Anyone who embarks on a study of Abraham Lincoln . . . must first come to terms with the Lincoln myth. The effort to penetrate the crust of legend that surrounds Lincoln . . . is both a formidable and intimidating task. Lincoln, it seems, requires special considerations that are denied to other figures. . . .
—Robert W. Johannsen, Lincoln, the South, and Slavery
More words have probably been written about Abraham Lincoln than about any other American political figure. According to one source, more than 16,000 books have been written on virtually every aspect of Lincoln's private and public life. But much of what has been written about Lincoln is myth, as Pulitzer Prize-winning Lincoln biographer David Donald noted in his 1961 book, Lincoln Reconsidered. Donald attempted to set at least part of the record straight; but, if anything, the literature on Lincoln has become even more dubious in the succeeding decades. Anyone who delves into this literature with an open mind and an interest in the truth cannot help but be struck by the fantastic lengths to which an entire industry of "Lincoln scholars" has gone to perpetuate countless myths and questionable interpretations of events. Many of these myths will be examined in this book.
In the eyes of many Americans, Lincoln remains the most important American political figure in history because the War between the States so fundamentally transformed the nature of American government. Before the war, government in America was the highly decentralized, limited government established by the founding fathers. The war created the highly centralized state that Americans labor under today. The purpose of American government was transformed from the defense of individual liberty to the quest for empire. As historian Richard Bensel has observed, any study of the origins of the American state should begin no earlier than 1865.
This aspect of the War between the States has always been downplayed or even ignored because of the emphasis that has been given to the important issue of slavery. Lincoln will forever be known as the Great Emancipator. But to understand the real Lincoln one must realize that during his twenty-eight years in politics before becoming president, he was almost single-mindedly devoted to an economic agenda that Henry Clay labeled "the American System." From the very first day in 1832 when he announced that he was running for the state legislature in Illinois, Lincoln expressed his devotion to the cause of protectionist tariffs, taxpayer subsidies for railroads and other corporations ("internal improvements"), and the nationalization of the money supply to help pay for the subsidies.
Lincoln labored mightily in the political trenches of the Whig and Republican parties for nearly three decades on behalf of this economic agenda, but with only minor success. The Constitution stood in the way of the Whig economic agenda as one American president after another vetoed internal improvement and national bank bills. Beginning with Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe, Southern statesmen were always in the forefront of the opposition to this economic agenda. According to Lincoln scholar Mark Neely, Jr., Lincoln seethed in frustration for many years over how the Constitution stood in the way of his political ambitions.
Lincoln thought of himself as the heir to the Hamiltonian political tradition, which sought a much more centralized governmental system, one that would plan economic development with corporate subsidies financed by protectionist tariffs and the printing of money by the central government. This agenda achieved little political success during the first seventy years of the nation's existence, but was fully implemented during the first two years of the Lincoln administration. It was Lincoln's real agenda.
Roy Basler, the editor of Lincoln's Collected Works, has written that Lincoln barely ever mentioned the issue of slavery before 1854, and, even then, he did not seem sincere.Chapter 2 explores the doubts that many others have also expressed about Lincoln's supposed commitment to racial equality. The average Americanwho has not spent much time reading Lincoln's speeches but who has learned about him through the filter of the "Lincoln scholars"will be surprised or even shocked by some of his words and actions. He stated over and over again that he was opposed to political or social equality of the races; he was not an abolitionist but denigrated them and distanced himself from them; and his primary means of dealing with racial problems was to attempt to colonize all American blacks in Africa, Haiti, Central Americaanywhere but in the United States.
Chapter 2 also shows the extent to which Lincoln's views on race were consistent with those of the overwhelming majority of white Northerners, who discriminated against free blacks so severely that several states, including Lincoln's home state of Illinois, amended their constitutions to prohibit the emigration of black people into those states. Such facts raise serious questions about the extent to which racial injustice in the South motivated Lincoln and the Republican Party to wage a long, bloody war.
Chapter 3 poses a key question that almost no one has addressed in much detail: Why didn't Lincoln do what much of the rest of the world did in the nineteenth century and end slavery peacefully through compensated emancipation? Between 1800 and 1860, dozens of countries, including the entire British Empire, ended slavery peacefully; only in the United States was a war involved. It is very likely that most Americans, if they had been given the opportunity, would have gladly supported compensated emancipation as a means of ending slavery, as opposed to the almost unimaginable costs of the war: 620,000 deaths, thousands more maimed for life, and the near total destruction of approximately 40 percent of the nation's economy. Standardizing for today's population of some 280 million (compared to 30 million in 1865), this would be roughly the equivalent of 5 million deaths—about a hundred times the number of Americans who died in Vietnam.
Chapter 4 outlines Lincoln's real agenda: Henry Clay's "American System." For his entire political life Lincoln was devoted to Clay and Clay's economic agenda. The debate over this economic agenda was arguably the most important political debate during the first seventy years of the nation's existence. It involved the nation's most prominent statesmen and pitted the states' rights Jeffersonians against the centralizing Hamiltonians (who became Whigs and, later, Republicans). The violence of war finally ended the debate in 1861.
