Abraham Lincoln: American Folk Hero or Fanatical Tyrant
By: Richard Schain – July 09, 2023
Reading time: 15 minutes
When John Wilkes Booth assassinated Lincoln in Ford’s theater of Washington on April 14, 1865, he shouted, “Sic semper tyrannis!” (“Thus always to tyrants” – a phrase said to have been uttered by Brutus during the assassination of Julius Caesar). The view of Lincoln as a tyrant was shared by most citizens of the Confederate States of America. However, it was a senseless act since the Confederacy had already collapsed. Victors write history and Abraham Lincoln is regarded in America today as one of the greatest American presidents, the one who ended slavery in the country and who is second only to George Washington in the roll call of American famous men. His reputation seems unassailable. Yet questions can and should be raised.
The Civil War was a disaster for the United States. More young American men died in the war (646,000—probably an underestimate) than in any war before or since. Many died of disease (dysentery, typhoid, pneumonia, malaria, measles) —some commentator quipped that if the Confederacy could have found a cure for the ‘flux,’ they might have won the war. Of course, deaths do not include those maimed and incapacitated by wounds or chronic illness, which must have been a huge number. The political consequences of the war were just as profound. America was set on a course of executive power, centralized federal government, and militarism that exist to this day. The expansion of the nation into a transcontinental empire was assured. The South required many generations to recover from the destruction and civic chaos of the war that had been entirely waged on its lands. Their slaves were abruptly freed but were relegated by an embittered white population to a hundred years of segregation and second-class citizenship. This has left a residual feeling of oppression in black individuals, not only in the South but in the rest of America as well, that has yet to be fully overcome.
Europe and the rest of the Americas were able to rid themselves of slavery with far less trauma to their societies. Brazil, where negro slavery had been just as important to their economies as in the American South, found ways to abolish it (1888) without civil war and without imposing rigid segregation on the freed colored people. The former Spanish, French, Dutch, and English colonies were able to abolish slavery much earlier in a relatively painless manner. Spanish Cuba was like the Confederacy in that the slavery problem was intermingled with their desire for independence. However, there were both pro and anti-slavery currents in the several revolutions in Cuba in the nineteenth century. Slavery was finally ended in Cuba in 1886 by Spanish royal degree and independence came twelve years later after the military intervention of the United States. (The Confederacy had no ‘big brother’ to help them gain independence although some thought Cuba had only traded Spain for the USA as the colonial power). Leaving the complex problem of Cuba aside, why had only the USA been condemned to such a devastating war and long painful aftermath for freed slaves and their descendants? The country today is still feeling the effects of that aftermath.
The answer is that the reason for the war was not directly about slavery but was due to the secession of the Southern states from the American Union. Slavery was not the precipitating cause although conflict over the extension of slavery in newly formed states was an important issue in the decision of southern states to secede. The decisive factor, however, was the secession. Lincoln said on numerous occasions before and after his inauguration that, although he was personally against slavery, as President he had no authority nor desire to get authority to abolish slavery. This is evident in his public and private statements. Lincoln made his position absolutely clear in a letter he wrote to Horace Greeley in 1862:
“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….” (Lincoln-Wikipedia)
In fact, the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 was a war measure specifically designed to weaken the Confederacy and provide recruits for the Union armies. It did not apply to the border slave states that had not seceded nor to the rest of the country. It was only after the war when the Confederacy had been destroyed that Congress adopted the 13th amendment to the Constitution abolishing slavery in the rest of the United States.
It is not too much to say that Abraham Lincoln had a fanatical fervor about the ‘Union’ of the United States. “One nation indivisible” was his religion. The government “of the people, by the people, for the people” was an article of faith for him that can only be compared to the faith of devoutly religious individuals (even though the ‘people’ did not include the people of the southern states). He felt that as the “last best hope of the world,” it was his duty as president to preserve it in its entirety whatever the cost. But was there any justification for his attitude? Today, the United States deplores Putin’s destruction of Ukraine because he is obsessed with a greater Russia or Xi’s mystique of ‘One China’ with his refusal to accept the independence of the island nation of Taiwan. We support the right of self-determination for a people or at least do not actively oppose it. Nations like The Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia broke up when it seemed the best thing to do. But 160 years ago, Lincoln did not have this enlightened attitude.
The United States at the time of its formation had a population of 2.6 million people. At the onset of the Civil War, it was 34 million. The number of states in the Union had almost tripled and more were on the way. There were bound to be deep regional differences. The vast majority of the population of the South (admittedly white) wanted independence since they felt oppressed under federal rule. It was not only the slavery issue; it was also the tariffs and taxation that favored northern industries, as well as the whittling away of their state’s rights. The same feelings that had energized the signers of the Declaration of Independence energized the Southern leaders. They did not see why, since their states had entered into the Union voluntarily, they could not voluntarily depart from it.
