He suspended the civil rights of his own country, took over 13,000 political prisoners, including mayors, legislators, ministers and newspapermen. He invaded his neighbor lay waste to her lands, killed over 250,000 of her people and caused the remainder to be subjugated to his own political will. Who was this man?
The short resume above belongs to President Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln is given almost godlike reverence on two counts, resulting from the northern victory in The War Between The States; emancipating the slaves and preserving the Union of 34 states. That he accomplished these with no authority save more and bigger cannon has been ignored if not denied by ancient and modern historians alike. In the brief essay that follows, I hope to gauge Lincoln and the conflict against the philosophical underpinnings of the Union he strove to save not merely the immediate results of the conflict of 1861-1865.
The casus belli of The War Between the States remain as debatable today as they were in 1861. The writer is inadequate to the task of unraveling that Gordian knot. The actions of the 16th President of The United States on the other hand are visible to anyone with eyes to see. President Lincoln unleashed horrible destruction and loss on the southern people not to mention the 300,000 Union soldiers who lost their lives. More Americans died in Lincoln’s War than in all other U.S. conflicts combined. The above notwithstanding, I do not suggest that Lincoln was motivated by anything other than what he thought to be right under the circumstances. I believe Lincoln was met with such intractable problems and powerful external forces that he wearied under the pressure and chose to try to accomplish quickly by force of arms what might have been achieved only through years of painstaking diplomacy.
The America of the 1860’s was very unlike our nation today. Neither the interstate highway system nor the automobiles to travel it existed to tie us together. People and commerce travelled by horseback, steamship and loosely connected railroads. The Republic was divided north and south, geographically, industrially, monetarily and spiritually. The northern states were fast becoming an industrial giant. In just more than a half century it would become manufacturer to the world. The wealth of the nation passed through the banks, trading houses and ports of New York, Philadelphia and Boston. Much of the population north of the Mason-Dixon was urban. On the other hand the American south in the middle of the 19th century, was overwhelmingly rural and dependent on growing and selling tobacco and cotton. More than 90% of the world’s cotton came from the states of the Confederacy. Southern cotton was shipped on northern ships, sold through northern commercial houses and the profit deposited in northern banks. Virtually all southern manufactured goods from farm equipment to weapons to clothing were imported either from abroad or from the north. Industrial tariffs on these importations produced 70% of federal tax receipts in 1860. The high exactions drastically reduced the value of southern crops. Lest we ignore the obvious, the far greater part of plantation labor was performed by black African slaves while radical abolitionists dominated the newly minted and powerful Republican party. In the south, paranoia began to run deep.
When South Carolina and then the other slave states seceded and formed The Confederate States of America a whole host of problems arose for the northern states and the federal government. Without southern tariff receipts federal coffers would soon run empty requiring increased taxes on northern merchants and manufacturers. Additionally, the Confederacy offered foreign nations tax free ports at Charleston, Savannah and New Orleans presenting a mortal threat to the protectionist northern sea trade. In fact, an independent southern nation had the potential to bankrupt the north. These conditions met the 16th President at his inauguration.
It is clear that in defense of the wealth, property and well-being of the northern states and their people, Lincoln could not permit the Confederacy [without mutual agreements on trade etc] to remain as an independent country. Yet the President had the same obligation to protect the people and property of the south, at least as long as they were states. Truly no President before or since has faced such an imponderable dilemma. Half of the nation that elected him President no longer believed it bound to the Union and had set up a nation that threatened the well being of the other half. Lincoln was left hanging between heaven and hell. He had really only three options; accept the Confederacy as a legitimate, sovereign nation and begin the long and arduous task of negotiating the salient issues toward a peaceful resolution and perhaps reunification, declare war on the C.S.A. or claim the southern states in “revolt” and use the United States Army to subdue the “rebellion”. Under severe pressure for a quick solution from northern commerce and with abolitionists railing at him to take the opportunity to free the slaves, Lincoln seemed never to have considered diplomacy. In his first inaugural he put his marker down asserting: “ in your hands my dissatisfied fellow-countrymen and not mine is the momentous issue of civil war…You have no oath registered in heaven to destroy the government, while I have the most solemn one to preserve, protect and defend it." In a brilliant piece of political legerdemain, Lincoln established a self-serving and false rhetorical basis for the conflict that obtains even today.
No threat was uttered nor intent given by the seceding states toward an overthrow of the government of the United States. Civil war [a legal term] by necessity of definition requires such a struggle thus no civil war was imminent and in fact, none occurred. Further Lincoln’s oath was to “preserve, protect and defend “, not the sitting government but the Constitution. Nothing in The Constitution compelled any state to remain a part of the U.S. We shall see further on what oath the south staked its claim. On April 13, 1861 goaded by Lincoln's ordering gunboats toward Charleston, intemperate South Carolinians fired on Ft. Sumter. In late July 1861, Lincoln invaded Virginia.
The ethical and moral foundations of the United States are expressed in the Declaration of Independence of 1776. In that year, the 13 American colonies of King George III of England declared:
When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
We hold these truths to be self-evident:
That all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that, to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; 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, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.
If these truths are not eternal and invioable the United States is and forever will be a rogue nation founded by brigands and traitors with no moral or ethical grounds for its being and no basis for its laws and customs save force. Below is an excerpt from The Declaration of Independence of the Confederate States of America.
When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation. We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all human beings are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --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, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
Lincoln’s arguments, to the contrary the Confederacy held exactly the same writ asserted by the colonies against Britain some four-score years past. In ignoring the legitimacy of the Confederate States and using armed force to keep them under United States rule, Lincoln denied the foundational principles of his own country. Like George III before him, Lincoln became a tyrant.
In judging Abraham Lincoln, one may not retreat behind events occurring after the War Between the States. It also cannot be assumed the he was prescient in knowing a re-united America would become a great power and force for good in the world just as we cannot assume that had he let the Confederacy go reconciliation would not have taken place peaceably or that both nations may not have been great. Neither can we contend that the slaves would not in time, have been emancipated. President Lincoln, like all men must be judged according to his times, by the knowledge and wisdom available to him. Lincoln was dealt a terrible hand. He felt an immense pragmatic and mystical burden to maintain the union – whatever the cost. Lincoln’s policies in response to that burden were by the immutable axioms of our own beginning, illegal, immoral and unethical. His actions were those of a despot and resulted in a spiritual, physical, societal and cultural devastation of the nation that is not healed 140 years hence. That the Union Abraham Lincoln salvaged became the American Colossus may be accounted to his favor. That slavery was abolished at that precise time and in the manner it was, is more problematic. I hope to address that issue as well as other significant historical consequences of The War Between The States in future posts.