President Lincoln vs. Your Hopes and Dreams

Lincoln Thumbs Up

“And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed – if all records told the same tale – then the lie passed into history and became truth. ‘Who controls the past,’ ran the Party slogan, ‘controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.’ And yet the past, though of its nature alterable, never had been altered. Whatever was true now was true from everlasting to everlasting. It was quite simple. All that was needed was an unending series of victories over your own memory. ‘Reality control,’ they called it: in Newspeak, ‘doublethink.'” ~ George Orwell, 1984

Before I say anything else, let me begin by assuring you that I don’t hate Abraham Lincoln. Indeed, I don’t even hate Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, or Kermit Gosnell. The Christian faith forbids me to hate any man, living or dead. As the Eastern Orthodox are wont to say, it’s heresy to teach that all men are saved, but it’s pious to hope so. That there will be people in hell after the Last Judgment, I believe (and I tremble), for Scripture tells of such a doom. Who they are, however, I have no way of knowing, and neither do you. Frankly it’s none of our business. I am not the Judge, and neither are you. This is a tangent.

I’ll try again…

I don’t hate Abraham Lincoln, but I don’t like him very much. Admittedly, this is somewhat less his fault than it is the fault of his popularizers— be they left or right— who seem to regard him with the sort of breathless awe usually reserved for the sacraments of the Church. I shouldn’t blame him for it, and in truth I don’t. Still, I dislike the sanctified mythos with which he is so often shrouded, as though he were the recipient of some divine anointing commissioned to turn the wheel of Progress. I don’t believe that he was such a recipient; at the same time, I most certainly do believe that he “turned the wheel of Progress.” I’m just not so sure that it was a good thing.

No, no, no— calm down! I’m not talking about Lincoln “freeing the slaves”! I’m just as glad as the next person that American slavery came to an end— that’s not the issue. I’m just of the opinion that Lincoln opened a Pandora’s Box of political and social progressivism in a very big, very bad, very insidious way, and that we’re paying for the whole kit-and-kaboodle of it big-time now. (Then again, I also think he was simply exploiting congenital flaws which had been present in the American republic ever since the adoption of the Federal Constitution in 1787.) No, not by making ruthless war on the Southern states (although that was very bad, and he shouldn’t have done that). Not by suspending habeas corpus (although that was very bad, and he shouldn’t have done that, either). Not by not freeing slaves (he didn’t free a single slave— not a one.) No— Lincoln did something much more fantastically ludicrous than any of that:

Lincoln somehow made people believe that he was the ardent foe of racial inequality when in fact he was its ardent defender; he made people believe that he was the principled opponent of slavery, when in fact he only opposed it when it was politically and militarily expedient. He didn’t make people then believe this; he made people now believe this.

I’m being a bit hucksterish and dramatic, of course— Lincoln himself didn’t really do any of that. He was dead by the time people were varnishing his legacy. In fact, I would submit that the martyr-esque manner of his death was greatly assistive to that end. Not rocket science, right?

more2Seriously, though, folks: whether, like Ulysses S. Grant, you think that the Southern states were within their rights to peacefully secede from the Union*, or whether you think that they weren’t, you need to just cut it out with the swooning over Lincoln. It’s like the Controllers from Brave New World just fogged everyone with soma and then sat them down for “Tales of Lincoln the Great Social-Justice Crusader”— for, oh, 150 years or so. Lincoln was as racist as they come. It’s a cliché, but he was a man of his times, just like you’re a man of your times— sorry, champ, but you just are, as am I. (Oh, no! Hegelian! Historicist!)

If you still want to like Abraham Lincoln, go right ahead. Just don’t like him for his enlightened stances on racial equality— he didn’t have any such stance. Don’t like him because he was a principled opponent of race-based chattel slavery— he was no such thing. Don’t like him because he supported diversity— he didn’t: he wanted to ship free blacks back to Africa and Central America so that the Union could stay homogeneously white. It would also be pretty dumb to hate Lincoln for any of the above reasons, for, again, he was a man of his times. However, I can understand disliking his calculating, fairweather, and altogether opportunistic opposition to chattel race-based slavery. I personally find it just a little bit disgusting how he played politics with the lives of slaves. Pretty poor form on his part, all things considered.

