Posts Tagged ‘Abraham Lincoln’

Abraham Lincoln on trial for racism

May 31, 2021

Standing Lincoln sculpture in Chicago’s Lincoln Park

I was brought up to revere Abraham Lincoln as the Great Emancipator.  But in recent years, I’ve read more and more claims that, in fact, he was just a white racist.

Last year some of the Black Lives Matter protestors toppled statues of people they considered symbols of American’s racist past.

They didn’t stop with Confederate generals, but went on to destroy statues of iconic American statesmen, up to and including Abraham Lincoln himself.

In Chicago, Mayor Lori Lightfoot appointed a Monuments Project advisory committee to evaluate the city’s public statues, and the committee produced a list of 41 as possible candidates for removal.

The list includes five statues of Abraham Lincoln, as well as two of George Washington, one each of Benjamin Franklin and Ulysses S. Grant, and various French explorers, Civil War generals, generic Indians and other notables, plus plaques commemorating the first white settlers of the region.

The committee did not list Chicago’s statue of Stephen A. Douglas, Lincoln’s great opponent on the issue of slavery, but it said it might recommend other statues for removal later on.

The Indictment

The case against Abraham Lincoln is as follows.

During his whole political career, he never was an abolitionist.  In fact, he went out of his way to assure white Southerners that he had no intention of abolishing slavery where it was.

Instead he was a supporter of the Free Soil movement, which opposed adding new slave states to the Union.  The Republican Party was founded to support Free Soil

Some Free Soilers were abolitionists, but others were outright white racists and many didn’t care one way or the other about slavery in the South.  Their objection was to free workers having to compete with slave labor.

Lincoln in many of his public statements despaired of white people and black people living together peaceably with equal rights.

Like many others of his day, he hoped that black Americans could emigrate to Liberia, a quasi-independent African nation established by the USA for that purpose.

Once elected President, his priority was to save the Union, not to abolish slavery.

He only issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862 when the Confederacy seemed about to win recognition from Britain and France, as a means of rallying progressive world opinion to the Union side.

Even then, the proclamation only applied to areas under control of the Confederacy.  It freed not one slave in Maryland, Kentucky, Missouri or any other area under Union control.

The defense

Opposition to the spread of slavery was a big deal.  Both opponents and defenders of slavery believed that, without new territory for slave-worked plantation agriculture, slavery would die out in the USA.

That’s why, after Lincoln’s election, seven Southern states declared their independence before he was even inaugurated.

He did not try to entice these states back into the Union through compromise.  Instead he asserted federal authority by ordering the resupply of Fort Sumter in the harbor of Charleston, S.C.

His priority was to save the Union.  If the Union had not been preserved, there would have been no possibility of abolishing slavery.

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A sand sculpture of Abraham Lincoln today

May 31, 2019

This was the winning individual entry in the 2019 Texas Sand Sculpture Festival.  (Hat tip to Avedon’s Sideshow.)

Frederick Douglass on Abraham Lincoln

February 12, 2016

Abraham Lincoln was born this day in 1809.   Lincoln’s Birthday was a national holiday until it was absorbed by the meaningless “President’s Day”.

Some question Lincoln’s greatness.  I am not one of them.  The best and truest rebuttal to Lincoln’s critics by Frederick Douglass in an oration delivered at the unveiling of Freedman’s Monument in Lincoln Park in Washington, D.C., in 1876.

Here’s is the meat of the talk.

Abraham Lincoln was not, in the fullest sense of the word, either our man or our model. In his interests, in his associations, in his habits of thought, and in his prejudices, he was a white man.

Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass

He was preeminently the white man’s President, entirely devoted to the welfare of white men.  He was ready and willing at any time during the first years of his administration to deny, postpone, and sacrifice the rights of humanity in the colored people to promote the welfare of the white people of this country.  In all his education and feeling he was an American of the Americans.

He came into the Presidential chair upon one principle alone, namely, opposition to the extension of slavery.  His arguments in furtherance of this policy had their motive and mainspring in his patriotic devotion to the interests of his own race.  [snip]

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Abraham Lincoln’s Thanksgiving proclamation

November 27, 2014

Washington, D.C.

October 3, 1863

By the President of the United States of America.

A Proclamation.

The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies.

To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God.

Abraham_Lincoln_November_1863In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theater of military conflict; while that theater has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union.

Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defense, have not arrested the plow, the shuttle or the ship; the axe has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore.

Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom.

No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things.

They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.

It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People.

I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.

And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.

In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the Seal of the United States to be affixed.

Done at the City of Washington, this Third day of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the Independence of the United States the Eighty-eighth.

By the President: Abraham Lincoln

William H. Seward,Secretary of State

via Thanksgiving Proclamation by Abraham Lincoln.

Altgeld’s America and the America of today

November 20, 2014

During the Progressive Era around the turn of the last century, the big issues facing the USA were much the same as those facing us today—corporate monopoly, the attack on organized labor, political corruption, the tariff and free trade, and military intervention and imperialism.

altgeldsamerica11009944I recently finished reading a book about that era—Altgeld’s America, 1892-1905: The Lincoln Ideal versus Changing Realities by Ray Ginger—in hope that it would give me a new perspective.

Americans in that era—at least in the North—regarded Abraham Lincoln as our national ideal.  Lincoln was born into a poor family and, without money or much formal education, because a successful lawyer, striving politician and eventually President of the United States, the highest office in the land.  But he never forgot or disavowed his origins  He always identified himself with the experience and the interests of the common people, never with the elite.

Within a couple of generations after Lincoln’s death, the USA had become something he would not have recognized.  Lincoln came of age in a nation dominated, at least in the North, by independent farmers, craftsmen and merchants, and by employers who knew all their employees by name.

The USA at the turn of the 20th century was dominated by large corporations and political machines in which the individual had little place.  For many, all that remained of the Lincoln ideal was the belief that someone of humble origins could rise to great wealth.

John Peter Altgeld

John Peter Altgeld

John Peter Altgeld, the governor of Illinois from 1893 to 1897, came as close to embodying the Lincoln ideal as anyone of that era could.

Ginger used his career as a thread to tie together the whole story of reform in Chicago in that era, involving, among others, the lawyer Clarence Darrow, the radical labor leader Eugene V. Debs, the social worker Jane Addams, the social critic Thorstein Veblen, the educator and philosopher John Dewey, the novelist Theodore Dreiser and the architect Frank Lloyd Wright—all of them free individuals who sought the public good in an age of large corporations organized for private profit.

All I had known about Altgeld prior to reading this book, aside from a poem by Vachel Lindsay, was that he opposed the use of federal troops to break the Pullman strike in Chicago, and that he sacrificed his political career to pardon the innocent but hated Haymarket anarchists, convicted of the killing of a policeman based on no evidence except their anarchist beliefs.

Actually, those two facts tell what’s essential to know—that Altgeld, like Lincoln, may have been ambitious, but he put justice ahead of ambition.

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A true history of the Civil War

July 10, 2014

BATTLE CRY OF FREEDOM: The Civil War Era, by James M. McPherson (1988) emphasizes a key fact about the Civil War which some historians try to ignore—that the war was started by the South and fought in defense of slavery.

This book is a history of the struggle over slavery, in its social and political as well as military aspects, from the start of the Mexican War to the end of the Civil War.

The Mexican War itself was fought partly to expand the territory open to slavery (and was opposed by many Northern abolitionists for that reason); during the next decade, Southern politicians tried to expand slave territory by purchasing Cuba and by sponsoring private military expeditions to Cuba, Nicaragua and other countries.

Battle_Cry_of_Freedom_(book)_coverThe cause of the Civil War was the growing Northern opposition to the spread of slavery and the refusal of the South to tolerate any restrictions on slavery.  Although the Southern leaders’ rationale for secession was state’s rights, this was a secondary consideration.  They did not recognize state’s rights in regard to enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law and they endorsed the Dred Scott decision, which denied the right of a state to forbid slavery.

Some were more frank than others.  Alexander Stephens, the vice president of the Confederacy, said the U.S. Declaration of Independence was in error in saying all men are created equal.

“Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery … is his natural and normal condition,” Stephens said.  “This, our new government, is the first in the history of the world based on this great physical, philosophical and moral truth.”

The war was not initiated by the North to abolish slavery.  Abraham Lincoln’s position was that slavery was a great evil and should not be permitted to expand, but that the federal government had no Constitutional right to interfere with it where it existed.

This was not good enough for the Southern leaders, who saw in Lincoln’s platform a future threat to slavery.  Ironically, if the Southern states had not seceded, slavery would have endured for many years to come.

Subjugation of black people was a matter of principle for the Confederates.  Robert E. Lee refused to permit exchanges of prisoners of war, which would have been to his benefit militarily, because Lincoln insisted on black prisoners being included in the exchanges.

The Confederacy announced that captured black Northern soldiers would be sold into slavery; this was suspended only after Lincoln threatened to put equal numbers of white Southern troops to hard labor.

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The flag of Lincoln’s party

January 29, 2014

flag+of+lincoln's+party

Hat tip to jobsanger.

150th anniversary of Lincoln’s great speech

November 19, 2013

lincoln-gettysburg-1024x768_png_pagespeed_ic_ECzc1y9Dyz_zps6af61e0c

Today is the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, given Nov. 19, 1863, to commemorate the dedication of a cemetery for the Union soldiers who fell at the Battle of Gettysburg on July 1-3 of that year.

It is the best statement of the American political credo ever written except for the opening paragraphs of the Declaration of Independence.

§§§

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Abraham LincolnNow we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.  We are met on a great battle-field of that war.  We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live.  It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground.  The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.  The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. 

It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.   It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Abraham Lincoln

November 19, 1863

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An Abraham Lincoln photograph album

February 12, 2013

Abraham Lincoln is one of the few historical figures of whom, the more I learn about him, the more I respect him.

What strikes me about these photos is how adult Abraham Lincoln appears to be, even as a young man, compared with the leading politicians of today.

The greatness of Lincoln on film

November 29, 2012

I saw Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln movie during Thanksgiving week, and liked it a lot.   It was well-written, well-acted and well-staged, and so far as I can tell, broadly true to history. The movie focused on a few months in early 1865 when Lincoln pushed the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery, through Congress.  It showed the two sides of Lincoln, the cunning politician and the idealistic believer in freedom and democracy.  If Lincoln had been less of either, slavery would not have been abolished when and how it was.

An early scene showed two black Union soldiers talking to someone with his back turned; then the camera revealed the person to be Abraham Lincoln, whose expression of good-humored, kindly shrewdness showed Lincoln as I imagined him.  Daniel Day-Lewis is a splendid actor.  After watching him as Lincoln, it is hard to recall he played Bill the Butcher in Gangs of New York. 

Tommy Lee Jones was great as Thaddeus Stevens, the radical abolitionist Congressman, who is depicted as a man ahead of his time, as he was, instead of as a dangerous extremist, as he usually is shown.  Sally Field (no longer young and perky) gave a fine performance as the troubled Mary Todd Lincoln, as did David Strathairn as Secretary of State William Seward.

The movie provides much-needed push-back against revisionists who claim that Abraham Lincoln was a power-hungry opportunist who cared nothing about slavery.  There are two versions of this—a left-wing version that says Lincoln was a servant of capitalism and a right-wing version that says the Civil War was really about state’s rights.

The Southern leaders in fact only cared about state’s rights as a means of defending slavery.  They used the power of the federal government to override Northern states that harbored fugitive slaves.  It is true that Lincoln did not run for President as an abolitionist.  A Thaddeus Stevens could not have been elected.  Lincoln’s platform was to stop the spread of slavery into parts of the nation where it did not then exist.  This, he claimed, would lead to the gradual extinction of slavery.  The Southern leaders agreed.  They thought Lincoln such a threat that they led their states out of the Union.

Lincoln wrote a famous letter to Horace Greeley, saying his priority was to save the Union by any means necessary, whether that meant freeing the slaves, leaving them in bondage or freeing some and not freeing others.  This was a correct priority.   Emancipation of the slaves would have been meaningless if the Southern whites has established an independent slave nation.  But when he wrote this letter, the Emancipation Proclamation was in a desk drawer, awaiting a Union victory for Lincoln to issue it.

Critics of Lincoln said the Emancipation Proclamation, which referred only to slaves in areas then in rebellion, did not free a single slave.  This isn’t so.  Many slaves fled behind Union lines to freedom.  The Emancipation Proclamation was based on Lincoln’s claim of wartime authority to confiscate enemy property.  He did not have the authority under law to emancipate slaves generally on his own decision.  This required a Constitutional amendment, which, as the movie shows, he introduced in due course.

Emancipation of the slaves had political and strategic benefits.  It deprived the South of its work force and its moral claims.  Black troops added to the Union strength.  But it had its costs.  Northern whites were divided on this issue.  Southern whites were motivated to fight to the bitter end because emancipation meant an end to their way of life.  Without emancipation, the Confederates might have surrendered before Sherman’s march through Georgia and the rest of the physical devastation of the South.  Or a compromise peace might have been negotiated, as the movie indicates, and the war ended sooner, but with slavery intact.

Click on Lincoln: A More Authentic Wonderment for an appreciation of the movie in the New York Review of Books.

Click on Fact-Checking ‘Lincoln’: Lincoln’s Mostly Accurate, His Advisers Aren’t for historical background in The Atlantic.

“Make me do it”

March 23, 2010

When you think of Presidents we consider great progressive reformers, they were all being pressured by grass-roots movements to do better than they were.

President Abraham Lincoln was constantly attacked by abolitionists for making compromises on slavery in the interests of preserving the Union.  President Franklin D. Roosevelt was the most pro-labor union President in American history, but leaders of the CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations) did not cease to organize strikes just because they were politically embarrassing to FDR.  President Lyndon Johnson did more for civil rights of African-Americans than any other President except Lincoln and perhaps Grant, but that didn’t stop the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. from speaking out against the Vietnam War.

There are stories, possibly true and possibly not, of President Roosevelt or President John F. Kennedy meeting with progressive reformers, hearing them out, and then saying, “I agree with you.  Now go out and make me do it.”

I keep changing my mind about President Barack Obama.  Sometimes I think he is the kind of nice guy who doesn’t win ball games.  Sometimes I think he is a witting or unwitting tool of the business and political establishment. Sometimes I think he is doing the best that is humanly possible to bring about positive change within a dysfunctional system.

But even in the best case, progressive reformers do neither themselves nor President Obama any favors by sitting back and trusting him to do things. Even if in his heart he wants to do the right thing, he needs pressure from the grass roots to make him do it.

Washington’s Birthday

February 22, 2010

Today is the former holiday once known as Washington’s Birthday.  We Americans stopped taking note of it long before it was combined with Lincoln’s Birthday into the meaningless President’s Day.

When I was a boy, Abraham Lincoln was a living figure to me, but not George Washington.  Life in small-town Williamsport, Md., in the 1940s, even though we had radios and automobiles, was close enough to Lincoln’s that I could identify with him; today my life back then is almost as distant as Lincoln’s to the Twitter and Facebook generation.  I could identify with Lincoln’s warm humanity, but not Washington’s distant coldness.  Washington seemed more like an English country gentleman somehow transplanted to Virginia and enrolled in the American cause.

It wasn’t until late in life that I came to appreciate Washington’s true greatness.  I owe this mainly to two books, Founding Father: George Washington by Richard Brookhiser, and His Excellency, George Washington by Joseph J. Ellis.

Washington was not cold and emotionless.  He was man of haughty pride, fiery temper and strong passions, held in check by iron will and self-discipline.  He was a capable general and a capable President, but his true greatness lay in his character.  He staked everything, including his life, on the Revolutionary cause.  He held the Continental Army together in the darkest days of the Revolutionary War, including the winter at Valley Forge when the army lacked shelter, decent shoes, warm clothing and decent food.  In spite of all his frustrations with a sometimes incompetent and corrupt Congress, he never challenged civilian authority.

His greatest moment came at the end of the Revolutionary War, when the victorious former colonies seemed ready to disintegrate into chaos.  He could have made himself dictator, as so many other revolutionary leaders in the same situation have done, but he chose to return to Mount Vernon.  As President, he led a nation that was much more divided than it is now. He held it together by means of his prestige which he maintained through strict impartiality.

Washington was not a perfect person.  He was a slaveowner.  But he, along with Abraham Lincoln, are among the few people in American history of whom the more I learn about them, the more I respect them.  I become extremely irritated at TV advertisements for President’s Day sales, in which Washington and Lincoln are made figures of ridicule.  It is not so much that I object to joking about great individuals as that the cartoonish jokes are all there is.

Many of our patriotic holidays have lost their meaning.  On the Fourth of July, few people think of the meaning of the Declaration of Independence.  On Thanksgiving Day, many give thanks, but few think of the Mayflower Compact.  About the only meaningful patriotic holidays we have left are Martin Luther King Jr. Day, in which school children and others do think about the meaning of Dr. King’s life, and Memorial Day, when we do pay tribute to those who gave their lives in the nation’s wars. That’s a reason for celebrating these two holidays all the more.