April 1, 2011
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1864: Lincoln At The Gates Of History

by Charles Bracelen Flood

In perhaps the great political reversal in the history of democracy, the year 1864 transformed Lincoln’s legacy. Entering the year, his administration was hapless, its policies discredited, its personnel were considered inept and its military strategy was a disaster. Lincoln himself seemed destined to be remembered as one of the worst one-term presidents in history, a western comic unfit for the office. Eleven months later, he was reelected in a landslide and his party became forever the Party Of Lincoln.

What happened? Flood believes the crucial moment was Atlanta, where Sherman’s conquest reversed an unending flow of bad news. This seems incomplete, for the Union had won victories before, and it’s not clear to me that a contemporary who was unconvinced by Vicksburg, Gettysburg and the Wilderness campaign would be converted by the fall of Atlanta. I have no doubt it was true, but I’m not certain I understand why it was true, or what contemporaries knew about it.

An unfortunate transformation wrought in the 20th century White House is the complete isolation of the president from people with commonplace concerns. In 1864, if you could afford a decent suit, you walk right into the White House on New Years Day and shake the president's hand and say a word or two. Lincoln kept office hours, and people frequently brought him constituent problems of all sorts – lost army paperwork, pleas to pardon loved ones, inventions, or simply wanting to look him in the eye and see the face of the man whose pen had freed a people.