Back to the Future: The Legacy of Abraham Lincoln
A president of the United States would never operate outside the law, ignore the U.S. Constitution and the courts, shut down the presses, imprison his domestic adversaries or turn his guns on his own people. Well, Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president did of all of that and, curiously, has been turned into a national hero for his troubles. Lincoln ignored his closest advisors and the temper of the times to engage in the bloodiest war in American history, a war that could easily have been avoided. Single handedly Lincoln terrorized the entire nation. So let us take notice. What happened once could happen again.
The real Lincoln
More than 16,000 books have been written about Lincoln, just about all of them worshipful. He liberated the slaves. He was assassinated. He was a martyr to the cause of social justice, an exalted human being and one of the greatest leaders the world has known. He emerges Christ like in his suffering and in his legacy.
In The Real Lincoln: A New Look at Abraham Lincoln, His Agenda and an Unnecessary War, Thomas DiLorenzo takes a different tack. According to DiLorenzo, Lincoln was an easy to believe liar whose devious use of words enabled him to set up a fascist state while claiming to do the opposite. He oversaw the slaughter of three quarters of a million Americans and the permanent maiming of a million and a half more. He decimated the Southern economy, its culture and society, its agriculture, all in the name of the greater good. He suspended habeas corpus, imprisoned his opponents, shut down the press and oversaw the installation of martial law. He was the first but not the last of the great subverters of the U.S. Constitution. He was Vladimir Lenin and Genghis Kahn all wrapped up in one.
In a similar vein, Edmund Wilson1 equates Lincoln with the German monarch Otto von Bismarck. In the 1860s, Bismarck engineered a series of wars that unified the German states under a strong central government just as Lincoln was in the process of achieving the same goal by the same means. Edgar Lee Masters compares Lincoln to Robespierre,2 a man of lofty ideals who presided over the Reign of Terror, the bloodiest period in French history, marked by mass executions of “enemies of the revolution.” Tens of thousands were summarily executed.
Such claims undoubtedly will be greeted with dismay and disbelief by many Americans. How and why could we have been so hoodwinked? Are historians on the side of the truth or the propaganda machine that seeks to conceal the facts about a period in history that has done more to change this country than any other? What is being hidden?
To understand Lincoln, to make an honest appraisal of his character and his place in American history and his relevance to our current era, one needs to come to grips with the war he initiated and oversaw. What was the Civil War3all about? Was it about slavery?4 Was it about nullification and secession? Was it about collecting taxes? Or was it about something else?
Most Americans believe that the Civil War was fought over slavery and that emancipating the slaves was its primary purpose. Yet Lincoln was a racist. Perhaps his clearest statement on the subject was made in his debate with Senator Stephen Douglas in 1858, in Ottawa, Illinois.
I have no purpose to introduce political and social equality between the white and black races. There is a physical difference between the two, which, in my judgment, will probably forever forbid their living together upon the footing of perfect equality; and inasmuch as it becomes a necessity that there must be a difference, I, as well as Judge Douglas, am in favor of the race to which I belong having the superior position. I have never said anything to the contrary.5
Lincoln supported the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, according to which runaway slaves were to be captured and returned to their owners. Slaves were property and slaves owners had the right to claim their property. Owning slaves was a right guaranteed by the Constitution. “I acknowledge them [the slave owner’s rights], not grudgingly but fully and fairly; and I would give them any legislation for the reclaiming of their fugitives.”6 According to Lincoln, freed blacks should be sent back to where they came from: Africa, Haiti, Central America. Eliminating every last black person from American soil would be a “glorious consummation.”7
Racism in the North
The notion that slaves as property was a protected right was in keeping with the mentality of the times. The Fugitive Slave Act was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court and the supreme courts of every northern state. As late as 1860 none of the four parties fielding presidential candidates favored abolition of Southern slavery. Lincoln, himself, was clear on the matter, “My paramount object in this struggle [the Civil War] is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery.”8
Abolitionists were a vocal minority.9 The majority were content to not intervene. On January 22, 1861, the New York Times announced that it was opposed to the abolition of slavery. Blacks should be taught to read and write and save money, making slavery “a very tolerable institution.”10 In a similar vein, the New York Herald speaks of “the good treatment and happy, contented lot of the slaves.”11
Blacks in the North were discriminated against just as they were to be once liberated in the South. As Alexis de Tocqueville observes, “the prejudice of race appears to be stronger in the states that have abolished slavery than in those where it still exists …”12 Lincoln opposed black immigration into his state and supported the laws that denied blacks citizenship.
Assuming, though it is not the case, that the North was virulently opposed to slavery, was war the only road to abolition? Slavery was common practice around the world up to the nineteenth century, when gradually it was eliminated by peaceful means. The first significant abolitionist movement began in England in 1774. Slavery was eliminated in country after country, often by manumission (slave owners allowed their slaves to purchase their freedom) or compensated emancipation. By 1840 all the slaves in the British Empire had been freed. Between 1813 and 1854 slavery was eliminated from Latin America, Central America, and French and Danish colonies. Not a shot was fired.
In the United States, as well, support was building for peaceful emancipation as the costs for holding on to, capturing, and maintaining slaves constituted more and more of an economic hardship. In 1849 ten percent of participants in a Kentucky political convention supported gradual emancipation in their state. Slavery was on its way out in Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, Missouri and much of Virginia. Although less than one-fourth of Southern adults owned slaves, Lincoln made total war on the entire Southern population, civilian as well as military.
Nullification and Secession
Although nullification and secession were contentious issues, they were part of the national dialogue on government at the time of the Civil War and were in the repertoire of solutions in both the North and the South. In 1798, President John Adams signed into law the Alien and Sedition Acts. Henceforth, if you were to “write, print, utter, or publish … any false, scandalous and malicious writing” against the government you risked being fined and imprisoned. Twenty Republican (Jefferson’s party not Lincoln’s) newspaper editors were arrested. Some were imprisoned. Representative Matthew Lyon of Vermont was imprisoned for referring to President Adams’ “unbounded thirst for ridiculous pomp, foolish adulation, and self avarice.”
The Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions of 1798, penned anonymously by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, argued on behalf of the state legislatures that the Alien and Sedition Acts were unconstitutional and therefore null and void. The Kentucky Resolution of 1799 added that when the states determine that a law is unconstitutional, nullification by the states is the proper remedy.
Several New England states objected to the Embargo Act of 1807, which restricted foreign trade. The Massachusetts legislature passed a resolution stating that the embargo “is, in the opinion of the legislature, in many respects, unjust, oppressive and unconstitutional, and not legally binding on the citizens of this state.”
The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 resulted in renewed interest in nullification as a remedy for unwanted federal legislation. Nearly every northern state passed some type of personal liberty law whose purpose was to nullify this onerous federal law.
In 1803 Chief Justice John Marshall in Marbury v. Madison (James Madison, then Secretary of State under Jefferson) established the principle of judicial review. Marshall determined that the Judiciary Act of 1789, upon which Marbury based his claim against Madison, was unconstitutional thereby positioning the Supreme Court not the state legislatures to determine what was and what wasn’t the law of the land. This extraordinary power was assumed, not assigned by the Constitution in any direct way and places nine, unelected men and women, tenured for life, at the pinnacle of governmental power. Needless to say, states have argued that such a prerogative is, itself, unconstitutional. So far, the Supreme Court has prevailed.
Secession was an even more widely held prerogative. Most of the country believed the South had the right to secede. Secession was under consideration in various parts of the country, and was popular in the North as well as South. There were secessionist movements in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland.
There were those Northerners who wanted to join the Southern Confederacy, those who wished to form their own “Central Confederacy,” and those who wanted to allow the South to go in peace rather than use military force against them. “I have no idea,” said U.S. Senator James Alfred Pearce of Maryland, “ that the Union can be maintained or restored by force. Nor do I believe in the value of a Union which can only be kept together by dint of military force.”13
Both Henry J. Raymond, editor of the New York Times and Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune favored peaceful secession. Said Greeley, “We hope never to live in a republic whereof one section is pinned to the residue by bayonets.”14
In an earlier period, Thomas Jefferson’s election to the Presidency in 1800 sent a shock wave through the Federalist party. Massachusetts Senator Timothy Pickering called on the New England states to secede from the Union rather than serve under Jefferson. Senator James Hillhouse agreed. “The Eastern States must and will form a separate government.”15 For twelve years the New Englanders campaigned for secession. Said Thomas Jefferson in response, “If any state in the Union will declare that it prefers separation … to a continuance in union … I have no hesitation in saying, ‘let us separate.’”16
Thus neither nullification nor secession were as extreme in the period preceding the Civil War as they might seem to us from the perspective of the 21st century. These were options repeatedly considered by statesmen from both North and South when the federal government seemed to be exceeding reasonable limits. That the South should have chosen these options in 1860 is certainly not surprising. There was ample precedent. Much of the North was content to let the South go its separate way. Lincoln, himself, in an earlier phase of his political career, supported secession as an option available to a people without recourse.
On January 12, 1848 Lincoln, then representing Illinois in the House of Representatives, delivered a speech concerning the constitutionality or lack thereof of the war with Mexico. In 1836, the state of Texas declared its independence from Mexico and for nine years existed as a separate entity. In 1845, Texas became the 28th state. Mexico believed that Texas had no right to go its separate way and join the United States. War resulted. Did Texas have the right to secede or not? Says Lincoln,
Any people anywhere, being inclined and having the power have the right to rise up and shake off the existing government, and form a new one that suits them better…. Nor is the right confined to cases in which the whole people of an existing government may choose to exercise it. Any portion of such people that can may revolutionize and make their own of so much territory as they inhabit.17
Is this not exactly what the South did a little more than a decade later, “make their own of so much territory as they inhabit?”
Dollars and cents
If there was no mass movement insisting on the immediate liberation of the slaves, if Lincoln himself was indifferent on the matter, if nullification and secession were part of the national dialogue, what was the non-negotiable, incendiary issue that truly separated North from South.
In simplest terms the North was industrial and the South was agrarian. Northern manufacturers wanted to institute protective tariffs against cheap British imports. The South was opposed.
In 1828, the U.S. Congress passed what came to be known in the South as “The Tariff of Abominations.” Not only did this law increase duties on British imports to almost 50%. In addition it increased taxes on raw materials, like cotton and tobacco. Opposition to the tariff had been impassioned and unyielding.
On November 24, 1832, the South Carolina legislature passed an Ordinance of Nullification, which declared the Tariffs of 1828 and 1832 null and void within the state borders of South Carolina. The state threatened to secede from the Union if the tariff wasn’t withdrawn. Ultimately a compromise was reached.
The South was heavily dependent on British imports, much more so than the manufacturing North and hence would bear an excessive financial burden as a consequence of the high tariff. John C. Calhoun of South Carolina believed that these tariffs were unconstitutional and further that the states by virtue of their individual sovereignty had the right to render such laws inapplicable or null and void. A state has the right to reject a federal law.
The Constitution gave Congress the right to impose tariffs, “but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform through the United States.” Calhoun argued that the burden of these taxes was unequally distributed, in that they favored manufacturing over agriculture and commerce. Hence the tariffs were unconstitutional. And further, the monies collected from these tariffs were expended in the North for the construction of roadways, railways and canals to the benefit of Northern business interests while the South bore 80-90% of the financial burden and got none of the benefit.
