This essay is a chapter in M.E. Bradford, Remembering Who We Are: Observations of a Southern Conservative (University of Georgia Press, 1985).
With the time and manner of his death Abraham Lincoln, as leader of a Puritan people who had just won a great victory over “the forces of evil,” was placed beyond the reach of ordinary historical inquiry and assessment. Through Booth’s bullet he became the one who had “died to make men free,” who had perished that his country’s “new birth” might occur: a “second founder” who, in Ford’s theater, had been transformed into an American version of the “dying god.” Our common life, according to this construction, owes its continuation to the shedding of the sacred blood. Now after over a century of devotion to the myth of the “political messiah,” it is still impossible for most Americans to see through and beyond the magical events of April 1865. However, Lincoln’s daily purchase upon the ongoing business of the nation requires that we devise a way of setting aside the martyrdom to look behind it at Lincoln’s place in the total context of American history and discover in him a major source of our present confusion, our distance from the republicanism of the Fathers, the models of political conduct which we profess most to admire. The examination of Lincoln’s career as divided into Whig, artificial Puritan, and serious Cromwellian phases should facilitate that recovery. And provide a proper word to break the silence that will not let us know and judge.
Of course, nothing that we can identify as part of Lincoln’s legacy belongs to him alone. In some respects the Emancipator was carried along with the tides. Yet a measure of his importance is that he was at the heart of the major political events of his era. Therefore what signifies in a final evaluation of this melancholy man is that many of these changes in the country would never have come to pass had Lincoln not pushed them forward. Or at least not come so quickly, or with such dreadful violence. I will emphasize only the events that he most certainly shaped according to his relentless will, alterations in the character of our country for which he was clearly responsible. For related developments touched by Lincoln’s wand, I can have only a passing word. The major charges advanced here, if proved, are sufficient to impeach the most famous and respected of public men. More would only overdo.
The first and most obvious item in my bill of particulars for indictment concerns Lincoln’s dishonesty and obfuscation with respect to the nation’s future obligations to the Negro, slave and free. It was of course an essential ingredient of Lincoln’s position that he make a success at being anti-Southern or antislavery without at the same time appearing to be significantly impious about the beginnings of the Republic (which was neither anti-Southern nor antislavery)—or significantly pro-Negro. He was the first Northern politician of any rank to combine these attitudes into a viable platform persona, the first to make his moral position on slavery in the South into a part of his national politics. It was a posture that enabled him to unite elements of the Northern electorate not ordinarily willing to cooperate in any political undertaking. And thus enabled him to destroy the old Democratic majority—a coalition necessary to preserving the union of the states. Then came the explosion. But this calculated posturing has had more durable consequences than secession and the Federal confiscation of property in slaves. Even after the passage of over a century, with each new day they unfold with additional and ever-deepening iteration and threaten to produce divisions that make those explored on the battlefields of Virginia, Maryland, and Tennessee seem mild indeed: so threaten most especially since it has become impossible to single out the South as the particular locus of “improper” attitudes on the subject of race.
In the nation as a whole what moves toward fruition is a train of events set in motion by the duplicitous rhetoric concerning the Negro that helped make Abraham Lincoln into our first “sectional” president. Central to this appeal is a claim to a kind of moral superiority that costs absolutely nothing in the way of conduct. Lincoln, in insisting that the Negro was included in the promise of the Declaration of Independence and that the Declaration bound his countrymen to fulfill a pledge hidden in that document, seemed clearly to point toward a radical transformation of American society. Carried within his rejection of Negro slavery as a continuing feature of the American regime, his assertion that the equality clause of the Declaration of Independence was “the father of all moral principle among us,” were certain muted corollaries. By promising that the peculiar institution would be made to disappear if candidates for national office adopted the proper “moral attitude” on that subject, Lincoln recited as a litany the general terms of his regard for universal human rights. But at the same time he added certain modifications to this high doctrine: modifications required by those of his countrymen to whom he hoped to appeal, by the rigid racism of the Northern electorate, and by “what his own feelings would admit.” The most important of these reservations was that none of his doctrine should apply significantly to the Negro in the North. Or, after freedom, to what he could expect in the South. It was a very broad, very general, and very abstract principle to which he made reference. By it he could divide the sheep from the goats, the wheat from the chaff, the patriot from the conspirator. But for the Negro it provided nothing more than a technical freedom, best to be enjoyed far away. Or the valuable opportunity to “root, hog, or die.” For the sake of such vapid distinctions he urged his countrymen to wade through seas of blood.
