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Leave Lincoln’s Statues Alone but Engage with His Legacy More Critically

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“Indeed, Michael Scharf reports that ‘Milošević saw himself as a modern-day Abe Lincoln, employing force in a valiant effort to hold his crumbling Yugoslavia together.’” 

One of the great scenes in William Shakespeare’s 1599 play Julius Caesar occurs when a mob that has gathered in Rome—enraged by Caesar’s death—attempts to kill Cinna. But, instead of killing Cinna, a conspirator in Caesar’s assassination, the mob instead kills a poet who just so happens to have the same name. Shakespeare was fully aware that mobs do not deliver justice, and this is because once the first head rolls, others are likely to follow, guilty or not.

This has been the case with the current craze over the toppling of statues. It began with statues depicting Confederate generals, and it then turned towards Christopher Columbus. Soon after, however, a statue of Miguel de Cervantes was vandalized, even though not only did Cervantes not own slaves, but he had been a slave himself. In this snowballing effect of mob action, it was not hard to predict that—sooner or later—a statue of Abraham Lincoln would be in jeopardy. Alas, there was a failed attempt to deface a statue in Washington D.C. that depicts President Lincoln next to a kneeling, freed slave. To the mob, it does not matter that Lincoln was the emancipator; any depiction of a black man kneeling beside a white man is horribly offensive. Never mind that—soon after emancipation—freed slaves themselves paid for this statue; the mob does not care about these inconvenient details. Its sole objective is to burn the system to the ground.

And, in a country with a firm separation of Church and State, President Lincoln is the one politician who comes closest to being revered as something of a secular god.

Yet, perhaps this time the mob is onto something. In a country without a monarchy, Lincoln was the President of the United States who came closest to becoming a king. And, in a country with a firm separation of Church and State, President Lincoln is the one politician who comes closest to being revered as something of a secular god. This flirting with the throne and the altar is never healthy for a republic, and the time is due for some revisionism. Most popular retellings of the Civil War are simplistic narratives of good against evil: The South wanted to preserve slavery and seceded, while President Lincoln, on the other hand, waged a war to preserve the Union and, more importantly, to abolish slavery. However, the historical truth is more complicated. 

Neo-Confederate historians who apparently still hope for the lost cause of the South typically claim that the war was not about slavery but about other matters, such as tariffs. This is nonsense. The war was fought over slavery, but it was not a struggle between defenders of slavery and defenders of abolition. 

After the war with Mexico ended in 1848, the United States incorporated vast new territories that would soon apply for statehood. The burning question was whether or not slavery would be allowed in these new territories and states. The South wanted slavery to expand into these new areas because that would virtually guarantee pro-slavery political representation in Washington and ensure the continuation of the institution. And, the North, on the other hand, desired for these new territories to be free of slavery. There may have been some moral reasons for this; however, for most Northern politicians (including President Lincoln), there was a more powerful economic rationale: They wanted to ensure economic opportunities for Northern white settlers in those territories. If slavery were allowed there, white settlers would find fewer opportunities for employment. 

President Lincoln made his stance clear in his 1861 inaugural address: “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.” As such, he was not truly an abolitionist. And, by no means did he believe in the natural equality of races. In his famous debates with Senator Stephen Douglas, Lincoln—then a candidate for the United States Senate—publicly proclaimed: “I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races…I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of Negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races from living together on terms of social and political equality.” I doubt even David Duke would make such a claim today. 

The Corwin Amendment never came to pass; however, Lincoln’s support for it seems to be proof that—at least at the time—he was not an abolitionist, for he was advocating for an amendment that would have permanently enshrined slavery where it existed.

Now, perhaps President Lincoln was truly an abolitionist and an anti-racist. But he was also a great admirer of Henry Clay, a politician renowned for his ability to compromise and reach consensus. President Lincoln was a savvy politician who knew how to manipulate and get things done, so he might have understood that effective reforms must often be gradual. Fanatics such as John Brown had given abolitionism and racial equality a bad name, so perhaps President Lincoln realized that the time was not yet ripe for full-blown enlightened ideas. During the Lincoln-Douglas debates, Douglas consistently dabbled in fear-mongering tactics, telling audiences that Lincoln favored interracial marriage. Then-candidate Lincoln could not afford to alienate these voters, and he played along, emphasizing that he was against full racial equality. Perhaps, all along, his intention had been abolition and racial equality, and he merely had to wait for the correct time to proclaim such views. In the meantime, he would, however, compromise by supporting the Fugitive Slave Act (which, in the North, enforced the return of runaway slaves to the South). 

But I find this unlikely. It appears that his true conviction was in saying that slavery must never expand to the new territories but that it could still be tolerated in the South. Soon after being elected President, President Lincoln supported the Corwin Amendment, which would have prevented any amendment to the Constitution abolishing slavery. The Corwin Amendment never came to pass; however, Lincoln’s support for it seems to be proof that—at least at the time—he was not an abolitionist, for he was advocating for an amendment that would have permanently enshrined slavery where it existed.

So, at the time he was elected President, President Lincoln was not an abolitionist. But he was certainly a nationalist—in the sense that he believed the nation ought to be preserved as one union, at all costs. Consequently, when the South seceded, President Lincoln did not hesitate to wage the bloodiest war in American history. This was not a moral crusade to free the slaves; this was a war in the style of the break up of the former Yugoslavia, in which the blood of hundreds of thousands was to be spilled in order to preserve some geopolitical entity. And this was not altogether unlike Slobodan Milošević’s brutal idea; indeed, Michael Scharf  reports that “Milošević saw himself as a modern-day Abe Lincoln, employing force in a valiant effort to hold his crumbling Yugoslavia together.” 

