... we can assess both the war and its memorials with some dispassion – although higher passion seem to be the order of the day now.But there is another shoe to drop. I think I'll call it "noble Lincolnism," the idea that Abraham Lincoln and by extension the Union cause were morally pure and wholly admirable. In fact, Abraham Lincoln was a racist bigot and it is by no means unfair to say he was a white supremacist through and through. So:
First, let us dispense with all the “Lost Cause” nonsense Southern apologists invented after the war.
Second, let us dispense with all the nonsense that Lincoln and the Union army were moral paragons who fought to free the slaves.
|Why do we consider this man great?
In her book, Team of Rivals, about Abraham Lincoln's presidency, Doris Kearns Goodwin made a most astonishing claim:
"Armies of scholars, meticulously investigating every aspect of [Lincoln’s] life, have failed to find a single act of racial bigotry on his part." -- Doris Kearns-Goodwin, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, p. 207.Some armies of scholars they must have been to have overlooked what Lincoln said in 1858:
"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 . . . . I as much as any man am in favor of the superior position assigned to the white race." -- Abraham Lincoln, First Lincoln-Douglas Debate, Ottawa, Illinois, Sept. 18, 1858, in The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln vol.3, pp. 145-146.That Lincoln deeply opposed slavery cannot be gainsaid. It is laughable that he thought African Americans (they could truly be called that, then) should or even could gain legal, social or moral equality with whites. However, that did not distinguish him from about 99 percent of American whites, North or South, of his day. It was chattel slavery Lincoln opposed bitterly. He never made the leap that freed slaves should be equal citizens of the Republic. He did not think they could and did not think they should.
In fact, in his first inaugural address, Lincoln endorsed the a proposed 13th amendment to the Constitution, called the Corwin Amendment after Ohio Republican Thomas Corwin. This amendment, which was never ratified, specifically forbade altering the Constitution in any manner that would enable the Congress to interfere with slavery "within any state." The Corwin amendment's wording was ridiculous, but its intent was clear: slavery was to be enshrined in the Constitution forever. Here is what Lincoln said:
I understand a proposed amendment to the Constitution--which amendment, however, I have not seen--has passed Congress, to the effect that the Federal Government shall never interfere with the domestic institutions of the States, including that of persons held to service. To avoid misconstruction of what I have said, I depart from my purpose not to speak of particular amendments so far as to say that, holding such a provision to now be implied constitutional law, I have no objection to its being made express and irrevocable.Observed John A. Lupton, Associate Director and Associate Editor for The Papers of Abraham Lincoln Project,
By tacitly supporting Corwin's amendment, Lincoln hoped to convince the South that he would not move to abolish slavery and, at the minimum, keep the border states of Maryland, Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky, and North Carolina from seceding.The amendment obviously never proceeded, but why would Lincoln endorse such a measure? He uttered the answer plainly:
The Union must be preserved, and hence all indispensable means must be employed.Preserving the Union was more than Lincoln's policy goal. It was his fetish, a religious-type quest. The South's argument in favor of its secession was based on a contract view of the Constitution. The Constitutional contract, they claimed, had been broken, hence they could withdraw from the Union if they wished. Lincoln's theoretical foundation for destroying the Southern states to compel them to stay within the union was based on his elevation of the Declaration of Independence and other founding documents above the Constitution. Lincoln said this explicitly in his first inaugural address:
The Union is much older than the Constitution. It was formed, in fact, by the Articles of Association in 1774. It was matured and continued by the Declaration of Independence in 1776. It was further matured, and the faith of all the then thirteen States expressly plighted and engaged that it should be perpetual, by the Articles of Confederation in 1778. And finally, in 1787, one of the declared objects for ordaining and establishing the Constitution was "to form a more perfect Union."
But if destruction of the Union by one or by a part only of the States be lawfully possible, the Union is 'less' perfect than before the Constitution, having lost the vital element of perpetuity.The Union, he held, was a binding covenant between the states, not a contract, and that covenant could neither be negated nor nullified.