The bank failures of 1857 and Lincoln’s election in 1860 brought the tariff issue to fore once again. The result was the Morrill Tariff of 1861, which raised the duty on imports by approximately 70%, 1832 redux. Not waiting for the final vote on the new tariff, on December 20, 1860, by a vote of 169-0, the South Carolina legislature enacted an “ordinance” that “the union now subsisting between South Carolina and other States, under the name of ‘The United States of America,’ is hereby dissolved.” In the ensuing months ten southern states would join them in the Confederate States of America. In his first inaugural Lincoln had made it clear that he would collect taxes, one way or another.18
That trade was the key issue leading to secession was apparent to many. On this the North and South agreed. The editors of the Boston Transcript declared, “… It does not require extraordinary sagacity to perceive that trade is perhaps the controlling motive operating to prevent the return of the seceding States to the Union.”19 According to the Vicksburg Daily Whig, “The North has been aggrandized, in a most astonishing degree, at the expense of the South … taxing us at every step—and depleting us as extensively as possible without actually destroying us.”20
At stake is not just an economic system but a political system and a form of government. The United States of America is just that, say the Southern states, separate states, individual political entities that have come together for mutual benefit, without forsaking their individuality and autonomy. Not so say the Northerners who are centralists in favor of a strong central government in which individual states must submit to national prerogatives, even if they seem unjust or even perhaps unconstitutional. You have forsaken your independence once you signed the Constitution.
Was war the only answer?
Before the war began there was little support in the North for making war on the South. Some Northern states were relieved to be separated from the South and the peculiar institution of slavery. Even abolitionists did not want to resort to war. There was a widely held belief that slavery could not be sustained much longer and that separating North from South would make it harder for the South to hold onto their slaves. Slaves had but to make their way to the North to win freedom. The Fugitive Slaves Act would have lost its meaning. To a man, Lincoln’s cabinet members were opposed to the provisioning of Fort Sumter, located in South Carolina, and now part of the Confederacy, an act guaranteed to instigate war. Said Secretary of State William H. Seward, “I would not initiate a war to regain a useless and unnecessary position on the soil of the seceding States.”21
Lincoln obviously was of a different mindset. There would be no separation. There would be no goodwill. There would be no negotiations. Jefferson Davis had sent emissaries to Washington to offer to pay for any Federal properties on Southern soil (including Fort Sumter) and to agree to pay the Southern portion of the national debt. Lincoln refused to even acknowledge the existence of these emissaries. In the absence of total submission, Lincoln wanted war.
Was it simply a case of losing revenue? Was it about the “Union” as was so often declared by Lincoln himself or was there something else at stake?
In 1838, when Lincoln was twenty-nine, he delivered a speech before the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield entitled, The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions. The theme is the heroics of great men in history. Lincoln’s point of departure is the American Revolution. He speaks of those who “sought celebrity and fame and distinction” and succeeded in their quest. “This field of glory is harvested,” he says. “But new reapers will arise, and they,too will seek a field.” When “men of ambition and talents … spring up amongst us … they will as naturally seek the gratification of their ruling passion as others have so done before them.”
The truly great amongst us disdain a beaten path, says Lincoln. “Towering genius … thirsts and burns for distinction; and, if possible, it will have it, whether at the expense of emancipating slaves or enslaving freemen.”22 Notice the nihilism. Lincoln will just as soon enslave freemen—i.e., you or I dear reader—as free the slaves. It makes no difference which, provided there is a straight, short path to unlimited power.
As Wilson points out, Lincoln “has projected himself into the role against which he is warning” his audience. In other words, Abraham Lincoln, the humble rail-splitter from the log cabin in Kentucky, sees himself as a “towering genius” who seeks a field over which he can spread his wings and soar. The field he speaks of is a field of conflict where the enemy resides. Less than two years later he continues with the same theme. “If ever I feel the soul within me elevate and expand to those dimensions not entirely unworthy of its Almighty Architect, it is when I contemplate the cause of my country, deserted by all the world besides, and I standing up boldly alone and hurling defiance at her victorious oppressors.”23
Here is Lincoln stripped of false humility, hagiography and mythification. Here is the Lincoln of unbridled, almost demonic, ambition. He will stand alone hurling thunderbolts at the mythic enemy. All of this is an elaborate imagined construction that seeks its fulfillment where it will find it. John Hay, Lincoln’s secretary while he was in the White House, observed, it was “absurd to call him a modest man … It was his intellectual arrogance and unconscious assumption of superiority that men like Chase and Sumner could never forgive.”24
How is this towering ambition to be reconciled with “the raw realities of Lincoln’s origins—the sordidness of his childhood environment, the boorishness of his first beginnings?”25 Perhaps the one explains the other. Observes Edgar Lee Masters:
One conspicuous thing to be noted about Lincoln is that he was profoundly ashamed of the poverty of his youth, and of the sordid surroundings in which he grew up; and much of the ambitious striving of his life was motivated by a fierce desire to rise above the life into which he was born.26
Born again Hamilton
One is reminded of Alexander Hamilton, referred to by John Adams as “the most restless, impatient, artful, indefatigable and unprincipled intriguer in the United States, if not in the world.”27 Lincoln was a great admirer of Hamilton. Both believed in a strong centralized government, a national bank, high tariffs, a marriage of business and government and the use of the military to enforce government policy. Like Lincoln, Hamilton spent his adult life living down his sordid past by acquiring power and social connections.
