Today we celebrate the birthday of the log cabin born, rough-hewn, rail-splitting, bare-knuckled, “pock-faced, stoop-shouldered, slab-sided assistant storekeeper,” lewd, vulgar, uninspiring, “ordinary Western man” from Illinois, Abraham Lincoln.
Lincoln’s life and image is a series of irreconcilable dichotomies:
He had no military experience worth noting—he waged war on wild onion fields during the Black Hawk War and cleaned up the dead following two battles—yet personally led the largest military effort in the history of the United States to that point, often sleeping in the War Department and personally appointing and replacing generals at will.
He had little education or understanding of American government and virtually no political experience, yet is considered by most Americans to be the greatest statesman and political theorist in American history.
His had a profitable career as a highly paid attorney representing big business in Illinois and a fine home across from the capital in Springfield, yet Lincoln is portrayed as a successful “man of the people.”
He is characterized as the heir to the Jeffersonian tradition, yet his stand against State’s rights and federalism is in sharp contrast to Jefferson’s political philosophy of decentralization.
He called for 75,000 troops to put down a “rebellion” he instigated by telling Republicans not to compromise with the South in the months before the War (even having William H. Seward feign sick to avoid meeting with commissioners from South Carolina interested in settling pressing financial matters between the two governments) and by insisting on provisioning Fort Sumter when his leading military advisors warned that it would start a war, the “desired effect” as Lincoln later said, yet he is viewed today as the president reluctantly dragged into a war he did not want.
He had no declaration of war and by default according to the Constitution committed treason against the States, “waging war against them,” yet Lincoln is often viewed as the man who saved the Constitution.
He insisted a government “of the people, by the people, and for the people” must not perish from the earth, and yet waged war against thirteen popularly elected State governments and one central government formed on the principle of self-determination.
He favored colonization of free blacks, never believed in racial equality, consistently stated his goal was to save the Union and not end slavery, and allowed slavery to continue in the “border” States of Maryland and Delaware during the War, yet is revered as the “Great Emancipator.”
He wanted to let the South “up easy” and spoke of “malice toward none,” yet condoned large scale total war operations in the final years of the war and refused to exchange or properly care for tens of thousands of Confederate prisoners of war, even after Union medical professionals pleaded for better supplies.
He spoke of liberty and free government, and yet had over ten thousand Northerners arrested for dissent during the War (many of whom languished in prison for the duration of the conflict), had half of the democratically elected Maryland legislature thrown in jail, unconstitutionally suspended the writ of habeas corpus, had partisan hacks in the United States Postal Service search and confiscate mail from political opponents, and supported the illegal placement of troops at polling places and the suppression of free elections.
He is often seen as the embodiment of popular will, yet he received only 39 percent of the total popular vote in 1860 (with over 80 percent voter participation), the second lowest in percentage for a victorious candidate in American history, and squeaked by in 1864 even though a Union victory appeared more likely at the time of the election and wide-spread voter fraud boosted his vote total.
He is considered to be the best president in American history, yet the three living former presidents at the time (Buchanan, Pierce, and Fillmore) all characterized his actions during the War as unconstitutional usurpations of power.
“Honest Abe” was a politician. Perhaps nothing more needs to be said.