It is often said that history is written by the winners. As is the case with the Civil War, the North came out as the victors and thus Lincoln was known forever forth as the hero of the day. However, one should not always take for granted what they are taught in state schools, where Lincoln is often claimed to be one of the greatest presidents in history. The true Abe Lincoln was far from a perfect president and the great emancipator like people are lead to believe. Although he kept the union together, it came at a terrible price and set forth many terrible precedents.
When taking a frank look at President Lincoln, one has to consider the crisis that defined his presidency, the Civil War. The perceived notion that this was fought over slavery is a huge misconception. It was a war over secession. The south held that this was a fundamental right of the state, whereas Lincoln saw this as outright treason and open rebellion. Whether or not the nation would have prospered as two separate nations can only be theoretically debated since we have never had a state succeed any time since and Lincoln was definitely not going to let it happen on his watch. For Lincoln, the union had to be maintained regardless of the cost, and he secretly knew that the north needed the south much more so than the reverse. Thus he could not let them voluntarily withdrawal from the nation, and to get them back he used the force of arms against his own former citizens.
The Civil War marked the darkest time in our nation’s history and the loss of life was devastating. This was a war where nothing was off the table for Lincoln, and he used whatever means possible to ensure victory. To achieve his objectives, he had Sherman and Grant wage an aggressive, total war that absolutely crippled the South, destroying crops and killing slaves and innocent civilians alike. Just like many despots in history, Lincoln suspended habeus corpus, imprisoned political dissenters in the North, and completely inflated our currency using Greenbacks to pay for war expenses. When the war finally ended our nation was such a mess that it took many years thereafter to recover in a time known as Reconstruction.
Lincoln was far from the “great emancipator” as many are lead to believe, and his views were more akin to a white supremacist than anything else. To his dying days he plotted to find a way to deport the freed slaves back to Africa because he believed they could not be incorporated into American culture. Also, he once said that if retaining slavery would have kept this nation together, he would have allowed it. But given that fact that he had thrown the nation into war once the South seceded, Lincoln used the Emancipation Proclamation as a means to shift public sentiment about the war. No longer was it about a war of secession, but a war based on slavery versus freedom. This move also gave the Union international support from the United Kingdom and France, which had already banned slavery, and guaranteed the South would lose the global support that they once had from Britain in building their war ships. In addition, the Emancipation Proclamation didn’t free all of the slaves, only those in southern states involved in war against the Union. Lincoln didn’t want to free the states in the North because it was still a very bigoted section of the country and he knew he’d lose support for the war. In fact, some of the biggest riots in our country were in New York over this war because people did not want to be drafted to fight for the Union.
Whether or not this war was necessary to end slavery is debatable, especially considering that all nations which had practiced slavery ended it without war except for America. How did this happen? Morals aside, over time it became increasingly apparent that slavery was not a viable economic model. For the owners there was a large cost involved in sheltering, feeding, guarding, and finding more slaves to run a plantation when it was much easier to just hire out employees to do the same work. People who worked under their own free will instead of under the threat of force worked much better and were more productive. Also, improvements in technology made jobs that had once required massive slave labor efforts to be done much more efficiently and with a fraction of the labor costs. In some countries, when public sentiment had finally realized the immorality of slavery, the government not only banned it but it also bought off all the slaves from the owners who still had them, setting them free and avoiding a violent confrontation. Thus, looking back on history it may seem that one of the worst wars in our nation’s history might not have been avoidable, and if so one can conclude that Lincoln’s judgment was not only poor, but it sent millions of lives needlessly to an early grave.
Not only did Lincoln’s war devastate the nation, but it also set many dangerous precedents. One of the precedents set forth was that secession was akin to treason instead of a fundamental state right. However, secession was a principle embodied by our Founding Fathers and was the main reason we had a nation in the first place and are still not living under England’s rule! This concept was also echoed by Thomas Jefferson when writing our Declaration of Independence, “That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form.” To the South, the form of government at the time was tyrannical and destructive to their needs, therefore they took this statement by Thomas Jefferson quite literally in seceding and forming their own government. Secession is also a fundamental principle because it gives the state clout against an overreaching federal government. The Constitution was written as a contract between the states to freely enter into a union, but if a state feels like the contract has been breached then it should have the freedom to opt out. Can you imagine how different the federal government would be today if there was a serious threat of a state withdrawing its support and revenues?
Other dangerous precedents Lincoln set forth after the Civil War was that rights of the people could be trampled on for the good of the state. This is a very collectivist idea that has been demonstrated numerous times by presidents in our nation’s history and even to this present day. For instance, just last week the Patriot Act amendments were renewed, and this is a prime example of the state setting aside basic rights such as privacy and our Fourth Amendment in favor of more government power.
To do this day Abe Lincoln is honored by not only having a national holiday, but also being on our currency (the penny and five dollar bill), having a national memorial, a national holiday, and even being carved into Mount Rushmore. He is a national icon and looked upon as a hero. But if you ever visit the South there is quite a different perspective. Over 150 years has passed and there is still resentment carried forth by many generations who felt like their ancestors were wronged. A lot of Southerners still claim that we lost the Civil War, and this in turn will draw the ire of liberals as bigotry. Regardless of the persons intentions, a frank look back on history might support the South in their conclusion. Lincoln devastated our nation in the name of the union and federal power. His policies were more akin to that of a dictator than a respectable statesman, and from my perspective he’ll go down in infamy as one of our nation’s worst presidents.
More information about the “Lincoln Myth” can be found here: