O Captain My Captain (or, Happy Birthday Abe)

February 12th, 2010

Inspired by President Abraham Lincoln, born 201 years ago today.

“The strife of the election is but human nature practically applied to the facts of the case. What has occurred in this case must ever recur in similar cases. Human nature will not change. In any future great national trial, compared with the men of this, we shall have as weak and as strong, as silly and as wise, as bad and as good. Let us therefore study the incidents of this, as philosophy to learn wisdom from, and none of them as wrongs to be revenged.” – Abe Lincoln 11/08/1864 to a group of well-wishers congratulating him on his mid-war reelection, made possible after a string of battlefield victories restored public faith in his leadership (quoted in The Civil War, vol. 3 p. 626).

 I finished reading Shelby Foote’s excellent series The Civil War at 3:00 a.m. this morning. In my view, it is the best single work on the subject. It’s a three volume series and each volume is about 1000 pages, so it took me a long time to read it – the better part of a year, on and off. Now, having finished it, I have that dual sense of accomplishment and regret (that there’s no more to read) which one gets after completing a good book.

I didn’t finish it on Lincoln’s Birthday on purpose—it just worked out that way by chance, mostly because of extra time inside recently due to the big East Coast snowstorm. But since that’s how things worked out, I thought I’d make President Lincoln, the Civil War, and parallels to our own situation the top of today’s blog entry.

PS: The titular reference is to Whitman’s elegiac ode to Abraham Lincoln, written seven months after Lincoln’s assassination and subsequently included in the 1900 edition of Leaves of Grass. It is reproduced in its entirety below.

     Regardless of what the sale ads say,

Abe Lincoln wasn’t born on President’s Day.

Though we often celebrate by shopping in the USA,

This time, let’s celebrate Lincoln’s birth in a different way.

     Lincoln was an eloquent speaker

And decided at age 23 to become a public office seeker.

He won a seat in the Illinois State House

Where he opposition to slavery did espouse.

     He became a member of Congress for a two year spell,

Then returned to Illinois to practice law, and did quite well.

He ran against “DemocratStephen Douglas for Illinois’s US Senate seat:

Lincoln won the popular vote, but still went down in defeat.

     But the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates had attracted national attention–

Lincoln was nominated for Pres at the Republican National Convention.

Douglas was the Democratic nominee,

Making it a rematch of their Senate candidacy.

     The main issue was the same as before

(About which the Southern states would later go to war):

Whether new states should be admitted free or slave,

And whether slavery should be allowed to expand, the Union to save.

     Douglas wanted local populations to decide,

An approach which in Kansas lead to bloody fratricide.

Slave and free state supporters both streamed in en masse

And fought pitched battles there, a majority to amass.

     Lincoln was opposed to slavery’s further extension

And believed the Federal government should ensure it’s prevention.

Southern states believed that if it couldn’t expand, slavery would wither and die,

Even in the states that then had it, though I’m not sure why.

     Lincoln won in a landslide, and at 51 was elected President

(About the same age as the White House’s current resident).

The Southern states didn’t even wait for his Presidency to begin—

Seven of them seceded before Lincoln was even sworn in.

They had lost the election,

So resorted to armed insurrection.

      In his inaugural address, Lincoln proposed a Constitutional guarantee

That states in which it already existed could continue slavery.

The Deep South’s Party-of-No, already in a secessionist huff

Replied that that compromise wouldn’t be good enough.

     Lincoln continued to seek a peaceful solution

To uphold the Union and the Constitution.

He preferred negotiation to having the South militarily coerced,

And decided to not take military action unless the South struck first.

     That happened at Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861.

With South Carolina’s cannonade, the Civil War had begun.

With that cannonade, hope for a peaceful solution receded.

Lincoln called on loyal states to send volunteers, and the rest of the South seceded.

      The secessionists thought the war would be over quick–

They didn’t think the Union would have the necessary stomach.

The South needed only to survive, which gave them the strategic upper hand,

While the North had to invade and occupy a hostile land.

     What followed was a war the likes of which the world had never seen,

With casualties and destruction neither side had foreseen.

620 thousand men died, and many more were maimed,

For which those hot-headed secessionists should be fully blamed.

     Though the North had more manpower and industry, the result was not fore-ordained.

The North’s first incursions were defeated or contained.

Though out-gunned and out-manned,

Rebel armies struck PA and Maryland.

     For several years, the war was touch and go,

And the outcome was hard to know.

Confederate troops were brave and well led.

Union troops were well supplied and fed.