With that said, it’d be even poorer form for you to go on thinking that Lincoln really cared all that much about freeing slaves when, really, he didn’t. If you, like Lincoln, think that the sanctity and wholeness of the Most Blessed Union needed to be preserved at all costs— even if that cost were an amendment to the US Constitution guaranteeing the indefinite perpetuity of slavery in the states where it remained legal if they would give up on secession; even if that cost was 600,000 dead— then go ahead and like him for that reason. Like him for another reason of your choice. Go ahead an give him a big ol’ blue thumbs-up— you’re a man of your time, after all! As one of my economics profs in college used to say, “That’s fine, if you want to do it that way.” Go ahead and do that; I just won’t be joining you. If you do like Lincoln, though, I would be remiss if I did not warn you that you will probably find reading the following quotations to be a rather bracing experience.

Slightly related question— usually, in a civil war, there are two or more internal factions warring for control of a nation and its government. Right? Right.

OK. Just wanted to be clear on that.

Without further ado, the following excerpt is taken from Patrick J. Buchanan’s Suicide of a Superpower (NB: section-title original; boldface emphases are mine).


“We can not … make them equals”

What of Lincoln? Did the author of the Emancipation Proclamation believe in the equality of all men?

The Lincoln Americans know, the father figure with the wise and wonderful wit who came out of Illinois to free the slaves, who would have marched with Martin Luther King— this Lincoln would be unrecognizable to his contemporaries. While as early as 1854 Lincoln condemned slavery as a “monstrous injustice” and bravely took the anti-slavery side in his debates with Stephen Douglas, here is the Republican Senate candidate on the stump, in Charleston, Illinois, on September 18, 1858, after having been baited by the “Little Giant” on where he stood on social and political equality:

I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races,— that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races from living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race. (Roy P. Basler, ed., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, vol. 3; New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1953; 145-146)

For a candidate to make such a white-supremacist statement today would mean the end of his career. Four years earlier, at Peoria on October 16, 1854, Lincoln confessed his ambivalence as to what should be done with the freedmen, were slavery to be abolished:

If all earthly power were given me, I should not know what to do, as to the existing institution. My first impulse would be to free all the slaves, and send them to Liberia,— to their own native land.… [But] Free them, and make them politically and socially, our equals? My own feelings will not admit of this; and if mine would, we well know that those of the great mass of white people will not.… A universal feeling , whether well or ill-founded, can not be safely disregarded. We can not, then, make them equals. (ibid., vol. 5; 255-256)

Lincoln is saying that a belief in white supremacy is a “universal feeling” of the “great mass of white people” in America. And he shares it. He believed in freedom for all, but not equality for all, other than that black and white share a common humanity and have an equal right to be free. After his assertion “We can not … make them equals,” Lincoln continued:

I have never said anything to the contrary, but I hold that, notwithstanding all this, there is no reason in the world why the negro is not entitled to all the rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence— the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. I hold that he is as much entitled to these as the white man. I agree with Judge Douglas, he is not my equal in many respects,— certainly not in color, perhaps not in moral or intellectual achievements. But in the right to eat the bread, without leave of anybody else, which his own hand earns, he is my equal, and the equal of Judge Douglas, and the equal of every living man. (ibid.)

Eloquent, and, in its time, heroic. At the time of the Dred Scott decision in 1857, which he deplored, Lincoln explained his views as to what the Founding Fathers meant with those famous words in Philadelphia:

I think the authors of that notable instrument intended to include all men, but they did not intend to declare all men equal in all respects. They did not mean to say all were equal in color, size, intellect, moral developments, or social capacity. They defined with tolerable distinctness, in what respects they did consider all men created equal— equal in “certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” This they said, and this They meant. (SOURCE)

What Lincoln is saying is this: Negroes have the same God-given rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness as white men and the declaration of 1776 is a promissory note they shall one day enjoy those same rights. But while all men are equal in God-given rights, they are not equal in God-given talents.

A man must be measured against his time. “[J]udge not that ye be not judged!” said Lincoln in his Second Inaugural. His position on slavery, that it was evil and he would have no part in it, was that of a principled politician of courage. His views on equality were the views of his countrymen.

But if Lincoln did not go to war to make men equal, did he go to war to “make men free”? No. Lincoln went to war to restore the Union after the flag was fired on at Fort Sumter. In his first inaugural address, on March 4, 1861, he offered the seven seceded states the assistance of the federal government in running down fugitive slaves and endorsed an amendment to the Constitution to make slavery permanent in all 15 states where it existed. As he wrote Horace Greeley on August 22, 1862, “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union and is not either to save or destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it.…” (Basler, vol. 5; 388)

Nevertheless, on January 1, 1863, in his Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln declared free slaves in rebel-held territory, and supported a constitutional amendment to free all slaves. And in his second inaugural, a month before his death in April 1865, Lincoln declared,

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 up by the bond-man’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.” (Willmore Kendall, Contra Mundum; New York: Arlington House, 1971; 351-352)

Lincoln’s second inaugural could have been written by John Brown. Lincoln is saying that we Americans are being punished by God for having enslaved these people for two and half centuries and having failed to live up to the meaning of our creed. He is declaring the six hundred thousand American dead already piled up as God’s righteous retribution upon us as a people.

