Tuesday, January 20, 2009

What was so "great" about him?

Today, Barack Obama will be sworn in as President, our nation’s first “black” president. It is truly a moment of pride for our country and something we should all celebrate, regardless of political viewpoints. Despite my concerns for his politics, I am glad to set it aside for a moment to enjoy the moment when America confirms what I knew all along, that we are the least racist nation on this planet. Let’s hope he governs well, starting with a stimulus package that does not include a tax increase or more government spending.

He will take the oath on the Lincoln bible, which brings up another issue that has been bothering me lately. Mainly, the glorification of Abraham Lincoln, especially as to how his presidency relates to black Americans. As a fan of history on an historic day, I feel the need to correct the record.

As many of you know, I am not a fan of Lincoln. I was taught as you all were about the greatness of the man, but when I actually began studying things on my own I realized something different. There are two great lies told about Lincoln from the final days of the war to today. History is written by the victors of war, so we tell our children how wonderful Lincoln was. Let me address these two issues now.

First is the myth that Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves. Actually, slavery was abolished by a Constitutional amendment proposed by Congress and ratified by the states. So it’s more accurate to say that the American people freed the slaves. Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation which freed absolutely no one. This was nothing more than a propaganda tactic he used to inspire his own army and rekindle the motivation amongst northerners to continue the war. He issued a proclamation freeing slaves in states that he did not govern, omitting the slaves in the states that he did govern. What exactly is admirable about that? Obviously, he did this to prevent those “border states” from leaving the union, all in the name of increasing his chances for victory and his ultimate goal of union preservation. His proclamation only applied to states in “rebellion”, even though no rebellion actually existed. The states in question voted to simply leave the United States of America and govern themselves, there was no attempt to overthrow the government of America. You’ll all recall that our great nation was born exactly the same way. Yet we demonize King George and idolize Abe Lincoln. I’m not exactly sure how that works. There was nothing illegal or unconstitutional about the Confederacy, therefore their secession could not be legally disputed and Lincoln had no legal right to continue governing them, certainly no legal right to invade them. His proclamation may as well have applied to all foreign countries. It would have had the same level of authority. So it’s a bit of a stretch to say the Lincoln freed the slaves.

The second myth is that Lincoln was a champion of human rights. This is not entirely accurate. Indeed, Lincoln hated slavery, but he was willing to concede this practice in order to preserve the union, which was a higher priority for him. This was made clear to the southern states in the years leading up to the war. He never took legislative or executive action to actually end the practice of slavery until his country was engulfed in war that was growing ever unpopular with American citizens. Even then, his action fell short of freeing the only slaves that remained under American authority. And the actions of his commanders suggested that Lincoln wasn’t exactly someone who respected basic human rights. After all, he is the only president to order a full-scale military invasion of his own country and his invasion was catastrophic for southerners. Entire cities were burned to the ground, including private homes. Innocent civilians were victimized, and these were people that he claimed to govern. Millions of people were forced to be American citizens under the sword, at the loss of over a million soldiers in an illegal war. Only dictators and tyrants have been guilty of such atrocities in the past. This is not the action of someone who respected human rights. He was going to preserve the union, Constitution be damned.

Some may believe that Lincoln didn’t want the war. Maybe so, but I think it’s more accurate to say that he didn’t want the southern states to leave the union. He engaged in negotiations to prevent them from seceding, but his efforts ultimately failed. It was at this point that he chose military action – much like King George did with the 13 colonies - rather than recognizing the new governments and establishing diplomacy and commerce with them as anyone who respected freedom and democracy would have done.

Lincoln succeeded in preserving the union, and historians suggest that the end justified the means. That’s for us as individuals to decide, as I have already done. In my mind, and in the minds of many, he was a brutal tyrant who was guilty of nothing less than war crimes and flirted with outright despotism. Historians have shaped the opinions of many into believing that he was a great president, but I think the founding fathers would have viewed him differently. He did a great thing in preserving the union. But his methods were far from admirable. Surely there was a better way. So in our ignorance of history, we build memorials to him and wrongfully recognize him as the man who freed the slaves, and now the first black President takes his oath on the same bible. Hopefully, that’s all the two will have in common.

11 comments:

Anonymous said...

John,

Very interesting post here. I am linking a column from yesterday by Leonard Pitts who echoes many of the same points.

Let us not forget that Lincoln effectively started the Civil War and all of it's atrocities by commanding U.S. Naval Ships to sail to Fort Sumnter(SP?) He effectively commanded military Ships into the waters of a sovereign nation at this point.

Robert

Anonymous said...

Oops,

Forgot to add the link:

http://www.mcclatchydc.com/338/story/59958.html

Robert

Robert M. said...

I'm so glad someone else caught that. Anyone who knows the truth about Lincoln would find a black man swearing on his Bible ironic. I also noticed that CNN compared the election to the Emancipation Proclamation, which is essentially a worthless document which accomplished nothing for slaves.

That being said, I will, as I usually do when you post about the Civil War, say that while Lincoln was a terrible president, the South is more responsible for starting the war than he was.

Anonymous said...