     The South sought foreign recognition and support

(Many military and civilian supplies required import),

Britain and France were sympathetic

But limited support due to slavery’s negative aesthetic.

     It’s said Lincoln freed the slaves, and that was partially true.

He’d always known it was the right thing to do,

But he waited a year (until September 1862)

When it became politically and militarily feasible too.

(He also wanted to thwart the South’s hope for international recognition,

Which the Proclamation did with France and Britain.)

     But the Emancipation Proclamation affected only Confederate states–

Slavery could remain in the Union-loyal slave states.

Lincoln did want to eliminate slavery there too, eventually,

By offering those states compensation to set their slaves free.

     Lincoln’s popularity plummeted when things weren’t going well

He was criticized by the opposition party, and many in his own as well.

When it came time for reelection, Lincoln’s prospects looked grim

The opposition candidate (McClellan) looked like he would beat him.

     If Lincoln had lost, the North probably would have sued for peace,

As a result of which, the Union would then cease.

The erstwhile United States would then have been cut in two

One slave, one free, one grey, one blue.

     But right before the election, Providence interceded–

Atlanta fell to Sherman, and the defeatists were defeated.

That victory did the election transform

(Even the opposition party candidate repudiated his platform).

      Lincoln was re-elected in an even bigger landslide

(78% of Union soldiers’ voted for his side).

After that, the march to victory was painful, but steady.

Lincoln called for sacrifice, and the population was ready.

     Lincoln realized the only way to save the Union would cost many lives,

And though that pained him, it’s because of this commitment the Union survives.

He did what had to be done, though it took 620 thousand dead.

How different history would have been if he’d lost in ‘64 instead.

     Seven months later, Lee surrendered at Appomattox,

Ending the most important theater’s conflicts.

The North rejoiced and called for a Presidential oration.

Lincoln spoke of rebuilding and reconciliation.

     Lincoln knew he’d succeeded and felt relieved,

But six days later, the Nation would be bereaved.

Sic semper tyrannis, John Wilkes Booth called out before he ran away

(That sounds unfortunately like what teabaggers at a Town Hall meeting would say).

     The South thought Lincoln a tyrant, and some rejoiced in his assassination.

But Jefferson Davis, no Lincoln fan, made a different calculation.

Defeated, he knew that Lincoln’s plan for reconciliation

Was the best chance for the South in a re-united Nation.

     When Gen. Johnston was told of the assassination

During a meeting with Sherman for surrender negotiation,

As soon as the words came out of Sherman’s mouth,

Johnston denounced the act as “the greatest possible calamity to the South.”

When some of Johnston’s men heard the news and began to favorably react,

Johnston and his officers forbade them from celebrating the act.

     Andrew Johnson assumed authority before Lincoln’s last breath

And succeeded as President on Lincoln’s death.

Johnson had said the South should be harshly punished for its rebellion.

The “hard peace” faction rejoiced at the expected arrival of a hellion.

     But Johnson honored Lincoln’s memory and stayed (mostly) true to his vision:

With malice toward none, with charity for all” became his new position.

The “hard peace” faction was furious at this portrayal

And impeached Johnson for his betrayal.

     Lincoln not only saved the Nation, he redefined it too,

Saying that moral principles had to be the basis for all we do.

His vision was for a single Nation (the South’s was the contrary),

And that the Nation had to be preserved, by force if necessary.

      People used to say “the US are” (since “States” is plural).

But after that bloody four year conflict intramural,

It’s no overstatement to say the credit is his,

That after Lincoln, both North and South said “the US is.”

     Though Lincoln was the Nation’s first President from the GOP,

It’s sad he wouldn’t pass current standards for ideological purity.

In fact, if Lincoln were alive today, he’d definitely be a Dem

(Given all the Republicans who want to secede, he’d disagree with them).

     What a betrayal of the GOP of old

That so many Republican leaders and voters the Union don’t want to uphold.

What is it about “a house divided against itself cannot stand

That Republicans don’t understand.

     Lincoln talked policy eloquently and in depth, with a smile,

And often reached out over the aisle.

He wanted his rivals “inside the tent pissing out

(That, after all, is what bipartisanship is all about).

     Now it’s no mystery

Who then was on the right side of history.

One hundred years from now

Will Republicans their current policies and tactics disavow?

     To this humble observer, parallels to the present are remarkable–

In many of the same ways as before, our Nation is in trouble.

But one Captain of the Ship of State is trying to keep hope alive.

Pray the similarities end before the events of April 14, 1865.


