Looking for Lincoln…Through Southern Conservative Eyes – A Critique of the PBS Program

Commentary by Frank Conner

Editor’s Note: PBS first broadcast this new documentary entitled Looking for Lincoln beginning on Feb. 11, 2009.

    "You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free." –John 8:32

While writing a history of the South (published in 2002), I spent several years researching the life of Lincoln; and as the result, I formed some fairly-detailed conclusions about his true nature. Thus, when Jeff Davis announced that PBS would shortly be airing a documentary about Lincoln, and that his SCV Public Relations & Media Committee had somehow managed to get incorporated into it what Jeff believed would be a positive representation of the SCV, I was fascinated; and I watched the program with big round eyes. I did not record the program, but I am reviewing it the next day, and am herein dealing only with broad points raised or omitted.

Part 1. The Players

In this PBS program, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. would interview various Lincoln scholars and others with an interest in Lincoln to ask if he had really been the great champion of the blacks as is universally advertised. I was sharpening my knife in anticipation. Professor Gates, who runs various programs relating to “Afro-American” studies at Harvard, and has written a number of books, has always epitomized for me the archetypal enemy of everything that I hold dear. He always demanded that black history largely supplant white history in the mainstream venues–—and, of course, that is what has been happening.

But lo! in much of this program, Mr. Gates actually played it straight! He talked with a number of Lincoln scholars, and all but one of them would first recite the conventional wisdom about some particular action of Lincoln, and then would actually tell the truth about it. So the viewer was given a choice—–a first for PBS in dealing with race relations. The main exception to that was Doris Kearns Goodwin, the popular biographer of FDR and Eleanor, the Kennedys, LBJ, and Lincoln. She remained a pure liberal-propagandist to the end, relentlessly twisting every related element of history to beautify socialism’s great hero, Lincoln.

To top off this otherwise totally unexpected chain of events, I was dumbfounded when this PBS show took an all-too-quick but very positive look at the SCV and its views. Its members were viewed as real live human beings with intelligent viewpoints. Whenever PBS, or the TV media in general, have examined the SCV in the past, it was always with extreme disgust; and if at all possible, they would focus upon the scruffiest and least-articulate member of the SCV they could find. I don’t know how much footage of the SCV was originally shot for this program, but I have nothing but admiration for the SCV’s PR & media people for persuading PBS to include the SCV in the program, and present it in a good light. I believe that the SCV has quite a formidable collection of talent there—which I hope will be employed to maximum advantage in the future.

Part 2. The Revelation

The main part of the Lincoln myth that PBS has seen fit to demolish via this program is the conventional wisdom that the “Civil War” (they still lie about the true nature of the war by giving it that deliberately false title) was fought solely to end slavery. Mr. Gates and the Lincoln scholars make the point that Lincoln (like most other whites of his day) considered the slaves to be a vastly inferior race who shortly before had been savages running around in the wilds of Africa; and that there was no way they could now live as the equals of whites in the U.S. As a personal matter, Lincoln wanted to free the slaves and then ship all the blacks off to some other country. But he did not want to plunge his country into war just to free the slaves.

Politically, however, Lincoln sought to prevent the addition of any more slave states to the U.S. He feared that the slaveholders would have an economic advantage over individual white farmers or craftsmen; and he considered that intolerable. The abolitionists considered Lincoln a great coward.

This PBS group of Lincoln historians raises the point—although very vaguely–—that the War of Northern Aggression was actually fought over economics, not slavery. And they point out that Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation (which did not actually free any slaves) with great trepidation, fearing that many of the Union soldiers would stop fighting if they thought that the war was really about slavery. (However, they do not mention the huge riots that took place in New York and other big cities, and the big drop in morale in the Union Army, that occurred when Lincoln issued his proclamation–—even though he had done so with many winks and nudges, to say, “Hey, home folks, don’t take this seriously; it is intended solely for foreign consumption.”

    "The Northern onslaught upon slavery was no more than a piece of specious humbug designed to conceal its desire for economic control of the Southern states." –Charles Dickens, 1862

    "The Union government liberates the enemy’s slaves as it would the enemy’s cattle, simply to weaken them in the conflict. The principle is not that a human being cannot justly own another, but that he cannot own him unless he is loyal to the United States." –The London Spectator on the Emancipation Proclamation

These historians do mention that during the war, Lincoln, having wrapped himself in the flag, became a dictator. He shut down America’s most prized guarantor of liberty, the process of habeas corpus; he set up military tribunals to try those civilians who did not support his war (i.e., hapless Northern Democrats); and he closed down hundreds of Northern newspapers that did not agree with his viewpoints.