Hamilton was a bastard child of uncertain lineage. He was born on the island of Nevis in the British West Indies, one of two illegitimate sons, abandoned by his stepfather to the lowest rung of a highly stratified society. His mother had been sent to prison on charges of adultery by her first husband, who referred to her as “a whore.” Lincoln’s mother was an illegitimate child. Lincoln’s grandmother was indicted for “unbecoming conduct.”28
Who was Abraham Lincoln? He was Alexander Hamilton in sheep’s clothing. Had Hamilton been in Lincoln’s shoes he would have conducted the war with equal brutality. Hamilton lost his life in a duel for insulting Aaron Burr. In 1842, Lincoln found himself in a similar situation with a man named James Shield whom he ridiculed in print. Like Hamilton who defended loyalists who had usurped the land of patriots who had gone off to fight the war, Lincoln would defend the railroad against those who were injured or had their rights infringed upon. Hamilton spoke for six hours at the Constitutional Convention in support of establishing the United States as a monarchy. Lincoln served out his presidency as an absolute monarch.
One can argue that this unnecessary, unwanted, viciously brutal war was the field of distinction that Lincoln, “the towering genius,” had been patiently waiting for, the moment to live down and escape forever his shameful childhood and the rage instilled in him by his father’s savage beatings.
Lincoln the tyrant
Once Lincoln had succeeded in luring the South into firing the first shot at Fort Sumter there was full-scale war, war that inspired opposition as well as allegiance. Lincoln had no tolerance for dissent and responded ruthlessly.
On May 25, 1861, in the second month of the Civil War, Union troops arrested John Merryman, a Maryland state legislator. He was indicted for treason and confined at Baltimore’s Fort McHenry, charged with seeking to hinder U.S. troop movements from Baltimore to Washington, which was threatened by Confederate forces. Merryman’s attorney sought a writ of habeas corpus to enable a federal judge to weigh the charges. In response, Lincoln immediately suspended that right. Habeas corpus remained in suspension for the duration of Lincoln’s reign.
Frank Key Howard (1826—1872), the grandson of Francis Scott Key who, at the time of the War of 1812, wrote the words to the “Star Spangled,” was arrested just after midnight on September 13, 1861. As editor of the Baltimore Exchange, a Baltimore newspaper sympathetic to the Southern cause, he had been critical of Lincoln’s suspension of the writ of habeas corpus. He had criticized Lincoln for declaring martial law in Baltimore and imprisoning without charge, George William Brown the mayor of Baltimore, sitting U.S. Congressman Henry May, all the police commissioners of Baltimore, and the entire city council, all of which, were it not so dire, almost seems comical. Referring to the arrest of “dislolyal” members of the Maryland legislature, the Saturday Review of London observed, “It was as perfect an act of despotism as can be conceived. It was a coup d’ état in every essential feature.”29
The writ of habeas corpus was written into that part of the Constitution pertaining to the authority of the legislature. Lincoln knew full well that as President he had no legal authority to do what he did, and in case he forgot, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney reminded him, all to no avail. Lincoln was above the law and would remain in that precarious position until a bullet struck him down.
Arbitrary arrests continued unabated. There were thousands.30 The military was given broad authority in determining who should walk free and who shouldn’t. Discouraging voluntary enlistments, the mere appearance of disloyalty to the war cause could result in arrest. Prisoners were not told why they were being arrested. There were no investigations. There were no trials.
An Episcopal minister in Alexandria, Virginia was arrested for failing to include a prayer for the President in his church services, as required by the Lincoln administration. A New Orleans man was executed for taking down the American flag. Secretary of State William Seward set up a secret police and boasted to the British Ambassador that he could ring a bell and have anyone arrested from Ohio to New York and New England.
Lincoln succeeded in protecting himself and his cabinet and the military from criminal prosecution for his illegal conduct by orchestrating the “passage” of an “indemnity act” in 1863.31 Thus it is that the President of the United States had the power to break the law while disempowering those, i.e. American citizens everywhere, of the power to hold him accountable. The Constitution, due process, habeas corpus and other “rights” were “disappeared” by the “Great Emancipator.”
There was considerable opposition to Lincoln’s war in the press. Lincoln dealt with the opposition in a forthright manner. Dissenting newspapers were denied mail delivery, the only means of circulation at the time. Military force was used to shut down newspapers and imprison their editors.
The prison at Fort Lafayette was filled with newspaper editors from around the country who advocated for peace in defiance of Lincoln’s war policies. A mob of federal soldiers demolished the offices of the Democratic Standard, in Washington, D.C. A similar fate awaited the Bangor Democrat in Bangor, Maine.
These, of course, were the consequences for disobeying Lincoln in the North, relatively mild compared to what was experienced in the South, among the civilian population. There were summary arrests. Newspapers were suppressed. Land was condemned and confiscated. Railroads were taken over. Homes were commandeered. Banks were shut down. Men of the cloth were arrested. Church services were disallowed. Citizens refusing to take a loyalty oath were deported, in some cases executed.
Lincoln’s conduct of the war
But of course the Civil War is not about the niceties of civil liberties. It is about Lincoln’s savage war against his own people for which there are few if any precedents in history. Total U.S. dead in WWII: 405,399. Total U.S. dead in the Civil War: 750,000, almost twice as many. Based on percent of the population lost, the Civil War ranks as number one with 2.385% lost to WWII’s .037% lost. Obviously though not usually cast in such a light, the Civil War was the bloodiest, most costly war in human lives, in American history. Disease—dysentery, typhoid, malaria—took a heavy toll. The Union alone had 6,454,834 recorded cases of either disease or wounds throughout the war.
By the end of the eighteenth century, nations had reached a common understanding as to the proper conduct of war. In 1798, the Swiss jurist Emmerich de Vattel published his Law of Nations, which became a standard reference. The only just war was a war of defense. Attacking defenseless towns and cities, plundering and destroying civilian property, taking from the civilian population more than was necessary to feed an occupying army are all war crimes punishable by imprisonment or death. Occupying soldiers who destroyed property, farms, and livestock were regarded as “savage barbarians.”32 In 1863, Lincoln issued General Order No. 100 that, in essence, exempted U.S. military from honoring de Vattel’s Law of Nations. Had he been tried, Lincoln probably would have been hanged for his war crimes.