As illustrated by the quote above and his many other profound statements, Lincoln was one of the most eloquent speakers of his day – not bad for a backwoods lawyer mocked by his political opponents as being uneducated and uncouth. For more on his writings, speeches, sayings, and life story, check out the following in our Amazon store:

  1. The Writings of Abraham Lincoln (volume 1 in a 5 volume set. The price isn’t bad, but the Kindle price ($1) is a real bargain (click on “Kindle version” for that)
  2. The Life and Writings of Abraham Lincoln (a highly rated book with both a selection of Lincoln’s writings and a well-reviewed account of his life)
  3. The Wit and Wisdom of Abraham Lincoln (a collection of Lincoln’s witticisms and sayings to add to your library of his other written work—at this writing, a bargain at $2)
  4. Don’t forget Shelby Foote’s The Civil War: A Narrative, in my view the best single book/series about the Civil War (as the title implies, it’s written in narrative form, which makes it a lot easier and more interesting to read than the average history book). The series naturally isn’t exclusively about Lincoln, but Foote does spend a lot of time on him and his role in the war (juxtaposed with the same for Lincoln’s opposite number, Jeff Davis).
  5. Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, a well-reviewed book about how Lincoln included rather than excluded many of his political rivals (Lincoln was reported to have said that it was better to have adversaries in the tent pissing out than vice versa). Watch the video below for author Doris Kearn Goodwin’s appearance on the Daily Show to discuss it, her first of many appearances. I own it but haven’t gotten around to reading it yet.
  6. If you prefer your information visually, here’s the Ken Burns documentary, narrated by Morgan Freeman with interviews with Shelby Foote and others. It is extremely well done (in my view, the best documentary ever made about the Civil War, and some would say, about anything), and is of course worth watching whether you’ve read the book or not.

Here’s Team of Rivals author Doris Kearn Goodwin on the Daily Show (her first of many appearances) to discuss her book and Lincoln’s genius. Speaking of the Daily Show, that’s one thing I really like about Jon Stewart: when he has an author on, he actually reads their book.

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Doris Kearns Goodwin
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political Humor Health Care Crisis


For more on the linkages between Lincoln and Obama, read Lincoln and Obama — My Comparison (Mario Cuomo, Huffington Post 2/15/09).

And here’s the original “O Captain My Captain”

O Captain My Captain

Walt Whitman

initially published New York‘s Saturday Press in November 1865, then added to Leaves of Grass

      O Captain my Captain! our fearful trip is done,

The ship has weathered every rack, the prize we sought is won,

The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,

While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring;

But O heart! heart! heart!

O the bleeding drops of red,

Where on the deck my Captain lies,

Fallen cold and dead.

     O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells;

Rise up–for you the flag is flung for you the bugle trills,

For you bouquets and ribboned wreaths for you the shores a-crowding,

For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning;

Here Captain! dear father!

This arm beneath your head!

It is some dream that on the deck,

You’ve fallen cold and dead.

     My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still;

My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will;

The ship is anchored safe and sound, its voyage closed and done;

From fearful trip the victor ship comes in with object won;

Exult O shores, and ring O bells!

But I, with mournful tread,

Walk the deck my Captain lies,

Fallen cold and dead.

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11 Responses to “O Captain My Captain (or, Happy Birthday Abe)”

  1. Twitter Tweets about Obama as of 13. februar 2010 « Obame and Copenhagen Says:

    […] View Newsericks: #Politicalpoetry about Abe #Lincoln and his relevance to #Republicans today. http://www.newsericks.com/o-captain-my-captain #Obama #CivilWar 2010-02-13 19:22:02 · Reply · View mary_e_powers: RT @approject: […]

  2. Flyer Says:

    Yes, Lincoln was teh greatest president, for without him there would be no union, and the “American Age” would have never begun. How sad that the word “succession” can be thrown around so glibly by Texas politicians today, 145 years after a bloody civil war solved that issue.

  3. Newsericks » Blog Archive » Maryland, My Maryland Says:

    […] its name. It’s actually a pretty politically incorrect song—the “tyrant” referred to is Lincoln, and there’s a reference to “Northern scum” and joining sister state Virginia in the […]

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    […] showed Abraham Lincoln and the motto “sic semper […]

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    […] entitled to their own opinion,” like Lincoln […]

  6. Newsericks » Blog Archive » Smooth(er) Sailing for the Ship of State? Says:

    […] to help determine where the Ship of State should […]

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    […] I’m also afraid, Mr. Barber, that Lincoln would not support your position– […]

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    […] It was a bloody battle in a bloody war, […]

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    […] O Captain My Captain (or, Happy Birthday Abe) […]

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