Part 3. The Omissions

When discussing Lincoln’s early years, the historians do cover the fact that he was subject to periods of deep depression. However, they do not mention that when–—at age ten–—Lincoln was milling a load of corn at a grist mill, he was kicked in the head by the mule turning the mill, and he remained unconscious throughout that night. The miller, thinking that Lincoln was dying, sent for his father. Later, Lincoln’s contemporaries noted that while in conversation, Lincoln would often become silent, stare fixedly straight ahead for a lengthy period, then snap out of it and resume the conversation.

William Herndon, Lincoln’s law partner, wrote: “Mr. Lincoln was a peculiar, mysterious man with a double consciousness, a double life.” Judge David E. Davis, who served as Lincoln’s campaign manager in 1860, said that he was “the most reticent, secretive man I ever saw or hoped to see.” These were the men who were closest to Lincoln! The point here is that Lincoln did not confide in others or seek their friendship; he lived his life by pitting himself against the rest of the world; and he was fully prepared to continue in that role as the president. And it was his desire and ability to function almost as a one-man presidential administration that made him so very formidable. This is an extremely important point, and the failure of these historians to emphasize it properly is a glaring error.

The “Looking for Lincoln” program does mention that the war likely occurred because of economics, not slavery, and it also mentions that the war began at Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor; but these historians carefully avoid telling us precisely who started it, and why, and how. Evidently we are supposed to accept the conventional wisdom that the South started the war by firing first, on Fort Sumter.

    Editor’s Note: Also omitted is the fact that Charleston batteries fired on the U.S. resupply ship Star of the West some weeks earlier and without any formal complaint or trumpeting in the Northern press. Each side knew and understood that any further resupply or reinforcement of the fort would be seen as an act of war.

In my preceding piece with this same title, I explained that the lawful secession of the Southern states had come as a great and unexpected shock to the North, and it threatened to cause Northern capitalists severe financial losses. The capitalists blamed Lincoln for their dilemma. Lincoln had been a dark-horse candidate; following his election, he was politically very vulnerable; those capitalists constituted his primary power-base; and he desperately needed their continued support–if he were to succeed in office and gain a second term. Therefore he would have to conquer the South in war and drag it back into the Union.

However, neither the Congress nor the Army wanted a war with the South. Here is where Lincoln’s ability to function so well as a loner came into play. He outmaneuvered the disapproving Congress by secretly ordering Navy warships to deliver heavy troop reinforcements to Fort Sumter (when everyone else wanted to evacuate the Union troops already there), and then by handing the Confederates an ultimatum while the ships were still at sea–—leaving the C.S.A. no practical alternative except to fire upon and capture the fort before the warships arrived. It was Lincoln who had committed the decisive act of war, because the aggressor in a war is not the first who uses force, but the first who renders force necessary.

And then, knowing that Congress would see through his move and probably refuse to declare war against the C.S.A. on that basis, Lincoln dug up a 1795 law permitting the president to order troops to put down small insurrections, and then he declared the lawfully-conceived Confederate States of America to be an “insurrection” against the U.S. government; and he unconstitutionally called up vast armies and sent them to invade and conquer the South. When he finally called a special session of Congress (July 1861), his war was well under way, and Congress had no option but to rubberstamp his actions. Lincoln had started his war almost singlehandedly.

    Editor’s Note: Lincoln’s call for 75,000 volunteers (published April 15, 1861) to invade the Southern states and return them to the Union directly led four more states to secede— Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina, Tennessee—they took a stand against immoral coercion and for their own liberties.

This train of events casts Lincoln in a very different light than does the conventional wisdom about the cause and beginning of the war; but the Lincoln historians remain silent about all of that in this two-hour program.

Part 4. The Continued Lie

Professor Gates and the Lincoln historians here discard the traditional official storyline that Lincoln had championed the blacks all along, and that after the South started the war, Lincoln waged it solely to free the slaves and give them the vote. These historians have now developed a storyline saying that after Lincoln began to fight because of motivations other than freeing the slaves, gradually he began to see the error of his ways. He issued the Emancipation Proclamation at least partly out of concern for the slaves (but the historians do also give more-realistic reasons for his Emancipation Proclamation). By the time of the Battle of Gettysburg, he was a True Believer; and after that, he urged the nation to free the slaves purely out of moral concern. Well, no; that is not what happened..

    " You, and others like you have done more, according to your abilities, to prevent the peaceful abolition of slavery, than any other men in the nation….in your pretended zeal for liberty, you have been urging on the nation to the most frightful destruction of human life" and "through a series of years, betrayed the very citadel of liberty, which you were under oath to defend." ….

[There has been] "no other treason at all comparable with this." —Abolitionist Lysander Spooner, in a letter to Radical Republican Charles Sumner about the Lincoln regime and Republican party

Most serious historians will agree that the best book about the politics of that war is Ludwell Johnson’s North Against South: An American Illiad. But they almost never refer to it while talking about the war. Johnson’s key point about Lincoln’s politics (as Thomas DiLorenzo also points out) is that Lincoln was not a Republican; he was a Whig. Big difference.

