One of Many Things I’ll Never Quite Understand

Those who consider themselves iconic conservatives, or Republican leaders, often praise  President Lincoln.  Just reading the Emancipation Proclamation, I see it as a cheap political ploy of Clintonian style (or W. J. Clinton was of the Lincolnian tradition).  It didn’t free a single slave.  Furthermore, the North had slaves all through The War Between the States, and General Grant kept slaves for years after.  Depending on who you listen to, Lincoln was either a brutal tyrant or a brilliant champion of liberty.  I definitely do not see the latter.  This whole issue is clouded in B.S. so thick I can’t see through it.  Where do I turn for the truth?

21 thoughts on “One of Many Things I’ll Never Quite Understand

  1. He was a master of the English language, and a politican who talked out of both sides of his mouth (which is easier to do when all of the coverage is local). He was very intelligent, but most of his training was informal. He was a lawyer, not a philosopher, so pure logical consistency is not something I would expect to see from him. Even in his own time, he was a rather polarizing figure, which means everyone who met him or knew him had an axe to grind one way or another. As a result, I think the truth about him, such as it can be known, has to come mostly from his own writings. Other sources, particularly primary ones, have value, and can be informative, but they are necessarily biased.

    There is really no such thing as history in the sense of discovering “truth” in the sense we usually think of it–there are few cold hard facts, and most of those are uninteresting. Most of it is an attempt at constructing a narrative, and the narrative is going to reflect the perspectives of its author. There’s really no way around that. The dominant narrative also changes with time–the Civil War is a particularly important example, because the dominant narrative changes every generation. This appears to be happening now, at least to some extent, where in some circles Lincoln as savior of the country is being replaced by Lincoln the tyrant. Both are consistent with the available facts, the difference is which ones are emphasized and which ones are explained away. Neither hypothesis can be easily disproven, but neither is really The Truth (or maybe it is, we really can’t tell). The narrative will change if new facts crop up, at least in its details, but that doesn’t happen much, or often, particularly in fields as (over)studied as this. In history, you pick the narrative that you like and stick with that–or if you can’t find one, you make up your own narrative. The more sparse the facts (which usually means the more ancient the history), the more freedom there is, in principle, to play around. Of course, in practice, some perspectives are more likely to earn you tenure than others…

  2. And yes, it can get political, even as the authors claim not to be.

    The correct question, which you have clearly asked in the course of your research thus far, is “what kind of agenda is this person trying to push”–because historical conclusions like this are often used as justifications for something else eventually.

  3. And yes, it can get political, even as the authors claim not to be.

    The correct question, which you have clearly asked in the course of your research thus far, is “what kind of agenda is this person trying to push”–because historical conclusions like this are often used as justifications for something else eventually.

  4. check and/or the Mises Institute. they have several books about lincoln and his real agenda. I think one the books is title “the Real Lincoln” or something similar to that.

  5. Does this sound like a champion of liberty?

    From his 1st inaugural address:

    “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.”

    Now here is where he reveals to history, just what a lying bastard he was:

    “Resolved, That the maintenance inviolate of the rights of the States, and especially the right of each State to order and control its own domestic institutions according to its own judgment exclusively, is essential to that balance of power on which the perfection and endurance of our political fabric depend; and we denounce the lawless invasion by armed force of the soil of any State or Territory, no matter what pretext, as among the gravest of crimes.”

  6. This is just from memory (and I have no sources to back it up). I believe there is a quote from Lincoln that he would sign a law keeping slavery forever if it would preserve the Union. And, if Lincoln had not been assassinated and Congress had not objected so strongly (since Johnson tried to carry the plan forward), Reconstruction would have been much gentler, and the south would have been reintegrated into the Union more quickly.

    Lincoln did not care for slavery. But, he loved this country and would do anything that he thought would preserve it.

  7. The Lincoln-Douglas Debates are a good place to start, if you want to know the political arguments of the late 1850s. That will be a cross check on claims of what issues were considered important at that time. Next go to the Republican platforms of 1860 and earlier, to see what the South feared that triggered secession. Keep in mind that for a hundred and fortyfive years there has been a cottage industry in the South of trying to recast the issues of the war as having nothing to do with slavery.

