In as much as George W. Bush has come under justifiable criticism for disregarding the American Constitution and for deliberately starting wars without the backing of his own people, he could indeed claim that the precedent in both these areas had been set for him by ‘Honest Abe’.
In my first visit to the United States I made a point of visiting the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, and one cannot but be impressed by the bold grandeur of the graven image that has been erected in the man’s honour.
There he sits, majestically overlooking the landscape of human political power, silent master of all he surveys. And I suspect that many Americans find this image comforting – ‘Honest Abe’ still keeping a fatherly watch over his people. Personally, I find the monument chilling, and a sober reminder that all is not well in American politics, and has not been for some time.
Honest Abe has been popularly remembered as:
- A great Christian leader
- The friend of the black man and the great emancipator and
- As a man of peace who was inadvertently drawn into a war that was not of his making.
I would put to you that these reminiscences of Lincoln are nothing more than sentimental fictions at best, and a reflection of the sinister spin that memory and media can put on historical truth at worst.
I would suggest that most of the good things that Lincoln is remembered for are exaggerations of his achievements, and that most of the terrible things that he said and did have been conveniently forgotten. Why and how this happened is the subject of another paper. That this has happened is not difficult to show.
A great Christian, a great emancipator, a man of peace – what a load of baloney! None of these sentimental idealisations can be seriously maintained in the face of the facts!
For one thing, Lincoln was not a Christian and never pretended to be.
Despite the fact that so many of his political supporters suggested that he was and, after his death, went so far as to make up stories about his secret baptism, Lincoln himself did not pretend to be anything but an avowed atheist. Indeed, far from being a professing Christian, he was well known to have penned an essay early in his career, dismissing the Christian belief in the divine inspiration of the Scriptures!
This essay, that became known as, ‘the infidel book’, doesn’t normally find its way into the collections of Lincoln’s great writings, and that is as Lincoln would have wished. For indeed, while he never repudiated the thoughts he evoked in those early years, there were plenty of good reasons for not making them public, and those who have come after Lincoln have done him the favour of maintaining his silence on matters of faith.
In truth, I actually think that it was one of the more admirable things about Lincoln – that he never denied his atheism, even when it would have been to his clear political advantage to have created a mock ‘born again’ experience. Even so, while it may have been somewhat admirable that he kept silent on matters of his own faith, it would have been more admirable had he refrained from quoting the Bible and regularly invoking the name of the Almighty in his speeches whenever it suited his own political purposes.
Lincoln was not a Christian, and I am genuinely unsure as to whether he should seriously be remembered as a friend of the black man.
Certainly he was opposed to slavery. There can be no doubt about that, though certainly too he seemed to hold on to beliefs that we would unhesitatingly label as racist and white supremacist.
In his speech delivered t the people of Charleston, Illinois, in 1858, he said:
“I am not now, nor ever have been in favour of bringing about in any way the social or political equality of the white and black races. I am not now nor ever have been in favour of making voters or jurors of Negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor of intermarriages with white people. There is a physical difference between the white and the black races which will forever forbid the two races living together on social or political equality. There must be a position of superior and inferior, and I am in favour of assigning the superior position to the white man.”
Now I know that it’s easy to pass judgement on the man from this distance in history, and yes, he was a man of his time and for his time he may have been well ahead of many of his white supremacist peers, and yet, if these words are to be taken seriously at all, there is no mistaking the fact that he was a white supremacist, and should be remembered as such.
Of course Lincoln did a great thing in freeing the slaves (at least in the South) though his Emancipation Proclamation of 1862. None of us would want to deny for a moment that slavery is one of the most hideous institutions that the world has ever known, and we applaud all those who have made moves to dismantle and oppose it. Even so, the question has to be asked whether there might not have been a better way of bringing slavery to an end than through the bloodshed and carnage of the War between the States.
Slavery is a terrible evil, just as Saddam Hussein was a terrible dictator, yet sometimes one has to wonder whether the solution to the problem is as bad or worse than the problem it solves!
Slavery was officially brought to an end in America in 1864, but at what cost, economically and more importantly in terms of the cost of more than half a million human lives! The history of Brittain, and the way in which the insidious institution was ended there, and even the more recent history of the ending of apartheid in South Africa, in as much as they are very different situations nonetheless remind us that state-sanctioned enslavement and discrimination can be brought to an end without an entire generation of young men needing to be sacrificed in order to achieve it!
And it’s not simply an issue of whether the end justifies the means. As is the case with Iraq, it’s not simply an issue of whether it was worth the cost of getting rid of Sadam Hussein. The key question is whether getting rid of him actually solved any of the deeper problems that needed to be addressed.
Despite Lincoln’s emancipation proclamation of 1862, by the time Dr Martin Luther King came on the scene a hundred years later, racial prejudice and state-sanctioned discrimination was still alive and well! Further, I believe that what King achieved by non-violent means, in comparison with what Lincoln achieved though so much bloodshed, went deeper and its effects have been far more long-lasting.