Unionist soldiers pillaged private property, confiscated crops and livestock, burning houses and public buildings as they went. Lincoln’s General George McClelland was troubled by what he saw and wrote Lincoln a letter of objection. Lincoln responded with the “Confiscation Act,” allegedly framed so as to allow the confiscation of slaves held in property. In essence, however, it gave official sanction to the very practices McClelland had been objecting to.
Civilians are the enemy
Civilians were held as hostage in retaliation against Confederate attacks. Sometimes these civilians were shot. Sometimes their houses or their entire towns were burned to the ground. Here is a quote from Union Colonel John Beatty. He is referring to residents of Paint Rock, Alabama.
Every time the telegraph wire was cut we would burn a house; every time a train was fired upon we would hang a man; and we would continued to do this until every house was burned and every man hanged between Decatur and Bridgeport.33
Frustrated by his inability to track down Confederate snipers who were shooting at his Mississippi River gunboats, Sherman took vengeance on the local population by burning down the entire town of Randolph, Tennessee. Such actions, based on International Law of the time, would make war criminals of Sherman and Lincoln, his Commander in Chief. In a letter to his wife, Sherman described his ultimate purpose as, “extermination, not of soldiers alone, that is the least part of the trouble, but the people.”34Sherman’s wife responded with enthusiastic support, hoping “that all [Southerners] would be driven like the Swine into the sea. May we carry fire and sword into their states till not one habitation is left standing.”35 Sherman was diligent in fulfilling his wife’s wishes.
Sherman boasts that in Vicksburg, Mississippi farms were stripped bare and houses burned. The city was so heavily bombed that residents were reduced to living in caves and eating rats, dogs and mules. After Sherman’s decimation of Jackson, he boasted to General Grant, “The inhabitants are subjugated. They cry aloud for mercy. The land is devastated for 30 miles around.”36
Sherman made similar remarks after destroying Meridian, Mississippi, long since abandoned by Confederate soldiers. “For five days, ten thousand of our men worked hard and with a will, in that work of destruction, with axes, sledges, crowbars, clawbars, and with fire, and I have no hesitation in pronouncing the work well done. Meridian … no longer exists.”36 In September of 1864, Sherman’s army occupied Atlanta. The city was bombed day and night. Hardly a building remained untouched. Of the approximately 4,000 homes in Atlanta, 400 remained standing. O.M. Poe, Sherman’s chief engineer, expressed his dismay at the sight of the corpses of women and young children in the streets. Sherman responded that it was “a beautiful sight.”37 It would bring the war to a quicker end.
Here is a description by poet William Gilmore Simms of how things came to pass in Columbia, South Carolina.
Daily did long trains of fugitives line the roads, with wives and children, and horses and stock and cattle, seeking refuge from the pursuers … Half naked people cowered from the winter under bush-tents in the thickets, under the eaves of houses, under the railroad sheds, and in old cars left them along the route…. Habitation after habitation, village after village—one sending up its signal flames to the other, presaging for it the same fate—lighted the winter and midnight sky with crimson horrors.38
Says Masters, “Whole volumes would not contain the story of Northern atrocities and horrors.”39
Genghis Kahn, considered by many to be one of the most savage barbarians the world has seen, would undoubtedly greet such observations with a nod of approval. Here he is in his own words:
The greatest joy a man can know is to conquer his enemies and drive them before him. To ride their horses and take away their possessions. To see the faces of those who were dear to them bedewed with tears, and to clasp their wives and daughters in his arms.
The city of Kiev, in the mid-thirteenth century, with a population of about 80,000, was an important center of Russian life. Kievans had a civilized approach to governance and community living. They were industrious, and creative and literate. Genghis and his descendants decided that this early vision of what Russia might have become needed to be destroyed. When he and his horde were finished, nothing was left.
On December 6, 1240, Genghis’s grandson attacked Kiev. The city was looted and burned to the ground. Tens of thousands lost their lives. Bones littered the landscape for miles around. The religious, cultural, and political center of one of the most important and civilized of early cultures had been obliterated.
Perhaps there is a difference between what Genghis’s Horde achieved and the achievements of Lincoln’s army in the South. If there is, it is a subtle one. Maybe Lincoln didn’t invent total warfare but he was one of its earliest apostles in modern times. And bear in mind, Genghis was an uncultured nomad living on the Russian steppes, isolated from any source of culture or morality. Abraham Lincoln was a man of learning, a man of the bible, making his transgressions all the more egregious. And furthermore Lincoln was attacking his own people, the people he had sworn to serve and protect.
The Emancipation Proclamation
“But don’t forget the Emancipation Proclamation,” you persist. “Lincoln liberated the slaves.” Well, alright, let’s not forget it. Exactly what was its purpose and exactly what did it achieve? In the North and overseas it was seen as a political gimmick. There are a number of reasons. First of all Lincoln lacked the authority to do what he did. As he knew better than anyone, and oft repeated, owning slaves as property was a constitutionally guaranteed right that he had no power to interfere with. He made quite clear in his second inaugural address that his operations in the South had nothing to do with slavery.
What is most curious and most revealing about the Emancipation Proclamation is the fact that, to use the words of William Seward, Lincoln’s own Secretary of State, “We show our sympathy with slavery by emancipating slaves where we cannot reach them and holding them in bondage where we can set them free.”40 Exactly what did Seward mean? Seward is referring to the fact that the “Emancipation” was selective in its application, not universal. Slaves living under the Confederacy, that part of the country at war with Lincoln, were “liberated,” in quotes because there was little or nothing that Lincoln could do to actually set those slaves free. However, those states or parts of states that were loyal to the Union or under Union control were exempt from “Emancipation.” Slave owners in those states were free to continue to enjoy the benefits of their human property. Bizarre. Why would Lincoln have done such a thing if he were truly concerned with the suffering of slaves?
