Lincoln Cult – February 2009

The Lincoln birthday celebrations seem to have included little attempt to learn from the past. Lincoln is celebrated — by few more than the current president, who insists upon a resemblance — but there’s little critique of the devastation over which Lincoln presided. The end of chattel slavery is taken to be a retrospective justification of his launching of the war. (The actual economic and social position of American slaves and their families in the years after the Civil War is less attended to.)

I can find only one statement of a contrary view by a present-day American politician:

Lincoln should never have gone to war; there were better ways of getting rid of slavery. Six hundred thousand Americans died in a senseless civil war. Slavery was phased out in every other country of the world. It should have been done as the British empire did — buy the slaves and release them. How much would that cost compared to killing 600,000 Americans? And the hatred lingered for 100 years. Every other major country in the world got rid of slavery without a civil war. (Ron Paul)

Lincoln was not a principled opponent of slavery (altho’ he may have become so). His position before secession was that the federal government did not possess the constitutional power to end slavery in states where it already existed; he supported the Corwin Amendment, which would have explicitly prohibited Congress from interfering with slavery in states where it existed.

In the midst of the war, Lincoln wrote (to Horace Greeley),

My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. 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 the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union.

And what was “saving the Union” about? All would admit today that the effect of Lincoln’s policy was to establish a much more powerful central government in the United States. (Hence the old line that the Civil War was about a verb: “the United States is” vs. “the United States are.”) But the cause of the war was the conflict between two ruling groups who exploited labor differently — by slavery in the South, by the wage-contract in the North. They came into conflict after the Mexican War and the vast increase of US territory that followed it.

Both groups wanted to control the western half of the continent, and the Northern agrarians became increasingly anti-slavery as they faced the prospect of competing against a forced-labor system. But favoring free soil did not mean agitating to free the black man. The majority of Western farmers were not abolitionists … Their objective was to exclude both the white planter and the black [workers] from the trans-Mississippi marketplace. That goal, and the attitude which produced it, gave Abraham Lincoln his victory over the abolitionist element in the newly rising Republican party. (W. A. Williams)

The Radical Republicans (and Lincoln) were not necessarily abolitionist and only adventitiously democratic. They just wanted the trans-Mississippi empire farmed with wage-labor, not slave-labor. (Hence the central Republican party plank was “no extension of slavery.”)

Options other than war were available to Lincoln, and he was aware of them. Advice came from the most distinguished American military figure of the day, Gen. Winfield Scott (1786-1866). He served on active duty as a general longer than any other man in American history and may have been the ablest American commander of his time; he devised the Anaconda Plan that would be used to defeat the Confederacy.

In a letter addressed to Governor Seward (leading Republican and Lincoln’s Secretary of State) — and obviously meant for Lincoln’s eyes — on the day preceding Lincoln’s inauguration (March 3, 1861), Scott suggested that the president had four possible courses of action:

[1] adopt the Crittenden Compromise (which restored the Missouri Compromise line: slavery would be prohibited north of the 36° 30′ parallel and guaranteed south of it);
[2] collect duties outside the ports of seceding States or blockade them;
[3] conquer those States at the end of a long, expensive, and desolating war, and to no good purpose; or,
[4] say to the seceded States, “Wayward sisters, depart in peace!”

Scott clearly preferred the fourth. In retrospect, it probably would have been best. (Scott was retired from the service Nov. 1, 1861, and was succeeded by General George McClellan.)

I think a true democrat (therefore necessarily a socialist) would have opposed the war in 1860 — but obviously not because s/he would have supported slavery. When Karl Marx wrote on behalf of the International Working Men’s Association to congratulate Lincoln on his re-election (1864), he gave as his principal reason that, with the distraction of slavery removed, the struggle between capital and labor was clearer: slavery had been the reason Northern workers “were unable to attain the true freedom of labor, or to support their European brethren in their struggle for emancipation; but this barrier to progress has been swept off by the red sea of civil war.”

One of the few recent scholarly studies not to observe the Lincoln cult is William Marley’s Mr. Lincoln Goes to War (2006). From a review:

Focusing on the North’s road to war in 1861, he argues that Abraham Lincoln made armed force a first choice, rather than a last resort, in addressing the Union’s breakup … Marvel describes the president’s course of action as ‘destructive and unimaginative.’ The confrontation at Fort Sumter ended any chance of avoiding conflict, he writes … Lincoln’s early and comprehensive infringement of such constitutional rights as habeas corpus set dangerous precedents for future autocratic executives.

Illustrating the important principle that the poets often get there first, Gore Vidal’s Lincoln: A Novel (1984) made a similar argument a generation ago. But the theme was absent from this week’s celebrations.


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“Either you repeat the same conventional doctrines everybody is saying, or else you say something true, and it will sound like it’s from Neptune.” –Noam Chomsky