Lincoln’s presidency is a subject of much debate among Constitutional Conservatives. Was he a great president or wasn’t he? Did President Lincoln violate the U.S. Constitution? To what extent? Should he have been impeached? Or, given he preserved the Union and freed the slaves, does Lincoln on balance deserve our forgiveness?
This is how I settled the matter for myself. Perhaps it will serve to settle the matter of like-minded conservatives. I am no expert on Lincoln. I am no expert on the U.S. Constitution. All I have to offer is my opinion. This article could easily fill a 3-part blog post, but I will attempt it in one.
With little more than a cursory search into Abraham Lincoln one discovers many ugly facts about our beloved 16th President. Absolutely shocking facts that are conspicuously missing from school textbooks and Hollywood movies. The following are not facts lifted from Abe’s youth, but common place from his adulthood—before AND during his presidency!
Lincoln believed the white race was superior to the black race. During the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858 Lincoln said, “I have no purpose to introduce political and social equality between the white and the black races. There is a physical difference between the two, which, in my judgment will probably forever forbid their living together upon the footing of perfect equality; and inasmuch as it becomes a necessity that there must be a difference, I as well as Judge Douglas, am in favor of the race to which I belong having the superior position.”
Lincoln preferred the idea of shipping all blacks in the U.S. to a colony in Central America rather than integrate the races in a slave-free United States.
Lincoln did not start the Civil War to end slavery. He started the Civil War to preserve “the Union”—to prevent southern states from breaking away (seceding) and starting their own country.
Lincoln preferred to avoid the Civil War by allowing the slave states to keep slavery if all agreed that new states admitted to the Union would be and remain slavery-free states.
Lincoln allowed blacks to enter the military, but only after three years into the war when the North was desperately short of new recruits. Lincoln did not want blacks armed with rifles on the front lines because he feared blacks would not fight with courage and determination. Hence, Lincoln initially relegated black soldiers to serve in rear positions.
Congress did not officially declare war on The South. Lincoln viewed the southern states as insurrectionist, criminals, a rebellion. Nevertheless, Lincoln repeatedly violated his enumerated powers as President, claiming Executive “War Powers.” The Constitution, however, only provides “War Powers” to Congress, and NONE to the Executive branch. Lincoln was accused of being a “dictator” by members of his own Republican Party!
Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus many times during the Civil War. (Habeas corpus is an individual’s unalienable right to due process of law, i.e. to see a judge to plead one’s defense after being arrested. In other words, the king, his henchmen, nor the police can simply accuse you of a crime, arrest you, and throw you in jail forever and forgotten. This was an absolute BASIC right recognized by common law in western nations for hundreds of years, prized by our Founders as a basic protection against a tyrannical government.) Furthermore, only Congress has the Constitutional authority to temporarily suspend writ of habeas corpus, not the President. (See U.S. Constitution I, 9, 2.)
Lincoln favored dropping the gold-backed money system (a system carefully enacted by our Founding Fathers) in favor of printing paper dollars. Lincoln’s was the first administration to issue paper currency since our Founders signed the U.S. Constitution. Banks had been issuing paper banknotes to customers, printed notes redeemable for gold and silver coins on demand. Lincoln’s new paper dollars were not redeemable in gold or silver on demand. Lincoln’s paper dollars, called “Greenbacks,” was America’s first fiat currency since the Constitution was signed. Like all fiat paper money printing schemes, the introduction of Greenbacks was a dishonest way of paying for the war effort. (Yes, this should sound familiar—think, Revolutionary War’s Continental Dollars, FDR’s Great Depression and WWII, Johnson’s Vietnam War, Reagan outspending the USSR, and Bush in Iraq.)
Lincoln was not a man of religion. He was vaguely Christian. He was not a church goer. He was not a prayerful man until the weight of the war and the death of his youngest son Willie overwhelmed him.
It has been said, during the Civil War, Lincoln suppressed freedom of the press. I didn’t pursue research supporting this accusation.
Lincoln declared martial law at his convenience. (Martial law is when the military assumes all civilian police, court, prison, and legislative functions in a region, state, or locale.) Had Congress declared war, Lincoln would have had the Constitutional authority to enact martial law in locales where civil authority was completely dysfunctional due to the war.
So, we’ve got a long list of ugly facts of Lincoln’s character, abuses of individual liberties, abrogation of Executive powers, and “Honest Abe’s” dishonest handling of the nation’s money. Not too pretty. Abe’s violations against the U.S. Constitution were so far reaching it makes President Obama’s look like amateur hour.
But, we also have a different man in Abe Lincoln than we do in Barrack Obama. For starters, Lincoln loved this country; I do not believe Obama loves this country. And second, Lincoln venerated our Founders, the founding principles of our nation, and the U.S. Constitution. About the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the legality of slavery, Lincoln protested, “[the Declaration of Independence] is assailed, and sneered at, and construed, and hawked at, and torn, till, if its framers could rise from their graves, they could not at all recognize it.”
