Abraham Lincoln enjoys a special place in American politics. The 16th president is showered with love from all political parties these days for refusing to accept the Confederacy’s secession and orations such as The Gettysburg Address where he bemoaned the current state of the war-torn nation. Lincoln’s declaration the “world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here,” is only partially factual because the monologue is constantly on lists of greatest speeches of all time. Lincoln’s tragic assassination is also probably why he enjoys being in the Top 3 on “Greatest Presidents of All Time” lists.
No doubt the caustic, bombastic rhetoric in our current state of politics (from both major parties) is causing people to yearn for halcyon days of speeches which were pleasing to their ear in their somberness and seriousness.
Conor Friedersdorf has an ode to Lincoln in The Atlantic focusing on Lincoln’s interpretation of the Declaration of Independence.
I suspect that this Fourth of July is better spent with that document’s best interpreter, Abraham Lincoln, beginning with words he uttered after worrying that his countrymen were losing touch with the core ideals of their political inheritance.
“Now, my countrymen, if you have been taught doctrines in conflict with the great landmarks of the Declaration of Independence,” he declared in 1858, “if you have listened to suggestions which would take away from its grandeur and mutilate the fair symmetry of its proportions; if you have been inclined to believe that all men are not created equal in those inalienable rights enumerated in our charter of liberty, let me entreat you to come back. Return to the fountain whose waters spring close by the blood of the revolution. Think nothing of me—take no thought for the political fate of any man whomsoever—but come back to the truths that are in the Declaration of Independence. You may do anything with me you choose, if you will but heed these sacred principles.”
Friedersdorf isn’t alone in his apparent desire to see more Lincoln-esque figures in Washington, DC. University of Texas-Austin American History Professor George B. Forgie opined in The Dallas Morning News how Lincoln was worried about the American government’s future.
For example, in the 1830s Lincoln worried that the prevalence of random mob violence that went unpunished would lead its targets to abandon a government unable to protect them and embrace a demagogue promising whatever the restoration of public order required. The most fateful example he cited was the one that ultimately brought him to Gettysburg: the refusal of a disappointed minority to accept defeat in the presidential election of 1860, followed by its attempt to overthrow the government. Democracy was doomed, he said, if ballots gave way to force as the arbiter of elections.
The danger illustrated by these instances, but hardly limited to them, was that large numbers of the American people, made fearful by the inevitable disruptions of life in a free society, would trade democracy for the fool’s gold of authoritarianism…
Not long after the war began in 1861, Lincoln told an associate that “the central idea pervading this struggle is the necessity that is upon us of proving that popular government is not an absurdity.” At Gettysburg he said essentially the same thing again, but now he gave every sign that saving popular government was a challenge that transcended the specific circumstances of “this struggle.” The day when popular government can be declared safely out of danger is a day that will never arrive. Thus, when we see Lincoln pleading with “us the living” to protect the existence of our system of government, we know exactly whom he had in mind.
The sentiment is all well and good, and understandable given Lincoln’s status as the president who saved the Union. However, the people arguing for more Lincolnesque behavior seem to overlook Honest Abe’s occasional dictatorial actions, some of which provide an ironic counterpoint to the complaints that prompt those arguments. Yesterday, for instance, was the 154th anniversary of Lincoln declaring martial law in Kentucky in 1864:
Whereas many citizens of the State of Kentucky have joined the forces of the insurgents, and such insurgents have on several occasions entered the said State of Kentucky in large force, and, not without aid and comfort furnished by disaffected and disloyal citizens of the United State residing therein, have not only greatly disturbed the public peace, but have overborne the civil authorities and made flagrant civil war, destroying property and life in various parts of that State…
Whereas it has been made known to the President of the United States by the officers commanding the national armies that combinations have been formed in the said State of Kentucky with a purpose of inciting rebel forces to renew the said operations of civil war within the said State and thereby to embarrass the United States armies now operating in the said States of Virginia and Georgia and even to endanger their safety:
Now, therefore, I, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Constitution and laws, do hereby declare that in my judgment the public safety especially requires that the suspension of the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus…
The Supreme Court ended up smacking Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus in the 1866 decision Ex parte Milligan. Anti-war ex-Congressman Clement Vallandigham was also arrested in May 1863 – just months before Lincoln’s much ballyhooed address – for criticizing the White House. Vallandigham is no hero (he opposed abolition), but his rights were undeniably violated by Lincoln’s government.
Yet, these aren’t the only examples of Lincoln’s occasional distaste for the Constitution, and the tenets of freedom and liberty supposedly under assault these days. He also went after two New York publications in May 1864 ordering their closure. The reason? #FakeNews:
Whereas there has been wickedly and traitorously printed and published this morning in the New York World and New York Journal of Commerce, newspapers printed and published in the city of New York, a false and spurious proclamation purporting to be signed by the President and to be countersigned by the Secretary of State, which publication is of a treasonable nature, designed to give aid and comfort to the enemies of the United States and to the rebels now at war against the Government and their aiders and abettors, you are therefore hereby commanded forthwith to arrest and imprison in any fort or military prison in your command the editors, proprietors, and publishers of the aforesaid newspapers, and all such persons as, after public notice has been given of the falsehood of said publication, print and publish the same with intent to give aid and comfort to the enemy; and you will hold the persons so arrested in close custody until they can be brought to trial before a military commission for their offense. You will also take possession by military force of the printing establishments of the New York World and Journal of Commerce, and hold the same until further orders, and prohibit any further publication therefrom.
These actions go completely against Lincoln’s fervent defense of the Declaration of Independence in the 1830s and 1860s, and beyond any sort of inflammatory statement from President Donald Trump claiming the press is the “enemy of the people.” Lincoln’s actions should be repudiated and declared hypocritical to his words. There is actually no proof the news outlets were acting treasonous or working to aid the Confederacy, but were duped by the ex-secretary of a Lincoln ally to publish the false statement.
This does not mean we should tear down the Lincoln Memorial and remove Lincoln from Mount Rushmore or the $5 bill. He deserves praise for his unwillingness to bend on freeing the slaves and his refusal to recognize the South’s secession. While pointing out these black marks on Lincoln’s record, one must also recognize that his entire presidency was consumed by the civil war and the need to put down an armed rebellion against the legitimate government of the United States. His refusal to give in when it appeared the Confederacy was on the verge of success preserved those liberties by sustaining the nation that protected them.
But let’s be honest when it comes to his actions. Former Rhode Island Supreme Court Chief Justice Frank J. Williams noted at Heritage Foundation much of Lincoln’s maneuvers were done without congressional approval. The fact he clamped down on dissent is reprehensible, especially when it involved states (New York and Ohio) which were considered solidly Union. It’s certainly easy to explain away martial law declarations in Kentucky, but the Union was quickly on its way to defeating the Confederacy when the declaration was made as the siege of Petersburg was ongoing and General William Sherman’s forces captured Atlanta in September. It’s certainly arguable Lincoln set the stage for other presidents to start ruling by executive order under the guise of national security or national importance.
There’s no doubt Lincoln has a deservedly rich legacy in American history. Yet, we’d be doing him a disservice by seeing him as some sort of god-like figure who magnanimously and perfectly ruled over the very troubled United States. It’s important to remember all heroes have clay feet at times, and that we have weathered much worse than anything imagined in the current moment.