It is a measure of Lincoln’s craftiness, callousness and cynicism that he was using the issue of slavery for purely political purposes. As observed in the London Spectator, at the time, “The principle [of the Proclamation] is not that a human being cannot justly own another, but that he cannot own him unless he is loyal to the United States.”41 Lincoln was up for re-election in 1864, he did not want to alienate allies by depriving them of a benefit. He was fighting an unpopular war. He was concerned that Great Britain might intervene on the side of the Confederacy. With his “Proclamation” he hoped to keep them at bay.
Lincoln was running out of able-bodied men. A draft was instituted in July of 1863. Lincoln had issued his “Proclamation” in January of the same year. On July 13, 1863 the second day of drawing draft numbers there was rioting in New York City. It is estimated that 120 were killed. The draft was temporarily suspended.
The “Proclamation” did not compensate the owners, did not outlaw slavery, and did not grant citizenship to the ex-slaves (called freedmen). But, “such persons of suitable condition, will be received into the armed service of the United States to garrison forts, positions, stations, and other places, and to man vessels of all sorts in said service.” In other words, blacks who found their way to freedom could offer up their bodies to fight in Lincoln’s war.
One can only blush at Lincoln’s shameless hypocrisy. “And I hereby enjoin upon the people so declared to be free to abstain from all violence, unless in necessary self-defence …” Did Lincoln really hope the blacks would peaceably escape into the night or wasn’t slave rebellion one of his principal motivations? “And I recommend to them that, in all cases when allowed, they labor faithfully for reasonable wages.” What is this about? Exactly where were the liberated slaves to find a job? And is it Lincoln’s concern that the former slaves might be unreasonable in their wage demands?
Here is Lincoln’s two-facedness at its cloying worst.
And upon this act, sincerely believed to be an act of justice, warranted by the Constitution, upon military necessity, I invoke the considerate judgment of mankind, and the gracious favor of Almighty God.
Lincoln knows for sure that his “Proclamation” is not “warranted by the Constitution.” Protestations of “sincerity” are not a substitute for sincerity itself. And if “the gracious favor of Almighty God” were his true concern, he wouldn’t have begun the war in the first place and he certainly would not have left in servitude the very slaves within his reach that he could have liberated. The mantra for which Lincoln is best known, “With malice toward none, with charity for all,” was uttered as Lincoln’s army was cannibalizing the South, sparing neither man, woman nor child, nor horses, cattle, hogs, nor dogs, the ultimate expression of malice in the total absence of charity.
What hath Lincoln wrought? What has he bequeathed to us, not in our imagination, but in reality?
Lincoln’s war unleashed the predator class that has been at large ever since. J. Pierpont Morgan, Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller all got their start feeding at the government trough during the war. Charges of profiteering and corruption abounded as big government laid the foundation for a symbiotic relationship with big business. Government giveaways to private enterprise became a habit. You want to build a privately run railroad? Just ask the government. They will give you the land you need. As Masters comments, in a land gone insane, “where all the vilest passions were suddenly released, the rapacity of business reared its python head.”42
War takes money, lots of it, leading to an alliance of government and bankers that persists to this day. Hence the National Income Tax of 1861. If that is not enough you borrow. 40% of government spending went to servicing the national debt, which by the end of the war had grown to $2.8 billion.43 And if you still need more you simply print it. But that leads to counterfeiting and the creation of a secret service to track down the counterfeiters.
It has been argued that the war against the South was instigated and initiated not so much as to teach the South a lesson but as a means to transforming the American form of government and its economic system. Lincoln’s Republican party was the party of the “American System,” initially promulgated by House Speaker, Henry Clay (1777-1852), originally advocated by Alexander Hamilton.
The “American System” is the one we live under: 1) protective tariffs that serve to benefit American industry; 2) a national bank that is a boon to private capital; 3) government subsidies for “internal improvements” such as road building and canal building, that today have been expanded to include drilling for oil and the manufacture of bombers and spacecraft. In fact, Lincoln’s Republican party was mid-wife to what today is known as the military-industrial complex or corporate welfare. He oversaw the merging of government and private business interests, the establishing of a powerful, centralized, militarized state with ambitions of empire.
But not all sectors of the economy did as well as the big industrialists. Workers’ wages fell by one third. Strikes resulted. Lincoln introduced the policy of using federal troops to break the strikes.
Suppression of civil rights: Then and now
Lincoln’s suppression of civil rights set the precedent for the “Patriot Act” and subsequent legislation that abrogates the freedoms we thought were guaranteed by our Constitution. His routing out of disloyal government employees might have been the inspiration for Joseph McCarthy’s witch-hunt in the 1950s.
Currently, in dealing with civil dissent, the United States government is invoking what it calls “the U.S. domestic common law of war” (see Hedges vs. Obama), which has its basis in the martial law established by Lincoln during the Civil War. Civil dissent that is potentially harmful to the war effort (the United States is chronically at war) results in the dissenter’s being categorized as “unprivileged belligerent.” What this means is that a journalist who is critical of government war policy can be shot and killed and if captured will be treated with less kindness than an enemy combatant.
This approach to civil dissent was first articulated by William Whiting, Lincoln’s Solicitor of the Department of War. Whiting wrote a guidebook for Union commanders entitled, War Powers of the President, derived from authoritarian principles of martial law in Prussia. Whiting’s guidebook defines acts of hostility to the United States as “acts which may tend to impede or embarrass the United States in such military proceedings as the commander-in-chief may see fit to institute.” If anyone engages in such acts “or there is reasonable cause to believe he intends to engage” in such acts, that person is subject to detention without trial.
