broadcast through the WebEx Training Center. If you have a computer with a standard web browser and a broadband internet connection, participation is as simple as clicking on a link; WebEx Training Center will take care of the rest.

Our next Live Online Saturday Seminar is this Saturday, December 8 from 10 am until Noon (Eastern). The topic is George Washington and it will be taught by Prof. William Allen (Michigan State University)

For more information, or to register, click here.

“The kids were really engaged!”: Ashbrook High School Webinar Series

New! Engage your students with a free webinar designed to bring the nation’s best historical scholarship into your classroom. With basic technology, your students can learn from leading scholars in US history and government. You and your students can see, hear, and speak to our professors live and online.

Each webinar investigates key themes in American history and government. For more information about the program or to apply to host a webinar in your classroom, click here.

Constitution Booklets Available

The Ashbrook Center offers a pocket-sized booklet that holds key texts of the American founding, including the Declaration of Independence and the entire text of the US Constitution and its amendments, as well as key primary texts interpreting these. These convenient booklets make excellent classroom resources for American history, civics, and government classes.

Copies of the booklet are available for $2.00 each. Special bulk pricing is available for quantities of 10, 25, 100 or more. Standard shipping and handling is included at no charge; rush delivery is available for an additional fee.

To order, call (877) 289-5411 or visit

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