  8. Richard,

    Yes–and it’s true that slavery was in fact an important issue for them, as evidenced by the fact that it was specifically mentioned in the articles of secession passed by many of the state legislatures involved. Having said that, however, the other side tries to claim that states’ rights was some kind of unimportant peripheral issue, or some kind of code for states’ rights to perpetuate slavery within their borders, which I think is also a serious mischaracterization of what was going on. That’s why the Civil War is so messy, in my view–everything gets bound up into everything else, so that there is no simple story that tells the true picture. You can talk about freedom for the slaves, which I think we would all agree is a good thing. You can also talk about state sovereignty and decentralized government, which many (though perhaps fewer) of us also think is a good idea.

    (That said, I have read textbooks that argued against even that argument, citing such things as non-standard railroad gauges from state to state as an argument for the need for centralized power because they put the Confederate army at a tactical disadvantage.)

    But, in part due to the way this entire mess panned out, some of these words have become politicized code talk and/or redneckish, which causes the discussion to derail because no matter how much you insist that you don’t mean that, you won’t convince much of anyone if you try to state that the non-politically-correct side may have had any kind of valid point. People can’t or won’t divorce the slavery issue from the rest of it.

  9. Yea, the issue didn’t free any slaves, but it did have a couple other reasons.
    1) It hoped to encourage slaves remaining in confederate areas to escape to union areas, thus depriving the south of the manpower to run the farms/feed its self (I don’t know how successful this was)
    2) It was used to drive a wedge between the South and the British and French. As both of the later were anti-slavery (especially the British) It essentially gave the Union diplomats room to push for the British/French to maintain Neutrality. As one of the southern efforts was to get the British to intercede in order to get the cotton for the English Textile Mills, this, along with bumper crops of Egyptian Cotton gave the British reason to stay Neutral.

  10. “It didn’t free a single slave.” This canard gets repeated so often that you can be excused for believing it, but it’s not true. Over the course of the war, it freed millions of slaves; it cleared up the status of several thousand “contrabands” (slaves who had already escaped and were being held by Union troops) on the day it took effect.

    True, it didn’t affect slaves in the States that had not seceded, but Lincoln had no constitutional power to end slavery in areas that were not rebelling. He did, under his War Powers, have the constitutional power to confiscate property from the rebels.

  11. “There had to be an end of slavery. Then we were fighting an enemy with whom we could not make a peace. We had to destroy him. No convention, no treaty was possible – only destruction.”

    The above quote is from a conversation between President Grant and Otto von Bismarck in 1878.

  12. “Where do I turn for the truth?”

    You’re going to have to look to original sources. People who write about him tend to have strong feelings one way or another, and it biases them. Fast Richard recommended the Lincoln-Douglas debates, I’d add his Cooper Union speech.

    I think Tim Covington has it about right: “Lincoln did not care for slavery. But, he loved this country and would do anything that he thought would preserve it.” As a younger man, Lincoln was a Whig, and practically worshiped Henry Clay. “The Union” was a sacred ideal to him (and to many Whigs). I think he loved it to the point where he wasn’t going to let a little thing like Habeus Corpus keep him from saving it and yeah, that’s a pretty serious count against him.

    He believed, a fairly mainstream belief, that as slavery was clearly countenanced by the Constitution, Congress could not prohibit it in the US proper, that it was up to each State whether it would be free or slave. He also believed that Congress could and should prohibit it the Territories, also a fairly mainstream belief, in the North, at least. In the last few months of he life, he (with many willing helpers) got the ball rolling on the 13th Amendment and got abolition made constitutional at last.

  13. Another piece to the puzzle is the fact that the Republican party was founded in (I forget, 1852 or 1854) as an anti-slavery party, and in 1856 John C. Fremont was its first Presidential candidate. Lincoln, campaigning under this party and WINNING was an alarm bell to the slavery states, which is why South Carolina began the secession “process” as soon as the election in November had ended. Buchanan could not hold things together long enough to hand the mess off to Lincoln, and other slavery states began to join South Carolina. The Morel tariffs had nothing to do with it. The states’ rights idea was involved, but only when it applied to the southern states. Thanks to the Fugitive Slave act, a northern state could not invoke states’s rights to exclude the enforcement of southern slavery laws in its own territory, and after Dred Scott, could not exclude slavery from its own territory.

  14. My first understandings of the Civil War came from what I studied as a student in our Guv’ment Schools: yeah, that’s a reliable source! But I think that certain nuancies were nonetheless discussed, as I can remember them.

    More recently, as I’ve been exposed to Libertarian outlooks, I began to see the Tyranny of Lincoln more clearly. Again, though, I wouldn’t consider that a reliable source either. Having said that, I’ve only read a few articles, and none of the books; I definitely need to read more on the subject!

