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Abraham Lincoln’s face graces both the penny and the five dollar bill. From an imposing memorial, a King Kong-proportioned statue of Lincoln commands a view of Washington, DC His birthday has been combined with George Washington’s to form a national holiday. His face has even been carved into the side of a mountain-certain to puzzle archeologists ten thousand years from now. They will likely conclude that the faces represent the gods of an ancient American civilization. In many ways, they would be correct; 130 years after his assassination he has been deified. A century of history texts have painted Abraham Lincoln as a sort of messiah. Unfortunately, Lincoln never lived up to the legend.
Like many historical figures, Lincoln’s ‘urban myths’ erupted soon after his death. Many of these tales had some grounding in fact in the beginning but like children playing telephone, with each telling the stories grew, and changed. Every historian and writer put his own twist on the legends. Even without trying, word choice significantly changes the meaning of a sentence or paragraph. The evolving Abraham Lincoln was a compilation of stories ranging from reasonable to outrageous. Lincoln may indeed have been the fastest rail cutter in Illinois but it’s very unlikely that he was born in a cabin he had built himself. Most of the absurd stories are relatively easy to spot. Unfortunately, many of the most wide spread are both inaccurate and believed.
Lincoln and Slavery
"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...I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of making voters or jurors of Negroes, not of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people."
Abraham Lincoln(Zinn 184)
Lincoln’s most enduring ‘legacy’ is the abolition of slavery and establishment of voting rights for blacks. Lincoln was not an abolitionist(though his enemies hoped to depict him as such). Lincoln was not an advocate of civil rights for blacks. Lincoln’s objections to the institution of slavery were quite limited. While, from time to time, he did state that slavery was an immoral institution, he clearly did not support granting freed slaves the right to vote or participate in government.
Lincoln was a product of his environment. While pondering the fate of newly freed slaves, he dismissed the concept of social and political equality, "Negro equality! fudge!" (Gould 66) Though he could come to terms with the idea of freed slaves, he was simply unable to picture blacks as full citizens. He concluded
"By 1863, Lincoln had suspended habeas corpus for draft dodgers and rebel sympathizers. The government also opened private mail and shut down newspapers. To many in the North and John Wilkes Booth, this was tyranny--pure and simple(Turner)"
Lincoln extended the powers of the presidency further than any president before him. Upon learning of the attack on Fort Sumter, Lincoln immediately declared an ‘insurrection’, federalized state militias, blockaded many of the South’s largest ports, and spent $2 million on the Union Army. He did all these things without the consent of Congress(Turner). Lincoln also disrupted the democratic process by arresting 31 members of the Maryland State Legislature who were expected to vote in favor of secession from the Union.
Lincoln’s dedication to fighting a war for unity led him to strictly enforce his will against those who disagreed with him. As Prof. Howard Zinn states, "The unity was weaned by rhetoric and enforced by arms. It was a war proclaimed as a war for liberty, but working people would be attacked by soldiers if they dared to strike, Indians would be massacred in Colorado by the U.S. army, and those daring to criticize Lincoln’s policies would be put in jail without trial-perhaps thirty thousand political prisoners." (Zinn 228) Lincoln’s iron fist gained him many enemies in both the North and the South.
"The American government had set out to fight the slave states in 1861, not to end slavery, but to retain the enormous national territory and market and resources. Yet, victory required a crusade, and the momentum of that crusade brought new forces in to nation politics..." (Zinn 193)
To say that the Civil War had nothing to do with slavery would be simplistic; to say that the Civil War was about slavery would be idiocy. To the businessmen of the North, the South represented key resources that would be needed as the industrial revolution geared up. The South was also home to much of the nation’s agriculture including cash crops like tobacco and cotton. Lost of the South could destabilize the futures market where many of these same men were deeply invested. Unfortunately for the elite, most Northerners were of mixed opinion about a war against the Confederacy.
The North was deeply divided. Radical abolitionists called for a war to end slavery. Industrialists wanted to regain the lost territory. Some Unionists favored a war to regain the territory and free the slaves while others were solely interested in restoring Federal control. Still others supported the decision of the Confederate states to form their own governments. Lincoln was faced with the dilemma of raising troops and support for an invasion of the South without a clear portion of the populace in favor of his plan. He needed a cause for the North to rally behind.