To be sure, this position does not push the “feelings” of that moralist who was our sixteenth president too far from what was comfortable for him. And it goes without saying that a commitment to “natural rights” which will not challenge the Black Codes of Illinois, which promises something like them for the freedman in the South, or else offers him as alternative the proverbial “one-way-ticket to nowhere” is a commitment of empty words. It is only an accident of political history that the final Reconstruction settlement provided a bit more for the former slave—principally, the chance to vote Republican; and even that “right” didn’t last, once a better deal was made available to his erstwhile protectors. But the point is that Lincoln’s commitment was precisely of the sort that the North was ready to make—while passing legislation to restrict the flow of Negroes into its own territories, elaborating its own system of segregation by race, and exploiting black labor through its representatives in a conquered South. Lincoln’s double talk left his part of the country with a durable heritage of pious self-congratulation, what Robert Penn Warren has well described as “The Treasury of Virtue.” Left it with the habit of concealing its larger objectives behind a façade of racial generosity, of using the Negro as a reason for policies and laws which make only minimal alterations in his condition; and also with the habit of seeming to offer a great deal more than it is truly willing to give. In the wake of the just concluded “Second Reconstruction” of 1955-1965, the Northern habit has become national, visible every time one of the respected polls examines our ostensible opinions on race relations. There we appear the soul of charity, though our conduct voting “with our feet” belies every statistic that we produce. Where such insubstantial sentiment will lead we cannot say. It is enough to observe that mass hypocrisy is a contagious disease. Or to put matters another way, it would be well if we learned to say no more than we meant. For the alternative is to produce in the targets of our beneficence the kind of anger that comes with the receipt of a promissory note that contains, as one of its terms, the condition that it need never be paid. Better than this would be a little honest dealing, whatever its kind.
The second heading in this “case against Lincoln” involves no complicated pleading. Neither will it confuse any reader who examines his record with care. For it has to do with Lincoln’s political economy, his management of the commercial and business life of the part of the Republic under his authority. This material is obvious, even though it is not always connected with the presidency of Abraham Lincoln. Nevertheless, it must be developed at this point. For it leads directly into the more serious charges upon which this argument depends. It is customary to deplore the Gilded Age, the era of the Great Barbecue. It is true that many of the corruptions of the Republican Era came to a head after Lincoln lay at rest in Springfield. But it is a matter of fact that they began either under his direction or with his sponsorship. Military necessity, the “War for the Union,” provided an excuse, an umbrella of sanction, under which the essential nature of the changes being made in the relation of government to commerce could be concealed. Of his total policy the Northern historian Robert Sharkey has written, “Human ingenuity would have had difficulty in contriving a more perfect engine for class and sectional exploration: creditors finally obtaining the upper hand as opposed to debtors, and the developed East holding the whip over the underdeveloped West and South.” Until the South left the Union, until a High Whig sat in the White House, none of this return to the “energetic government” of Hamilton’s design was possible. Indeed, even in the heyday of the Federalists it had never been so simple a matter to translate power into wealth. Now Lincoln could try again the internal improvements of the early days in Illinois. The difference was that this time the funding would not be restrained by political reversal or a failure of credit. For if anything fell short, Mr. Salmon P. Chase, “the foreman” of his “green printing office,” could be instructed “to give his paper mill another turn.” And the inflationary policy of rewarding the friends of the government sustained. The euphemism of our time calls this “income redistribution.” But it was theft in 1864, and is theft today.
