Next month will see the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s ascension to power, which means that, as America prepares itself for numerous parades and events, we will once again be treated to the myth of ‘honest Abe’ as the flawless emancipator of the slaves and saviour of the nation . It is therefore an appropriate time to reflect upon Lincoln’s numerous contradictions and flaws – so often papered over by American hagiographers and the education system – that bring Lincoln to life as a great historical figure rather than a fictitious behemoth.
The first criticisms often directed at Lincoln relate to his responsibility for the Civil War. The argument goes something like this: At the time of the Mexican War in 1848 Lincoln stated that “any people anywhere, being inclined and having the power, have the right to rise up, and shake off the existing government, and form a new one that suits them better.” Yet, when the Confederate states decided to do just this in February 1861 under the leadership of Jefferson Davis, Lincoln was staunchly opposed to their behaviour and launched a brutal civil war that cost the lives of some 650,000 Americans. Moreover, in conducting the war Lincoln suspended habeas corpus for the first time in American history, arrested and imprisoned people merely for sympathising with the Southern cause and greatly expanded the size of the federal government.
These criticisms are dealt with fairly effectively however by Lincoln’s defenders. Since the Confederates were not willing to negotiate on any position, and particularly not over the extension of slavery to the new territories, then unless you believe – as some critics of American empire do – that the U.S. would have been better off had it split into two separate states in 1861, it is difficult to argue against Lincoln’s stance. Though Lincoln’s statement in 1848 contradicts his later position, his argument of 1861 that since he was legitimately elected and had broken no constitutional provision, supporting the Southerner’s decision to secede was effectively supporting the principle of allowing any group to leave the nation if it merely didn’t like the result of an election, is rather persuasive. Furthermore, though his suspension of civil rights during the war was undoubtedly too drastic, it must be remembered that the nation was in a desperate state of war in which its very survival was at stake.
The second and most often repeated criticism of Lincoln relate to his position towards slavery. Though he was staunchly opposed to the expansion of slavery to the new territories, Lincoln was certainly not an abolitionist and infamously declared to newspaper editor Horace Greely in August 1862 that if he could preserve the Union without freeing a single slave he would. Moreover, in his famous debates with Stephen Douglas, Lincoln declared himself to be against intermarriage and opposed to political and social equality between the races, while on more than one occasion he expressed his desire to colonise blacks away from the U.S. This has led some critics to declare that had Lincoln had his way, there would have been no Martin Luther King or Barack Obama since America would be a purely white society.
These criticisms are harder to shake off. Since there were numerous people in the 1850s and 1860s who explicitly attacked slavery and called for its immediate and complete abolition, it will not do to simply assert that Lincoln was a product of his time. Instead, Lincoln’s defenders argue that his statements need to be understood from the point of view of a pragmatic politician and, in fact, demonstrate Lincoln’s great skill. Certainly, the vast majority of the white population were racist in their views towards blacks and if Lincoln wanted to be elected he had to attain popular support, even if this meant appealing to people’s prejudices. Moreover, his insistence on preserving the Union rather than freeing the slaves reflected the fact that he could persuade men in the north to fight for the former cause, but not the latter. Though his statements on the colonisation of slaves make for uncomfortable reading, it must be remembered that Lincoln was also the author of the Emancipation Proclamation and, ultimately, it is impossible to refute the assertion that it was because of Lincoln that slavery finally came to an end.
Like the other great emancipator of the 19th century, Charles Darwin (who was coincidentally born on the exact same day of 12 February, 1809), Lincoln’s reputation is secure. Yet, it would be nice to see Lincoln celebrated at the upcoming anniversary as the great, yet flawed, figure that he was, rather than mythologized as the faultless hero of American history. Here’s hoping.
by Matt Jones