THE DEIFICATION OF “HONEST ABE”
DON C. MARLER
Historians painted themselves in a corner by attributing the discovery of America to Columbus. After more than 400 years defending this position against all evidence to the contrary, they began a few decades ago trying to extricate themselves from their self made trap. The causes of this major faux pas were more benign than those that were the impetus for the setting of another major trap: the deification of President Abraham Lincoln. Building a protective wall of misinformation around the mythical ‘Honest Abe” has been the task of a loyal, duped and perhaps intimidated profession.
I was reared in Central Louisiana in the 1930s among people who were filled with prejudice against black people; yet, they held Lincoln in high esteem. Having been mostly successful in avoiding the disease of racial prejudice, I too always held a positive view of “Honest Abe.” Only in the last few years have I learned how brainwashed I have been. I was shocked and saddened to learn the true character of this politician whom I thought stood out from others in honesty, integrity, humanity and humility.
During and after the so-called Civil War, especially during the “Reconstruction Period”, the federal government put forth a gigantic propaganda campaign — as usual from the point of view of the winners. As public schools began to develop across the south after the war where there had been none, teachers from the north filled most of the positions. Southern teachers were frequently prohibited from teaching during the Reconstruction Period. This practice may explain why some southern historians joined the effort to deify Lincoln, and the heavy hand of the administration during and immediately after the war may explain why northern historians worked so hard to deify him.
The deification was nearly total; however, in the last few decades a few courageous historians north and south have mustered the courage to risk the wrath and scorn of their colleagues and have begun to uncover the real Lincoln. Seeing the real Lincoln is a painful experience; but, understanding what he and his regime was like in reality puts much of what has happened politically in the last 150 years and especially what is happening today in clearer perspective.
It is clear that Lincoln was not concerned with slavery. He most of all wanted the federal government to have total power and control over the states. And it is clear that the Constitution was blocking his ambition, so he ignored it.
The Confederate States withdrew from the Union legitimately. Lincoln ignored that fact and labeled their actions simply rebellious; thus giving him a platform upon which he could invade the new country and force a reuniting. The end of slavery was, for Lincoln, an unintended consequence of the war.
Early on he suspended habeas corpus for the duration of the war. This allowed him to hold over 13,000 political prisoners (northern legislators, newspaper editors and owners who spoke out against his policies and practices) in prison under the worst of conditions, without charges, trial or legal representation. He imprisoned most of the Maryland legislators and prohibited them (and a few other state legislatures, from meeting. He deported Ohio legislator (Congressman, Vallandigham) first to the Confederacy and when he returned sent him to Canada. When he returned again he was imprisoned. The president quelled protest with federal troops, killing several hundred citizens in New York City alone. Lincoln prevented free elections. Different parties had ballots of different colors and troops at the poling places simply confiscated the colors of the party out of favor or considered the most threatening to the Lincoln administration. He ordered that ministers say a prayer in church for the administration—and had at least one minister arrested for omitting such. Several northern states were placed under martial law.
The Geneva Convention was ratified in 1863. It was signed by the federal government but was seldom observed. Lincoln micromanaged the war so he was in charge of all aspects including the plundering of civilian property, destroying cities composed of mostly civilians, destroying livestock, crops and homes as was done by General Sherman—all forbidden by the Geneva Convention and human decency. Lincoln instituted the personal income tax and disarmed citizens of the north. When the US Supreme court ruled against him he simply ignored it. He allowed Secretary Seward to develop his own secret police force. Seward boasted of what he could do with the long arm of his secret force.
Lincoln manipulated the Ft. Sumter affair to shift blame for firing the first shot to the Confederacy, then he ignored several overtures from Jefferson Davis for meetings to seek a peaceful resolution. Throughout the war he sought to have all blacks, slave and free, relocated to some country away from America. During the war he sent some slaves back to their northern owners and continued using some as slaves on behalf of the war effort. He freed none, even in areas of the south where he had control. The Emancipation Proclamation exempted slaves under northern control; it applied only to those under Confederate control. Therefore, none were freed by it. These are just a few of the outrageous acts committed by this deified president.
It is no stretch to see disturbing relationships between Lincoln’s approach and that of other Republican war making practices; the latest being President George W. Bush and his two wars. The salient similarities are: (1) declaring war on false pretenses, (2) abandoning the Geneva Convention, (3) violating the constitution and (4) severely limiting individual freedoms.
Karl Marx was known for his statement that the end justifies the means. He was ridiculed across America for this statement. When he was confronted with the statement, he answered with one question. If not justified by the end then by what? Indeed! Only the end justifies the means, but some means are not justified or justifiable.
Was keeping the states under one central leadership sufficient justification for an uncivil war, especially one, the execution of which, violated almost every founding principle of the parent country? How much more justifiable would the war have been if abolishing slavery had been the reason for it.
Sometimes good things happen for the wrong reasons. I am glad that the Union was saved and power was centralized. Mostly, I am glad that slavery ended. My objection to the story is that it is so distorted by the deification of President Lincoln that we can learn little from it.
Much of the material presented here is from: Dilorenzo, Thomas J. The Real Lincoln: A New Look at Abraham Lincoln, His Agenda, and an Unnecessary War. The book offers valuable documentation. You will never view the Civil War or the federal government the same way again. The author of this book is not a southerner.
David Donald, Lincoln Reconsidered.
Richard Bensel, Yankee Leviathan: The Origins of Central State Authority in America.
Roy P. Basler, ed., Abraham Lincoln: His Speeches and Writings.