Saturday, April 23, 2022

Abraham Lincoln - Rethinking The History

President Abraham Lincoln has been immortalized as a saint who preserved the union and abolished slavery.   However, as a former American history and government teacher and someone who wrote my history thesis on Lincoln, it may be time to rethink the history.  Of course, it is easy to look back in retrospect and see all of Lincoln's mistakes and maybe it would not matter much except that the Civil War really did not end in 1865.  It just went from hot war to cold war for more than a 100 years.  As a result of some very bad decisions both by Lincoln and the radical Republican Party at the time, our country experienced more than 100 years of racial strife that continues even today.  

First, Lincoln's Republican Party when he ran for President in 1860 was perfectly willing to live with slavery where it then existed.  The Republican Party position was to oppose slavery in new states.  Lincoln even advocated relocating the slaves back to Africa believing that they could never coexist peacefully in a White America.  That idea was abandoned because relocating 4 million slaves was eventually believed to be impractical.   

Lincoln was elected with less than 40% of the popular vote; though he did win the electoral vote.  Lincoln was not even on the ballot in 10 Southern States.  To conclude that Lincoln had national support is just wrong.  Lincoln was elected by the Northern states with virtually no support in Southern States.  Lincoln's election caused the Civil War as Southern states seceded shortly after Lincoln was declared the winner.  This was the culmination of political strife and a series of compromises to accommodate slavery that started right at the founding of our country.  The Civil War was a failure of compromise.  They had reached the end of the line. 

Once the first shots were fired in Charleston, South Carolina at Fort Sumter, Lincoln made the war about preserving the union not abolishing slavery because he did not believe Northerners would fight and die to end slavery.  Lincoln did this to keep the four border states where slavery was legal from seceding.  The first few years of the Civil War had the South winning battle after battle mostly because Lincoln had appointed some really lousy union generals.  It was not until Northern victories at Vicksburg and Gettysburg that the North finally won some battles.  And, it was about then that Lincoln removed various incompetent generals and put US Grant in charge of all union forces. 

Finally, in 1862 Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation that freed the slaves; but only in Confederate states not the border states.  In doing so, Lincoln signed his own death warrant later resulting in his assassination.  Almost more important, this one act may have prolonged the Civil War because now the Confederacy had a motivation to fight to the death.  It is probable that this one act caused the death of several hundred thousand more soldiers on both sides without any particular benefit before the North won the Civil War.  And for what. The thinking was that freed slaves would join union forces and about 100,000 did just that, but not enough to change the outcome of any battles.  Many of the blacks in the army were relegated to menial tasks to support the union army as they faced discrimination by many White officers.

Lincoln had a successful model for freeing the slaves when slavery was ended in Washington DC in 1862; but that model was not followed.  Slave owners in Washington DC were paid $300 per slave and while that payment acknowledged that slaves were property, however degrading at least it worked to get the job done without bloodshed.  Southern slave owners had more invested in slaves than in land.  Freeing the slaves without compensation led to 100 years of Jim Crow and discrimination, misery and murder for freed Blacks.  In other words, Lincoln did not think through the long term impact of many of his decisions as has happened in many wars.

There is no way to know what would have happened had Lincoln lived to complete his second term.  Lincoln preached reconciliation; but that was not his party's policy.  He would have had to deal with his own party composed of Radical Republicans determined to punish White Southerners for causing the Civil War.  The reality is that both sides caused the Civil War.  The fact is there was no plan to deal with freed slaves. Perhaps, each slave should have been given $100 and a mule and encouraged to move West to homestead farms.  Instead it would be 50 years before many of them moved North to work in factories only to experience discrimination almost as bad as what they experienced in the South.  

I know second guessing all of this is easier to do in retrospect than when the events of the Civil War and long after occurred.  However, our country is still paying the price for some very bad decisions by Lincoln and those that came after him.  In some ways, we have learned that wars no matter how horrible are the easy part.  The lessons of history teach us time and again that what comes after the wars are over is the hard part.  

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