This week a congressman out of North Carolina claimed that Abraham Lincoln was like Adolf Hitler. A crackpot claim, to be sure, but perhaps not a surprising one, given that extremes call forth extremes. After all, Lincoln is usually rated the best president in American history, and has attained a mythological status that makes it almost criminal to question his sanctity. It doesn’t help matters that the ones who do question it are usually either crackpots like Larry Pittman, or revisionists with Confederate sympathies.
The worst revisionist claim is that the South fought for states’ rights and not slavery, which has been thoroughly debunked. Not only was the South very obviously trying to protect slavery, but whenever the rule of law had interfered with maintaining slavery in the past, the South became a burning advocate for federal power. Only after the executive branch was no longer friendly to slavery (i.e. after Lincoln’s election), did the South begin to harp on states’ rights.
Revisionists over-vilify Lincoln for his “unconstitutional” suppression of the South. While it is arguable that Lincoln should have acted in the spirit of the Declaration of Independence (and the Articles of Confederation) and let the South peacefully secede, he did have the authority, under the mildly centralizing Constitution, to put down the southern insurrection. So the war effort was not itself unconstitutional. That he maneuvered the South into starting the war, on the other hand, by making them fire the first shot — a point widely accepted, even by scholarly giants like Shelby Foote and Bruce Catton — was certainly unethical. But that’s actually a minor offense. The real point is that the Civil War should not have been fought at all.
Here’s the run-down of Lincoln’s worst sins. They fall under what he did for slaves, the Indians, the economy, and civil liberties.
1. Slavery. The Civil War ended slavery, which was momentous, but African Americans hardly experienced more freedom in the face of white enraged southerners. Peaceful alternatives to Lincoln’s policies would have achieved better results and far more quickly. Ivan Eland, in Recarving Rushmore, supplies those alternatives:
(a) If Lincoln wanted to preserve the union (which he did: it was his main reason for the war), he could have offered southern slave owners compensation for a gradual emancipation of slaves. Many other countries had already ended slavery by these measures, and Lincoln himself had made such proposals earlier in his career. The cost of this kind of emancipation would have been far less than the financial costs of the Civil War, not to mention the obscene cost of human lives, which by the end of the Civil War totaled 600,000 Americans, 38,000 of whom were African Americans.
(b) Or he could have simply let the southern states go, and get Congress to repeal the Fugitive Slave Act, which prosecuted those who did not return escaped slaves to their owners. Abolitionists had already made this proposal anyway and it would have easily passed, making the northern states a haven for escaped slaves, in time emptying the South of slaves. This option would have honored the spirit of the Declaration of Independence for the South, which is based on free government and self-determination, while also choking off slavery.
Either option would have ended slavery without producing the backlash of “Jim Crow” laws and terrorist organizations like the KKK. After the war and union occupation, African Americans were subject to a discrimination that was almost as bad as in the slave times, and it would be an entire century before the Civil Rights Act came in remedy. This is what admirers of Lincoln ignore. The North’s ruthless war tactics and post-war reconstruction policies produced exactly what happens anywhere else we try nation-building strategies (“building democracy”), like in Vietnam and Iraq. When outside powers attempt to change culture through military occupation, the results are never good.
Slavery was doomed and Lincoln knew it. The British Empire had eliminated it in the 1833-38 period, even “backwater” Mexico has ended the practice in 1829, and other parts of the world too. And it was ended without resorting to bloody wars. Lincoln himself had entertained the compensation option, so this isn’t an unfair hindsight judgment. He was aware of how the world was moving, both at home and abroad. There is simply no reason Lincoln couldn’t have gone this way to end slavery, as other nations had done.
2. The Indians. Try asking them what they think of Lincoln. They say he was one of the Five Worst Presidents for the Native American Tribes, and they’re right. Even by 19th-century manifest-destiny standards, Lincoln was a demon. He seized one of the largest portions of land from the Indians, running the Navajos and Mescalero Apaches out of their New Mexico territory and into a reservation 450 miles away. When this kind of thing happens in places like Bosnia and Dafur, we call it ethnic cleansing. The journey for the Indians was a death march, a lot like the Trail of Tears under Andrew Jackson: thousands of them were herded across a scorching desert, “escorted” by Lincoln’s army who killed those who lagged behind. The survivors who made it to the reservation were shoved into squalid camps infested with disease.