The Whig party wanted to convert the U.S. from a decentralized federal-republic (as laid out by the U.S. Constitution), in which each state was free to establish its own priorities, into a nation-state with an all-powerful central government. As their first big move, the Whigs wanted to use that government to tax the citizenry heavily to speed up the industrialization of the U.S. They did not care one way or the other about slavery. Nevertheless, the Whig party broke up in 1854 because of regional differences between its Northern and Southern wings, resulting from the regions’ conflicting views about slavery.

Along came the (Northern-based) Republican party, which picked up the Northern Whigs, but also the Free-Soilers and the abolitionists. The Republicans were still interested in consolidating power in a national government, but they were more interested in arresting or ending slavery in the U.S.    Lincoln the Whig joined the Republican party because it was then the only game in town for him. But as the president, Lincoln did not even call his party the Republican party; he called it the Union party.

The wartime U.S. Congress was dominated by the newly-elected Radical Republicans. They soon saw that if the North won the war, they would soon be out of a job. After the war, the Northern and Southern wings of the Democratic party would reunite, and then they would badly outnumber the (Northern) Republicans. But if—–after the war–—the Republicans could free the Southern slaves and give them the (Republican) vote; and if they could force a military occupation of the postwar South to prevent the Southern Democrats from voting (i.e., via Reconstruction), the Republicans would then outnumber the Democrats after the war, and they could keep control over the federal government into the distant future (as actually happened).

Accordingly, the Radical Republican Congress demanded that Lincoln change the primary focus of the war from “preserving the Union” to “ending slavery”–—so as to prepare the Northern public for what would happen after the war. Unaccountably (to the Radical Republicans), Lincoln refused.

Lincoln had his own postwar plans–—as evidenced by the fact that as soon as the North would conquer a Southern state, Lincoln (who could do so using his “war powers”) would arrange for that state to be readmitted to the Union as quickly as possible, under favorable terms, with a state government consisting largely of local Cotton Whigs (the Southern wing of the pre-war Whig party). It seems evident that Lincoln intended to resurrect both wings of the Whig party after the war (with himself at its head, of course), strongly enough to outnumber the Democrats. Having won the war, the Northern Whigs would then have no reason to remain in the Republican party, if given the choice. Lincoln would leave the Radical Republicans to wither on the vine.

The Republicans weren’t quite sure what was going on, but they knew that Lincoln was blocking their plans. A battle royal between Lincoln and the Radical Republicans ensued behind the scenes–—for control of the war, control of the U.S., and control of the postwar South. Ludwell Johnson recounts the details of that no-holds-barred struggle in his book. (I recap them in my book, The South Under Siege 1830 – 2000.) It’s quite a story. For a long time, Lincoln singlehandedly outmaneuvered the Radical Republicans—–in most cases preempting Congress’s legitimate powers.

But the Radicals had an ace in the hole: wartime atrocity propaganda. Throughout the war, the U.S. Sanitary Commission and the Liberty Leagues invented out of whole cloth reams of tales about the torture and mutilation of Union soldiers by Confederates on the battlefields and later in the prisoner-of-war camps, and handed them to the Northern news-media, which printed them verbatim. Gradually this false propaganda infuriated the Northern public against the South so badly that toward the end of the war, the Northern public began to demand that the Southern slaves be freed, so the white Southerners could be punished suitably by being forced to live on terms of equality with the freed blacks.

Lincoln–—the perfect politician–—realized that the Radical Republicans had taken that hand; so toward the end of 1864 he proposed the adoption of the Thirteenth Amendment, to free the slaves. No one knows what Lincoln’s next move against the Radical Republicans would have been—–except that surely there would have been one, and it would probably have been another dazzler; but before he could make it, he was assassinated.

Basically, the blacks really owe their blood-purchased freedom to the Radical Republican Congress, not to Lincoln (abolition was inevitable regardless). And the noble cause for which they were freed and given the vote was to perpetuate the Republicans in power in Washington. Not a hint of this is mentioned by the Lincoln historians in the two-hour PBS TV program, “Looking for Lincoln.” Instead, in their new storyline as described by Professor Gates, Lincoln the initial cynic gradually becomes a True Believer in black civil-rights.

    Claremont’s [Lincoln] court historians have spent decades performing intellectual somersaults to "explain" why Lincoln supposedly had to destroy the Constitution in order to save it; why he opposed equality but believed that "all men are created equal"; how a "great humanitarian" could micromanage a vicious and bloody war on civilians for four long years; how he "saved" the Union by destroying its voluntary nature; and myriad other myths. —Thomas DiLorenzo, from his essay "Claremont’s Court Historians"

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