-There is a good reason why the Lincoln legend has taken on such mythical proportions: Much of what Americans think they know about Abraham Lincoln is in fact a myth. Let’s consider a few of the more prominent ones.
Myth #1: Lincoln invaded the South to free the slaves. Ending slavery and racial injustice is not why the North invaded. As Lincoln wrote to Horace Greeley on Aug. 22, 1862: “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and it is not either to save or destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it”
Congress announced to the world on July 22, 1861, that the purpose of the war was not “interfering with the rights or established institutions of those states” (i.e., slavery), but to preserve the Union “with the rights of the several states unimpaired.” At the time of Fort Sumter (April 12, 1861) only the seven states of the deep South had seceded. There were more slaves in the Union than out of it, and Lincoln had no plans to free any of them.
The North invaded to regain lost federal tax revenue by keeping the Union intact by force of arms. In his First Inaugural Lincoln promised to invade any state that failed to collect “the duties and imposts,” and he kept his promise. On April 19, 1861, the reason Lincoln gave for his naval blockade of the Southern ports was that “the collection of the revenue cannot be effectually executed” in the states that had seceded.
Myth #2: Lincoln’s war saved the Union. The war may have saved the Union geographically, but it destroyed it philosophically by destroying its voluntary nature. In the Articles of Confederation, the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution, the states described themselves as “free and independent.” They delegated certain powers to the federal government they had created as their agent but retained sovereignty for themselves.
This was widely understood in the North as well as the South in 1861. As the Brooklyn Daily Eagle editorialized on Nov. 13, 1860, the Union “depends for its continuance on the free consent and will of the sovereign people of each state, and when that consent and will is withdrawn on either part, their Union is gone.” The New York Journal of Commerce concurred, writing on Jan. 12, 1861, that a coerced Union changes the nature of government from “a voluntary one, in which the people are sovereigns, to a despotism where one part of the people are slaves.” The majority of Northern newspapers agreed.
Myth #3: Lincoln championed equality and natural rights. His words and, more important, his actions, repudiate this myth. “I have no purpose to introduce political and social equality between the white and black races,” he announced in his Aug. 21, 1858, debate with Stephen Douglas. “I, as well as Judge Douglas, am in favor of the race to which I belong having the superior position.” And, “Free them [slaves] and make them politically and socially our equals? My own feelings will not admit of this. We cannot, then, make them equals.”
In Springfield, Ill., on July 17, 1858, Lincoln said, “What I would most desire would be the separation of the white and black races.” On Sept. 18, 1858, in Charleston, Ill., he said: “I will to the very last stand by the law of this state, which forbids the marrying of white people with Negroes.”
Lincoln supported the Illinois Constitution, which prohibited the emigration of black people into the state, and he also supported the Illinois Black Codes, which deprived the small number of free blacks in the state any semblance of citizenship. He strongly supported the Fugitive Slave Act, which compelled Northern states to capture runaway slaves and return them to their owners. In his First Inaugural he pledged his support of a proposed constitutional amendment that had just passed the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives that would have prohibited the federal government from ever having the power “to abolish or interfere, within any State, with the domestic institutions thereof, including that of persons held to labor or service by the laws of said State.” In his First Inaugural Lincoln advocated making this amendment “express and irrevocable.”
Lincoln was also a lifelong advocate of “colonization” or shipping all black people to Africa, Central America, Haiti—anywhere but here. “I cannot make it better known than it already is,” he stated in a Dec. 1, 1862, Message to Congress, “that I strongly favor colonization.” To Lincoln, blacks could be “equal,” but not in the United States.
Myth #4: Lincoln was a defender of the Constitution. Quite the contrary: Generations of historians have labeled Lincoln a “dictator.” “Dictatorship played a decisive role in the North’s successful effort to maintain the Union by force of arms,” wrote Clinton Rossiter in “Constitutional Dictatorship.” And, “Lincoln’s amazing disregard for the Constitution was considered by nobody as legal.”
James G. Randall documented Lincoln’s assault on the Constitution in “Constitutional Problems Under Lincoln.” Lincoln unconstitutionally suspended the writ of habeas corpus and had the military arrest tens of thousands of Northern political opponents, including dozens of newspaper editors and owners. Some 300 newspapers were shut down and all telegraph communication was censored. Northern elections were rigged; Democratic voters were intimidated by federal soldiers; hundreds of New York City draft protesters were gunned down by federal troops; West Virginia was unconstitutionally carved out of Virginia; and the most outspoken member of the Democratic Party opposition, Congressman Clement L. Vallandigham of Ohio, was deported. Duly elected members of the Maryland legislature were imprisoned, as was the mayor of Baltimore and Congressman Henry May. The border states were systematically disarmed in violation of the Second Amendment and private property was confiscated. Lincoln’s apologists say he had “to destroy the Constitution in order to save it.”
Myth #5: Lincoln was a “great humanitarian” who had “malice toward none.” This is inconsistent with the fact that Lincoln micromanaged the waging of war on civilians, including the burning of entire towns populated only by civilians; massive looting and plundering; rape; and the execution of civilians (See Mark Grimsley, “The Hard Hand of War”). Pro-Lincoln historian Lee Kennett wrote in “Marching Through Georgia” that, had the Confederates somehow won, they would have been justified in “stringing up President Lincoln and the entire Union high command” as war criminals.
Myth #6: War was necessary to end slavery. During the 19th century, dozens of countries, including the British and Spanish empires, ended slavery peacefully through compensated emancipation. Among such countries were Argentina, Colombia, Chile, all of Central America, Mexico, Bolivia, Uruguay, the French and Danish colonies, Ecuador, Peru, and Venezuela. (Lincoln did propose compensated emancipation for the border states, but coupled his proposal with deportation of any freed slaves. He failed to see it through, however). Only in America was war associated with emancipation.
In sum, the power of the state ultimately rests upon a series of myths about the alleged munificence of our rulers. Nothing serves this purpose better than the Lincoln myth. This should be kept in mind by all who visit the new Lincoln statue in Richmond.
Myth 1. Lincoln didn’t invade the south to free the slaves. Rather the south illegally pretended secession so they could further slavery. Lincoln didn’t accept their illegal acts, and so the rebels resorted to war, which they lost.
Myth 2. Lincoln’s war saved the Union.
Southerners made war on the US to enable them to break the Union. Lincoln stopped that, at great cost.
Myth 3. Lincoln championed equality and natural rights.
Lincoln supported the 13th 14th and 15th amendment which secured those natural rights.
Myth 4. Lincoln was a defender of the Constitution.
Lincoln responded to the war begun by the southern rebels. In so doing, he did not respond with legal writs vs. Cannonballs. Rebellion is not a legal process. Accordingly, responding to it occurs in ways that are not always bound by legal process. The southern rebels lost their war, and then complain that it wasn’t legal enough. Call an Wahhmbulance!
Myth 5. Lincoln was a great humanitarian who had malice toward none. Lincoln had malice toward none after the rebellion ended. Hood set fire to much of Atlanta as he withdrew. So did Sherman. Insurrection is a violent bloody thing, very uncomfortable, makes you late for dinner. If you don’t like that game, don’t play.