, Salem, MA


December 29, 2012

Shribman: In search of our better angels


Lincoln was torn. He abhorred secession -- that was, after all, the public cause of the war he was prosecuting to salvage the Union. Secretary of State William H. Seward and Chase supported the move. Others in the Lincoln Cabinet, including Attorney General Edward Bates, resisted. But Lincoln knew of the military and symbolic importance of what was to become West Virginia.

“We can scarcely dispense with the aid of West Virginia in this struggle; much less can we afford to have her against us, in Congress and in the field,” he said. “Her brave and good men regard her admission into the Union as a matter of life and death. They have been true to the Union under very severe trials.”

The president acknowledged the contradiction implicit in admitting a seceded state into a nation at war over the principle of secession: “It is said that the admission of West Virginia is secession, and tolerated only because it is our secession. Well, if we call it by that name, there is still difference enough between secession against the Constitution and secession in favor of the Constitution.”

The president’s decision changed the map of the nation and the character of the region. “It resolved long-standing, simmering tensions and some outright conflict between the eastern and western parts of Virginia,” said Aaron Sheehan-Dean, a West Virginia University historian. “It reflected a fundamental division in the Old Dominion about economic development, the place of slavery in public life and the orientation of the state.”

Of even more importance is how that New Year’s Eve positioned Lincoln and, ultimately, the bloodied but unified nation that would emerge from the Civil War.

Lincoln’s conversion to abolitionism has long been debated by historians, who have tried to reconcile some of his remarks about relations between whites and blacks -- such as resolving problems by shipping blacks to Africa -- with his support of the Emancipation Proclamation.

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