The Danger in Republicans' Fight to Own Lincoln's Legacy

Human beings (and Americans are no exception) like their heroes and villains easily identifiable and the explanation of historical events simple.  As such, both Republicans and Democrats have built easily digestible historical narratives regarding American political history since the Civil War.  Peculiarly, there seems to be a debate about who gets to own the legacy of Abraham Lincoln.

On the left, the meandering and incoherent narrative goes like this.  Lincoln and his mighty Union army launched a war against the racist, slave-holding Confederacy to rid America of the abominable institution of slavery and make equal citizens of the former slaves.  Therefore, modern Democrats own his legacy of greatness, because Republicans "switched" to become Democrats at some undefined time before FDR's New Deal when all those big-government, socially conscious, expansive, and redistributive federal laws were visited upon all the states.  Then, somehow, they switched back at some undefined time after LBJ's Great Society and the creation of the welfare state.

On the right, it goes like this.  Lincoln and his mighty Union armies launched a war against the racist, slave-holding Confederacy to rid America of the abominable institution of slavery and make equal citizens of the former slaves.  Because Lincoln was a Republican, modern Republicans own Lincoln's legacy of greatness.  Dinesh D'Souza currently has a new book, movie, and massive campaign underway to prove to Americans that this is the case, suggesting that Trump is a modern avatar of Lincoln or some such.


Photo credit: National Park Service.

Both arguments might fit nicely into simple talking points, but neither is the least bit accurate. 

The foundation of both narratives – that Lincoln launched his war against the Confederacy to destroy the institution of slavery in order to make equal American citizens of the freed slaves – is never questioned, because doing so is political heresy.

Try imagining that Abraham Lincoln had died of natural causes before December 31, 1862.  If he had, it would take a mind-boggling amount of historical revisionism and mental gymnastics to imagine that modern Republicans and Democrats would both be arguing that he launched the war to free the slaves and make them equal American citizens.

On January 1, 1863, Lincoln issued the famous Emancipation Proclamation.  It's remembered as a powerful moment in our history, though it freed precisely zero slaves in the seceding states, which no longer believed themselves beholden to his edicts, and actually allowed the continuance of slavery in neutral states where it existed. 

But did he launch the invasion of the South in order to destroy the institution of slavery and institute equal rights among the emancipated slaves?  Everything about Lincoln's legacy should hinge upon the answer to that question, since freeing the slaves was ostensibly the impetus for the Civil War, and particularly since Lincoln's armies invaded the South long before the Emancipation Proclamation.

History suggests that he did not.

Lincoln was explicit in his 1861 inaugural address in saying that he had "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."

In fact, he told his "dissatisfied countrymen" of the Southern states that he was begrudgingly yet steadfastly beholden to the laws of the United States.  He had no intention to repeal the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, upheld by the Dred Scott ruling of 1857 (though he famously issued a personal challenge to the Court's ruling).  He even said that if "an amendment to the Constitution" were enacted "to the effect that the Federal Government shall never interfere with domestic institutions of the States, including that of people held to service," he would, "holding such a provision to now be implied constitutional law," "have no objection to its being made express and irrevocable."

But wait – doesn't the legend of Lincoln suggest that his primary purpose in the war was to abolish slavery and make equal citizens of emancipated slaves?

Well, he had belied that legend several times before the 1861 address, most famously in the debate with Stephen Douglas in 1858, saying he would never intend to make "voters or jurors of negroes" and that he, "as much as any man" among the populace he entreated, was "in favor of having the superior position" among the races "assigned to the white man."

A year after the 1861 address, long after his invasion of the South had begun, it was still quite clear that he didn't intend to make "voters or jurors" of the emancipated slaves.

You see, Lincoln had "long-favored the colonization option" for slaves.  This isn't some myth, as you may have been led to believe.  He supported a $600,000 expenditure by Congress in 1862 to ship African-American slaves to a makeshift colony far away from America's shores. 

On August 14 of 1862, he argued that it is "better" for both "Americans and African-Americans to be separated" and that African-Americans' refusal to submit to colonization was "extremely selfish" of them.  Six days after, he penned a note to Horace Greeley suggesting that his "paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and it is not neither to save or destroy slavery."  "If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it," he wrote. 

This hearkened back, yet again, to his 1861 address, where he told his audience that he had no aim to destroy slavery in the states where it exists but that the "momentous issue of civil war" was in the hands of his "dissatisfied countrymen" in the South.  "You have no oath registered in heaven to destroy the Government," he said, "while I shall have the most solemn one to preserve, protect, and defend it."