Yet the Second Inaugural is not about the equality of all men. It is about the equal right of all to be free, about an end to slavery. Not for ninety years after the Declaration of Independence did the idea of equality— missing from the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, The Federalist Papers, and from national policy— appear. And then it was in the Fourteenth Amendment and was restricted to the “equal protection of the laws.”

No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

(Patrick J. Buchanan. Suicide of a Superpower: Will America Survive to 2025? New York: St. Martin’s Press. 197-201)

* From “A Condensed Look at the Southern Side of the Civil War,” by Michael T. Griffith:
None other than Ulysses S. Grant, the commanding general of the Union army for much of the Civil War and later a president of the United States, admitted he believed that if any of the original thirteen states had wanted to secede in the early days of the Union, it was unlikely the other states would have challenged that state’s right to do so. Grant also conceded he believed the founding fathers would have sanctioned the right of secession rather than see a war “between brothers.” Said Grant,
If there had been a desire on the part of any single State to withdraw from the compact at any time while the number of States was limited to the original thirteen, I do not suppose there would have been any to contest the right, no matter how much the determination might have been regretted. . . .
If they [the founding fathers] had foreseen it, the probabilities are they would have sanctioned the right of a State or States to withdraw rather than that there should be war between brothers. (The Personal Memoirs Of Ulysses S. Grant, Old Saybrook, Connecticut: Konecky & Konecky, 1992, reprint of original edition, pp. 130-131)
The Confederacy did not want war. One of the first things Jefferson Davis did after assuming office as president of the Confederacy was to send a peace delegation to Washington, D.C., in an effort to establish friendly ties with the federal government (Cooper, Jefferson Davis, American, pp. 360-362; Kenneth Davis, Don’t Know Much About the Civil War, New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1996, pp. 156-157). The Confederacy offered to pay the South’s share of the national debt and to pay compensation for all federal installations in the Southern states (Charles Roland, The Confederacy, University of Chicago Press, 1960, p. 28; Patrick, Jefferson Davis and His Cabinet, p. 77; William C. Davis, Look Away! A History of the Confederate States of America, New York: The Free Press, 2002, p. 87). The Confederacy also announced that Northern ships would continue to enjoy free navigation of the Mississippi River (Hummel, Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men, p. 138; Davis, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, Volume 1, pp. 210-213). Yet, Lincoln rejected all Confederate peace offers and insisted that federal armies would invade if the Southern states didn’t renounce their independence and recognize federal authority.
It should be pointed out that many Northern citizens opposed the war and believed the South should be allowed to leave in peace. Dozens of Northern newspapers expressed the view that the Southern states had the right to peacefully leave the Union and that it would be wrong to use force to compel them to stay. Even President James Buchanan told Congress in an official message shortly before Lincoln assumed office that the federal government had no right to use force against the seceded states.
The standard textbook answer to this question is that the South obviously started the war because it “fired the first shot” by attacking Fort Sumter, which was located in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina. Most textbooks don’t mention several facts that put the attack in proper perspective. For example, after the Fort Sumter incident, the Confederacy continued to express its desire for peaceful relations with the North. Not a single federal soldier was killed in the attack. The Confederates allowed the federal troops at the fort to return to the North in peace after they surrendered. South Carolina and then the Confederacy offered to pay compensation for the fort. Lincoln later admitted he deliberately provoked the attack so he could use it as justification for an invasion. The Confederates only attacked the fort after they learned that Lincoln had sent an armed naval convoy to resupply the federal garrison at the fort. The sending of the convoy violated the repeated promises of Lincoln’s secretary of state, William Seward, that the fort would be evacuated. Seward continued to promise the Confederacy that the fort would be evacuated even after he knew that Lincoln had decided to send the convoy. Major John Anderson, the Union officer who commanded the federal garrison at the fort, opposed the sending of the convoy, because he felt it would violate the assurances that the fort would be evacuated, because he knew it would be viewed as a hostile act, and because he did not want war. Several weeks before the Fort Sumter incident, Lincoln virtually declared war on the South in his inaugural address, even though he knew the Confederacy wanted peaceful relations.

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