Rediscovering and recovering lost and endangered American liberties by studying our Founders' ideas, contemporaries, and etymology – because our united States "…are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States…"
Yesterday was Abraham Lincoln’s 205th birthday. Facebook exploded with posts to honor and remember him – but are there really valid reasons to do so?
I think there are two likely reasons for which he is respected, honored, and given an almost god-like status in the minds of Americans:
Let’s investigate these two items.
He ‘freed the slaves.’
The end of legal slavery was unquestionably a favorable result of the War. The emancipation of black slaves was a victory
for, and a long-awaited resolution to, some remaining unrealized ideals of the Declaration of Independence. Although the American South was the last region of the country to maintain legal slavery, the Federal Government in a sense endorsed, or at least tolerated, slavery by passing the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, an update to the original Fugitive Slave Act of 1793. The Act of 1850 mandated that slaves escaping to a free state had to be returned to their masters. Many residents of free Northern states refused to comply with this law, and the Wisconsin Supreme Court even declared the Federal Law unconstitutional. However, the Act remained on the books until Congress formally repealed it in 1864 – near the end of the War! In 1859, Lincoln’s notes for speeches he gave in Kansas and Ohio reveal his support for the Fugitive Slave Act (corrections retained):
“We must not disturb slavery in the states where it exists, because the constitution, and peace of the country, both forbid us– We must allow allow not withold an efficient fugitive slave law, because the constitution requires it–“
And in his First Inaugural Address in 1861, Lincoln made his intentions toward legal slavery known:
“I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.”
So, what happened between 1861 and 1863 that caused Lincoln to do a 180-degree turn with his intentions toward slavery? Some might say he simply had a change of heart, and indeed he may have…but I believe it’s also worth considering the possibility that he may have seen political opportunities in ending slavery. A Civilwar.org article, 10 Facts About the Emancipation Proclamation, claims:
“The Southern states used slaves to support their armies on the field and to manage the home front so more men could go off to fight. In a display of his political genius, President Lincoln shrewdly justified the Emancipation Proclamation as a ‘fit and necessary war measure’ in order to cripple the Confederacy’s use of slaves in the war effort.”
The same article also says that the advent of the Emancipation Proclamation (an Executive Order by Lincoln) discouraged foreign nations from allying with the South:
“Although some in the United Kingdom saw the Emancipation Proclamation as overly limited and reckless, Lincoln’s directive reinforced the shift of the international political mood against intervention while the Union victory at Antietam further disturbed those who didn’t want to intervene on the side of a lost cause.”
I suspect this may have been one of the ends Lincoln hoped to attain by issuing the Proclamation. Regardless of Lincoln’s reasoning for issuing the Proclamation halfway through the War, however, its arrival on the scene unquestionably changed the focus of the War from solely preserving the Union to freeing all Southern slaves as well. Lincoln claimed a moral satisfaction as a result of signing the Proclamation:
“I never, in my life, felt more certain that I was doing right, than I do in signing this paper,” he declared. “If my name ever goes into history it will be for this act, and my whole soul is in it.”
We can only take his statement at face value, but is it not possible (if not likely) that Lincoln may have felt sympathetic toward the slaves’ plight for years, but decided not to do anything about it until it was more politically expedient?
Another related item to ponder is the question of how long slavery would have really gone on for in the South without military intervention. Most other countries banned slavery before the year 1900 without bloodshed. Although the Northern states were more progressive in the abolition of slavery than the South, there was still a gradual weaning off of legal slavery in many of the Northern states. For example, “…slavery was not completely lifted in New Hampshire and New Jersey until the nationwide emancipation in 1865.”1
He ‘preserved the Union.’
This is perhaps one of the most controversial aspects of Lincoln’s legacy. I am convinced that he believed that the Union had to be preserved, no matter the cost. It is common knowledge that his initial goal of the War was not to free the slaves, but rather it was to prevent Southern secession. Lincoln clearly stated this as his intent in a letter to Horace Greeley in 1862 (corrections retained):
“If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that. What I do about slavery and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save th ise Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union. I shall do less whenever I shall believe what I am doing hurts the cause, and I shall do more whenever I shall believe doing more will help the cause.“
In my mind, this raises a serious question: why was the goal of ‘saving the Union’ worth any cost? What made this goal worth sacrificing between 2% and 3% (or more) of the American citizenry (including many freed blacks)? What was so sacred about the number of states in, or the land mass of, the nation at that time, that it could not be altered? There is no Constitutional basis for preserving the Union at any cost. The Founding Generation was hopeful that secession would never be necessary, but they absolutely considered that it could happen. For example, Thomas Jefferson stated, in a letter to William H. Crawford in 1816:
“If any State in the Union will declare that it prefers separation with the first alternative, to a continuance in union without it, I have no hesitation in saying, ‘let us separate’. I would rather the States should withdraw, which are for unlimited commerce and war, and confederate with those alone which are for peace and agriculture.”
“The fact is that our Union rests upon public opinion, and can never be cemented by the blood of its citizens shed in civil war. If it can not live in the affections of the people, it must one day perish. Congress possesses many means of preserving it by conciliation, but the sword was not placed in their hand to preserve it by force.”
The words of the Declaration of Independence itself echo these ideals as well:
“…whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”
Instead of touting Lincoln’s actions as gloriously eternal blessings to America, I would rather summarize his legacy as follows:
Abraham Lincoln was a gifted leader and skilled politician, but he allowed a bloody civil war that destroyed 3% of the American population by forbidding the peaceful secession of the Southern States. He had no interest in freeing black Southern slaves at the start of the War, but decided to issue the Emancipation Proclamation halfway through the War’s duration, with questionable motives. Although an obvious blessing that resulted from the War was immediate freedom for all Southern slaves, it came at a horrible cost – not only in lives lost, but also in the form of a catastrophic restructuring of the power distribution in the American Government: by preventing peaceful secession, he eliminated almost all remaining state sovereignty, effectively forcing state membership of a mandatory ‘Union.’ In doing so, he paved the road to future Federal tyranny, setting a precedent that ‘might makes right.’ In other words, he showed the country what happens if and when the Federal Government is seriously challenged.