A great increase in the tariff and the formation of a national banking network were, of course, the cornerstones of this great alteration in the posture of the Federal government toward the sponsorship of business. From the beginning of the Republican Party Lincoln warned his associates not to talk about their views on these subjects. Their alliance, he knew, was a negative thing: a league against the Slave Power and its Northern friends. But in private he made it clear that the hidden agenda of the Republicans would have its turn, once the stick was in their hand. In this he promised well. Between 1861 and 1865, the tariff rose from 18.84 percent to 47.56 percent. And it stayed above 40 percent in all but two years of the period concluded with the election of Woodrow Wilson. Writes the Virginia historian Ludwell H. Johnson, it would “facilitate a massive transfer of wealth, satisfying the dreariest predictions of John C. Calhoun.” The new Republican system of banking (for which we should note Lincoln was directly accountable) was part of the same large design of “refounding.” The National Banking Acts of 1863 and 1864, with the earlier Legal Tender Act, flooded the country with $480 million of fiat money that was soon depreciated by about two-thirds in relation to specie. Then all notes but the greenback dollar were taxed out of existence, excepting only United States Treasury bonds that all banks were required to purchase if they were to have a share in the war boom. The support for these special bonds was thus the debt itself—Hamilton’s old standby. Specie disappeared. Moreover, the bank laws controlled the money supply, credit, and the balance of power. New banks and credit for farms, small businesses, or small town operations were discouraged. And the Federalist model, after four score and seven years, finally achieved.
As chief executive, Lincoln naturally supported heavy taxes. Plus a scheme of tax graduation. The war was a legitimate explanation for these measures. Lincoln’s participation in huge subsidies or bounties for railroads and in other legislation granting economic favors is not so readily linked to “saving the Union.” All of his life Lincoln was a friend of the big corporations. He had no moral problem in signing a bill which gifted the Union Pacific Railway with a huge strip of land running across the West and an almost unsecured loan of $16,000 to $48,000 per mile of track. The final result of this bill was the Credit Mobilier scandal. With other laws favoring land speculation it helped to negate the seemingly noble promise of the Homestead Act of 1862—under which less than 19 percent of the open lands settled between 1860 and 1900 went to legitimate homesteaders. The Northern policy of importing immigrants with the promise of this land, only to force them into the ranks of General Grant’s meatgrinder or into near slavery in the cities of the East, requires little comment. Nor need we belabor the rotten army contracts given to politically faithful crooks. Nor the massive thefts by law performed during the war in the South. More significant is Lincoln’s openly disgraceful policy of allowing special cronies and favorites of his friends to trade in Southern cotton—even with “the enemy” across the line—and his calculated use of the patronage and the pork barrel. Between 1860 and 1880, the Republicans spent almost $10 million breathing life into state and local Republican organizations. Lincoln pointed them down that road. There can be no doubt of his responsibility for the depressing spectacle of greed and peculation concerning which so many loyal Northern men of the day spoke with sorrow, disappointment, and outrage. Had they known in detail of Lincoln’s career in the Illinois legislature, they would have been less surprised by the disparity between the lofty platform language of their leader and his domestic performance.
A large part of the complaint against Lincoln as a political precedent for later declensions from the example of the Fathers has to do with his expansion of the powers of the presidency and his alteration of the basis for the Federal Union. With reference to his role in changing the office of chief magistrate from what it had been under his predecessors, it is important to remember that he defined himself through the war powers that belonged to his post. In this way Lincoln could profess allegiance to the Whig ideal of the modest, self-effacing leader, the antitype of Andrew Jackson, and, in his capacity as Commander-in-Chief, do whatever he wished. That is, if he could do it in the name of preserving the Union. As Clinton Rossiter has stated, Lincoln believed there were “no limits” to his powers if he exercised them in that “holy cause.” Gottfried Dietze compares Lincoln in this role to the Committee of Public Safety as it operated in the French Revolution. Except for the absence of mass executions, the results were similar. War is of course the occasion for concentration of power and the limitation of liberties within any nation. But an internal war, a war between states in a union of states, is not like a war to repel invasion or to acquire territory. For it is an extension into violence of a domestic political difference. And it is thus subject to extraordinary abuses of authority—confusions or conflations of purpose which convert the effort to win the war into an effort to effect even larger, essentially political changes in the structure of government. War, in these terms, is not only an engine for preserving the Union; it is also an instrument for transforming its nature. But without overdeveloping this structure of theory, let us shore it up with specific instances of presidential misconduct by Lincoln: abuses that mark him as our first imperial president. Lincoln began his tenure as a dictator when between April 12 and July 4 of 1861, without interference from Congress, he summoned militia, spent millions, suspended law, authorized recruiting, decreed a blockade, defied the Supreme Court, and pledged the nation’s credit. In the following months and years he created units of government not known to the Constitution and officers to rule over them in “conquered” sections of the South, seized property throughout both sections, arrested upwards of twenty thousand of his political enemies and confined them without trial in a Northern “Gulag,” closed over three hundred newspapers critical of his policy, imported an army of foreign mercenaries (of perhaps five hundred thousand men), interrupted the assembly of duly elected legislatures and employed the Federal hosts to secure his own reelection—in a contest where about thirty-eight thousand votes, if shifted, might have produced an armistice and a negotiated peace under a President McClellan. To the same end he created a state in West Virginia, arguing of this blatant violation of the explicit provisions of the Constitution that it was “expedient.” But the worst of this bold and ruthless dealing (and I have given but a very selective list of Lincoln’s “high crimes”) has to do with his role as military leader per se: as the commander and selector of Northern generals, chief commissary of the Federal forces, and head of government in dealing with the leaders of an opposing power. In this role the image of Lincoln grows to be very dark—indeed, almost sinister.