There is no doubt that for Lincoln preserving the Union was vastly more important than the rights of blacks, including their liberation. In his first inaugural, Lincoln endorsed enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act, which as I explained in part one was a contributing cause for the South's secession because several free states refused to enforce it. In the first inaugural:
One section of our country believes slavery is 'right' and ought to be extended, while the other believes it is 'wrong' and ought not to be extended. This is the only substantial dispute. The fugitive-slave clause of the Constitution and the law for the suppression of the foreign slave trade are each as well enforced, perhaps, as any law can ever be in a community where the moral sense of the people imperfectly supports the law itself. The great body of the people abide by the dry legal obligation in both cases, and a few break over in each. This, I think, can not be perfectly cured, and it would be worse in both cases 'after' the separation of the sections than before. The foreign slave trade, now imperfectly suppressed, would be ultimately revived without restriction in one section, while fugitive slaves, now only partially surrendered, would not be surrendered at all by the other.Every Civil War historian knows that Lincoln did not commit the US Army to battle against the Southern states to free the slaves. Freeing the slaves was of little consequence in his mind. Writing to influential New York editor Horace Greeley in August 1862, Lincoln explained why (Lincoln's italics):
As to the policy I "seem to be pursuing" as you say, I have not meant to leave any one in doubt.
I would save the Union. I would save it the shortest way under the Constitution. The sooner the national authority can be restored; the nearer the Union will be "the Union as it was." If there be those who would not save the Union, unless they could at the same time save slavery, I do not agree with them. If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time destroy slavery, I do not agree with them. My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union. I shall do less whenever I shall believe what I am doing hurts the cause, and I shall do more whenever I shall believe doing more will help the cause. I shall try to correct errors when shown to be errors; and I shall adopt new views so fast as they shall appear to be true views.What about the Emancipation Proclamation?
There were actually two proclamations. The first was issued in September 1862, the second on Jan. 1, 1863. It is the second one that historians usually refer to as "the" proclamation. Here is the National Archives' explanation of the scope of the order:
President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, as the nation approached its third year of bloody civil war. The proclamation declared "that all persons held as slaves" within the rebellious states "are, and henceforward shall be free." Despite this expansive wording, the Emancipation Proclamation was limited in many ways. It applied only to states that had seceded from the Union, leaving slavery untouched in the loyal border states. It also expressly exempted parts of the Confederacy that had already come under Northern control. Most important, the freedom it promised depended upon Union military victory. Although the Emancipation Proclamation did not immediately free a single slave, it fundamentally transformed the character of the war. ...It did indeed transform the character of the war. Even so, the idea that Lincoln changed the emphasis of the war from preserving the Union intact to freeing the slaves because of elevated ideals is highly problematic - in fact, rebutted using Lincoln's own writings.
Here is the timeline:
- July 1862 -- the first draft of the first emancipation proclamation is written. Lincoln's cabinet advises him that he must wait to release it until the Union army has won a significant victory, else the issuance will be seen as a desperate act to shore up support for the war amidst fading fortunes on the battlefield. The proclamation is shelved, awaiting such a victory.
- August 1862 -- Lincoln writes in his own hand the letter to Horace Greeley, quoted above, stating that freeing the slaves is a matter of indifference to him.\
- September 1862 -- On the 17th, Union and Confederate forces fight near Antietam creek, Md. It was the bloodiest one-day battle of the War with almost 23,000 soldiers of both sides killed, wounded or missing. Lee turned his army back toward Virginia. Despite the spectacular ineptitude of Union Gen. George B. McClellan in allowing Lee's army to escape, Lincoln decides that the outcome is sufficient to issue the proclamation drafted in July, and he does so on the 22nd.
The relevant part of the September proclamation to this discussion is that it specifically said that the purpose of abolishing slavery was to restore the Union. In it, the federal government promised to help states pay for the "gradual abolishment of slavery within such State or States---that the object is to practically restore, thenceforward to be maintain[ed], the constitutional relation between the general government, and each, and all the states ..." (link).
