Lincoln: Separating the Man from the Mythos
James Padilioni Jr
George Orwell, famed author of 1984, a prophetic book that becomes less fiction and more reality daily, once remarked, “He who controls the present, controls the past. He who controls the past, controls the future.” What Orwell meant was that the ruling elite who controls the status quo also has the power to shape our view of history. By controlling what information is acceptable for school textbooks, and setting the popular narrative of a historical event, they are able to then revise history to suit their particular agenda. Truly, if you control the present, and influence the telling of history, you can then use that history as a guide for the future. This has never been proven more true than when one looks at the mythos of Abraham Lincoln.
American civil religion remembers Abraham Lincoln in almost godlike dimensions. He is called “the Great Emancipator”, and school children often learn the story of “Honest Abe” walking several miles to return pennies to a customer he had shortchanged. The Lincoln Memorial, which calls itself a temple, is the most splendid of all the monuments dedicated to former presidents in Washington, DC, a town that is no stranger to deifying the memories of men. In fact the statue of Abraham Lincoln set within his temple measures an imposing 19′ sitting. In scale, he would stand 28′ tall! The 16th president of the United States is remembered, both figuratively and literally, in larger than life proportions.
This becomes a problem for true students of history, however, when one begins to look at the state of our country today. We have a juxtaposition of a supposed Constitutional, federal republic with its very limited and expressly delegated federal powers, and the honest reality of a massive, leviathan-sized, globe straddling empire of a government, with broad and ever expanding powers. How in the world do these two very different, yet both very real situations exist? Of course, the argument could be made that minarchism is a situation which can never really exist, because as Thomas Jefferson surmised, “the natural progress of things is for liberty to yield, and government to gain ground.” This argument is correct, and directly applicable in this situation, because in order to tell the historical record accurately, you must view Abraham Lincoln as the agent of that process in which liberty yields, and government inevitably gains ground.
There are three main points that need to be made about Abraham Lincoln, and the Civil War in general that will hopefully serve to clear up the historical record to some extent. Also, let me emphasize that the term “Civil War”, while popularly known, is not necessarily an accurate descriptor of what transpired between 1861-1865, with many favoring “War of Northern Aggression” instead. I understand this view, but will continue to use “Civil War” because that term is the most commonly understood and easily identifiable for most people. The points to be addressed are: 1) The Civil War had absolutely nothing to do with slavery, and as a result; 2) the view of Lincoln as Emancipator is greatly exaggerated and dishonest. 3) The ever expanding powers of the federal government can have its genesis traced to Abraham Lincoln.
As children, we are educated that slavery was a significant, if not the main factor in the Civil War. This is historical revisionism at its best, because it takes what is outwardly a truth, but presents it in such a distorted way that effectually it becomes a lie, and obscures the real truth. Let me start by saying that it would be intellectually dishonest to act as if there was not an internal struggle over the issue of slavery in the US. For 80 years before the outset of warfare, northern states starting with Pennsylvania had outlawed slavery. The Pennsylvania Abolition Society was formed as early as 1775. During the Federal Convention, the most vehement critics of the slave trade and slavery in general surprisingly were the delegates from Virginia, a state who’s entire economy was based upon slave labor. George Mason, Virginia patriot, declared that slavery “made tyrants of all men”. Yet, at the very hour Mason stood and spoke in Philadelphia, there were nearly 100 slaves working to increase his wealth on his plantation back along the Potomac River. Moving forward, slavery was absolutely a hot button issue in 1850′s America, as the life of abolitionist John Brown so accurately depicts. Brown was instrumental in both “Bleeding Kansas” and also the raid and attempted slave insurrection in 1859 in Harpers Ferry, VA (now WV, more on this to come).
However, the truth of the matter is that the Civil War was absolutely not fought over slavery. To understand how this is so, there are two pieces of evidence to consider. The first is the situation of high protective tariffs. In this pre-16th Amendment America, the federal government was funded solely through user fees, land sales, and tariffs. The southern economy, being largely agricultural, was highly dependent upon importing manufactured goods. This situation was something that all 13 original colonies shared, but as the new Republic developed, and the Industrial Revolution took off, the North, being less suited to agriculture, became a manufacturing powerhouse. The South then had a choice to make in importing its needed goods: continue to purchase goods from the British and French predominantly (as they had done since the colonial days) or purchase from the new northern manufacturers. In order to strongly coerce the South into doing business with the North exclusively, the federal government erected very high protective tariffs and limitations against imports. What this did was make it too expensive for the South to import goods from England or France, even if those goods were preferable, and created a monopoly in which the northern manufacturers received the majority of the South’s business. This situation is evidenced by the Nullification Crisis of 1832, in which South Carolina nullified the Tariffs of 1828 and 1832, with their near 50% average duty. The stalemate forced the hand of the federal government to lower the average rate to between 15 and 20% with the Tariff of 1833. This dispute was temporarily quieted, but not for long.