His first step was to initiate a draft for 500,000 men. with minimal training these first line troops were deployed to secure the border states. As mentioned above, Lincoln also began having legislators in border states arrested to prevent further loss of territory. By fortifying the Union and engaging Northern troops against Southern, he earned the grudging approval of the North.
The abolitionists pressed Lincoln to escalate the war by making it a war against slavery. By mobilizing hundreds of thousands of Northerners, the abolitionists were able to inundate the capital with letters and petitions calling for the end of slavery. The abolitionists played into Lincoln’s hands; in one swoop Lincoln had found a crusade and had gained very vocal and active supporters. In his Emancipation Proclamation(Sept. 22, 1862), Lincoln freed the slaves in the rebelling states (Emancipation Proclamation 652).
Lincoln proved himself to be a very adept politician. He was able to pull together many diverse groups under one banner. Few argue that the Union victory was anything but devastating and decisive; the real question remains: was the Union right in its actions?
Tyranny or Self Government
"The South are not, nor have they been fighting for the continuance of slavery...their causes since for war have been as noble, and greater far than those that urged our fathers on. Even should we allow, they were wrong at the beginning of this contest, cruelty and injustice have made the wrong become the right...The South can make no choice. It is either extermination or slavery for themselves(worse than death) to draw from. I would know my choice."
J. Wilkes Booth (Turner)
The question behind the war was clearly not slavery. Nor could it be said that the concerns of Northern industrialists initiated the conflict. The root cause was a question of freedom. The Confederate states left the Union because they believed that individuals have the right to choose their own leaders. The founders of the Confederacy were far more comparable with the Founding Fathers than Lincoln. The South left the Union because they felt that the principles behind the Declaration of Independence had been lost to the growing federal government.
The South had concluded that the government(controlled by the North) had deviated so far from the Constitution, that they were duty-bound to rebel against it.
The question must be asked: did Abraham Lincoln fill the constitutional definition of a tyrant? He had legislators arrested to prevent the democratic process. He closed down opposition newspapers and imprisoned his critics. He had mail searched. He ignored the Congress and spent money and entered a military conflict without consent. He was guilty of many of the things the Founding Fathers listed in the Declaration of Independence. He was a despot.
On April 14, 1865, John Wilkes Booth fatally shot Abraham Lincoln. He escaped shouting, "‘sic semper tyrannis[Thus always to tyrants].’" This same motto was used by Americans during the Revolutionary War. Booth applied the same test to Lincoln that was applied to the King. Clearly, Lincoln was a tyrant and a dictator. His assassination was justified and Booth is an American hero.
I don’t believe that slavery is a morally acceptable social institution. Slavery is a direct contradiction of individual liberty. Unfortunately the Civil War had very little to do with slavery. The war was fought over issues of economic policy, the legitimacy of a federal republic, and the right to self government.
Slavery was an issue to some abolitionists, but we shouldn’t forget that to the majority of the people, in the North and South, blacks were inferior and abolitionists were dangerous subversives.
Some evidence would seem to prove that Lincoln was a great statesman who hated slavery and racism.
Other would argue that our Lincoln(our idol) wouldn’t have been recognized 100 years ago.
It’s really not important. The more interesting question, in my opinion is whether or not Lincoln was a tyrant. It’s not a very politically correct question. Any defense of the South or Confederacy tends to be written off as a defense of slavery; hopefully we will never again be split by a civil war or have to decide if a leader is a president or dictator. Of course, people who forget history are doomed to repeat it.
Several books were used in researching this paper. The two best sources were The Mismeasure of Man and A People’s History of the United States.
The Mismeasure of Man is a discussion of traditional bias in evaluating the intelligence of different ethnic groups. Written by Stephen Jay Gould, the most current version was revamped as a refutation of the conclusions of The Bell Curve. Gould loses some of his credibility when he discusses matters of medical methodology, but much of the book focuses on how assumptions of supremacy/inferiority have changed and why.
A People’s History of the United States, by Paul Zinn, is my favorite broad-issue book on American history. Zinn does a great job of describing several eras of American history without succumbing to political correctness or glorification revisionism.
The Turner references are from a webpage connected to an educational program released by TBS. The links I used when writing this paper are no longer valid, but I’m sure they’re still out there somewhere if you really want to look for them.
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