As late as December 1862, he said, "I cannot make it better known than it already is that I strongly favor colonization" for African-Americans.

And now to the question.  What if Lincoln had died before December 31, before the Emancipation Proclamation, when there existed far more evidence that he waged his war to forcibly preserve the United States and subjugate those states that no longer wished to be a part of it, and far less evidence that he waged that war to free or make equals of emancipated slaves?  Would his legacy be the same? 

It's an important question.  If Lincoln did not wage his war in order to free the slaves and make them equals, as history makes fairly clear he did not, then the other questions and problems about Lincoln's legacy are relevant, including his suspension of habeas corpus, his jailing of fourteen thousand political dissidents, the greatest suppression of the free press in our nation's history by shutting down 300 newspapers (think of that in the context of our times!), the institution of America's first ever federal income tax, and the first compulsory American military draft.

Are Republicans truly so desperate to own those elements of his legacy?  Or just the lie that he waged his war in order to make free and equal American citizens of American slaves? 

The point is simple.  If we dumb history down to the easiest talking points because it's convenient and more palatable for the masses, whom we make dumber by our having done so, we will lose the complex and valuable truth about our history, and we will cease to learn from it.

We now live in a world where statues of great men, like Robert E. Lee, are being torn down on the predication of nothing more than "he fought for slavery."  He, and his father, Light Horse Harry Lee, fought and won many battles to establish and preserve these United States of America.  It was with a heavy heart that Robert E. Lee refused to take up arms against his family and neighbors in Virginia, eventually choosing to fight for the Confederacy against what he perceived to be an overbearing federal leviathan that would trample the Southern states' right to self-determination.

If we would so quickly throw away men like Robert E. Lee because he fought for independence on the side of a nation that would be a slave-holding one, how will we defend Jefferson or Washington when the radical leftist platform proclaims, as it does, that everything good and brilliant about the American idea amounts to nothing more than the ravings of slave-holding racists?

We should be careful about the heroes we throw away in political expedience and at the expense of truth.  And we should be even more careful about the ones we blindly revere without question, or without even the mildest consideration of the truth.

William Sullivan blogs at Political Palaver and can be followed on Twitter.

Human beings (and Americans are no exception) like their heroes and villains easily identifiable and the explanation of historical events simple.  As such, both Republicans and Democrats have built easily digestible historical narratives regarding American political history since the Civil War.  Peculiarly, there seems to be a debate about who gets to own the legacy of Abraham Lincoln.

On the left, the meandering and incoherent narrative goes like this.  Lincoln and his mighty Union army launched a war against the racist, slave-holding Confederacy to rid America of the abominable institution of slavery and make equal citizens of the former slaves.  Therefore, modern Democrats own his legacy of greatness, because Republicans "switched" to become Democrats at some undefined time before FDR's New Deal when all those big-government, socially conscious, expansive, and redistributive federal laws were visited upon all the states.  Then, somehow, they switched back at some undefined time after LBJ's Great Society and the creation of the welfare state.

On the right, it goes like this.  Lincoln and his mighty Union armies launched a war against the racist, slave-holding Confederacy to rid America of the abominable institution of slavery and make equal citizens of the former slaves.  Because Lincoln was a Republican, modern Republicans own Lincoln's legacy of greatness.  Dinesh D'Souza currently has a new book, movie, and massive campaign underway to prove to Americans that this is the case, suggesting that Trump is a modern avatar of Lincoln or some such.


Photo credit: National Park Service.

Both arguments might fit nicely into simple talking points, but neither is the least bit accurate. 

The foundation of both narratives – that Lincoln launched his war against the Confederacy to destroy the institution of slavery in order to make equal American citizens of the freed slaves – is never questioned, because doing so is political heresy.

Try imagining that Abraham Lincoln had died of natural causes before December 31, 1862.  If he had, it would take a mind-boggling amount of historical revisionism and mental gymnastics to imagine that modern Republicans and Democrats would both be arguing that he launched the war to free the slaves and make them equal American citizens.

On January 1, 1863, Lincoln issued the famous Emancipation Proclamation.  It's remembered as a powerful moment in our history, though it freed precisely zero slaves in the seceding states, which no longer believed themselves beholden to his edicts, and actually allowed the continuance of slavery in neutral states where it existed. 

But did he launch the invasion of the South in order to destroy the institution of slavery and institute equal rights among the emancipated slaves?  Everything about Lincoln's legacy should hinge upon the answer to that question, since freeing the slaves was ostensibly the impetus for the Civil War, and particularly since Lincoln's armies invaded the South long before the Emancipation Proclamation.

History suggests that he did not.

Lincoln was explicit in his 1861 inaugural address in saying that he had "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."

In fact, he told his "dissatisfied countrymen" of the Southern states that he was begrudgingly yet steadfastly beholden to the laws of the United States.  He had no intention to repeal the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, upheld by the Dred Scott ruling of 1857 (though he famously issued a personal challenge to the Court's ruling).  He even said that if "an amendment to the Constitution" were enacted "to the effect that the Federal Government shall never interfere with domestic institutions of the States, including that of people held to service," he would, "holding such a provision to now be implied constitutional law," "have no objection to its being made express and irrevocable."

But wait – doesn't the legend of Lincoln suggest that his primary purpose in the war was to abolish slavery and make equal citizens of emancipated slaves?

Well, he had belied that legend several times before the 1861 address, most famously in the debate with Stephen Douglas in 1858, saying he would never intend to make "voters or jurors of negroes" and that he, "as much as any man" among the populace he entreated, was "in favor of having the superior position" among the races "assigned to the white man."

A year after the 1861 address, long after his invasion of the South had begun, it was still quite clear that he didn't intend to make "voters or jurors" of the emancipated slaves.

You see, Lincoln had "long-favored the colonization option" for slaves.  This isn't some myth, as you may have been led to believe.  He supported a $600,000 expenditure by Congress in 1862 to ship African-American slaves to a makeshift colony far away from America's shores. 

On August 14 of 1862, he argued that it is "better" for both "Americans and African-Americans to be separated" and that African-Americans' refusal to submit to colonization was "extremely selfish" of them.  Six days after, he penned a note to Horace Greeley suggesting that his "paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and it is not neither to save or destroy slavery."  "If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it," he wrote. 

This hearkened back, yet again, to his 1861 address, where he told his audience that he had no aim to destroy slavery in the states where it exists but that the "momentous issue of civil war" was in the hands of his "dissatisfied countrymen" in the South.  "You have no oath registered in heaven to destroy the Government," he said, "while I shall have the most solemn one to preserve, protect, and defend it."

As late as December 1862, he said, "I cannot make it better known than it already is that I strongly favor colonization" for African-Americans.

And now to the question.  What if Lincoln had died before December 31, before the Emancipation Proclamation, when there existed far more evidence that he waged his war to forcibly preserve the United States and subjugate those states that no longer wished to be a part of it, and far less evidence that he waged that war to free or make equals of emancipated slaves?  Would his legacy be the same? 

It's an important question.  If Lincoln did not wage his war in order to free the slaves and make them equals, as history makes fairly clear he did not, then the other questions and problems about Lincoln's legacy are relevant, including his suspension of habeas corpus, his jailing of fourteen thousand political dissidents, the greatest suppression of the free press in our nation's history by shutting down 300 newspapers (think of that in the context of our times!), the institution of America's first ever federal income tax, and the first compulsory American military draft.

Are Republicans truly so desperate to own those elements of his legacy?  Or just the lie that he waged his war in order to make free and equal American citizens of American slaves? 

The point is simple.  If we dumb history down to the easiest talking points because it's convenient and more palatable for the masses, whom we make dumber by our having done so, we will lose the complex and valuable truth about our history, and we will cease to learn from it.

We now live in a world where statues of great men, like Robert E. Lee, are being torn down on the predication of nothing more than "he fought for slavery."  He, and his father, Light Horse Harry Lee, fought and won many battles to establish and preserve these United States of America.  It was with a heavy heart that Robert E. Lee refused to take up arms against his family and neighbors in Virginia, eventually choosing to fight for the Confederacy against what he perceived to be an overbearing federal leviathan that would trample the Southern states' right to self-determination.

If we would so quickly throw away men like Robert E. Lee because he fought for independence on the side of a nation that would be a slave-holding one, how will we defend Jefferson or Washington when the radical leftist platform proclaims, as it does, that everything good and brilliant about the American idea amounts to nothing more than the ravings of slave-holding racists?

We should be careful about the heroes we throw away in political expedience and at the expense of truth.  And we should be even more careful about the ones we blindly revere without question, or without even the mildest consideration of the truth.

William Sullivan blogs at Political Palaver and can be followed on Twitter.