Here is where Lincoln and Obama stand wrongly on common ground: they both believe the ends justify the means. About this, Lincoln was absolutely wrong; and Obama is wrong. Lincoln planned to restore all civil liberties and cease abrogating his Executive powers AFTER he’d won the Civil War. This is the extent to which Lincoln failed to understand our founding principles, the wisdom with which it was contemplated, God’s relationship to man, and man’s relationship to government.
It’s sad indeed to read Lincoln’s words regarding his belief the white race is superior to the black race. Personally, I was shocked. Additionally, Lincoln did not write the Emancipation Proclamation (announcing all slaves should be free) until two years into the Civil War, and by all accounts did so reluctantly. To his great credit he proclaimed it.
If we are however, willing to afford our Founding Fathers—some of whom were slave owners—the benefit of the context of their time, we might afford Lincoln the same.
The southern states claimed it was within their Constitutional right to secede from the northern states. That really is the question Lincoln pondered, isn’t it? Are they allowed to leave? To Lincoln, it was NOT within the southern state’s right to secede. The high and worthy principle of ending slavery was not the deciding issue for Lincoln. Instead, Lincoln’s resolve was stated thus in his Inaugural Address in 1861, “I hold that in contemplation of universal law and of the Constitution the Union of these states is perpetual. Perpetuity is implied, if not expressed, in the fundamental law of all national governments. It is safe to assert that no government proper ever had a provision in its organic law for its own termination….” To Lincoln’s logical lawyer’s mind, seceding was an unnatural and illogical course of action for a nation, and should be avoided at all costs—including the suspension of those principles founding our nation.
Additionally, Lincoln understood the Declaration of Independence recognized “all men are created equal,” as meaning all men and women of all races. Lincoln understood the Founders had to make compromises with southern states about slavery so all states would approve the new U.S. Constitution. And though Lincoln did not consider blacks as equals morally and intellectually to whites, he believed deep down that blacks and whites alike are equally God’s children. In the Lincoln-Douglas debate quoted above, Lincoln added: “…I as well as Judge Douglas, am in favor of the race to which I belong having the superior position. But there is no reason in the world why the Negro is not entitled to all the natural rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence—the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Lincoln hated slavery. But not so much that he would go to war to end it. He kinda hoped slave states would see the error of their ways and slowly incorporate a means of paying slaves for their labor, phasing out slavery eventually.
Do states of the United States have the Constitutional right to secede? Indeed they do. And it is important states retain this right—it is a check, a threat, on an over-reaching federal government. But I agree with Lincoln, the southern states did not have the right to secede.
The question is, under what circumstances would it be proper for a state to secede?
The right of a state to secede must never supersede our individual God-given rights. To what end were the southern states seceding? They were seceding in order to maintain slavery. They said this was their sovereign right as states. But, do state rights supersede individual rights? No. States are man-made constructs. Sovereignty ultimately lies with God, then proceeds by His grace to His children—equally to all His children. The slave states were, in effect, leaving the Union to practice an abomination to God and man. “Liberty and slavery,” Lincoln said, “are incompatible.”
A state may properly secede from the union only to restore individual liberty lost to it by a despotic federal government—not when a state wishes to reject it.
Although Lincoln embraced the white race and black race alike as children of God, and believed slavery an abomination, he failed to distinguish the hierarchy of sovereignty. Our Founding Fathers knew this relationship intimately.
Lincoln was but a schoolboy compared our Founding Fathers. But, lest we forget, our Founding Fathers were many; over 250 brilliant, learned, wise, prayerful, humble men and women, both white and black.
Lincoln was alone.
Lincoln was alone, one man carrying the burden of completing what our many Founders could not accomplish—extending the protection of individual liberty to ALL men and women of these United States.
Lincoln mended a country long divided, because he loved it so. Lincoln didn’t want to “fundamentally change America” or “progress” into something different from its founding. He was trying to restore and complete the intentions of our nation’s founding.
As a willing instrument to God’s will, Lincoln alone wearily carried the torch “all men are created equal” out the underground tunnel and across the sunlit finish line. The Declaration of Independence fulfilled.
Perhaps then we Conservatives can forgive this man, Abraham Lincoln, for his many trespasses. We can learn from his mistakes. Let us remember, we do so from the vantage of a grateful “united” United States, 150 years later, because of an impossible burden carried by a single man.
Lincoln was not a Founding Father. But, if Lincoln was half the father to his nation he was to his beloved sons, I think we can return his love with honor and understanding.
DeGregorio, William A., The Complete Book of Presidents, New York: Random House, 2005.
Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995.