Lincoln was politically compelled to change the focus of the war effort to emancipation because Northern support for the war was melting away. Its costs in lives, treasure and time was magnitudes more than anyone ever imagined. By the end of 1862 there was an active peace movement in the North that grew stronger even after the Proclamation was issued.
There was serious (though ultimately unfounded) concern in Washington that Britain would openly side with the South because of the Union blockade of Southern ports cut off Southern cotton to the backbone of England's economy, textiles. Jeff Davis's government made the same miscalculation, but at the time both North and South thought the threat was very possible.
Issuing the Proclamation was a mainly political act that was first of all intended to signal Great Britain that to side with the CSA was to ally with a slavery state and take sides against the slaves' proclaimed, but not yet accomplished, liberation. This Britain would never have done (and economically did not need to do anyway).
The second thing the Proclamation did was turn the North's casus belli from political to holy. Lincoln did not become an abolitionist until he understood that the the North would never suffer the abattoir of the Civil War merely to preserve the Union, but it would bleed profusely "to make men free," as Julia Ward Howe's hymn urged.
Remember, Lincoln wrote his letter to Horace Greeley after the first proclamation had been written, which spins it somewhat differently than Lincoln the great humanitarian liberator. Clearly, considering both the first proclamation and the letter to Greeley, written so close together, Lincoln saw abolition as a means to achieve his never-changed goal: the Union of states must be preserved. Abolition was never an end in itself. It was not abolition for the sake of abolition nor even for the sake of slaves!
In the movie Gods and Generals, there is a scene where Union Col. Joshua Chamberlain (Jeff Daniels) tells his brother, also a Union officer, that if they both have to die to free the slaves, then so be it, even though abolition was not an original aim of the war.
It is the Northerners kind of war that Americans have waged more utterly than any other. As military historian T. R. Fehrenbach wrote in This Kind of War, "Wars fought for a higher purpose must always be the most hideous of all." War is such an awful thing that it must be entered into for only the most transcendental purposes. Hence, any war - as opposed to a punitive expedition, such as Panama, 1989 - that Americans engage in must be a crusade, because only crusades can justify the costs and the suffering. War is to be waged only reluctantly, even sadly, but waged ferociously.
Gen. Douglas MacArthur said, "In war there can be no substitute for victory," because when war is entered into for supreme purposes, to stop short of victory is to betray that purpose. In American Holy War, the political end is secondary to the military victory. Political structures are imposed by Holy War's victorious conclusion, they do not determine the conclusion. The role of politics is to pick up the pieces when total victory has been won.
This was Lincoln's insight: that absent a morally transcendent cause, the North would not continue the war. He provided the cause, but to him it was all smoke and mirrors, indeed it was politically-calculated trickery. There was indeed a powerful, morally-centered abolitionist movement in the northern states. But their cause was never Lincoln's cause.
And so he led the American nation deeper into an abyss of bloodshed that ultimately took the lives of two percent of its population, the equivalent of 6,460,000 dead today. Why anything about the Civil War is glorified or memorialized is quite beyond me, and I find it utterly incomprehensible that Abraham Lincoln is considered a great president.
Update: Joel W. emails,
I think you were too harsh on Abraham Lincoln. He was a great president: He kept the Union together, which was his main goal. The United States today would not be the country it is if the country had split during the Civil War. I believe that the United States, for all its faults, is the greatest country in the world, and possibly in history. If we had become two countries, we would not be as great.I do not take much issue with any of Joel's points. Lincoln was a complex man. But for perspective, would we expend 6.5 million American lives today to keep California in the Union, or any other set of secession-minded states there is?
Although I had not done as much research as you, I realized long ago that Lincoln's main goal was the preservation of the Union, not the emancipation of the slaves, and certainly not the elevation of the former slaves as full citizens.