The worst that we may say of Lincoln is that he led the North in war so as to put the domestic political priorities of his political machine ahead of the lives and the well-being of his soldiers in the field. The appointment of the venal Simon Cameron of Pennsylvania as his secretary of war, and of lesser hacks and rascals to direct the victualing of Federal armies, was part of this malfeasance. By breaking up their bodies, the locust hoard of contractors even found a profit in the Union dead. And better money still in the living. They made of Lincoln (who winked at their activities) an accessory to lost horses, rotten meat, and worthless guns. But all such mendacity was nothing in comparison to the price in blood paid for Lincoln’s attempts to give the nation a genuine Republican hero. He had a problem with this project throughout the entire course of the war. That is, until Grant and Sherman “converted” to radicalism. Prior to their emergence all of Lincoln’s “loyal” generals disapproved of either his politics or of his character. These, as with McClellan, he could use and discharge at will. Or demote to minor tasks. One thinks immediately of George G. Meade—who defeated Lee at Gettysburg, and yet made the mistake of defining himself as the defender of a separate Northern nation from whose soil he would drive a foreign Southern “invader.” Or of Fitz John Porter, William B. Franklin, and Don Carlos Buell—all scapegoats thrown by Lincoln to the radical wolves. In place of these heterodox professionals, Lincoln assigned such champions of the “new freedom” as Nathaniel P. (“Commissary”) Banks, Benjamin F. (“Beast”) Butler, John C. Fremont, and John A. McClernand. Speaking in summary despair of these appointments (and adding to my list, Franz Sigel and Lew Wallace), General Henry Halleck, Lincoln’s chief-of-staff, declared that they were “little better than murder.” Yet in the East, with the Army of the Potomac, Lincoln make promotions even more difficult to defend, placing not special projects, divisions, and brigades but entire commands under the authority of such “right thinking” incompetents as John Pope (son of an old crony in Illinois) and “Fighting Joe” Hooker. Or with that “tame” Democrat and late favorite of the radicals, Ambrose E. Burnside. Thousands of Northern boys lost their lives in order that the Republican Party might experience rejuvenation, to serve its partisan goals. And those were “party supremacy within a Northern dominated Union.” A Democratic “man-on-horseback” could not serve those ends, however faithful to “the Constitution as it is, and the Union as it was” (the motto of the Democrats) they might be. For neither of these commitments promised a Republican hegemony. To provide for his faction both security and continuity in office, Lincoln sounded out his commanders in correspondence (much of which still survives), suborned their military integrity, and employed their focus in purely political operation. Writes Johnson:
Although extreme measures were most common in the border states, they were often used elsewhere too. By extreme measures is meant the arrest of anti-Republican candidates and voters, driving anti-Republican voters from the polls or forcing them to vote the Republican ticket, preventing opposition parties from holding meetings, removing names from ballots, and so forth. These methods were employed in national, state and local elections. Not only did the army interfere by force, it was used to supply votes. Soldiers whose states did not allow absentee voting were sent home by order of the President to swell the Republican totals. When voting in the field was used, Democratic commissioners carrying ballots to soldiers from their state were . . . unceremoniously thrown into prison, while Republican agents were offered every assistance. Votes of Democratic soldiers were sometimes discarded as defective, replaced by Republican ballots, or simply not counted.
