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.