As the war progressed, some of President Lincoln’s generals, however, did seem to believe that the conflict was about freeing the slaves and, thus, issued emancipation proclamations. However, in 1862, Lincoln was quick to revoke these moves, telling readers of the New-York Tribune in no uncertain terms that the war was not about slavery but about nationalism: “…if I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that.”

In fact, many renowned abolitionists believed that the best course of action to abolish slavery in the South was by allowing secession. To this point, William Lloyd Garrison, Lysander Spooner, George Bassett and others believed that if the South was allowed to secede, the North would become a haven for runaway slaves. And, thus, being a different country, the North would no longer be required to return runaway slaves to the South. Under such circumstances, slavery would gradually dissipate as slaves migrated North. 

Counterfactuals are, by definition, speculative; however, I would venture to say that these abolitionists were likely correct. Slavery was already declining in Europe and the Western Hemisphere, mostly due to compensated emancipation. Given the swing of industrialization, slavery could not survive for much longer. Lincoln made a half-hearted effort to propose compensated emancipation in December of 1862, but his plan was never approved. By this time, the war had already begun, and as he had expressed it in his New-York Tribune letter only a few months prior, he was not concerned with abolition—only with the preservation of the Union.

Ultimately, his famous Emancipation Proclamation issued on January 1, 1863 was also about preserving the Union and not about abolition. Such measures only applied to areas that were controlled by the Confederacy. Lincoln’s goal was clearly martial: to target the enemy by encouraging slaves to cease working so as to weaken the war effort in the Confederacy. Lincoln ensured that the Emancipation Proclamation did not apply in slaveholding states that did not secede (i.e. Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware), and this was clearly because he did not want to alienate these states in his efforts to preserve the Union.

Eventually, once the South was clearly on its way towards defeat, President Lincoln supported the Thirteenth Amendment in January of 1865, which definitively abolished slavery. Perhaps by this time he was a sincere abolitionist, yet it appears that President Lincoln never ceased to harbor the same thoughts he had expressed in his debates with Senator Douglas: Blacks, in his view, were inferior to whites, and both races could never live alongside each other. President Lincoln supported the project of sending freed slaves to Africa, and, according to Major General Benjamin Franklin Butler, President Lincoln was discussing this proposal shortly before his death. 

Above, I have compared the beloved Abraham Lincoln to the universally loathed Slobodan Milošević. Many readers might be offended by this, and, to be sure, such a comparison might seem ill-founded. After all, Milošević died as a prisoner awaiting trial for war crimes, whereas President Lincoln has a magnificent monument in his honor in the capital of the most powerful country on Earth. Yet, this may have more to do with the fact that the former lost a war, whereas the latter won. History is not always written by victors; however, in this case, the outcome of the Civil War has certainly tilted the balance in favor of President Lincoln’s reputation.

Milošević was a vicious dictator who embraced a program of ethnic cleansing and was culpable for multiple war crimes. President Lincoln never did as much. However, he did come close to becoming a dictator. After all, as the old Latin adage has it, inter arma enim silent leges (in times of war, the law falls silent). For example, he suspended habeas corpus, citing reasons of war emergency. This set a dangerous precedent for future presidents, such as when President George W. Bush signed into law measures such as the Patriot Act, also citing the reason of war emergency. As a result of President Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus, thousands were imprisoned and held without trial. President Lincoln also cracked down on the freedom of the press. He closed down newspapers advocating peace. His administration arrested more than 20 Maryland legislators to prevent them from voting in favor of secession. As for war crimes, President Lincoln’s record is more complicated. As is true in most conflicts, there were atrocities committed on both sides, and it is doubtful Lincoln ever gave explicit orders to attack civilians. However, he did come to approve of General William Tecumseh Sherman’s “March to the Sea,” a brutal campaign of scorched earth tactics that targeted civilians and brought enormous destruction to the South. By the standards of today, General Sherman’s tactics would absolutely be considered war crimes. 

In the end, President Lincoln comes across as the type of leader who—obsessed with the nationalist idea of preserving some abstract geopolitical entity—was willing to shed copious amounts of blood. And yet, President Lincoln served as a buffer against some of the more radical politicians of his time; it appears that Lincoln had reasonable, lenient plans for the reconstruction of the defeated South. His famed compromising skills would have served to keep in check so-called “radical Republicans,” who advocated for a far more punitive approach to the South. Instead, President Lincoln was succeeded by his incompetent Vice President, Andrew Johnson, who never managed to balance the radical Republicans’ plans for reconstruction with the defeated South’s requests. President Johnson’s incompetence eventually drove him out of office, and the hardline radical Republicans stepped in. Ultimately, Reconstruction was mostly a failure (eventually leading to the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and Jim Crow laws)—perhaps precisely because of its radicalism. Again, it is a matter of speculation, but one may wonder: had Lincoln not been assassinated, perhaps “Honest Abe” would have made Reconstruction smoother and more effective.

So, should President Lincoln’s statues be toppled? Absolutely not. His image should be kept as a reminder of profoundly decisive events in American history. However, a country can keep statues without promoting cults. The current approach to President Lincoln does, at times, resemble—if not a cult—then at least a brand, and this is how Jackie Hogan, the author of Lincoln, Inc., sees it. President Lincoln was a complex figure, and, as such, he deserves a less simplistic approach. This fact warrants the preservation of his statues; however, at the same time, a more critical scrutiny of his legacy is required for history textbooks and museums.

Dr. Gabriel Andrade is a university professor. His Twitter is @gandrade8o.

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