When government misbehaves with abandon the consequences are felt throughout society. Lincoln’s ruthlessness created a contagion of moral decay. “The demoralizing effect of the civil war,” wrote Edward Bates, Lincoln’s first Attorney General, “is plainly visible in every department of life. The abuse of official powers and the thirst for dishonest gain are now so common that they cease to shock.”44 Likewise, Wilson speaks of “the degradation of public life that followed the Civil War.”45 Masters comments on the “deterioration in the quality of men who have filled the state and Federal offices since the war.”46
Lincoln introduced big government—government that has grown exponentially bigger in the intervening years—into our lives. Government has become a behemoth. We live in the darkness of its shadow whether we know it or not. Says Masters, “America has been afraid ever since the war.”47
Lincoln was the first to play by the rules of total warfare. Women, children, unarmed civilians are all the enemy. They must be crushed, their dwellings, livestock and crops destroyed. They must be starved so that the invading army might prevail.
Alexander H. Stephens was Vice-President of the Confederacy. From his prison cell he wrote out his thoughts on the war and its consequences. Depend upon it, he warns, “there is no difference between Consolidation and Empire; no difference between Centralism and Imperialism. The consummation of either must necessarily end in the overthrow of Liberty and the establishment of Despotism.”48
The cause we [the South] fought for, says Stephens, “was the cause of civil liberty, and not the cause of human slavery.” (Wilson, 435) As Hummel observes, speaking of post-Civil War political life, “Henceforth there would be no major victories of Liberty over Power.”49 Wilson, himself, considers that perhaps, “the cause of the South is the cause of us all.”50
Though he knew his bible, Lincoln was not a religious man. As the war progressed and its horrors consumed the population, sanctifying war in terms of a religious crusade created useful propaganda. In his first inaugural address he invokes the, “Almighty Ruler of Nations.” He speaks of “Christianity, and a firm reliance on Him who has never yet forsaken this favored land.” In the Emancipation Proclamation he invokes, “the gracious favor of Almighty God.” As Masters points out,51 Lincoln is the first president to introduce the “cant and hypocrisy of Christianity into American politics,” to which “the American ear lends itself so willingly, in the unctuous self-dramatization of self-righteousness.”52
The war itself becomes imbued with religious mysticism recalling the animus behind the Crusades or our latter day jihads. In the midst of the slaughter, Lincoln calls for a national fast day (March 30, 1863), “to recognize the sublime truth, announced in the Holy Scriptures and proven by all history, that those nations only are blessed whose God is the Lord.”53 On the 6th of August, following the battle of Gettysburg, Lincoln declares a national day of thanksgiving, a day of “praise and prayer,” an opportunity “to render homage to the Divine Majesty for the wonderful things he has done in the nation’s behalf.” (Masters, 430) As Masters comments, “the subjugation of the South had to be smeared over with religion.”54 Elsewhere he speaks of Lincoln’s “righteous sadism.”55
President Barack Obama is a great admirer of Abraham Lincoln. He delivered his first inaugural address (2007) from the steps of the Old Illinois State Capitol in Springfield, Illinois, the site of Abraham Lincoln’s famous “house divided” speech. Lincoln comes up for mention several times.
Each and every time, a new generation has risen up and done what’s needed to be done. Today we are called once more—and it is time for our generation to answer that call. For that is our unyielding faith—that in the face of impossible odds, people who love their country can change it. That’s what Abraham Lincoln understood. He had his doubts. He had his defeats. He had his setbacks. But through his will and his words, he moved a nation and helped free a people.
Obama speaks of being “called once more.” For war abroad? War at home? Does Obama plan on moving a nation? From where to where?
Like Lincoln, President Obama has a gift for words. Like Lincoln, he is a crafty politician and an accomplished dissimulator. He conceals his true intentions behind high-flown rhetoric. He says one thing and does another. Does he share Lincoln’s predilection for lawlessness and tyranny? Let us hope not.
In his first inaugural address, Lincoln declared, “we denounce the lawless invasion by armed force of the soil of any State or Territory, no matter what pretext, as among the gravest of crimes.” Of course in a matter of months he will do the very lawless thing he said he would never do, invade “any State or Territory, no matter what pretext.”
In a June 3, 2008, St. Paul speech, President Obama boasted that “generations from now, we will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment when .,. the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal,” which means putting a hold on adding CO2 into the atmosphere. By March 22, 2012 he was bragging that his administration had “added enough new oil and gas pipeline to encircle the Earth,” which means doing exactly the opposite.
In his 2013 State of the Union address President Obama challenged Congress “to do more to combat climate change,” and then declared, “But if Congress won’t act soon to protect future generations, I will.” Obama does take bold action but not of the kind promised. Again, he does just the opposite. Once more he is boasting about his despoliation of the planet. “Over the past three years, I’ve directed my administration to open up millions of acres for gas and oil exploration across 23 different states.” Perhaps the President doesn’t understand that saving the planet entails taking CO2 out of the atmosphere, not adding it.
There is a curious string of events that occurred in June of this year, all of them violent, all of them in the South. There was a string of similar black church fires. Starting in Knoxville, Tenn., on June 21 and moving to Macon, Ga., and Gibson County, in Tennessee, on June 23; Charlotte, N.C., on June 24; Elyria, Ohio, on June 25; Tallahassee, Fla. and Warrenville, S.C., on June 26; Mount Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church, a prominent African-American church in Greeneville, S.C., on June 30. On the evening of June 17, a mass shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston, South Carolina led to nine deaths. Predictably this has led to the demonizing of the South. There was a campaign to remove the Confederate flag from state buildings. Are these random events or is there some hidden design?
In addition, as reported by John Whitehead we are in the middle a covert, multi-agency, multi-state, eight-week (July 15 through September 15) military training exercise—code named “Jade Helm 15”—taking place across seven states in the American Southwest.56
Ostensibly this exercise will be an opportunity to “test and practice unconventional warfare including, but not limited to, guerrilla warfare, subversion, sabotage, intelligence activities, and unconventional assisted recovery.” Such a pretense is, on the face of it, laughable. The U.S. military has been engaged in “subversion, sabotage,” etc. for decades. If they don’t know how to do it by now, there is little hope they ever will. A more likely explanation is that the military has plans to infiltrate and occupy the U. S. of A. itself.
