Would Lincoln be smiling now?

November 11, 2008


By Scott McPherson

It has been said that truth is the first casualty of war. It has also been said that war is politics by other means. So it seems appropriate that in both war and politics, truth will suffer.

Case in point is the Opinion page of the Nov. 6 issue of the Portsmouth Herald, which showed the memorialized Abraham Lincoln smiling. No comment or caption was offered, but the inference was unmistakable: "Honest Abe" would be happy about Tuesday’s election results, which propelled a black man to the White House for the first time in our nation’s history.

The word "vacuous" was thrown around over the last several months to describe the slogans of a certain presidential candidate, yet it is precisely the emptiness of promises that make them so psychologically appealing. A virtual tabula rosa allows people to project their own desires, aspirations, hopes, dreams, and visions onto their chosen favorite. The distance from reality is unimportant; what matters is that people feel as if they’re getting a good guy.

Abraham Lincoln has that kind of appeal. Historians simplistically sum up the "civil war" as "good versus bad" or "freedom versus slavery" — with Lincoln as "The One."

The truth is, the roots of the conflict went back decades, and were complex.

Early on there was trouble: The Constitution gave Congress the authority to collect taxes through tariffs, but such tariffs would exist to raise revenue and "provide for the … General welfare" — not as a means to enriching one group at the expense of another. The 1828 Tariff of Abominations was considered so egregious that South Carolina nullified the law. The writing was on the wall.

Side by side with an escalating national debate on slavery was continued frustration over tariffs. Southerners wanted low tariffs to encourage imports and keep export prices low.

Northern industrialists wanted high tariffs to protect them from overseas competition. Their champion was the arch-protectionist Abraham Lincoln. Two days before Lincoln’s inauguration, the Senate passed the Morrill Tariff (the House had passed it the year before) which would raise the average tariff rate from about 15 percent to 37.5 percent, and called for a further increase to over 47 percent! No one doubted that Lincoln would sign it into law.

Lincoln’s opposition to slavery was superficial. During an 1858 debate with Stephen Douglas, he said, "when (slave owners) remind us of their constitutional rights, I acknowledge them, not grudgingly but fully and fairly." (Emphasis added) Lincoln also supported the Fugitive Slave Law. Any mass emancipation of slaves, in Lincoln’s view, should result in their being deported to Africa or Latin America where they could establish their own countries — not live as equals with American whites.

In his first inaugural address, Lincoln promised that "I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists." Furthermore, he noted approvingly that Congress was then considering a constitutional amendment — ironically, it would have been the 13th — that would provide additional protections for slavery.

Many Lincoln idolaters point to the Emancipation Proclamation as a great moral triumph. Yet this military order applied only to those states that were in "rebellion" — slavery in states not in rebellion went untouched. Lincoln the opportunist admitted later that "(the war) had gone from bad to worse … we had about played our last card … I now determined upon the adoption of the emancipation policy." Lincoln was playing politics with slavery. His other strong-arm tactics included ordering the arrests of state legislators, newspaper editors, and even an Ohio congressman who spoke out against the war.

When Lincoln received news that Fort Sumter had surrendered, his first response was not concern for the slaves. On the contrary, he exclaimed, "What then will become of my tariff?" This admission gives great import to Charles Dickens’ observation in 1861 that "The quarrel between the North and South is … a fiscal quarrel." The issue of slavery, while present and important, was not really important to Abraham Lincoln. He was a quintessential 19th century white separatist who wanted to protect his northern industrial bosses, not address the plight of enslaved blacks in America. If alive today, Lincoln would not be smiling come Inauguration Day 2009.

It’s possible for Americans to recognize the historic importance of this election without skewing historic fact. At the same time, let us hesitate before investing another president with saint-like status just because he makes us feel good about ourselves.

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