Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Rethinkin' Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln used to be one of my heroes. I bought into the idea that he was one of our greatest Presidents. After I graduated from law school and passed my Illinois bar exam and went to the state capitol in Springfield, Illinois for the swearing-in ceremony. While there, I visited Lincoln’s home, which is a national monument. A few years later I worked in the federal building in Fort Wayne, Indiana, across the street from what was then the national headquarters of the Lincoln National Life Insurance Company. I toured the Lincoln Museum, which is in Fort Wayne. I had some pride that Lincoln and I had something in common, which was that each of us had spent most of our childhood in Indiana. I have visited the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. and Ford’s Theater, where Lincoln was killed. I have visited the battlefield at Gettysburg, where he made is famous Gettysburg address. Lincoln is credited with freeing the slaves and saving the Union. However, after learning more about Abraham Lincoln and reflecting on what he did, I have begun to think that much of the legend of Abraham Lincoln is a result of the fact that the victors of wars get to write the history books. I still have great respect for many of his qualities as a human being; by all accounts, his nickname of “honest Abe” was well deserved. Also, nothing can take away from the fact that Lincoln was an outstanding orator and commander-in-chief. However, the fact that he launched the war that caused more American casualties than all other wars put together and contributed the process that has led to the Constitution to be ignored diminishes his reputation as a President greatly in my estimation.

Although the popular belief about the Civil War was that it was fought primarily over slavery, Lincoln himself had little interest in ending slavery and did not have a high opinion of African Americans. In 1858, in the fourth of the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates, he declared that he was not and never had been in favor in any way of bringing about the social and political equality of the white and black races, was not in favor of making them voters or jurors, qualifying them to hold public office, or to intermarry with white people. He went so far as to say that whites were superior to blacks and that the difference between whites and blacks were so great that they could never live together in social and political equality. In 1861, he supported a proposed amendment to the Constitution that would have prohibited the federal government from interfering with slavery in the states where it existed. Lincoln’s primary goal was to save “the Union” and he said that if he could save the Union by freeing the slaves, by freeing no slaves, or by freeing some slaves and letting others go free, he would do so.

Between the time Lincoln was elected President and his inauguration, seven states had seceded; the other four members of what was to become the Confederate States of America seceded shortly after his inauguration. If there were a strong consensus that states had no right to secede from the Union and that allowing them to secede was destructive, then perhaps Lincoln was justified in treating the southern states as rebellious and to launch the Civil War. However, an argument can be made states had (and still have) a right to secede and that whatever benefits there may have been to forcing them to stay in the Union was not worth the terrible cost. The U.S. Constitution does specifically whether states did or did not have a right to secede, although it does state in the preamble that one of the purposes of the Constitution was “to form a more perfect Union.” However, in their ratifying resolutions, the states of Virginia, New York, and Rhode Island reserved the right to withdraw from the Union if the new government became oppressive. In the nation’s history, the first states to give serious consideration to seceding from the Union were not the southern states, but the New England states because they perceived that the federal government was dominated by southern interests and because of opposition to the War of 1812. In the 1830s and 1840s, some abolitionists, most notably William Lloyd Garrison, called for northern states to secede because of the federal government’s support for slavery. Some felt that the breakup of the Union would encourage the end of slavery. Many of the Founding Fathers assumed that states had the right to secede from the Union. In short, the issue of whether states had a right to secede from the Union was not settled on the “battlefield of ideas” but was instead settled on real battlefields with real deaths, real injuries, and real disruption of lives.

The Civil War set new standards for incivility in warfare. Until then, the standards of warfare discouraged targeting civilians. The Union army, particularly the part under the command of General William Tecumseh Sherman, made a point of destroying homes, crops, and anything else in its path. By the time the war was over, it cost more American lives that all the other wars in American history combined. The Battle of Gettysburg was the biggest battle fought in the history of the Western Hemisphere. In addition to causing massive devastation, primarily to the southern states but also to the northern states, the Lincoln administration so dramatically increased government spending that the United States still has not recovered from the debt from the Civil War. It had finished paying the debts incurred by the American Revolution and was completely free of debt during the administration of Andrew Jackson. Before the Civil War, the federal government had never spent more than $75 million in a year. By the end of 1861, the first year of the war, it was spending $1.5 million a day, and in 1865 the United States became the first nation in history to spend more than a billion dollars in a year. Since then, the least the government has spent in one year was $236.9 million, in 1878. By the time the debt from the Civil War of about $2.8 billion was almost paid, the United States entered World War I and has not come close to being out of debt since. Although it is necessary at times for the nation to go into debt, it should make every effort to repay the debt within the generation that borrowed the money. Any debt that is not repaid during that generation must be paid by taxing future generations to pay not only the debt but interest. Since future generations could not vote and are saddled with taxes, this is taxation without representation. It is also a form of slavery - not as bad as the slavery that the Civil War ended, but slavery nonetheless.