Chapter 5 discusses the long history of the right of secession in America, beginning with the Declaration of Independence, which is properly viewed as a "Declaration of Secession" from England. The New England Federalists attempted for more than a decade to secede from the Union after Thomas Jefferson was elected president in 1800. Until 1861 most commentators, North and South, took it for granted that states had a right to secede. This doctrine was even taught to the cadets at West Point, including almost all of the top military commanders on both sides of the conflict during the War between the States.
Lincoln's insistence that no such right existed has no basis whatsoever in history or fact. He essentially invented a new theorythat the federal government created the states, which were therefore not sovereignand waged the bloodiest war in world history up to that point to "prove" himself right.
Chapter 6 deals with the odd nature of the claim by so many Lincoln scholars that Lincoln "saved" the Constitution by suspending constitutional liberty in the North for the entire duration of his administration. He supposedly had to destroy constitutional liberty in order to save it. Quite a few Lincoln scholars have labeled Lincoln a "dictator" for launching a military invasion without the consent of Congress; suspending habeas corpus; imprisoning thousands of Northern citizens without trial for merely opposing his policies; censoring all telegraph communication and imprisoning dozens of opposition newspaper publishers; nationalizing the railroads; using Federal troops to interfere with elections; confiscating firearms; and deporting an opposition member of Congress, Clement L. Vallandigham, after he opposed Lincoln's income tax proposal during a Democratic Party rally in Ohio.
Even though many have labeled these acts as "dictatorial," they usually add that Lincoln was a "good" or "benevolent" dictator. In reality, these precedents did irreparable harm to constitutional liberty in America. Some writers, such as historian Garry Wills and Columbia University law professor George P. Fletcher, have voiced their approval of Lincoln's assault on constitutional liberty because they believe that the Constitution stands in the way of their cherished goal of "egalitarianism." They openly celebrate the fact that Lincoln led the way in subverting constitutional government in America.
In addition to abandoning the Constitution, the Lincoln administration established another ominous precedent by deciding to abandon international law and the accepted moral code of civilized societies and wage war on civilians. General William Tecumseh Sherman announced that to secessionistsall of them, women and children included "death is mercy." Chapter 7 details how Lincoln abandoned the generally accepted rules of war, which had just been codified by the Geneva Convention of 1863. Lincoln famously micromanaged the war effort, and the burning of entire Southern towns was an essential feature of his war strategy.
Lincoln's political legacy is explored in chapter 8 in the context of how, during Reconstruction (1865-1877), the Republican Party essentially plundered the South for twelve more years by instituting puppet governments that constantly raised taxes but provided very few public benefits. Much of the money was simply stolen by Republican Party activists and their business supporters. The adult male ex-slaves were immediately given the right to vote in the South (even though blacks could not vote in several Northern states), while most white male Southerners were disenfranchised. Former Union General and newspaper editor Donn Piatt, a close Lincoln confidant, expressed the opinion that using the ex-slaves as political pawns in such a corrupt way poisoned race relations in the South beyond repair at a time when racial reconciliation should have been the primary objective.
Lincoln's policy of crushing dissenters with overwhelming military might was continued after the war with the federal government's eradication of the Plains Indians by many of the same generals who had guided the North's war effort (particularly Grant, Sherman, and Sheridan). The stated purpose of this campaign against the Plains Indians was to make way for the government-subsidized transcontinental railroads. The quest for empire had become the primary goal of government in America.
Chapter 9 describes Lincoln's economic legacy: the realization of Henry Clay's American System. Many (primarily) Southern statesmen had opposed this system for decades because they viewed it as nothing more than the corrupt "mercantilist" system that prevailed in England during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and they wanted no part of it. Indeed, many of the original colonists fled to America to escape from that very system. So powerful was Southern opposition to the American System that the Confederate Constitution outlawed both protectionist tariffs and internal improvement subsidies altogether. Lincoln's war created the "military-industrial complex" some ninety years before President Eisenhower coined the phrase.
The notorious corruption of the Grant administrations was an inevitable consequence of Lincoln's success in imposing the "American System" on the nation during the war. The "Era of Good Stealings," as one historian described it, proved that the concerns of Southern statesmen, from Thomas Jefferson to Jefferson Davis, were well founded.
Chapter 10 explains how the death of federalismthe decentralized system of government that was established by the founding fatherswas perhaps the biggest cost of Lincoln's war. Although Lincoln is generally credited with having "saved the Union," in reality he destroyed the idea of the Union as a voluntary association of states by forcing the Southern states to remain in the Union at gunpoint. Lincoln can be said to have saved the Union only in a geographical sense.
It was not to end slavery that Lincoln initiated an invasion of the South. He stated over and over again that his main purpose was to "save the Union," which is another way of saying that he wanted to abolish states' rights once and for all. He could have ended slavery just as dozens of other countries in the world did during the first sixty years of the nineteenth century, through compensated emancipation, but he never seriously attempted to do so. A war was not necessary to free the slaves, but it was necessary to destroy the most significant check on the powers of the central government: the right of secession.