The South was not entirely blameless for the war. South Carolina firing on Fort Sumter gave Lincoln the excuse he needed to call up 75,000 volunteers for the Union army to suppress an ‘insurrection’. But given Lincoln’s mentality along with his status as newly elected president, the conflict was inevitable. He could not tolerate secession and was determined to destroy the Confederacy.
Thus, the South regarded him as a tyrant, hiding behind his folksy surface personality. Actually, Lincoln was forever sacking generals who did not pursue the war vigorously enough to suit him. He would accept no mediation or compromise. Unconditional surrender was required. In Ulysses Grant, he found his general who would ‘fight’ regardless of casualties. And casualties there were in unprecedented numbers. Given his attempts to aggressively micromanage the war despite the human cost, one cannot avoid the comparison with another tyrant, Adolph Hitler (I do not mean to equate the two in any other way) who similarly micromanaged the German armies at great cost to them. However, Hitler lost and Lincoln won. As has been noted above, it is the victors and their followers who write the history books.
There is no reason to believe that the Confederate States and the United States could not have successfully pursued their separate ways as independent nations. Industrialization and expansion in the North would have continued apace. The Confederates had offered access to Mississippi River trade to the Union much as other great waterways in the world are free for trade. ‘King Cotton’ was an economic asset for the South and manufacturing was beginning to develop in Southern cities. There was an élan and natural patriotism in the South that was often lacking in the North.
As far as slavery was concerned, it is impossible to imagine how it could have survived indefinitely. There had been thoughtful voices in the antebellum South expressing concerns about the institution before the war. The most prominent of these was the two-term president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson of Virginia, who called slavery a ‘moral depravity’ that would lead to civil strife (even though he never felt able to free more than a fraction of his slaves at Monticello). Aside from the immorality and cruelties of slavery, there were doubts in the South about its long-term viability.
Sharecropping was an economic system that existed long before the Civil War and involved both white and black sharecroppers. After the abolition of slavery, sharecropping was destined to replace it in many areas of the South, especially in the cotton agriculture along the Mississippi River region of the Deep South. Although sharecropping may not have been an ideal solution to the problem of slavery, it did give its participants the freedom to immigrate to cities where there were greater opportunities for them. Wage labor could have gradually replaced domestic slavery for those who did not wish to leave their homes.
Slavery on the tobacco and rice plantations of the Upper South is said to have been less onerous than in the Deep South might have found similar solutions. When the whole civilized world had abolished slavery, including the rest of the United States, it is inconceivable that an independent Confederacy could have long resisted its termination by peaceable means in one way or another. The outcome of apartheid in South Africa shows what can happen when one nation defies the whole world on a moral issue. It was mainly the resentment felt against the North that led to the prideful Southerners’ resistance to any debate of their own on the subject.
In the overall scheme of things, Lincoln could properly be called a tyrant who ruthlessly enforced his will to preserve the Union on a substantial segment of the American people who wanted to leave the Union. In essence, he represents the tyranny that democracies can exert over those who are different. Much attention has been drawn to Lincoln’s ‘careworn’ appearance that emerged during the war. It was understandable since he had much on his conscience; although he was not the only middle-aged Washington politician agitating from their safe offices for all-out war. The death and destruction visited on the South were promoted and supervised by him as President. He was not a vindictive man and once the Confederacy was destroyed, he wanted to adopt a conciliatory attitude toward the South. There is a general belief that the harsh approach to the South during Reconstruction would have been softened if Lincoln had been alive. Nevertheless, he waged a brutal war for four years, unprecedented in its killings and scorched-earth policies, to destroy the Confederacy. In my opinion, the ruination of the South and the massive bloodletting was not justifiable by any measure. I believe Abraham Lincoln should be taken down from the worshipful pedestal upon which American history has placed him and be seen for what he was in reality—a tyrant whose obdurate policy regarding the sanctity of the American Union inflicted enormous damage on the South. If the assassination of Lincoln cannot be regarded as a justifiable act, neither was justifiable the slaughter and maiming of many hundreds of thousands of American young men and boys (there were thousands of underage ‘child’ soldiers on both sides) in ferocious battles waged against invading Northern armies in the South. Nations are better off establishing their icons on truths rather than on myths.
The ’Lost Cause’:
The ‘lost cause’ of the South does not have to be irremediably lost. The belief that the military victory of the North in the Civil War forever settled the secession issue is manifestly absurd. If that argument were valid, Ireland would still be part of the United Kingdom, Greece part of Turkey, and The Philippines an American colony.
A basic principle of democracy is that governments are based on the popular consent of the governed. With the population of the ‘Union’ approaching 340 million—a hypertrophied national colossus ten times that at the time of the Civil War—and the increasing polarization of its peoples, the time may be ripe for regional movements for independence to come to the fore again. The Southern part of the United States is an area that still has a strong regional identity. There is no longer the problem of slavery to cloud the issue. The ‘New South’—the South of manufacture, business development, and desegregation—does not have to lose its special cultural identity. Today, there is no basis for it to be associated with white racism. The black people and black spiritual culture are an integral part of the American South. In fact, a regional identity with a broad spiritual foundation may be the best antidote to the technology-based mindless civilization currently dominating the American colossus. In the greater Memphis area extending over three states where I now live (Tennessee, Mississippi, Arkansas), the outlines of a new South are quite clear behind the usual political brouhahas.
