The Free Press, Mankato, MN

December 31, 2012

Our View: Political greatness, 150 years ago


The Free Press

— At a time when American government and leadership sees so hopelessly lacking, it's informative to look back, 150 years ago today, when one of America's finest moments, produced by one of our finest leaders, occurred with enactment of the Emancipation Proclamation.

Abraham Lincoln's amazing leadership and political acumen helped define the greatness that America and its form of government can produce.

Unlike too many politicians who let public opinion and political ambitions trump good policy, Lincoln worked tirelessly to end slavery, first through a presidential proclamation and later as he pushed ferociously for passage of the 13th Amendment to forever abolish slavery.

In the midst of a long and devastating Civil War, the proclamation was not popular. By issuing a preliminary text of the proclamation in the fall of 1862, just prior to congressional elections, Lincoln knew his party would take a beating  -- and it did.

"Looked at coldly, the timing of the Proclamation amounted to political suicide: Lincoln was putting the most highly charged issue of the war before the voters, and the voters into the hands of the opposition, without any time for the shock to wear off," wrote Allen C. Guelzo in his book: "Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America."

Lincoln had shown similar courage in the face of political opposition that same year in a decision tied directly to Mankato and the plains of southern Minnesota. After 303 Dakota Indians had been condemned to death by hanging in Mankato following the war of 1862, Lincoln put a hold on the executions until he could review the cases.

Warned that commuting the sentences of any of the Dakota would be politically dangerous as there was a deep sense of vengeance in the Minnesota territory, Lincoln replied that he "could not hang men for votes." He commuted the sentence of 265 Dakota.

There remain critics  who claim Lincoln was not personally sincere about emancipation, but that it was simply a convenient war strategy. But numerous examples show that was not the case.

Not only was he so adamant about it that he risked political disaster, he publicly and privately demonstrated his commitment.

When challenged by a delegation of Unionist Kentuckians on whether or not he was sincere in his emancipation strategy Lincoln is quoted as saying he "would rather die than take back a word of the Proclamation of Freedom."

And according to Guelzo's book, Lincoln had come to believe that emancipation of the slaves was God's will, and was demanded by the Declaration of Independence.

At a time when politicians in Washington can't even find a way to pass a budget, Lincoln's leadership looks particularly unparalleled.