Lincoln and the Romanticization of History

A couple of nights ago, Jon Stewart had Judge Andrew Napolitano as a guest on the Daily Show.  They discussed the Judge’s views on Lincoln and the Civil War.  I initially learned of the exchange via a post-interview video that was made by Tom Woods, who asserted that while a panel of judges on the Daily Show during their “faux game show” segment were wrong in their declaring what Napolitano said was incorrect, he also provided a source for his assertion.

Before I go any further, I want to say that this topic is one of the primary things I knew I wanted to write about when I decided to reboot this blog, and as it deals with what is to this day sensitive subject matter, it is a big part of the reason I felt compelled to provide a warning that certain posts here may offend.  If it sounds like a topic you would like to avoid, please do, you can always come back when I post about something less sensitive.

One further note: I have nothing but disgust and revulsion for the institution of slavery, and the ideology of racism.  I also make no effort and have no intent to defend the Confederacy, but I do feel it’s important to remember that the States and people who comprised the Confederacy were just as nuanced and real as the States and people who comprised the Union were.  Just as we should not remember Lincoln and the Union as better than they were, we should not remember the Confederacy as being purely evil, although they were clearly wrong on the very big issue of slavery.

Now, here is background material for what inspired this post:

Embedly Powered

And now we can finally begin!

As is obvious, the traditional beliefs concerning Abraham Lincoln are that he was a hero who not only saved the country from disunity and destruction, but in the process even managed to end slavery!  For this he is typically thought of by a majority of people as being the greatest President that the United States has ever seen.  Now, if one happens to agree with Lincoln’s particular ideology, I suppose this could be a valid way to view him.   However, he still was not quite so great as many people remember him, especially in regard to his role of “ending slavery.”

To get things started, let’s see Lincoln’s own words in regards to how slavery related to the Civil War.


In the interest of truth and fairness, I will include that contextually this is part of a larger statement, and it ends with the words “I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men everywhere could be free.”

By no means am I saying that Lincoln did not “wish” or prefer that “all men everywhere could be free,” however, it was not his paramount concern.  While looking back on history we see slavery as  being the issue that the Civil War was fought over, which is patently not true.  It IS true to say that without the issue of slavery that the war wouldn’t have happened, because slavery was the primary reason given by the Confederate states for their secession from the union, and in that way slavery instigated the Civil War… but make no mistake about it, the Civil War was about preserving the Union at whatever cost.

Regardless of Lincoln’s personal beliefs, the mainstream political beliefs for the purpose of not allowing new slave states to enter the Union was not that they necessarily viewed it as being abominable, or because they believed that blacks were equal to whites, but rather because they wanted the west to be exclusively for the white man (if you’re interested in a source on this, it can be found in Tom Woods’ “The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History”, I don’t have the time to find the exact quote right now).  This is a big part of why the Confederates seceded, they were going to lose votes in how the Union was run, and they would not be able to protect the interests of their states, which, yes, was primarily slavery.

The big issue in the Daily Show video is over fugitive slave laws.  I won’t argue that for sure that they were enforced by the union during the Civil War (though it would seem logical to assume they were, since in Lincoln’s view the Confederate states never legitimately seceded, and were therefore still part of the Union, and slaves were not freed in those states until the Emancipation Proclamation).  However, I bring it up because if Lincoln’s primary concern had not been preserving the Union, but instead ending slavery, southern secession would have been a huge boon to making that happen.  No more would fugitive slave laws apply to the north, because they would have no obligation whatsoever to the States of another sovereign nation.  This is a viewpoint that many abolitionists promoted.  Let the south secede, and it will be the beginning of the end for slavery.  A shameful fact of history is that the United States is the only country in which slavery was ended through war and bloodshed.  It may have taken more time, and obviously thinking of someone remaining in slavery for longer is a horrible thought, but so is the violence and death and suffering that comes with war.

In discussing that in the end the Civil War did lead to the end of slavery in the US, I just want to be clear, I am discussing the ultimate end results of what happened, and not the motivations… ending slavery was merely a preference of Lincoln, and not the key reason for the war.  Further evidence of this is in the Emancipation Proclamation, which most believe to have ended slavery.  If you take the view that Lincoln had authority over the Confederate states at this time, he did end it in those states, however, the Emancipation Proclamation explicitly frees the slaves only in Confederate slave states.  (Source: The Emancipation Proclamation itself, read it, you’ll find it lists specific states and does not include border states that were still part of the Union:  The border states, which remained part of the Union, were left to maintain slavery solely because Lincoln did not want them to secede.  In fact, one of these States, Maryland, which the Union could not allow to secede as it would mean the capital would be surrounded by the confederacy, probably would have seceded, if not for several members of the General Assembly being arrested for their pro-Confederate views. (Source:  Simply to bring this all full circle on the issue of the ending of slavery, the Emancipation proclamation ultimately freed no one, and slaves were freed by the 13th amendment, which was passed by Congress, and had little to do with Lincoln, who merely did his duty in signing it into law, though, to be fair, he was surely not conflicted about it, given his preference for men to be free.

Now, into how I view Lincoln.  I see him as being perhaps our worst President.  I am fundamentally opposed to his ideology of a strong central government.  Prior to the Civil War, and certainly at the drafting of the Constitution, the States all believed that they had the right to peacefully secede at any point.  Post Civil War, the federal government proclaimed the exact opposite.  States could not secede, and in fact the secession of the Confederacy was never valid.    He also was a nightmare economically, as he vastly inflated the money supply in order to fund the war.  As previously pointed out, he  had dissidents arrested to keep state governments from functioning lawfully.  Because of Lincoln’s insistence that the Federal government should be stronger than it was intended to be, and that the Union should be inseparable, we are left with slavery ending perhaps a bit earlier than it otherwise would have, but in the worst way possible.  It created a huge amount of resentment that persists for some even to this day.  Government continued to oppress blacks with Jim Crow laws, and even the way in which these were repealed, trading one government mandate for another, ultimately lead to even more racial tension and resentment.  But that may be a topic for another time.

The Civil War, and the events leading up to, and following it, like all history, and even modern events, is far more complex than how we like to think of it.  People like to think of things in simple matters of clear right and wrong, and when it comes to history we like our heroes to be pure good, and our villains to be pure evil.  However, this doesn’t really happen.  If you made it to the end, I hope you got something out of this, and I’m happy for you to share your thoughts, whether in agreement or disagreement.

Leave a Reply