Skip to Content

3 sentences from Abraham Lincoln to explain the Civil War to 2024 GOP candidates

Analysis by Zachary B. Wolf, CNN

(CNN) — One hundred sixty-three years after multiple Southern states seceded from the Union rather than accept a new president who was hostile to slavery, the origin of the Civil War is looming over another presidential election. The country is again contending with how to remember its original sin and with White supremacy, which remains a threat today.

On Monday, President Joe Biden compared Trump supporters who won’t accept the outcome of the 2020 presidential election with former Confederates who embraced the “lost cause” view of the Civil War, which saw the war from the perspective of White Southerners and sidestepped the issue of slavery.

“Now, we’re living in an era of a second lost cause,” Biden said. “Once again, there are some in this country trying to turn a loss into a lie. A lie which if allowed to live will once again bring terrible damage to this country. This time the lie is about the 2020 election.”

This 2024 focus on the Civil War started when former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, whose state was the first to secede before Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration all those years ago, failed last month to list slavery as a cause of the war during an appearance in New Hampshire as she seeks the GOP presidential nomination.

She later recalibrated her response to make clear “of course the Civil War was about slavery,” but also about individual freedoms, an issue that motivates Republican primary voters.

Haley should know how the Confederacy and racism echo still in the US; she was the Republican governor who removed the Confederate battle flag from the South Carolina statehouse grounds after a mass shooting at Mother Emanuel AME church in Charleston in 2015.

Notably, it’s from the pulpit at that church that Biden spoke Monday about the “poison” of White supremacy in current American society.

Over the weekend, former President Donald Trump, the current front-runner in the GOP race and a Northerner who now resides in the Southern state of Florida, said he can’t understand why the Civil War wasn’t negotiated rather than fought. He either forgot or does not know that the issue of slavery was the subject of multiple compromises in the decades leading up to the Civil War.

Plus, he argued that Lincoln, the father of the Republican Party, is only known today because of the war.

“If he negotiated it, you probably wouldn’t even know who Abraham Lincoln was,” Trump said, robbing the first Republican president of credit for the most important presidential act in US history: Emancipating the enslaved.

A third Republican presidential candidate, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, has criticized his party rivals for their comments.

“(Lincoln) ended up ushering in the abolition of slavery, and he saved the Union,” DeSantis told ABC News on Sunday.

But it should not fade from anyone’s memory that a year ago, DeSantis caused his own controversy by rejecting a new Advanced Placement African American studies course that he felt was biased. The Florida Board of Education also caused an uproar last year when it approved a new set of standards for how Black history should be taught in the state’s public schools based on an interpretation of a law DeSantis signed.

“DeSantis has used his fight against ‘wokeness’ to boost his national profile amid a national discussion of how racism and history should be taught in schools,” CNN reported at the time.

DeSantis should know something about the origins of the Civil War since he taught high school history at a private school in Georgia early in his career.

The New York Times reported in 2022 about his time at the school and interviewed students who said his views on the Civil War at the time were included in a parody video made by students.

From the Times report: The video, which was reviewed by The Times, includes a short snippet in which a voice purporting to be Mr. DeSantis is heard saying: “The Civil War was not about slavery! It was about two competing economic systems. One was in the North. …” while a student dozes in class. (A student voiced the role of Mr. DeSantis …)

Trump has also expressed frustration about the shift in how the public views the Civil War and during his presidency complained about efforts to remove statues that commemorated figures of the Confederacy like Gen. Robert E. Lee.

How Lincoln described the war

I talked to two Civil War historians about this new modern focus on the war between the states, and both argued it’s important to understand what happened in that moment when American democracy nearly ended.

There are more important things than dumping on politicians for not knowing history, according to Adam Rothman, a history professor at Georgetown University and founding director of the school’s Center for the Study of Slavery and Its Legacies.

“I do hope that it might cause some people to look a little bit deeper, to do the reading, to try to understand not just what the Civil War was about but what some of the different plausible interpretations are,” Rothman said, because historians debate this stuff.

When I asked Rothman for one thing everyone should read, he pointed me not to a long book or an academic paper, but rather Lincoln’s second inaugural address.

Delivered after his unexpected reelection and shortly before the end of the Civil War, it is universally regarded as one of the most important speeches in US history. Read the entire thing. It’s just over 700 words, short enough to fit on a wall at the Lincoln Memorial and which my editor will tell you is substantially shorter than this story you’re reading.

In it, Lincoln argues the war was God’s answer to the sin of slavery, proof both of why the war was fought and that it was ultimately unavoidable. Here are three key sentences from the speech:

If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which in the providence of God must needs come but which having continued through His appointed time He now wills to remove and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him.

Fondly do we hope ~ fervently do we pray ~ that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away.

Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword as was said three thousand years ago so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’

I also talked to Caroline Janney, a Civil War expert and history professor at the University of Virginia, about why it’s important to keep facts straight, in particular on the Civil War, as the country enters a contentious election year.

The Civil War “was absolutely the moment when democracy broke down in this country,” she said, adding, “there’s a lot of hyperbole about where we are as a fractured nation and where we stand with the fragility of democracy.”

The fact of the Civil War is that states seceded because they didn’t like the results of an election.

“I’m not trying to be waving my hands like some crazy historian, but I think we take for granted that our democracy will always be intact, and the Civil War was a moment when it wasn’t,” she said.

™ & © 2024 Cable News Network, Inc., a Warner Bros. Discovery Company. All rights reserved.

Article Topic Follows: CNN – Opinion

Jump to comments ↓

Author Profile Photo

CNN Newsource


News Channel 3-12 is committed to providing a forum for civil and constructive conversation.

Please keep your comments respectful and relevant. You can review our Community Guidelines by clicking here

If you would like to share a story idea, please submit it here.

Skip to content