    But I have made certain conclusions: that, first, one of the chief reasons, if not the reason for this War was slavery, as indicated by both the seccession resolutions, and by the Confederate Constitution itself (it specifically banned States from banning slavery). That Lincoln was, indeed, a tyrant, but acted in large part Constitutionally and within the Lockean tradition of liberty. And that the entire affair was very messy, for all sorts of reasons!

    Libertarians tend to decry things like the Constitution and the Civil War as tyrannical, and they are probably right. Where Libertarian scholars seem to go wrong, however, is the belief that America was originally “Libertarian”. They most certainly were not! At best, they were a mixed bag. They outlawed sodomy, provided the 1st Amendment in part to preserve the State religions of several States, tried to create monopolies within State borders, argued over whether or not to have a central bank, and even had no problem with nationalizing the Post Office with the ratification of the Constitution. (At the very least, I don’t think anyone’s arguments for or against the Constitution turned on the Post Office.) Heck, Jefferson himself was against the Sedition acts, only because he felt that it was a State power, rather than a Federal power, to interfere with speech!

    Did the Constitution limit freedom? Yes, it did…but it also cemented the belief in American hearts that Freedom is valuable, and should be protected by Government. Did the Civil War trample on the Constitution? I’m not so sure…it provided provisions for quartering soldiers and suspending Habeas Corpus, and I’m not sure whether Lincoln or Congress did enough to satisfy the conditions that allow for the violation these rights, as described by the Constitution. We’d have to look that up in more detail.

    I do know this, however: the Republican party is a continuation of the Whig party, which generally believed in Government Interventionalism. Now that I have come to understand this (“The Myth of the Robber Barons” was really helpful in this), the actions of the Republican party make so much more sense; indeed, only in recent times, when the Democrat party has gone from the party of Freedom, to the party of Collectivism (Woodrow Wilson and FDR are largely responsible for this), has the Republican party become the party of Freedom–a role, by the way, that the GOP has only reluctantly embraced, at best! Even laid-back Coolidge, a president I admire, had Hoover in his cabinet, who plunged the farmers into a Great Depression in the crash of 1920, and then repeated his “success” as President in 1929.

  15. “General Grant did not keep slaves for years after.”

    j t bolt is right; this is an impossible claim, since the 13th amendment came into effect the same year the Civil War ended.

  16. “Hoover . . ., who plunged the farmers into a Great Depression in the crash of 1920, and then repeated his “success” as President in 1929.”

    As a grandson of a farmer who had a tough time throughout the 20’s and 30’s, I wondered why this was so, particularly when pre ww1 was considered to be farming’s golden age. Butler Shaffer wrote a book, “In Restraint of Trade” that discusses the way the voluntary restraints of the 20’s inspired the compulsory restraints of the 30’s under Hoover and Roosevelt which deepened and extended what would have been a deep and sharp recession into the Great Depression.

  17. I’d like to see some sources for the Grant claims.

    As far as the 13th amendment–well, slavery did not exactly disappear in the South until looong after the Civil War was over, except nominally. It’s difficult to do anything when there is no statutory penalty and when a jury refuses to convict. I highly recommend this book–it’s well documented, an entertaining read, and it sheds some light on a long-ignored and shameful aspect of American history.

  18. Lincoln was NOT a great man, however he was a great orator. As shown by the present resident of the White House words do not make the man actions do. Lincoln’s example is what modern politicians are based upon. It is with lincoln’s adminisration that these queer notions of what American FREEDOM and LIBERTY were and have become. Washington.Jefferson,Henry with the rest of our founders would be appalled. In Lincoln’s own the war was NOT about slavery,just as AGW/climate change is about saving the world it is and was about CONTROL. That cannot be DENIED.

  19. Emphatically, the North had not freed the slaves, even by 1900. New York City had the largest slave labor camp in the world at the time of the Civil War – Sing Sing prison. Prisoners were (and are) slaves under the law. NYC kept the prison full, because private industry contracted with the city for labor. Poor and sick – get sent to prison and get worked to death. Minor without parents – get sent to prison. Vagrant – prison. Annoy a policeman or a judge or a politician or a businessman – get sent to prison.

    Much of the free-the-slaves sentiment was misplaced guilt over the systemic torture and inhumane enslavement of the poor in the cities of the North. “A Pickpocket’s Tale” is a readable history.

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