This article was originally published in the April 2005 issue of American History Magazine.
Most Americans — including most historians — regard Abraham Lincoln as the nation’s greatest president. But in recent years powerful movements have gathered, both on the political right and the left, to condemn Lincoln as a flawed and even wicked man.
For both camps, the debunking of Lincoln usually begins with an exposé of the ‘Lincoln myth,’ which is well described in William Lee Miller’s 2002 book Lincoln’s Virtues: An Ethical Biography. How odd it is, Miller writes, that an ‘unschooled’ politician ‘from the raw frontier villages of Illinois and Indiana’ could become such a great president. ‘He was the myth made real,’ Miller writes, ‘rising from an actual Kentucky cabin made of actual Kentucky logs all the way to the actual White House.’
Lincoln’s critics have done us all a service by showing that the actual author of the myth is Abraham Lincoln himself. It was Lincoln who, over the years, carefully crafted the public image of himself as Log Cabin Lincoln, Honest Abe and the rest of it. Asked to describe his early life, Lincoln answered, ‘the short and simple annals of the poor,’ referring to Thomas Gray’s poem ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.’ Lincoln disclaimed great aspirations for himself, noting that if people did not vote for him, he would return to obscurity, for he was, after all, used to disappointments.
These pieties, however, are inconsistent with what Lincoln’s law partner, William Herndon, said about him: ‘His ambition was a little engine that knew no rest.’ Admittedly in the ancient world ambition was often viewed as a great vice. In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Brutus submits his reason for joining the conspiracy against Caesar: his fear that Caesar had grown too ambitious. But as founding father and future president James Madison noted in The Federalist, the American system was consciously designed to attract ambitious men. Such ambition was presumed natural to a politician and favorable to democracy as long as it sought personal distinction by promoting the public good through constitutional means.
What unites the right-wing and left-wing attacks on Lincoln, of course, is that they deny that Lincoln respected the law and that he was concerned with the welfare of all. The right-wing school — made up largely of Southerners and some libertarians — holds that Lincoln was a self-serving tyrant who rode roughshod over civil liberties, such as the right to habeas corpus. Lincoln is also accused of greatly expanding the size of the federal government. Some libertarians even charge — and this is not intended as a compliment — that Lincoln was the true founder of the welfare state. His right-wing critics say that despite his show of humility, Lincoln was a megalomaniacal man who was willing to destroy half the country to serve his Caesarian ambitions. In an influential essay, the late Melvin E. Bradford, an outspoken conservative, excoriated Lincoln as a moral fanatic who, determined to enforce his Manichaean vision — one that sees a cosmic struggle between good and evil — on the country as a whole, ended up corrupting American politics and thus left a ‘lasting and terrible impact on the nation’s destiny.’
Although Bradford viewed Lincoln as a kind of manic abolitionist, many in the right-wing camp deny that the slavery issue was central to the Civil War. Rather, they insist, the war was driven primarily by economic motives. Essentially, the industrial North wanted to destroy the economic base of the South. Historian Charles Adams, in When in the Course of Human Events: Arguing the Case for Southern Secession, published in 2000, contends that the causes leading up to the Civil War had virtually nothing to do with slavery.
This approach to rewriting history has been going on for more than a century. Alexander Stephens, former vice president of the Confederacy, published a two-volume history of the Civil War between 1868 and 1870 in which he hardly mentioned slavery, insisting that the war was an attempt to preserve constitutional government from the tyranny of the majority. But this is not what Stephens said in the great debates leading up to the war. In his ‘Cornerstone’ speech, delivered in Savannah, Ga., on March 21, 1861, at the same time that the South was in the process of seceding, Stephens said that the American Revolution had been based on a premise that was ‘fundamentally wrong.’ That premise was, as Stephens defined it, ‘the assumption of equality of the races.’ Stephens insisted that instead: ‘Our new [Confederate] government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea. Its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests upon the great truth that the Negro is not equal to the white man. Slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great and moral truth.’