All Lincoln asked of the ordinary Billy Yank was that he be prepared to give himself up to no real purpose—at least until Father Abraham found a general with the proper moral and political credentials to lead him on to Richmond. How this part of Lincoln’s career can be reconciled to the myth of the “suffering savior” I cannot imagine.
We might dwell for some time on what injury Lincoln did to the dignity of his office through the methods he employed in prosecuting the war. It was no small thing to disavow the ancient Christian code of “limited war,” as did his minions, acting in his name. However, it is enough in this connection to remember his policy of denying medicines to the South, even for the sake of Northern prisoners held behind the lines. We can imagine what a modern “war crimes” tribunal would do with that decision. There may have been practicality in such inhumane decisions. Practicality indeed! As Charles Francis Adams, Lincoln’s ambassador to the Court of St. James and the scion of the most notable family in the North, wrote in his diary of his leader, the “President and his chief advisers are not without the spirit of the serpent mixed in with their wisdom.” And he knew whereof he spoke. For practical politics, the necessities of the campaign of 1864, had led Lincoln and Seward to a decision far more serious than unethical practices against prisoners and civilians in the South. I speak of the rejection by the Lincoln administration of peace feelers authorized by the Confederate government in Richmond: feelers that met Lincoln’s announced terms for an end to the Federal invasion of the South. The emissary in this negotiation was sponsored by Charles Francis Adams. He was a Tennessean living in France, one Thomas Yeatman. After arriving in the United States, he was swiftly deported by direct order of the government before he could properly explore the possibility of an armistice on the conditions of reunion and an end to slavery. Lincoln sought these goals, but only on his terms. And in his own time. He wanted total victory. And he needed a still-resisting, impenitent Confederacy to justify his re-election. We can only speculate as to why President Davis allowed the Yeatman mission. We know that he expected little of such peace feelers. (There were many in the last stages of the conflict.) He knew his enemy too well to expect anything but subjection, however benign the rhetoric used to disguise its rigor. Adams’s peace plan was perhaps impossible, even if his superiors in Washington had behaved in good faith. The point is that none of the peace moves of 1864 was given any chance of success. Over one hundred thousand Americans may have died because of the Rail-Splitter’s rejection of an inexpedient peace. Yet we have still not touched upon the most serious of Lincoln’s violations of the Presidential responsibility. I speak, finally, of his role in bringing on the War Between the States.
There is, we should recall, a great body of scholarly argument concerning Lincoln’s intentions in 1860 and early 1861. A respectable portion of this work comes to the conclusion that the first Republican president expected a “tug,” a “crisis,” to follow his election. And then, once secession had occurred, also expected to put it down swiftly with a combination of persuasion, force, and Southern loyalty to the Union. The last of these, it is agreed, he completely overestimated. In a similar fashion he exaggerated the force of Southern “realism,” the region’s capacity to act in its own pecuniary interest. The authority on Lincoln’s political economy has remarked that the Illinois lawyer-politician and old line Whig always made the mistake of explaining in simple economic terms the South’s hostile reaction to anti-slavery proposals. To that blunder he added the related mistake of attempting to end the “rebellion” with the same sort of simplistic appeals to the prospect of riches. Or with fear of a servile insurrection brought on by his greatest “war measure,” the emancipation of slaves behind Southern lines, beyond his control. A full-scale Southern revolution, a revolution of all classes of men against the way he and some of his supporters thought, was beyond his imagination. There was no “policy” in such extravagant behavior, no human nature as he perceived it. Therefore, on the basis of my understanding of his overall career, I am compelled to agree with Charles W. Ramsdell concerning Lincoln and his war. Though he was no sadist and no warmonger, and though he got for his pains much more of a conflict than he had in mind, Lincoln hoped for an “insurrection” of some sort— an “uprising” he could use.
