The Most Overrated President: Abraham Lincoln (1861-1865)

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 15:

Peace — 15/20
Prosperity — 5/20
Liberty — 10/20


6 thoughts on “The Most Overrated President: Abraham Lincoln (1861-1865)

  1. I don’t know why someone would compare Lincoln to Hitler (other than both being war leaders), but William T Vollman spends quite a few pages contrasting Lincoln with Lenin in his endlessly fascinating book, Rising Up And Rising Down. I’m afraid my memory is too faded to give you even an approximate summary of his thoughts on Lincoln. The book as a whole, though, I think you would find very interesting. Vollman attempts to explore all of the possible justifications of violence and whether they are supportable. He does so though an extraordinarily broad look at human history (as opposed to some sort of philosophical approach). Seems like the sort of book you would enjoy.

  2. Great post! I hadn’t previously known about Lincoln’s treatment of the Native Americans. You do make one point I’m not convinced by, and it’s an important one:

    “The worst revisionist claim is that the South fought for states’ rights and not slavery, which has been thoroughly debunked… 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.”

    I agree that the North had more abolitionist sentiments and that the South sought to protect slavery whenever they perceived it to be under attack. These differing attitudes were a significant factor in the mounting tensions between the South and the North, so claiming that slavery had nothing to do with the war is revisionist. However, I think it’s difficult to make the case that the South seceded because they felt Lincoln was a threat to slavery. Lincoln and his fellow Northern politicians were bending over backwards to assure the South that slavery was safe when the South chose to secede.

    Lincoln spends much of his first inaugural address ( telling the South that he’s not a threat to slavery and he never has been. He quotes himself from the Lincoln-Douglas debates years earlier: “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.”

    Also in the inaugural, Lincoln expresses support for an amendment “that the Federal Government shall never interfere with the domestic institutions of the States, including that of persons held to service.” He has “no objection to its being made express and irrevocable.” The amendment he’s referring to is the Corwin Amendment ( It would have given slavery an unprecedented protection, seeming even to shield it from future amendments. The amendment was passed in both houses of congress (133 to 65 in the house; 24 to 12 in the Senate) and was supported by Lincoln (this is the amendment he refers to in the above quote from his inaugural address).

    A case can be made that unfair taxation and a lack of representation were at least as significant to the Southern secession as the slavery issue. The Tariff of 1828 (, passed under John Quincy Adams, put a 62% tax on almost all imported goods. Since the North had a manufacturing economy and the South had an agricultural economy, this tax directly benefited the Northern industries by protecting them from competition while directly harming the South by making their goods significantly more expensive and forcing them to buy from the North. The North was able to pass the tariff easily despite basically unanimous opposition from the South because the North. Many in the South considered the Tariff unconstitutional, but the North, being more densely populated, had enough votes in the House to disregard the South. When Lincoln was elected without getting a single Southern vote in the electoral college, this cast the lack of Southern representation at the federal level in sharp relief.

    Many factors contributed to tensions between the North and the South – biased tax laws, a lack of representation, differing cultural attitudes (i.e. Southern perceptions that the North were snobs who looked down on the South and Northern perceptions that the South was an uncivilized cultural backwater), and differing attitudes towards slavery. On the slavery issue, the South is in the wrong again and again and any historians who try to argue that the North was as racist as the South or that the South was as abolitionist as the North is certainly peddling a grossly revisionist version of history. However, Lincoln didn’t seem to be much of a threat to slavery. In fact, slavery was on the verge of being constitutionally protected when the South seceded. I’m happy to be proven wrong (or to be pointed toward resources which will explain my error), however I have a hard time squaring these facts with the claim that the North was fighting for abolition while the South was fighting for slavery.

    • Just to follow up, in case anyone is interested in my previous question: a friend pointed out to me that the Southern states, in their declarations of secession are quite explicit about why they’re leaving: concern over “an increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the institution of slavery” is unambiguously the main cause of the southern secession. This Tweet thread documents the confederate states’ clearly expressing their intentions:

      So, after a bit of research, I retract my quibble/question. Again, thanks for the great blog!

  3. Suspending Habeas Corpus in times of rebellion is fine according to the Constitution.

    Also, you think Lincoln should’ve just let the southern states secede? just like that? why?

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