Of course, the popular mythology of Lincoln, as we’ve already mentioned, is that he too would have liked nothing better than to have been able to solve his countries problems through peaceful means. I too once believed this, having initially taken Lincoln’s rhetoric at face value.
Certainly Lincoln liked to give the impression that the War Between the States was one that he had desperately wanted to avoid. In his address to Congress in December 1864, Lincoln said, “the war will cease, on the part of the Government, whenever it shall cease on the part of those who began it”, thus reinforcing the idea that the war was one he neither initiated nor wanted to continue. Nothing, I would suggest, could be further from the truth.
Rather than prove this through a broad analysis of the inconsistencies between the President’s words and actions, I want to take a shortcut by referencing a little-known book that was published in 1921 by a Huger William Johnstone, entitled, “The Truth of the War Conspiracy of 1861”.
The book, which was uncovered by a friend of mine who is a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans of Spartanburg, South Carolina, outlines some of the hidden manoeuvring that went on in the lead up to the War Between the States, put together by the author through twenty years of research.
Johnstone, the author, was a Confederate soldier, and a member of Hampton’s Cavalry Brigade, but it was through his dealings with Major Vogdes of the Union Army, both during an after the war, that he learnt about an action taken by Lincoln to deliberately start a war a month before shots were fired at Fort Sumter!
It all started at the very beginning of 1861, at a time when there was a great tension between the states, but when there was also still a great hope that these tensions might be able to be peaceably resolved. An ‘armistice’ had been put in place, preventing any open hostilities between Federal troops and state-based military, and the ‘Confederate States Peace Commission’ had been formed and was meeting with the Federal Government, in an attempt to find a peaceful resolution to the issues in question.
At this time, the above-mentioned Captain Vogdes of the U.S. Army had been sent with an armed force on the U.S.S. Brooklyn, to reinforce Fort Pickens in Pensacola, in January 1861, but had been stopped by the ‘armistice’ which came into force on January 19th. He therefore anchored the Brooklyn at Pensacola bar and waited.
As soon as Lincoln become President and this situation became known to him, he sent out a private order:
Hd. Qrs. Of the Army,
March 12th, 1851
At the first favourable opportunity, you will land your company, reinforce Fort Pickens, and hold the same till further orders, etc.
By command of Liut. Gen. Scott.
(signed) E.D. Townsend, Asst. Adjt. Gen.
To Captain I. Vogdes
First Artillery, U.S. Army
On board Ship of War Brooklyn
Off Fort Pickens,
The order to reinforce Fort Pickens was one that Lincoln must have known would violate the armistice and start a war.
Of course the order technically came from Scott, and so one might suppose that it was he who was the architect of this plan and initiator of hostilities, but Scott was well known to be against the war, believing that the Government should, “let the wayward sisters depart in peace”. No. There can be no doubt that this order came directly from the commander-in-chief himself!
The order was sent by courier aboard ship, and didn’t reach Vogdes until March 31st. The morning after Vogdes did receive the order he wrote to Captain Adams, commander of the Naval forces at Pensacola:
Herewith I send you a copy of an order received by me last night. You will see by it that I am directed to land my command at the earliest opportunity. I have therefore to request that you will place at my disposal such boats and other means as will enable me to carry into effect the enclosed order.
(Signed) I. Vogdes,
Capt. 1st Artly. Comdg.
To Captain H.A. Adams
Commanding Naval Forces off Pensacola
Captain Adams, it seems, refused to obey the order, and thus averted having the ‘War Between the States’ started on April 1st, 1861 at Fort Pickens!
Adams wrote immediately to the secretary of the Navy as follows:
“It would be considered not only a declaration but an act of war; and would be resisted to the utmost.
Both sides are faithfully observing the agreement (armistice) entered into by the United States Government and Mr Mallory and Colonel Chase, which binds us not to reinforce Fort Pickens unless it shall be attacked or threatened. It binds them not to attack it unless we should attempt to reinforce it.”
Upon receiving Adam’s report, the Secretary of the Navy wrote, in a letter marked, “Confidential”:
Your dispatch of April 1st is received. The Department regrets that you did not comply with the request of Capt. Vogdes. You will immediately on the first favourable opportunity after receipt of this order, afford every facility to Capt. Vogdes to enable him to land the troops under his command, it being the wish and intention of the Navy Department to co-operate with the War Department, in that object.
(Signed) Gideon Wells
Secty. Of the Navy
To Captain H.A. Adams,
Commanding Naval Forces off Pensacola
This order was sent by special courier who, alarmed by the contents of his dispatch, committed the order to memory and destroyed it. He was delayed in reaching Captain Adams by bad weather and by the unwanted attention of General Bragg, whose guest he became while on-route to Adams. He assured Bragg though that his orders for Adams were of a peaceable nature and hence was allowed to continue, only to be arrested as a spy in Montgomery while on his way home.