One point you did not mention was that until he was assassinated, he was hated by many - in the North. (And most of the South, of course). Once he was killed, he became a martyr - and was elevated to the high status that many see him in today. If John Wilkes Booth had not done his work, it is possible that Lincoln could have ended up being impeached, rather than Andrew Johnson.Who knows? Johnson, a Democrat, had much harsher views of the ex-slaves than even Lincoln did.
Lincoln was more than willing to see no end of bloodshed to preserve the Union, he said it and proved it. In his second inaugural, Lincoln pointed out, accurately, "Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained." Then he claimed that the war and the Union cause was God's will! And so the war must be continued unabated:
These are not the words of a moderate man. Of course he could not foresee in April 1861 the slaughterhouse that the war would become. But in March 1865, he said that did not matter, that even if he had seen clearly the ocean of blood to be spilled, he would have spilled it anyway, God's will be done!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 by the bondsman'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."
How can we possibly ascribe a moral cause to a president who --
- firmly declared the inferiority of black Americans,
- stated he was indifferent and unconcerned whether they remained slaves or not,
- as president spoke in favor the terms of the Fugitive Slave Act,
- as president spoke in support of a Constitutional amendment that would have forbidden any kind of federal interference in slavery by the states,
- issued an impotent emancipation proclamation only when it was clear that Northern support for the war merely to reunify the states would not last,
- stated at the inception of his second term that he would never be dissuaded from his goal no matter the cost in human suffering, dying and physical destruction of American territory?
I would say that the North accomplished a mission, abolition, that it did not really set out to do but failed to accomplish the mission, reunify the country, that it did set out to do. Can anyone look at our country today and honestly say that "The Union has been preserved"?
Slavery could not have survived as an institution in the South. Alternative histories are always highly speculative, but a lot of prominent Southern figures realized this beginning as early as 1850 simply by assessing the economic realities of the slave trade and cotton production. For example, many Southerners pointed out that the South grew cotton, shipped it to the North where it was milled and made into clothing, and then the South bought the clothing to wear. As one Southern industrialist (there were not many) tried to explain, the South sold raw cotton to the North at a nickel a pound and then bought it back at double or more! (Lowell, Mass., had more looms than the entire South.) Many tried to diversify the South's economy but they were silenced by the pro-slavery PC codes of the day.
Britain's economy was at the time based heavily on its textiles industry, which was the most advanced in the world - so advanced the design of its machines were actually state secrets. Before the War, this industry was heavily reliant on Southern raw cotton. Both Lincoln's and Davis's governments thought that Britain's loss of supply of Southern cotton would be so severe that Britain would have to take active measures to restore the supply.
But Britain had not become the pre-eminent economic power in the world because it was run by fools. Britain's industrialists and government were much more aware of the weakness of their supply chain, and well before the Civil War. They started large cotton production operations of Egypt and India before the Civil War. By 1861, the quantity and quality of this cotton, especially Egyptian cotton, were so high that Britain managed the reduction of Southern cotton imports well.
Economically, in 1861 the South's problem was not wealth. It was actually far wealthier than the North. Its problem was getting capital because the South's wealth was highly illiquid. More than three-fourths of the South's Net Asset Value was in land and slaves; some historians say as high as 90 percent. Neither land nor slaves could be sold for cash quickly. This was a major impediment to industrializing the South and improving its infrastructure, although the South did make devoted attempts to do both in the 1850s and achieved great increases. But the North did more.
King Cotton turned out to be a tyrant monarch. At the end of the 1840s raw cotton prices had plunged to less than 5 cents per pound. But the next decade saw prices surge to almost 11 cents per pound. Profits from slave-labor cotton and sugar (where the South led also) convinced almost all Southerners that they could never face a financial threat. The 1850s was the era of King Cotton for the South, but for all the money being made, almost none was invested in materiel that could ensure the seceded states could ensure their success by force of arms.
In short, the South never actually prepared for secession even though it had been a popular topic for many years. The South imagined that secession would inevitably be successful and peaceful.
I do not encourage Gone With the Wind-ism, but this is not a bad half-minute summary: