The Lincoln We Need


By: Warner Todd Huston

These last 20 or so years has seen a bifurcated treatment of Abraham Lincoln. There are the enthusiasts and hagiographers that still revere him as the best that America has to offer — the proverbial great emancipator, Father Abraham. Then there is a second stream, enthusiasts of another sort, viewing the Civil War president in the opposite manner. That second group are the Lincoln haters. Those such as Thomas DiLorenzo, the sort that calls Lincoln a criminal and despot, and Henry Louis Gates Jr., the sort that castigates Honest Abe as an unremitting racist, have been joined by a small group of Lincoln detractors trying to convince America that Lincoln is to be discounted, even hated by history.

So, which Lincoln is the Lincoln? Is he the Lincoln of “the great emancipator” or the Lincoln of the “great despot” and which Lincoln is the one we as Americans should know?

In truth he is all and neither of the two views in current, popular memory. He is neither the vision of the Constitution destroying, negro hating man the detractors wish to foster, nor the spotless demi-god that the hagiographers want to claim as theirs. Yes he did single things that pulled out of context to the whole of the man are both racist and despotic. He was a man, flawed and imperfect to be sure, but he was also one so singularly radical and ahead of his time that I believe we should lean towards reverence as opposed to despising the 16th president.

In fact, Abraham Lincoln, warts and all, is the sort of man we truly need to study in detail in this time of ours. His example, his reverence for the law and human dignity, above all his nuance and scholarship, is something that we need to emulate today.

Gates, for his part, would have you believe that Lincoln was a racist that had little interest in the negro. Gates focuses on Lincoln’s dalliance with deporting (or exporting as the case may be) all blacks from America’s shores as the solution to the race problem in America. Lincoln floated this idea to Congress, expressing the hope that Congress could fund such an effort. Lincoln also posited that the U.S. government might refund the value of slaves to southern slaveholders so these blacks could then be shipped off to some colony in Africa. Congress flatly refused the plan.

Gates would point to the many times that Lincoln called blacks “nigger” in his public speeches and the Lincoln-Douglas debates and Gates would present this as proof of Lincoln’s latent “racism.” Gates would also recount the many times that Lincoln said that he didn’t think black people were the physical or mental equal to whites. All this, Gates would say, proves Lincoln’s racist sentiment toward the black man.

All this is true. In the glaring lights of today’s sentiment on what constitutes racism, Lincoln could easily be dismissed as no better than the worst member of the KKK. Some detractors even go so far as to say that Lincoln “didn’t care” about slavery. But this is simply an outright lie. In his papers, Lincoln used the words slave or slavery some 14,000 times. During his Cooper Union speech, the one that arguably made him a national figure, Lincoln attacked slavery and he was well known as an anti-slave man.

So there’s that nuance I mentioned. In fact, when measured by the sentiment of his day Lincoln proves to be a radical in his views of the black man, a radical that would make of him the exact opposite of a “racist.”

During the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates Lincoln said the following:

This declared indifference, but, as I must think, covert real zeal for the spread of slavery, I cannot but hate. I hate it because of the monstrous injustice of slavery itself. I hate it because it deprives our republican example of its just influence in the world-enables the enemies of free institutions, with plausibility, to taunt us as hypocrites-causes the real friends of freedom to doubt our sincerity, and especially because it forces so many really good men amongst ourselves into an open war with the very fundamental principles of civil liberty-criticizing the Declaration of Independence, and insisting that there is no right principle of action but self-interest.

But it wasn’t just slavery he was against. He was also against the idea that blacks were chattel and had no human rights. He also said the following in this passage recorded during the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates:

“… I, as well as Judge Douglas, am in favor of the race to which I belong, having the superior position. I have never said anything to the contrary, but I hold that notwithstanding all this, there is no reason in the world why the negro is not entitled to all the natural rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence, the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I hold that he is as much entitled to these as the white man. I agree with Judge Douglas, he is not my equal in many respects — certainly not in color, perhaps not in moral or intellectual endowments. But in the right to eat the bread, without leave of anybody else, which his own hand earns, he is my equal and the equal of Judge Douglas and the equal of every living man.”

Here Lincoln acknowledges to his white audience that perhaps the black man is not his equal in “intellectual endowments” and the white should be “superior” — in his day this was a strange equivocation, the “perhaps” a dangerous idea. To us, though, it is an outrageously racist sentiment. But one must remember that in 1858 even science did not dispute that the white man was the superior of the black. Today we claim science to be the supreme judge of what “is.” Well, in 1858 “is” meant that blacks were less than whites. Lincoln was bowing to both public sentiment and the accepted scientific facts of his day. We should judge him on that, not on today’s sentiment.

Still, the rest of this quote from the debates shows Lincoln to be far more radical, even in his day, in how he viewed the black man. To claim that a black man deserves the freedom to enjoy the fruits of his own labor was a radical departure from the sentiment of his day. Even science seemed to oppose it.

Further, we also must realize that this is early, pre-war Lincoln. As the war years dragged on, Abraham Lincoln’s views on blacks had grown toward an even more radical form. He had met with and was impressed by famed black leader Frederick Douglas during the war. He had also moved to put blacks in the U.S. military and was surprised and pleased by the conduct of those troops.

In his last open air speech just prior to his assassination he even declared that blacks might be afforded the right to vote, at least the soldiers who earned that right with their service and the “the very intelligent Negroes” that could be found. This was such a radical idea that John Wilkes Booth, one of those in the audience listening to what would be Lincoln’s last speech, would end the life of the 16th president only a few days later.

So, it simply cannot be said that Abraham Lincoln was a blatant racist uncaring about the negro in America.

But what of the other charge, that of being the destroyer of the Republic, the “great despot” and his evisceration of the Constitution? Didn’t he imprison many hundreds of American citizens for “disloyalty”? Didn’t he suspend habeas corpus? Didn’t he do all sorts of unconstitutional things during the war?

Without question, he did.

But, again we come to nuance. One of Lincoln’s most excoriated actions was his order suspending the writ of habeas corpus (the right of the citizen not to be subjected to arbitrary arrest but to be afforded due process of the law). It is claimed the suspension was unconstitutional and evidence of his despotic temperament. Of Lincoln’s most famous quotes on this subject, though, we can see nuance even as he evinced anguished frustration. (found in Lincoln’s message to Congress in Special Session, July 4, 1861)

Are all the laws, but one, to go unexecuted, and the government itself to go to pieces, lest that one be violated?

Nearly every wartime president we’ve had found the need to take some emergency liberties with the comfort of long deliberations of the law. The nature of our Republic has seen the pendulum swing back to rights in most cases. Lincoln did it. Wilson did it. FDR did it. LBJ did it. Even George W. Bush did it. Were they each to have allowed the country to fall because of a single law to be observed? There is a saying that holds that the Constitution is not a suicide pact and this should be a seminal consideration in times of emergency. This does not excuse any and all actions of a president based merely on his claim of “emergency.” But to remove all flexibility from the chief executive, on the other hand, is just as dangerous to the safety of this nation.

We should also focus here on the fact that the Constitution does provide for the suspension of habeas. Unfortunately, that great document neglects to spell out in detail exactly how that process might play out. While the notation is in Article I, it could be assumed that the power belongs to Congress, not the president. Still, it should also be remembered that Congress retroactively approved Lincoln’s move.

At length, Lincoln’s detractors point to his suspension of habeas as proof of his despotism. They claim that the law meant nothing to him. Yet, on the other hand, these same people point to Lincoln’s initial refusal to abolish slavery as proof of his “racism” when, in truth, it was Lincoln’s observance of the same Constitution detractors claim he hated that kept Lincoln form ending slavery by fiat. Lincoln haters try to have it both ways.

In 1862 Lincoln famously wrote to newspaper man Horace Greeley (later presidential candidate of the Democratic Party) that he would leave slaves in chains if it helped save the Union.

I would save the Union. I would save it the shortest way under the Constitution. The sooner the national authority can be restored; the nearer the Union will be “the Union as it was.” If there be those who would not save the Union, unless they could at the same time save slavery, I do not agree with them. If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time destroy slavery, I do not agree with them. 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. I shall do less whenever I shall believe what I am doing hurts the cause, and I shall do more whenever I shall believe doing more will help the cause. I shall try to correct errors when shown to be errors; and I shall adopt new views so fast as they shall appear to be true views.

Lincoln knew he did not have the Constitutional power to free the slaves merely because he said so. He knew he was limited in his powers. Yet, he also issued the Emancipation Proclamation that freed slaves in rebelling sections of the country. This was the first foot in the door that allayed to the federal government the power to control slavery. It was but a first step to eradicating slavery completely. In all his focus was on the Constitution, what it meant, what the founders meant when they wrote it, how it should guide our actions.

In fact, he based his entire stand against slavery on what the founders “meant” when they wrote the Constitution. Lincoln began his Cooper Union speech quoting Senator Douglas who said, “Our fathers, when they framed the Government under which we live, understood this question just as well, and even better, than we do now.”

Lincoln then went on to predicate his ideas on what could be done about slavery in 1860 on what the founders did in 1787.

I fully indorse this, and I adopt it as a text for this discourse. I so adopt it because it furnishes a precise and an agreed starting point for a discussion between Republicans and that wing of the Democracy headed by Senator Douglas. It simply leaves the inquiry: “What was the understanding those fathers had of the question mentioned?”

He carried this ideal through to his every move basing all his actions on the pretext of Constitutional thought. In fact, Lincoln’s papers reveal a president that considered his actions against the back drop of Constitutional originalism more than just about any other president ever.

At Gettysburg in 1863, Lincoln reminded us of our national charge to keep. “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,” he began. He finished renewing that sacred charge: “…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.” Lincoln was guided by that national birthright. So should we be.

Lincoln was no angel by any means. He liked a low joke. He called people names. He was often morose and moody. He had marital difficulties. But we cannot view Lincoln under a microscope of any particular failing without remembering the whole of the man measured against his own time, based on his actions and those of his contemporaries.

If we do that, we’ll find a man that does, indeed, rise above his countrymen. We’ll find a man that can be a shining example for the ages. We’ll find the Lincoln that we need. And on this 200th anniversary of his birthday, it is something that befits us to do.

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