John,

I respect your opinion on a number of issues. I want you to know that when an attorney states: "I respect his opinion.." he or she gives no higher compliment.

That said, your opinion regarding Abraham Lincoln is all wet for one glaring reason that in our previous discourse on the subject, you have failed to ackowledge. By "acknowledge" I mean "confess."

I regret to editorialize but your argument is either intellectually deficient or intellectually dishonest and is unworthy of a person is both an abosultist, as I know you to be, and moral, as I also know you to be.

The Civil War was fought over the issue of slavery. Is it moral for one person to be able to own another as a chattel?

John, you beleive the invasion of Iraq to be a moral war. How can you not believe the invasion of the southern states was anything but moral?

John, either you believe slavery, as an institution, was moral, or it was not. I know the answer to that question. Therefore, abandon your arguments regarding Mr. Lincoln. Certainly his motives were more pure and less politically ambiguous than our recent president.

Once again, I challenege you to defend your argument in consideration of the defense of the institution of slavery. Are you for it or against it?

One more question: is there another human institution more abhorrent and pernicious than slavery?

Regards.

The Loop Garoo Kid

John Washburn said...

Loop, obviously I will not defend the practice of slavery. It is an indefensible act. It’s also one of the reasons why I oppose government entitlements, since these programs foster a form of indirect slavery by generating dependence on the government. But that’s another discussion.

Our point of contention is not on whether slavery is immoral, or ending slavery was the right thing to do. We agree on both. We disagree on the reason for the civil war. You and many others say slavery is the primary reason for the war. I say the war was fought for the same reason as the Revolutionary War. Southern states desired independence from an oppressive federal government, and from taxation without representation. Northern states had more senators and more population, therefore dominated Congress. This left the south powerless to stop any legislation that favored the north, especially fiscal policy that favored industry and damaged agriculture. Read about the Morrill Tariff for starters.

On the northern side, Lincoln was primarily concerned with preserving the union. As I said, he was even willing to concede the practice of slavery in order to do so. And his proclamation did not come until the war was well under way. Seems to me if slavery was his primary concern he would have taken action immediately after taking office, before the war began. It didn’t become a motivational factor for the north until the emancipation proclamation, which is precisely why Lincoln gave this order.

On the southern side, you can’t field an army of slaveowners – a relatively small portion of the population. The confederate army was made of peasants, not wealthy plantation owners. And these peasants fought with ferocity for 5 years, many killed and wounded. Am I to believe that they fought so the rich folks could keep their slaves? And the commanding general, RE Lee, hated slavery. He forbade his officers to even discuss the matter. When offered command of US forces, he didn’t refuse the position so he could defend the practice of slavery.

Of course, the issue of slavery was an issue before and during the war, but it wasn’t the driving factor. It was becoming more unpopular within the south, and some politicians had even drawn up plans for gradual integration of free blacks into southern society – a process to be done over a decade rather than immediately in order to avoid overwhelming the economy with unemployed citizens. Davis himself was considering the action before the war broke out. A source for this is the book “When in the Course of Human Events”. I can’t remember the author off-hand but can get you his name if you’re interested.

As far as the parallel on Iraq, I don’t see it. Iraq contained a fierce dictator that was hostile to its neighbors and to the US, who was actively pursuing very dangerous weapons and had indeed used those weapons in the past. I don’t recall any hostile action the Confederacy took against the USA. A more accurate comparison would a hypothetical regarding Hawaii. Suppose this state declared its independence, as some want. Then suppose after doing so they demand US military forces be removed and any attempt to reinforce our bases there would be viewed as an act of war. What would you have Obama do? Remove the forces or send in more troops to secure our bases there, thus risking an escalation to a full blown conflict? Or should we blockade the islands and starve the citizens?

The way I see it, citizenship is a voluntary thing. If an entire state wishes to withdraw its citizenship, then I wish them all the best. There is nothing in the Constitution that gives the President the right to force people to be citizens of this country. If the Iraqi people demanded the US remove its forces from their country, then the comparison may be made.

Anonymous said...

John,

In no particular order: Given the pervasiveness of federal institutions in the divers states, now as then, the idea of permissive seccession is untenable.

Meanwhile the name of the author is Charles Adams and was published in 2000. I will ask my father, a former American History teacher, about it.

A bit of personal irony regarding your comments about entitlement and government dependence. I am having a rather vitriolic argument on another blog w/ an ex pat living in France regarding the latest conflict in Gaza.

I have attemted to advise him of the implications of the Gazan welfare state. There are approximately 1.5 million Gazans living in an are of 139 square miles--an area 1/6 the size of the county in which I reside in CO. UNRWA gives food aid to 750,000;provides schooling for 200,00 children; and operates a number of health clinics.

One third of Gaza is arable. The fertility rate is more than 5 children per woman and the CIA World Book ranks the fertility rate 19th among 222 regions.

The guy just doesn't see the social, environmental, or ecological issues regarding this situation.

Regards.

TLGK

Robert M. said...

In discussing fault for the Civil War, the issue always comes back to slavery. Southern economics and politics were both directly related to the slavery institution.

