Matters of time and timing

by | Jul 17, 2016 | News

If a 19th-century Time magazine had picked a Person of the Year for any of the war years, Abraham Lincoln would have been impossible to ignore. The mere fact of his election in 1860 stirred South Carolina to declare the Union dissolved and begin expropriating U.S. property. And Lincoln, once in office, went on to confirm the fire-eaters’ deepest fears while quashing their rebellion.

If you take some license and elbow Lincoln to the periphery, though, interesting candidates emerge. Some likely prospects still can’t make the cut.

John Brown, whose raid on the Harper’s Ferry arsenal left the plantation South teetering between panic and rage (Google the disposal of the arsenal’s assets), died well before the shelling of Fort Sumter, along with two North Carolina natives, one from Fayetteville and one from Raleigh.

Harriet Tubman’s Underground Railroad misses out for a different reason: Slaves and abolitionists knew of the Railroad, but the last thing any of them would have wanted was to blow their cover in a national magazine.

Consider escaped slave Frederick Douglass, whose drive and eloquence not only fired the abolition movement but influenced U.S. military policy regarding African-American recruits while the war was going on. Douglass was in the front rank of those determined to present former slaves not merely as beneficiaries, but as instruments of their own deliverance.

William Seward, having led the 1860 Republican convention through two ballots, could have taken his marbles and gone home after the convention swung to Lincoln, the consensus candidate. Instead, Seward accepted Lincoln’s offer of the politically risky job of Secretary of State, and was for the duration of the war one of Lincoln’s closest, savviest and most valuable advisers.

How about William T. Sherman? Lincoln proclaimed emancipation, but it was Sherman who physically delivered it to the South. This one is tricky because Sherman’s interest was in quelling a rebellion and subduing people he considered traitors. Freeing slaves helped that cause along, but Sherman was a racist who made his peculiar views on the Peculiar Institution clear to a Cumberland County delegation begging him to spare the local mills. Blacks and cotton, he said, had caused the war, adding, “I wish them both in hell.” The mills were burned. But being a nice guy is not the standard for a cover shot, so Sherman remains in the running as one of most influential figures of 1864 and 1865 for the simplest of reasons: He got the job done.

On the other side of the struggle, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s tactical cunning and total commitment caused or enabled Confederate victories that could easily have made him a cover story before he dallied outside his lines and was mortally wounded by Confederate troops under the command of a blameless colonel from Bladen County, who himself fell in battle the next day. It isn’t necessary to speculate about what Jackson might have accomplished had he survived. His battlefield successes had already made him a legend.

Look, next, at another political leader: North Carolina-born Andrew Johnson, Lincoln’s successor. Johnson, an unbending Unionist, helped get Lincoln re-elected. But he was no fan of abolition and quickly washed his hands of Reconstruction, knowing that the states of the late Confederacy would re-establish the old white-supremacist order. With the war over and the arduous business of ensuring equal rights waiting, Johnson was exactly the wrong leader at exactly the wrong time.

How, though, do you make Johnson your Person of the Year without even taking note of the man who put him in a position to blow America’s main chance at assimilating freed slaves into the nation’s political, economic and social life? Like it or not, one of the strongest candidates for the 1865 recognition would have had to be none other than John Wilkes Booth, whose hateful legacy haunts us still.

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