The “rational” transformation of our form of government which he had first predicted in the “Springfield Lyceum Speech” required some kind of passionate disorder to justify the enforcement of a new Federalism. And needed also for the voting representatives of the South to be out of their seats in the Congress. It is out of keeping with his total performance as a public man and in contradiction of his campaigning after 1854 not to believe that Lincoln hoped for a Southern attack on Fort Sumter. As he told his old friend Senator Orville H. Browning of Illinois: “The plan succeeded. They attacked Sumter—it fell, and thus did more service than it otherwise could.” And to others he wrote or spoke to the same effect. If the Confederacy’s offer of money for Federal property were made known in the North and business relations of the sections remained unaffected, if the Mississippi remained open to Northern shipping, there would be no support for “restoring” the Union on a basis of force. Americans were in the habit of thinking of the unity of the nation as a reflex of their agreement in the Constitution, of law as limit on government and on the authority of temporary majorities, and of revisions in law as the product of the ordinary course of push and pull within a pluralistic society, not as a response to the extralegal authority of some admirable abstraction like equality. In other words, they thought of the country as being defined by the way in which we conducted our political business, not by where we were trying to go in a body. Though once a disciple of Henry Clay, Lincoln changed the basis of our common bond away from the doctrine of his mentor, away from the patterns of compromise and dialectic of interests and values under a limited, Federal sovereignty with which we as a people began our adventure with the Great Compromise of 1787-1788. The nature of the Union left to us by Lincoln is thus always at stake in every major election, in every refinement in our civil theology; the Constitution is still to be defined by the latest wave of big ideas, the most recent mass emotion. Writes Dietze:
Concentrations of power in the national and executive branches of government, brought about by Lincoln in the name of the people, were processes that conceivably complemented each other to the detriment of free government. Lincoln’s administration thus opened the way for the development of an omnipotent national executive who as a spokesman for the people might consider himself entitled to do whatever he felt was good for the Nation, irrespective of the interests and rights of states, Congress, the judiciary, and the individual.
If a President could behave in this way, so might Congress or the Supreme Court, interpreting something like Rousseau’s General Will, as understood by those prophets who know what we need better than we, lacking their afflatus, can expect to understand it. It is a formula which makes of the private morality of men a law, and of Union its instrument. Which is a long way from the government of laws with which we began.
But in my opinion the capstone of this case against Lincoln as an American model, this bill of particulars contra the Lincoln myth, is not the patricide (as one recent historian has called it) of his refounding, his conversion of the national government into our juggernaut with which we are all more familiar than we would like. Rather, his overall worst is what he has done to the language of American political discourse that makes it so difficult for us to reverse the ill effects of trends he set in motion with his executive fiat. When I say that Lincoln was our first Puritan president, I am chiefly referring to a distinction of style, to his habit of wrapping up his policy in the idiom of Holy Scripture, concealing within the Trojan horse of his gasconade and moral superiority an agenda that would never have been approved if presented in any other form. It is this rhetoric in particular, a rhetoric confirmed in its authority by his martyrdom, that is enshrined in the iconography of the Lincoln myth preserved against examination by monuments such as the Lincoln Memorial, where his oversized likeness is elevated above us like that of a deified Roman emperor. Or in the form of a god-king, seated on his throne. The place is obviously a temple, fit for a divinity who suffered death and was transformed on Good Friday. It is both unpatriotic and irreligious to look behind the words of so august a presence. And to imitate Lincoln’s epideictic, quasi-liberal rhetoric employing his favorite normative terms is to draw upon the authority generated by Lincoln idolatry and the imagery that surrounds it. In this universe of discourse, this closed linguistic system, all questions are questions of ends, and means are beside the point. And every “good cause” is a reason for increasing the scope of government. All that counts is the telos, the general objective, and bullying is not merely allowed, but required. It would be simple enough to be ruled directly by messages from God. But an imitation of that arrangement most properly leaves us uneasy.
For over one hundred years we have been on the course charted out for us by the captain of the flying ship of Lincoln’s recurrent wartime dreams. Though as we recall, even that captain was not sure of his destination, only of the velocity of the voyage, and of the necessity for holding on to the boat. As in Lincoln’s dream, we sail in darkness. Under such circumstances the worry is that we are more likely to arrive at the final plain of desolation than to a happy port in the New Zion of the Puritan vision. Once we have become “all one thing or all another,” we may understand better what it means to “loose the fearful lightning of the terrible swift sword.”