Furthermore, it's completely untrue to say that the north had some kind of stranglehold on politics. The split of free-slave states in the nineteenth century remained virtually even, and, in fact, the south controlled the Senate. If the north had completely controlled politics in the nineteenth century there would have been no Mexican War, and no need for the endless compromises of that era. Why compromise if you have complete control?

The fact is that the south had plenty of political power, and it was the interests of a small number of slaveholders that led to the war. Just because poor southerners who didn't own slaves fought in it doesn't mean the war wasn't about slavery. Those soldiers had other interests, just as northern soldiers didn't care about slavery either. The attitudes of foot soldiers have nothing to do with the political reasons behind any war. For example, Grant fought in the Mexican War, in which he did not believe.

I don't know your experience level with this stuff, but I've read about it for several years, and I'm majoring in History and minoring in Civil War Era Studies at Gettysburg College, and I've come to the conclusion that slavery was the driving cause of the war, and that without it, the war would never have been fought.

Not incidentally, as I recall, the South also fired the first shot of the war.

Auntyem said...

John---I agree with Robert. Confederate sympathizers argue that the Civil War was only about "states' rights" and not slavery---but what rights did those states want? To continue their economy of plantations worked by cheap SLAVE labor. The war resulted in freedom for all slaves in the South, their freedom from ownership by another human, the right for each man to keep what he earned by the sweat of his brow. The poor Reb soldiers only did what they were told to do by their new "president" and fought to protect their land from the devil Yankee "invaders". Some families had both Yanks and Rebs in them, depending on where they were living.

And you say that Lincoln did preserve the union, that you think that was a good thing. Do you really think that, and why after all your support for the Southern cause.

Also, why bring up the subject of a few malcontents wanting to secede from the Union now, such as a miniscule group of Native Hawaiians, or Mexican-Americans in California, or Puerto Ricans, or whites in Alaska. I have cousins in New Mexico who are war captains of our tribe who want our ancestral lands back (Piro/Tewa). Dream on, guys. They can't even get along with each other--the tribe split in two, each cacique claiming authority. Groups like that have been watched for years by the Feds, who will call in the National Guard to put down any "insurrections". So, not to worry, John, the South won't rise again and neither will the Natives.

We have to stay together, forget the past, forget our old provincial and tribal rivalries; we have a great nation going here now and we have a belligerent new enemy across the sea that wears no uniform, that are zealots determined to take the world for Islam. I wish we could just leave them alone to kill each other, tribe fighting tribe. Their dream of a sovereign Palestine I think is a lost cause, just like Native Americans' and the Confederacy's battles were lost causes. The "Palestinians" have been shoved into refugee camps,Gaza is like a reservation, and the West Bank is mostly covered with Israeli settlements---kind of like the US now with reservations all over to contain those Natives that choose not to assimilate.

Emilie
Port Orchard, WA

John Washburn said...

Emilie,

Every time someone argues that the civil war was all about slavery, they’re basically making a simple “end-justifies-the-means” argument. Ending slavery was a noble thing, no argument there. But I’ll add that regardless of the reasons behind the war, what Lincoln and the North did was heinous and illegal.

I’m not some revolutionary secessionist with a “south will rise again” bumper sticker. I’m just an average guy who grew up in Mississippi where our state history was taught, and it involved a more in-depth look at what the south endured during the war. I learned that Vicksburg was much more than a great military victory for Grant, but rather involved a siege resulting in horrible suffering for the inhabitants of that city. My hometown of Jackson was burned to the ground leaving only chimneys, thus earning the nickname “chimneyville”. You can say that all of this was done in the name of ending slavery. I say two wrongs don’t make a right. There were better ways to end slavery.

I don’t hold grudges. I just feel obliged to point this out whenever someone brings up the “greatness” of Lincoln. A great president would have avoided war, preserved the union and found another way to end slavery. A great president would have freed all slaves rather then just the ones he didn’t govern. A great president would have restrained his generals a bit more. Lincoln wasn’t great, and the wounds he inflicted have lasted for generations regardless of the cause he inflicted them for.

Robert M. said...

Honestly that argument doesn't make sense John. Burning down cities is better than killing people. Besieging a city is better than getting your men killed, and the suffering caused by the citizens could have been ended any time they wanted to surrender. If they didn't want to be besieged, perhaps they shouldn't have tried the same thing on Fort Sumter and started the thing in the first place.

The commanders involved in the instances you're referring were doing their jobs well. The job was winning a war, not treating people nicely. Or would you have preferred the whole lining up in a field and shooting at each other with rifles thing? That happened at first, and it caused a lot more suffering and death than any siege or raid. Honorable, perhaps. But hardly a way to win a war with minimum casualties.

Let's apply this to the Iraq War, which I believe you support. The war we're waging now is very very humane. Not effective, but humane. Are you pleased with the way that track is going?

In any case, if the south didn't want to have to deal with the realities of war, they shouldn't have started one. That's really the bottom line here. Lincoln was a bad president, but I feel sorrier for the blacks he left in oppression and northerners he oppressed more than any rebs his policies may have hurt.

Robert M. said...

*Oh, and I made a typo; that shouldn't say "caused by the citizens". It should say "felt by the citizens."