During an interview on July 21, retired US Army General Wesley Clark called for the internment of persons deemed “disloyal” to the United States government. Lincoln redux? It appears that there are indeed FEMA run internment camps awaiting our arrival, 800 of them, fully staffed and ready to roll.
And in case you are not aware of it, the United States has been living in a state of emergency since 1933. In 1917, Congress gave President Woodrow Wilson temporary powers to immediately enact laws regulating trade, economy, and other policies as they pertained to enemies of America. On March 5, 1933, FDR convened a special session of Congress in which he introduced a bill amending the War Powers Act to remove the clause excluding American citizens from being bound by its effects.
For nearly the past eight decades we have been living in a country in which the Constitution is in a state of suspension and the legislative function is in the hands of the president—a condition specifically proscribed by the Constitution. That is, any president at any time can declare a state of emergency and accrue to himself any and all powers he so chooses.
Consider this quote from the Senate Report, 93rd Congress, November 19, 1973, Special Committee on the Termination of the National Emergency, United States Senate:
Since March 9, 1933, the United States has been in a state of declared national emergency…. Under the powers delegated by these statutes, the President may: seize property; organize and control the means of production; seize commodities; assign military forces abroad; institute martial law; seize and control all transportation and communication; regulate the operation of private enterprise; restrict travel; and, in a plethora of particular ways, control the lives of all American citizens.
During his twelve-year tenure, FDR issued 3,766 executive orders. Truman issued 893 as president. In his brief tenure in office JFK issued 213. Here are some examples that may or may not be currently in the Federal Register.
10995: Right to seize all communications media in the United States10997: Right to seize all electric power, fuels, and minerals, both public and private10999: Right to seize all means of transportation, including personal vehicles of any kind and total control of highways, seaports and waterways11000: Right to seize any and all American people and divide up families in order to create workforces to be transferred to any place the government sees fit11001: Right to seize all health, education, and welfare
Here are some of President Obama’s contributions:
Executive Order 13684
Establishment of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing
Signed: December 18, 2014
Federal Register page and date: 79 FR 76865, December 23, 2014
The task force’s mission is to “identify best practices and otherwise make recommendations to the President on how policing practices can promote effective crime reduction while building public trust.”
One can reasonably wonder why the President of the United States should concern himself with local policing practices. One can also wonder if his real concerns are “crime reduction” and “building public trust.”
An even more ominous expression of presidential power is the following:
Executive Order 13688
Federal Support for Local Law Enforcement Equipment Acquisition
Signed: January 16, 2015
Federal Register page and date: 80 FR 3451, January 22, 2015
Here the concern is “to better coordinate Federal support for the acquisition of certain Federal equipment by State, local, and tribal law enforcement agencies.” We know for sure we are in trouble when the President uses such phraseology as “certain Federal equipment.” It would be less chilling to hear the President be a little more explicit and mention the use of armored personnel carriers, assault rifles, submachine guns, flashbang grenades, grenade launchers, sniper rifles, Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams, intelligence agency-style information gathering aimed at the public and political activists, and a more aggressive style of law enforcement. One could argue that local police are being transformed into a local army, potentially under the command of the grand coordinator or Commander in Chief. This is one step away from martial law.
Scary stuff! We have come full circle. Lincoln would approve. And yet this is our current reality. Perhaps we should face it. Masters, writing over eighty years ago, speaks of the “refusal of the truth which is written all over the American character.”57 Maybe American character has evolved some since then. Maybe, based on the urgency of the times, we are willing to take an unflinching look at reality.
Our current predicament
We are living in perilous times. Our economy is out of control. Violence is everywhere. We are in a state of perpetual warfare. The excess of carbon in our atmosphere has produced an irreversible change in our climate that could ultimately—in the not so distant future—render our planet uninhabitable. Can we count on our government leaders to do the right thing? We will only have an accurate answer to that question when we enter into the reality hidden by generations of dissimulation.
We have grown up with the myth of American exceptionalism. Other governments might be mean-spirited and corrupt. Not ours. Our leaders adhere to the loftiest ideals, which is what empowers us to invade foreign countries in the name of the common good. This myth of infallibility goes all the way back to our Puritan founders. They established a theocracy. And they—the leaders, the select—were the chosen. God spoke through them. To disagree or contradict these chosen was to risk exile, flogging, hanging. The word was God and they had the word. This religious mystification has become an integral part of our social ethos. We believe those in power, regardless of the evidence that contradicts what we are told. And we pay a price and so does the world at large.
From what I have read it appears that Abraham Lincoln was a bloody tyrant whose legacy haunts us still. His conduct in office is the reality behind the myth. If Lincoln did what he did and got away with it, might not others do the same?
The real Lincoln is a fine example of what is behind the myth of “American Exceptionalism” and why the myth exists in the first place. The goal is political quietism, unquestioning submission to government policies, a blind worship of governmental power. The myth has done its job quite well. Americans bow before power, never question or challenge their government, live in blissful ignorance of the perils they face. The bliss, however, is running out. The price of ignorance is growing apace.
The spirit that animated the reign of our 16th President is alive and well in the year 2015. Executive power seems to know no limits. The common good lacks a voice. We like to believe that we are safe in this country while our government wages war in our name around the world. Yet the rulers who believe that a little collateral damage here and there (i.e., loss of human life) is a necessary adjunct to spreading democracy will probably not be troubled by a little collateral damage at home if they fear their master plan is being interfered with. They have only to invoke the name of Abraham Lincoln to gain our acquiescence.