Okay, the Lincoln thing is getting re-god-damn-diculous. First, Obama can’t make a speech without invoking Lord Lincoln. Second, you can’t watch a news network (or even the “fake news” on Comedy Central). Third, take a trip down to your local Barnes and noble and count all the Lincoln books. Seriously, you can’t get away from this guy! In 1920, H.L. Mencken wrote, “there are four kinds of books that seldom, if ever, lose money in the United States- first, murder stories; secondly, novels in which the heroine is overcome by the hero; thirdly, volumes on spiritualism, occultism, and other such claptrap, and fourthly, books on Lincoln.” Apparently nothing has changed in the 89 years since. And then there’s this poll, ranking Lincoln as our greatest president.
When one historical figure is so ubiquitous and so revered, something must be amiss. So, in honor of President’s Day: the case against Lincoln, briefly stated.
Here is Mencken again on the Lincoln Myth:
Lincoln becomes the American solar myth, the chief butt of American credulity and sentimentality. . . . there is an obvious effort to pump all his human weakness out of him, and so leave him a mere moral apparition, a sort of amalgam of John Wesley and the Holy Ghost. What could be more absurd? Lincoln, in point of fact, was a practical politician of long experience and high talents, and by no means cursed with idealistic superstitions. . . . Even his handling of the slavery question was that of a politician, and not that of a messiah.
Without a doubt, it is the “slavery question” that provides the foundation for the Lincoln myth. The prevailing wisdom is that if you criticize Lincoln or the Civil War, you are an apologist for slavery. But a closer look at the facts behind the rhetoric reveals him to be far less than a messiah indeed. He said many times throughout his career that he considered white men to be superior to black, and supported enshrining southern slavery permanently in the constitution. He was furthermore obsessed with the idea of sending all the slaves back to the African colony of Liberia. Never an abolitionist, he decided to sign the emancipation proclamation as a strategy for winning the civil war. There are so many statements on record of Lincoln’s support of slavery and white supremacy, that a whole cottage industry of court historians is dedicated to the hermeneutics of “what Lincoln really meant.” The more honest apologists will simply say that he was lying in order to be elected.
It was for not slavery, but the crime of secession that Lincoln decided to wage the first modern total war against the south. The proof of this is not only in Lincoln’s own statements, but the fact that the war was against not the small minority of slaveholders, but against every man, woman, and child in the confederacy. You can compare this tactic with the libertarian strategy espoused by Lysander Spooner of forming volunteer armies of abolitionists (and there were many) to free the slaves and arm them for insurrection and expropriation of the lands, which properly belonged to the slaves. And of course, once the North won the war, the slaves were not given their full compensation due for their forced labor. The just, and libertarian, solution would be to throw the slaveholders out on their collective ears, and all their property turned over to the slaves. But it was the slaves who were displaced, while the rest of the non-slaveholding South had to submit to government by the North. Clearly we can see what the priorities were.
In the course of fighting the war, Lincoln suspended habeas corpus, jailed his political opponents and other dissidents, and generally pissed all over the constitution.
In economic policy, Lincoln was essentially a whore for big business, particularly for the railroads, whom he had a relationship with dating back to his days as a private practice lawyer.
In short, the verdict on Lincoln, Greatest American President, ought to be: liar, mass murderer, tyrant, racist.
But why the pervasive mythology? I think there are two main reasons. The lesser one is that he was assassinated, and America, true to form as a fiercely Christian nation, loves a martyr. The greater one is has to do with the very descrepancy between his record and reputation. Lincoln did many things that were flagrantly unconstitutional and in contempt of American political traditions. If Lincoln enjoys such popularity, later Presidents who want to get away with such things can use the excuse that, “Lincoln did it, and hey, wasn’t he America’s Greatest President?” I remember vividly an NPR editorial in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 that invoked Lincoln’s wartime crackdown on civil liberties (the commentator was British). Consider how Lincoln is admired by both the Right and Left, Democrat and Republican. The same cannot be said about other Presidents who frequently rank high on those lists, like Reagan and FDR.
For more information, please peruse Lew Rockwell.com’s King Lincoln Archive, especially America’s greatest anti-Lincoln scholar, Thomas DiLorenzo. And to see how the slaves could have been freed without destroying the people’s right of secession, (along with most of the South) see Lysander Spooner’s Plan for the Abolition of Slavery. For a less bilious assessment of Lincoln that still confirms him as a destroyer of civil liberties and architect of the modern Leviathan, see Jeffrey Rodgers Hummel’s article in the Chicago Tribune; and for one which similarly throws cold water on the “Great Emancipator” myth, though still clinging to the “Great Union-Preserver Myth”, (what, is a man who holds his wife captive against her will a great preserver of marriage?), see this Baltimore Sun article by Leonard Pitts.