What would have happened if Lincoln would have let the southern states secede rather than causing us to fight the bloodiest war in our history is subject to speculation. Slavery probably would have lasted a few years longer than it did, but with slavery disappearing in the rest of the world, it probably would not have lasted long. The states in the Confederacy may or may not have rejoined the Union. One thing that we can be sure of is that a lot of death, injury, destroyed lives and families, property destruction, and debt would have been avoided. Was preserving the Union really worth all that?


  1. I find it unusual that you would take this particular lawyer/politician at his word when he said that his goal was to preserve the Union. The most expedient way he could preserved the Union would be to refuse to serve in office. His real goal was to control and possibly eliminate the spread of slavery, and the South knew this.

  2. Robert, lets follow the logic through here.
    Premise: What politicians say cannot be taken seriously.
    Fact: You have run for public office on two occasions.
    Conclusion: What you say cannot be taken seriously.

    Abraham Lincoln's reputation for saying what he meant and meaning what he said was pretty exceptional among politicians of any age. If ignore that reputation and assume that he didn't mean what he said about the Union and slavery, then he was a liar and his reputation should suffer for that reason.

    Whether the Civil War was fought to preserve the Union, to end slavery, or both, it was an incredibly costly war in terms of the lives lost and otherwise destroyed, the economic devastation to the south, and the incredible debt incurred by the north. Considering that slavery would have ended anyway, I think the Civil War does not stand up to a serious cost-benefits analysis. In other words, I question whether it was really worth it.

    Incidentally, I think it is interesting that what we call the Civil War, was not really a civil war, because civil wars are fought to seize control of a government. Since the south was not interested in seizing control of the federal government but wanted to separate from it instead, it was more of a war for independence. However, that name can not be tolerated considering that the victors write the history books and the nomenclature. The American Revolution was also not a typical "revolution." Revolutions usually promote radical new ideas. What resulted from the war turned out to be a radically different kind of country than existed before, but in the beginning all the Americans wanted was for their rights as Englishmen to be recognized - at least their rights as they existed before Great Britain started to raise taxes on everything in sight to pay for the Seven Years War.

  3. Ok, I'm late coming back to this thread.

    First of all, slavery still exists in a few parts of the world. You might insist that it was inevitable that slavery would disappear from North America. Even if you're right, Lincoln had no way of knowing that. The war would have been over a lot sooner if either side had been endowed with that knowledge.

    The problem is that people do not judge the Confederacy harshly enough. There is no greater security risk than armed insurgents. Sure they were trying to secede. So were the Puerto Rican nationalists who tried to blow you up in Chicago. We can agree that violence for political reasons is not justified. The CSA made its bed when they fired on Fort Sumter.

  4. Of course, hindsight is easier than foresight. I agree that firing on Fort Sumter was at least a miscalculation. The south might have gotten its way without a war by complaining like crazy about the military outpost of what they look upon as a foreign power on their land, being generally uncooperative (such as by not collecting taxes for the regime in Washington and in general making their disobedience less violent) but Ghandi was not yet around to show how civil disobedience can work. As too often happens in war, both sides were overconfident. Both sides thought the war would be over quickly and both sides expected to be victorious. Both had good reasons for such expectations. The north had more resources, and the south was fighting on home turf and had some reasonable expectation that the north would get tired of fighting and go home, much like what later happened in Vietnam.

    I was recently watching a show on C-SPAN about the Civil War and I recognized a person in the audience who asked the panel of experts why the north didn't just let the south secede. The person was a history professor at Housatonic Community College, one of the schools at which I teach. Although I know my viewpoint may be in a small minority, I apparently have some company.

    While we are talking about "what if" scenarios, I wonder what would happen if no compromise had been reached on slavery at the Constitutional Convention and the nation split and two separate countries had been formed at that time. Maybe their fear was justified that two separate countries would be weaker and would be overwhelmed by the European powers that were still occupying nearby parts of North America. Maybe not - there is no way to tell for sure now. One effect on slavery would have been that slaves could escape to the north without fear of being sent back. In a discussion of the compromises over slavery at the Constitutional Convention in a textbook for a class I am teaching, the authors say that if there had been no compromise, the Carolinas and Georgia would not be part of the Union. I find it curious that they did not mention Virginia, and am a little annoyed that such an omission was without comment. If they had reason to believe that Virginia would have stayed in a union in which there was no slavery, I would like to know what that reason was.


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