The American Empire:
The population of the USA lives in a vast area in mid-North America between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, having gradually acquired this area due to belief in the Union’s ‘manifest destiny’ of extending from one ocean to the other. The ‘drive to the West’ has extended beyond the shores of the Pacific to include Alaska, the Aleutians, the Hawaiian Islands, and numerous small islands in the far western Pacific, with which we either own or maintain ‘associations’, including defense responsibilities. Recently, the nation of Papua New Guinea has been added to the list. Most people do not realize the Pacific Ocean is well on the way to becoming an American Sea (with a French enclave in Polynesia). The drive once went as far as to include the Philippines, but that country did achieve its full independence, partially as a result of America’s inability to protect it from the aggression of the ill-fated Imperial Japan.
The high-minded principles of the Declaration of Independence expressed by the founding fathers of the new nation were soon overshadowed by American expansionism and its consequences. A large part of the areas of the United States was acquired by conquest, ‘purchase’, and subsequent extermination or forced removal of indigenous peoples. The country now occupies third place in the world in terms of size and population and thus exhibits a very varied geographic, ethnic, and racial origin of its inhabitants. It is dominated by a political class centered in Washington, D.C. All this qualifies the USA to be considered as an ‘empire’. It has always been difficult for citizens to develop themselves as individuals within vast empires. In my opinion, the best chance of personal fulfillment for thoughtful individuals lies in the smaller developed countries of the world like Denmark, Switzerland, or Iceland. These countries do not engage in great power politics that often reflect the psychology of leaders but that diminish the prospects of individual citizens. Their bureaucracies are more accessible to individuals. ‘Happiness’ polls show small developed countries to be well ahead of large ones. The citizenry of the United States could greatly profit by it breaking up into smaller, more manageable entities.
However, the will of the people to escape from the federal colossus is necessary. The astronomical federal debt with the ever-present push to increase it for all kinds of political temptations is a disgrace to the federal government and an incentive for its breakup. What is needed are some high-minded politicians, Democratic or Republican, who are not afraid to enter into forbidden territory. Advocates of Texas independence have pioneered the process. Florida and California are virtually independent countries. Unfortunately, the widespread federal doles in the form of social security, Medicare, Medicaid, and other subsidies of all types are a formidable barrier to regional independence. Many in the minority populations still shortsightedly tend to look to the federal government for special benefits. These barriers act to keep the empire’s populace in line. Nevertheless, they are not insuperable in my judgment.
Thomas Jefferson thought that the health of government required a revolution every fifty years. (Perhaps he had been thinking of slavery and his own 200 slaves.) But if there is any truth to this thought, the United States is long overdue. The ‘United States’ can no longer be regarded as ‘united’ in any meaningful way. The inefficient, expensive, and self-serving American system of government centered in Washington, D.C. (once the geographic center of the thirteen newly independent states) needs to be discarded. Lincoln’s ‘religion’ needs to be abandoned. Maps have been drawn to indicate various possibilities of breakup and discussions of the subject can be found on the internet. Polls have shown a surprisingly large number of people to be amenable to the idea.
A book by Alexander Moss entitled A More Perfect Union (2022) offers the mechanics for such a process and divides the USA into six new nations. (Curiously, he assigns Virginia to the Northeast and Louisiana to Texas-Oklahoma. Presumably, these assignments would be subject to change). A roadmap for a constitutional amendment is developed that would make this a reality. Many details such as the Federal Reserve, the dollar, and social security are covered. Moss envisions that the new nations would remain affiliated in an economic and political union similar to the British Commonwealth or the European Union. The lives of erstwhile United States citizens would become much better as a result of the formation of more cohesive national entities and the end of the ‘great power’ status of the USA with its accompanying militarism and global domination.
History shows that empires do not last forever. Sir John Glubb, a noted British general and historian, in The Fate of Empires and Search for Survival listed seven stages of empires:
- Age of Pioneers
- Age of Conquests
- Age of Commerce
- Age of Affluence
- Age of Intellect
- Age of Decadence
- Age of Decline and Collapse
These stages, of course, overlap greatly. It seems to me, however, that the United States is well within stage 6 and entering stage 7. The extreme polarization of values; of the left vs the right, Democrat vs Republican, socialist state programs vs free enterprise capitalism, and the issues of racism, religion, and immigration are all increasingly dividing the nation. The. center does not hold and calls for American unity become weaker and weaker. Inertia of the existent can carry empires for a long time; the Roman Empire lasted a thousand years. But it is not likely that the American transcontinental empire will forever be immune to the fate of empires. I believe it is only a question of how and when the breakup will take place. Hopefully, a national catastrophe will not be required to provide the impetus.
If you do not take an interest in the affairs of your government, then you are doomed to live under the rule of fools. – Plato