Critical Look at Lincoln
by Kathryn Jean Lopez
ow can the same people who vigorously support indicting Serbian leaders for war crimes also claim that Lincoln was a great American president?
Lincoln bears ultimate responsibility for how the North chose to fight the Civil War. The attitude of some of the Northern commanders paralleled those of Bosnian Serb commanders more than many contemporary Americans would like to admit.
In a September 17, 1863, letter to the War Department, Gen. William Sherman wrote: "The United States has the right, and ... the ... power, to penetrate to every part of the national domain. We will remove and destroy every obstacle if need be, take every life, every acre of land, every particle of property, everything that to us seems proper." President Lincoln liked Sherman's letter so much that he declared that it should be published.
On June 21, 1864, before his bloody March to the Sea, Sherman wrote to the secretary of war: "There is a class of people [in the South] men, women, and children, who must be killed or banished before you can hope for peace and order." How would U.N. war crimes investigators react if Slobodan Milosevic had made this comment about ethnic Albanians?
On October 9, 1864, Sherman wrote to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant: "Until we can repopulate Georgia, it is useless to occupy it, but the utter destruction of its roads, houses, and people will cripple their military resources." Sherman lived up to his boast and left a swath of devastation and misery that helped plunge the South into decades of poverty.
General Grant used similar tactics in Virginia, ordering his troops "make all the valleys south of the Baltimore and Ohio railroad a desert as high up as possible."
The Scorched Earth tactics the North used made life far more difficult for both white and black survivors of the Civil War.
Lincoln was blinded by his belief in the righteousness of federal supremacy. The abuses and tyranny that he authorized set legions of precedents that subverted the vision of government the Founding Fathers bequeathed to America.
be Lincoln was neither saint nor devil but rather a melancholic railroad lawyer with many attractive personal qualities, foremost his expertly deployed folksy humor. I share in the general admiration of his prose style, though it is instructive to read his law partner William Herndon's claim that Lincoln (like Adlai Stevenson and George W. Bush, among other political intellectuals) never read a book all the way through.
Lincoln's presidency was a disaster for the republic, as he carried out the domestic program favored by northern capital and fathered a nationalism conceived in blood. His contempt for constitutional limitations on presidential power can only be called Rooseveltian. I suppose I would have voted for Stephen Douglas in 1860, though Douglas had cast his beady imperialist eye on the Caribbean, while Lincoln, to his credit, had courageously denounced the dishonorable Mexican War. Our country's failure to emancipate the African slaves peacefully, promptly, and in a manner consistent with decentralist principles in other words, in a Jeffersonian fashion (and no Sally Hemings jokes, please) is the great tragedy of American history. Slaughter and statism freed the slaves...was there no better way, Father Abraham?
always thought that John C. Calhoun was right about secession...and Lincoln was wrong. But I'm glad Lincoln was wrong, and won.
braham Lincoln’s presidency, on balance, diminished rather than enhanced American freedom.
Lest anyone accuse me of regional bias, particularly given my Confederate general namesake, let me state right off the bat that my father’s people were from the North Carolina mountains where secession was unpopular and many joined Lincoln’s party during the war. I have ancestors on both sides of the conflict. Furthermore, I grant that, in the end, it was a just war in that it ended the scourge of slavery.
Still, it was probably unnecessary. Lincoln precipitated war not by seeking an end to slavery which would have at least been a just cause, if not one for which a bloody war was the proper solution but by basing much of his presidential campaign around a proposal to double the federal tariff.
You have to understand how seriously Southerners took tax policy. South Carolina had almost seceded in 1832 over the issue. Because the South exported about three-quarters of its goods and used much of the proceeds to purchase European goods, it shouldered a disproportionate share of federal taxes, which, to add insult to injury, were spent disproportionately in the North and West.
So when Lincoln’s first major act as president was to push the Morrill Tariff through Congress, raising the tax on imports to nearly 50 percent, he should have known he was setting off a war. Surely there were better ways to end slavery than killing hundreds of thousands of Americans, destroying the South’s economy (and superior banking system, from which American finance didn’t recover for many decades), imposing the country’s first income tax, suspending civil liberties, and forever disrupting the delicate balance between states and the federal government.
hroughout his war-torn presidency, Lincoln was pilloried by his critics across the political spectrum: He was derided as a “duffer,” mocked as a “rough farmer,” criticized for “ignorance of everything but Illinois village politics.” And as he steered the Union around one obstacle after another, enduring generals who wouldn’t fight and Northerners deeply opposed to “the niggers,” Lincoln was also criticized by the press, scorned by Washington society, held up as the object of lofty condescension by eastern sophisticates, even defied by his own military men.
Still, his niche in history-it is a large one-is secure. So is his place in our affections. But does this mean there are not serious criticisms to be made? Hardly. In truth, from his earliest years, Lincoln was always a riddle of quirks and impenetrable eccentricities. And of mistakes.
He wanted the Civil War the way a felon wants a hangman’s noose, and history should not obscure how poorly prepared he was for the job-or the share of mistakes he made as commander-in-chief, time and again. He had generals who wouldn’t fight, couldn’t fight, failed to press the advantage when they did fight, or simply got whipped. And he was often feeble in doing anything about it. We think of Lincoln as a consummate statesman, a cosmic thinker, a humanitarian, all true. Yet in the early years of the war, he was anything but the picture of a confident or seasoned commander-in-chief. McClellan openly snubbed him, for all to see. Cried one newspaper, echoing others: “There is a cowardly imbecile at the head of the government.” And his record, on slavery, was of course equally mixed.
And yet….he must be judged the nations’ champion in its darkest hour. One of the great historical questions is this: How easy it would have been for him, as the body count mounted, as the avalanche of criticism escalated, as the Northern people lost heart and Union generals lost battle after battle, to give up, to give in or to compromise? Why, when the opportunity for ending the killing presented itself, did he not grab the easy way out, or the expedient way, as he had so often in his own career or as lesser presidents have done in their day? How he persevered! Consider his dispatches alone: “Hold on with a bulldog grip,” “stand firm,” “Hold firm, as with a chain of steel,” “chew and choke.” Lincoln instinctively grasped the tragic proportions of the war while never losing sight of the good that could somehow be made out of this awful conflict.
In the end he saved the Union, but more than that, he helped save the nation, a crucial distinction. Most civil wars end quite badly think of Ireland or the Balkans and ours easily could have too. Lincoln’s genius was knowing that the war must not conclude with wholesale slaughter, or dwindle into barbarism, inquisition, or mindless retaliation. With his generosity of spirit toward the South, he forestalled a deadly guerrilla conflict that might have ensured; with his compassion and charity, he helped heal a badly divided country. Lee, one of the war’s other great men, remarked that he “surrendered as much to Lincoln’s goodness as to Grant’s armies.”
What always sticks in my mind is Lincoln’s poignant stroll through a smoldering Richmond, freshly captured by Union troops near the war’s end in April of 1865. Just days earlier, from the inside of a slack, slow rolling train, Lincoln had gazed morosely at the hideous momentos of war: fresh skeletons of army horses, flocks of crows and buzzards flying overhead, and a long line of rebel prisoners, ghostly men stumbling in their “sad condition”; Lincoln had groaned that he “has seen enough of the horrors of war.” Now, the commanding general in charge asked how the defeated Confederates should be treated.
“I’d let em up easy, “Lincoln said, “let em up easy.”