No one would excuse this behavior if it weren’t the president named Abraham Lincoln we were talking about, who has been mythologized to the extent that he can’t possibly, really, have been this bad. But he worked against the Indian tribes them at every turn, and with more ruthlessness than most of the 19th century presidents. He cheated the Sioux out their lands as well, and when they revolted, he unleashed General Pope on them, who promised to exterminate the Sioux, who were “maniacs and wild beasts, and by no means people with whom treaties or compromise can be made”. Lincoln afterwards signed off on 38 Indian prisoners in Mankato, Minnesota, and on December 26, 1862 the largest mass execution in United States history took place under his authority. Only a dishonest apologist could salvage anything for Lincoln’s reputation out of this.
3. Economy. The pernicious “American System” — invented by Federalist Alexander Hamilton and promoted by Whig Henry Clay — was brought into full-blown fruition by Lincoln, mostly in order to finance the Civil War. The program involved government subsidies financed by high tariffs, and a runaway money supply of printed greenbacks that weren’t redeemable by gold or silver; the result was massive inflation. The first income tax was implemented, and the first internal revenue service was created to collect it. The tax was abolished under Grant in 1872, but the precedent was set for its permanent establishment under Taft in 1913.
Basically, Lincoln’s corporate welfare, national banking system, tariff-protectionism, and income tax set bad precedents with long-ranging consequences. Most of this apparatus was discontinued after the war, but would reemerge in the early 20th century.
4. Civil Liberties. Lincoln was an enemy of the First Amendment. He arrested journalists, newspaper publishers, and critics of the war, and threw them into prison. He closed the mail to publications which opposed his war policies, and he deported an opposing congressman. On top of all that, he physically attacked and removed a peace movement. There have been only two other presidents with this level of contempt for free speech: John Adams and Woodrow Wilson.
Lincoln likewise “disappeared citizens” without arrest warrants, or in other words detained them without allowing them to challenge their detention (a violation of habeas corpus). To date there has been only one other president who has claimed and exercised this right: George W. Bush. In Lincoln’s case, he simply ignored Supreme Court Justice Robert Taney’s order that habeas corpus could be suspended only by Congress and not the president. Lincoln played the dictator and suspended it anyway. As if that weren’t bad enough, he also created military tribunals to prosecute civilians who were discouraging people from enlisting in union armies. Those civilians were simply exercising their free-speech rights.
“Tear down the memorial”
It’s always easy to judge by hindsight and fancy how we could do better. I’m under no illusion that I would make a good president. But I’ll say this: As president I would never start an unnecessary war by making the other side fire first, and then use the federal army to kill hundreds of thousands of people, cripple tens of thousands more for life, destroy their economy, burn their towns to the ground, abolish my own people’s civil liberties, and inflict all the other miserable costs of war, just to prevent certain states from leaving the goddamn union. Yes, Lincoln did have the Constitutional right to suppress the South (against what Confederate revisionists claim), but that doesn’t mean he should have; and I would not have. As president I hope I would have had the wisdom to pursue one of the two options entertained by Eland:
“Lincoln should have let the South go in peace, as the abolitionists advocated, or offered southerners compensation for the emancipation of slaves. Under the first option, industrialization and rising moral objections likely would have peacefully eliminated slavery in the South — as they did in most other places of the world — helped out by a slave haven in the free North. In sum, a close study of Lincoln’s presidency leads to thoughts of tearing down the Lincoln Memorial.” (Recarving Rushmore, p 130)
The Score Board
Lincoln gets a zero for peace, and a lousy 5 for prosperity, for bad fiscal and money policies to finance the unnecessary war. I split his liberty score straight down the middle. For all the pointless awfulness of the Civil War, the outcome was momentous: the end of slavery. That event alone would earn Lincoln a 20 rating, except for the glaring problem that he otherwise has one of the worst liberty records of any American president, as I outlined above. So he gets 10.
Peace — 0/20
Prosperity — 5/20
Liberty — 10/20
TOTAL SCORE = 15/60 = Very Bad
Lincoln was no Hitler (only a crackpot would say that), nor was he the villain of Southern revisionism. But he was a bad president.
UPDATE (9/27/21): After many moons of reflection, I am upgrading Lincoln’s score from 15/60 (Very Bad) to 30/60 (Poor). Some of my blog readers have pointed out that Lincoln did offer paid emancipation in the border states. If the border states rejected his offers, there was no reason to expect the southern states would have agreed, and thus this criticism of Lincoln seems admittedly harsh. He still however could have let the states secede, and he did nefariously maneuver the South to “fire first”, so I’m still docking him 5 peace points; but upgrading him 10:
Peace — 15/20
Prosperity — 5/20
Liberty — 10/20
UPDATED TOTAL SCORE = 30/60 = Poor