Getting Lincoln Right

The Oscar for Best Actor went to Daniel Day-Lewis, and deservedly so. This Welshman brought the Great Emancipator to the screen in a remarkably lifelike portrayal. He captured the Hoosier accent, the awkward gestures, even the pained walk of a man whose feet hurt him. The only thing amiss in this amazing rendition was that Day-Lewis's Lincoln looked like the incoming president, the man of 1861, not the withered, ravaged commander-in-chief. The Abraham Lincoln of 1865 had visibly aged twenty-five years in four.

Still, Daniel Day-Lewis's Lincoln comes closer to the real man than some of the caricatures that are, unfortunately, being offered by some conservatives. Some of them say Lincoln is a hypocrite because he approves of the right of revolution spelled out in the Declaration of Independence but disapproves of secession.

Secession was no revolution. We have Jefferson Davis's own Inaugural Address to prove that: "[T]he sovereign States here represented have seceded from that Union, and it is a gross abuse of language to denominate the act rebellion or revolution." The reason Mr. Davis denied his Confederate States were making a revolution was simple: If he had a human right to revolution, then so did his slaves. Also, Jefferson Davis wanted the aid of England and France, then both monarchies. They would be unlikely to assist a Southern revolution that might give ideas to their own disenfranchised masses.

Jefferson Davis's vice president, Alexander Hamilton Stephens, was a personal friend to Abraham Lincoln. But Vice President Stephens gave a famous "Cornerstone Speech," in which he openly avowed that the new Confederate constitution was based on slavery.

When President Lincoln wrote to editor Horace Greeley, he famously said he would free all the slaves or none, or free some and leave others alone if by so doing he could save the Union. Recall, this letter was written while Lincoln had the draft of the Emancipation Proclamation in his desk drawer.

This is taken to be proof that he didn't care about slavery. Not in the least. Let's remember how he was elected. It was to stop the extension of slavery into the territories.

Saving the Union would stop the spread of human bondage over the continent. There was no inconsistency in this. Saving the Union meant "putting slavery on the path to ultimate extinction." That was the Founders' policy; that was Lincoln's policy.

The leaders in those states that seceded were not confused about Lincoln 's views on slavery. They took the election of Lincoln on an anti-slavery platform as their signal to leave the Union. Each of those states sent commissioners to other slaveholding states, urging them to leave the Union, too. Would they have done that if they thought Lincoln was insincere about stopping the spread of slavery?

To say Lincoln didn't free anyone by his Emancipation Proclamation is similarly misguided. It is true he didn't free the slaves of loyal Union citizens in the border states (or in those regions occupied by the Union army). That's because he knew that his war powers extended only to suppressing the rebellion. If an American citizen was obeying the laws, Lincoln had no right to interfere with their slaves -- until the Thirteenth Amendment was ratified.

From that date -- January 1, 1863 -- until the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment, however, the Union armies and navy became forces of liberation. Slaves swarmed into Union camps crying for joy and blessing the Lord for their freedom. If those freedmen and women -- many of whom were kept illiterate by law -- could understand so clearly what Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation meant, how can we get it so wrong?

Some folks say the Civil War was not about slavery, but about states' rights. We strongly support states rights -- especially when it comes protecting our essential liberties from the dangers of Obamacare. But in 1861, the secessionists' new constitution prohibited any free state from joining the Confederacy. It forbade the people of any Confederate state from voluntarily freeing their slaves. And the framers of that constitution even debated -- and soundly defeated -- a provision that would have allowed states to secede from the Confederacy. Clearly, the war was not about states' rights.

Some think Abraham Lincoln gave us the Big Government we all deplore today. He did give us the Trans-Continental Railroad, to be sure, but that was privately built and owned. And the Homestead Act turned over millions of acres of public lands to private owners who would farm and improve them. Even the military -- which had mushroomed to over a million men in wartime (including some 200,000 free men of color) -- quickly shrank after the war. By 1870, it was little larger than before the war.

Today, the people of the South are leading the country in respect for life and in defending marriage. The South cares deeply about religious freedom. We thank God for our Southern friends and fellow believers. This is true conservatism.

But if conservatives today surrender Lincoln to the Hollywood left and Barack Obama, we will be giving up a vitally important cultural icon and one of our two greatest presidents. Conservatives believe in the Founding principles of this nation, including the inalienable right to life. Lincoln said that in the Founders' enlightened belief, "nothing stamped in the divine image was sent into the world to be trod upon." We know he meant the slaves. But we challenge President Obama: "Are not unborn children so stamped?" Let's not abandon Lincoln and allow liberals to "blow out the moral lights around us."

Ken Blackwell and Bob Morrison are seniors fellows at the Family Research Council.