This speech is conspicuously absent from the right’s revisionist history. And so are the countless affirmations of black inferiority and the ‘positive good’ of slavery — from John C. Calhoun’s attacks on the Declaration of Independence to South Carolina Senator James H. Hammond’s insistence that ‘the rock of Gibraltar does not stand so firm on its basis as our slave system.’ It is true, of course, that many whites who fought on the Southern side in the Civil War did not own slaves. But, as Calhoun himself pointed out in one speech, they too derived an important benefit from slavery: ‘With us the two great divisions of society are not the rich and the poor, but white and black; and all the former, the poor as well as the rich, belong to the upper class, and are respected and treated as equals.’ Calhoun’s point is that the South had conferred on all whites a kind of aristocracy of birth, so that even the most wretched and degenerate white man was determined in advance to be better and more socially elevated than the most intelligent and capable black man. That’s why the poor whites fought — to protect that privilege.
Contrary to Bradford’s high-pitched accusations, Lincoln approached the issue of slavery with prudence and moderation. This is not to say that he waffled on the morality of slavery. ‘You think slavery is right, and ought to be extended,’ Lincoln wrote Stephens on the eve of the war, ‘while we think it is wrong, and ought to be restricted.’ As Lincoln clearly asserts, it was not his intention to get rid of slavery in the Southern states. Lincoln conceded that the American founders had agreed to tolerate slavery in the Southern states, and he confessed that he had no wish and no power to interfere with it there. The only issue — and it was an issue on which Lincoln would not bend — was whether the federal government could restrict slavery in the new territories. This was the issue of the presidential campaign of 1860; this was the issue that determined secession and war.
Lincoln argued that the South had no right to secede — that the Southern states had entered the Union as the result of a permanent compact with the Northern states. That Union was based on the principle of majority rule, with constitutional rights carefully delineated for the minority. Lincoln insisted that since he had been legitimately elected, and since the power to regulate slavery in the territories was nowhere proscribed in the Constitution, Southern secession amounted to nothing more than one group’s decision to leave the country because it did not like the results of a presidential election, and no constitutional democracy could function under such an absurd rule. Of course the Southerners objected that they should not be forced to live under a regime that they considered tyrannical, but Lincoln countered that any decision to dissolve the original compact could only occur with the consent of all the parties involved. Once again, it makes no sense to have such agreements when any group can unilaterally withdraw from them and go its own way.
The rest of the libertarian and right-wing case against Lincoln is equally without merit. Yes, Lincoln suspended habeas corpus and arrested Southern sympathizers, but let us not forget that the nation was in a desperate war in which its very survival was at stake. Discussing habeas corpus, Lincoln insisted that it made no sense for him to protect this one constitutional right and allow the very Union established by the Constitution, the very framework for the protection of all rights, to be obliterated. Of course the federal government expanded during the Civil War, as it expanded during the Revolutionary War, and during World War II. Governments need to be strong to fight wars. The evidence for the right-wing insistence that Lincoln was the founder of the modern welfare state stems from the establishment, begun during his administration, of a pension program for Union veterans and support for their widows and orphans. Those were, however, programs aimed at a specific, albeit large, part of the population. The welfare state came to America in the 20th century. Franklin Roosevelt should be credited, or blamed, for that. He institutionalized it, and Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon expanded it.
The left-wing group of Lincoln critics, composed of liberal scholars and social activists, is harshly critical of Lincoln on the grounds that he was a racist who did not really care about ending slavery. Their indictment of Lincoln is that he did not oppose slavery outright, only the extension of it, that he opposed laws permitting intermarriage and even opposed social and political equality between the races. If the right-wingers disdain Lincoln for being too aggressively antislavery, the left-wingers scorn him for not being antislavery enough. Both groups, however, agree that Lincoln was a self-promoting hypocrite who said one thing while doing another.
Some of Lincoln’s defenders have sought to vindicate him from these attacks by contending that he was a ‘man of his time.’ This will not do, because there were several persons of that time, notably the social-reformer Grimké sisters, Angelina and Sarah, and Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, who forthrightly and unambiguously attacked slavery and called for immediate and complete abolition. In one of his speeches, Sumner said that while there are many issues on which political men can and should compromise, slavery is not such an issue: ‘This will not admit of compromise. To be wrong on this is to be wholly wrong. It is our duty to defend freedom, unreservedly, and careless of the consequences.’