The Morill Tariff passed into law March 1861 was the final straw in the back of the South. Economist Thomas J. DiLorezo writes in a Mises.org article that the Morill Tariff increased the average tax rate from around 15% to 37.5%, while also greatly expanding the imports subject to it. The South rightly perceived that the forced tariff at the hands of the federal government, dominated by northern interests, was a tyranny upon their right to free trade. When SC seceded from the Union, followed by ten other states, the federal government had a very grave problem on its hands. Without the forced market of the South, the federal government’s tax revenues would plummet. The federal government was entirely dependent upon the tariff that was paid exclusively by southern imports. The federal government had two options: force the South to stay in the Union, and thereby keep the tax revenue, or watch the South freely trade with other nations, and eventually run out of money. The choice was clear for Abraham Lincoln. The Union was to be preserved above all costs.
Lincoln’s own words prove that for him, this was never about human rights, but about preservation of the Union. In his infamous August 1862 letter to NY Tribune editor Horace Greeley, Lincoln betrayed his true intentions for waging war:
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.
Further evidence of this is seen in the Joint Resolution on the War issued by Congress in 1861. “Resolved: . . . That this war is not being prosecuted upon our part in any spirit of oppression[...], nor purpose of overthrowing or interfering with the rights or established institutions of those states, but to[...] preserve the Union”. The federal government was not interested in freeing the slaves. They were only interested in keeping the South attached to the North and the tariff revenue that union provided. Let the true historical record show that the Civil War was not fought over slavery.
Secondly, as mentioned above, Lincoln was not motivated out of the concern for human rights in deciding what course to take. Even with his famed Emancipation Proclamation, the notion of him being a “Second Moses” is greatly exaggerated. If one looks at the Emancipation closely, you’ll discover a problem: “[...]all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free [...]”. The document is clear that the states “in rebellion” would have their slaves freed. However, if you were a slave in Delaware, Kentucky, Marlyand, or Missouri, slave-holding states that did not secede from the Union, you were not emancipated at all. In fact, for the first time in US history, slavery was actually officially recognized on the federal level. The Emancipation Proclamation drew the lines of slavery inclusively around the slaves in the border states, through an executive order. Great Emancipator? Hardly.
The last point to be addressed will show how Lincoln wrote the blueprint for the excess in government and tyranny that has become hallmarks of the American political system, and of the presidency in general. So much of the angst in our country today is over the intrusion of the federal government into our personal lives. We are touched by government everyday in more ways than we can imagine. In no particular order, I will just list off some of the actions of President Lincoln that put us on the slippery slope to where we are today.
1. Violation of Article 4 Section 4 that compelled the federal government to protect the states from invasion. Here the federal government was the invasion force.
2. Arrest and detainment without trial of the Maryland Legislature to prevent a vote on secession.
3. Conversely, supporting the secession of WV from VA, and recognizing the reorganized government of Virginia as legitimate despite the fact that it was not popularly elected.
4. Suspension of habeus corpus. Imprisonment and detainment of thousands of dissidents, including newspaper editors and even Congressman Clement Vallandigham of Ohio.
5. Established the first direct income tax in 1862.
Much of what Lincoln did during the course of the Civil War was repeated and expanded in later years. As historian James G. Randall notes in his book Constitutional Problems under Lincoln, “it would not be easy to state what Lincoln conceived to be the limit of his powers.” Perhaps a more appropriate moniker for Lincoln would be the “Great Tyrant”.
In Murray Rothbard’s War, Peace, and the State war is described as such:
“It is in war that the State really comes into its own: swelling in power, in number, in pride, in absolute dominion over the economy and the society. Society becomes a herd, seeking to kill its alleged enemies, rooting out and suppressing all dissent from the official war effort, happily betraying truth for the supposed public interest.”
Never was this more truly demonstrated than in the case of the Civil War. The federal government greatly increased its powers over the states and the citizens as a direct result of the war. Where the South was devastated by its effects, the federal government emerged stronger and more haughty than ever. As a condition of allowing the states back into the Union (that they created in the first place) the state constitutions of the former Confederacy were forced to be rewritten, in order to specifically outlaw secession (proof that secession was not illegal in 1861). The federal government had waged a war to gain power, control, and revenue, and it made sure that this power gained would be permanent.
The purpose of history is to have a full understanding of the actions of man. It is only by truly understanding where we have been and the mistakes we have made along the way that we can move forward in a wiser fashion. However, when history is told with myopic lenses, the lessons we draw from it are flawed. As the lessons are flawed, so is the application of those lessons to our present time. The history of Abraham Lincoln, and what occurred in America during 1861-1865 should serve as a stark reminder on how dangerous and blunt the arm of government can be. As a result of President Lincoln’s actions, over 600,000 Americans lost their lives, the bloodiest war in US history. This is no trifling matter. We are doomed to repeat the same mistakes if we are not aware of what those actual mistakes were. And I would argue that we are in the process of duplication as you read this article.
The veneration of corrupt men as demigods in the secular, civil religion of American history is not only inaccurate, but it is nefarious and shameful. The point of this article isn’t to be provocative, or to just flame-throw. I am not anti-American, or pro-slavery, or anything else one might try to read into my words. I am, however, very deeply interested in truth. Truth will only be achieved by erasing mythos out of American history. Literature has plenty of fictional heroes, the stuff of legend. An American history textbook should have no such characters.