The verbal order to Adams was thus given, though apparently Vogdes, impatient with the wait, did land some of his troops at Fort Pickens on the night of April 11, thus committing an act of war that was though entirely overshadowed by simultaneous goings-on at Fort Sumter.
According to Johnston in, “The Truth of the War Conspiracy of 1861”, the strategy deployed by Lincoln at Fort Pickens was just one of a series of devious manoeuvres, made both at Pensacola and more obviously at Fort Sumter, designed to provoke a war with the Southern States, while at the same time giving the impression that his government was sincerely negotiating with the‘Confederate States Peace Commission’ in an attempt to avert the war.
The image of Lincoln we are left with, if Johnstone is correct, is less the traditional one of a father, reluctantly dragged to a point where he had no choice but to discipline his wayward children, and more one of a schoolyard bully, deliberately bumping into smaller children in the playground, trying to provoke a fight, while all the time claiming that the stoushes were not his fault!
Now I will leave Johnstone’s book at this point, and would encourage you to do your own investigations into the details of the events he outlines, but I would suggest here that the warlike posture he attributes to Lincoln is entirely consistent with the attitude he demonstrated elsewhere.
Lincoln’s famous ‘House Divided’ speech is very instructive in this regard.
“A house divided against itself cannot stand” he says in his speech of 1858, quoting (or misquoting) the Bible. “I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free.” Either it must go one way or the other.
If we can put to one side, for the moment, the authority Lincoln lends to his position here by associating it with the Scriptures, we must ask, “Why not?”
Why could the country not have gone on half-slave and half-free? It had always been that way since Union. Now I appreciate that a half-slave state is something we consider repugnant, but, for that matter, a country entirely committed to slavery is surely twice as repulsive!
The idea though that the country simply could not continue like that was a fiction of Lincoln’s own creation. Indeed, in a perfect world, the country would have remained united (or ‘divided‘ to Lincoln‘s mind) and the problem of slavery would have been solved through non-violent political means, as had been done in Brittain.
I appreciate that this was not on the cards at the time, but it does not seem to be something that Lincoln was even willing to envisage. His is the language of no-compromise. One wonders if he ever seriously studied the work of Wilberforce and the great reformers of Brittain who brought and end to slavery throughout the Empire without shedding a single drop of blood! Would he have considered following their example of patience and long-suffering and long-term political maneouvering to bring about the great goal of emancipation, if that really was his great ambition.
My guess is that it just wasn’t within Lincoln’s character to show that sort of flexibility and maturity. He was a bully by nature, and once put in a position where he was able to wield supreme executive power (albeit on the basis of only 39% of the popular vote) neither the human cost nor the Consitution would slow him in the pursuit of his own agenda.
I feel I need to close this talk by returning to the Lincoln Memorial, for the Memorial for me is an iconic reminder of the fact that the spirit of Lincoln is, sadly, still with us.
Lincoln was a wiley politician. There is no doubt of that. He also knew how to manipulate the media, and indeed would silence the media when it did not serve his own ends. In both these respects and in so many others, the parallels with his contemporaries in government in the US are just too chilling to explore in detail.
Let me say now though that in as much as George W. Bush has come under justifiable criticism for disregarding the American Constitution and for deliberately starting wars without the backing of his own people, he could indeed claim that the precedent in both these areas had been set for him by ‘Honest Abe’. And the two share one further perverse similarity, as I see it – an unquestioning devotion to the ideals of democratic government, as they perceive it.
George W. has said time and time again that his goal in international war-mongering is to ‘spread Democracy throughout the Arab world’, as if this were something that was self-evidently praise-worthy and worth the cost of however many millions of lives it costs to establish.
Lincoln, I think, went even further, speaking of his ideal form of government (‘of the people, by the people, for the people’) as being the ‘last best hope of the world’!
This is such an extreme statement and such an extreme position, but I wonder if it does not hold the key for understanding both the man, Abraham Lincoln, and all the acts of violence with which we associate his reign.
Lincoln himself said, in his second inaugural address, that his goal in carrying on the war was not to free the slaves but to restore the Union:
“If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the salves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that.”
I’d suggest that we should take this statement, made in one of his most public of addresses, very seriously indeed if we want to understand Lincoln. He was an idealist. He believed that the democratically elected ruler had a right to rule, even if he’d only been elected with 39% of the vote, and he would defend this form of government to the very end, no matter what it cost his nation.
Personally I think such idealism is idolatrous – a true reflection of the fact that this man was not a believer in anything higher than himself – and a very poor justification for the devastating carnage we have come to know as the American Civil War.
Initially entitled, “A Confederate Perspective on Abraham Lincoln”, this paper was first
delivered at the American Civil War Roundtable, NSW chapter meeting, November 12th, 2007