Lincoln’s modern liberal critics are, whether they know it or not, the philosophical descendants of Sumner. One cannot understand Lincoln without understanding why he agreed with Sumner’s goals while consistently opposing the strategy of the abolitionists. The abolitionists, Lincoln thought, approached the restricting or ending of slavery with self-righteous moral display. They wanted to be in the right and — as Sumner himself says — damn the consequences. In Lincoln’s view, abolition was a noble sentiment, but abolitionist tactics, such as burning the Constitution and advocating violence, were not the way to reach their goal.
We can answer the liberal critics by showing them why Lincoln’s understanding of slavery, and his strategy for defeating it, was superior to that of Sumner and his modern-day followers. Lincoln knew that the statesman, unlike the moralist, cannot be content with making the case against slavery. He must find a way to implement his principles to the degree that circumstances permit. The key to understanding Lincoln is that he always sought the meeting point between what was right in theory and what could be achieved in practice. He always sought the common denominator between what was good to do and what the people would go along with. In a democratic society this is the only legitimate way to advance a moral agenda.
Consider the consummate skill with which Lincoln deflected the prejudices of his supporters without yielding to them. In the Lincoln-Douglas debates during the race for the Illinois Senate, Stephen Douglas repeatedly accused Lincoln of believing that blacks and whites were intellectually equal, of endorsing full political rights for blacks, and of supporting ‘amalgamation’ or intermarriage between the races. If these charges could be sustained, or if large numbers of people believed them to be true, then Lincoln’s career was over. Even in the free state of Illinois — as throughout the North — there was widespread opposition to full political and social equality for blacks.
Lincoln handled this difficult situation by using a series of artfully conditional responses. ‘Certainly the Negro is not our equal in color — perhaps not in many other respects; still, in the right to put into his mouth the bread that his own hands have earned, he is the equal of every other man. In pointing out that more has been given to you, you cannot be justified in taking away the little which has been given to him. If God gave him but little, that little let him enjoy.’ Notice that Lincoln only barely recognizes the prevailing prejudice. He never acknowledges black inferiority; he merely concedes the possibility. And the thrust of his argument is that even if blacks were inferior, that is not a warrant for taking away their rights.
Facing the charge of racial amalgamation, Lincoln said, ‘I protest against that counterfeit logic which concludes that because I do not want a black woman for a slave, I must necessarily want her for a wife.’ Lincoln is not saying that he wants, or does not want, a black woman for his wife. He is neither supporting nor opposing racial intermarriage. He is simply saying that from his antislavery position it does not follow that he endorses racial amalgamation. Elsewhere Lincoln turned antiblack prejudices against Douglas by saying that slavery was the institution that had produced the greatest racial intermixing and the largest number of mulattoes.
Lincoln was exercising the same prudent statesmanship when he wrote to New York newspaper publisher Horace Greeley asserting: ‘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 do it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that.’ The letter was written on August 22, 1862, almost a year and a half after the Civil War broke out, when the South was gaining momentum and the outcome was far from certain. From the time of secession, Lincoln was desperately eager to prevent border states such as Maryland, Delaware, Kentucky and Missouri from seceding. These states had slavery, and Lincoln knew that if the issue of the war was cast openly as the issue of slavery, his chances of keeping the border states in the Union were slim. And if all the border states seceded, Lincoln was convinced, and rightly so, that the cause of the Union was gravely imperiled.
Moreover, Lincoln was acutely aware that many people in the North were vehemently antiblack and saw themselves as fighting to save their country rather than to free slaves. Lincoln framed the case against the Confederacy in terms of saving the Union in order to maintain his coalition — a coalition whose victory was essential to the antislavery cause. And ultimately it was because of Lincoln that slavery came to an end. That is why the right wing can never forgive him.
In my view, Lincoln was the true ‘philosophical statesman,’ one who was truly good and truly wise. Standing in front of his critics, Lincoln is a colossus, and all of the Lilliputian arrows hurled at him bounce harmlessly to the ground. It is hard to put any other president — not even George Washington — in the same category as Abraham Lincoln. He is simply the greatest practitioner of democratic statesmanship that America and the world have yet produced.