Abraham Lincoln, our sixteenth president, is widely regarded as one of the greatest leaders in this nation’s history. Some would argue he is not only one of the greatest, but the quintessential leader. But what do we base these beliefs on? His freeing of the slaves? His win over the South during the Civil War? His martyrdom at the hands of John Wilkes Booth?
But Lincoln was not perfect and much of his legendary status is nothing more than lies turned fact through repetition. Lincoln did not free the slaves or probably even want to. He won the war, but did so only by breaking the law and asserting authoritarian rule. And was John Wilkes Booth a loose screw, or was he actually trying to save the union Lincoln had eroded?
Lincoln the Abolitionist? Perhaps Not…
Lincoln is remembered in history as the man who “freed the slaves” through the Emancipation Proclamation. Yet, his words do not speak of a desire to free the slaves. The belief that the Civil War was about slavery is overblown. And most people’s idea of the Emancipation Proclamation is inaccurate.
Antislavery editor Elijah Lovejoy was shot five times on November 7, 1837 in Alton, Illinois. Not long after, Lincoln appeared in Worcester, Massachusetts and said, “I hear you have abolitionists here. We have a few in Illinois, but we shot one the other day.”
Lincoln supported the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, saying of slave owners that “when they remind us of their constitutional rights [to own slaves], I acknowledge them, not grudgingly but fully and fairly; and I would give them any legislation for the claiming of their fugitives”.
When talking of what the “best use” for new territorial lands such as Nebraska would be, Lincoln said in Peoria, Illinois on October 16, 1854, that he wants “them for the homes of free white people.”
In Ottawa, Illinois during an August 21, 1858 debate with Senator Stephen Douglas, Lincoln spoke of his preference for racial inequality:
“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. I have never said anything to the contrary”.
He further said he was never “in favor of making voters or jurors of Negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people.”
In his defense, the 1860 Republican platform did call the “reopening of the African slave trade” a “crime against humanity and a burning shame to our country and age”. Lincoln’s election upon such a platform was a primary catalyst for Southern succession.
In a private letter to Georgia representative Alexander Hamilton Stephens on December 22, 1860, Lincoln wrote, “You think slavery is right and ought to be extended; while we think it is wrong and ought to be restricted. That I suppose is the rub. It certainly is the only substantial difference between us.” And yet, he saw fit to write, “Do the people of the South really entertain fears that a Republican administration would, directly, or indirectly, interfere with their slaves, or with them, about their slaves? If they do, I wish to assure you, as once a friend, and still, I hope, not an enemy, that there is no cause for such fears.”
During his First Inaugural Address on March 4, 1861 he spoke to the nation and said quite clearly he had no desire to free the slaves. Spoke Lincoln: “I do but quote from one of those speeches when I declare that — ‘I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.’ Those who nominated and elected me did so with full knowledge that I had made this and many similar declarations and had never recanted them”
In a speech at Abington, Massachusetts on August 1, 1862, abolitionist attorney Wendell Phillips spoke out against Lincoln. He said, “Mr. Lincoln is conducting this war, at present, with the purpose of saving slavery… He has not uttered a word which gives even a twilight glimpse of any antislavery purpose.”
In a letter to Horace Greeley, the famous New York publisher, Lincoln made his position quite clear that the Civil War was not about slavery but rather what he felt was a duty to protect the union of this country. Lincoln wrote on August 22, 1862: “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it; and if I could do it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union.” This letter quite bluntly states Lincoln’s apathy towards slavery — he could not assert himself clearly for or against it.
Lincoln delivered a message to Congress on December 1, 1862, where he said, “I strongly favor colonization.” He was making clear what he had said many times before, that the black race does not belong in America, but should be deported to Liberia or Haiti.
And one of Lincoln’s greatest generals, Ulysses S. Grant, concurred. On the issue of the Civil War being fueled by slavery, he said, “If I thought this war was to abolish slavery, I would resign my commission, and offer my sword to the other side.”
Lincoln’s so-called greatest achievement, the Emancipation Proclamation (1863), is believed by many to be the act that freed slaves in the United States. But this is a complete misunderstanding of what the declaration was. Lincoln did not declare slaves free altogether — he declared them free in the seceded states, which at the time he had no legal authority over in the eyes of the South. Secretary of State William Seward was aware of how pointless this exercise was when he said, “We show our sympathy with slavery by emancipating slaves where we cannot reach them and holding them in bondage where we can set them free.” None of the Northern states were ordered to free their slaves.
Newspapers at the time were well aware of the emptiness of the Proclamation. The New York World said Lincoln “has proclaimed emancipation only where he has notoriously no power to execute it.” His words were “not merely futile, but ridiculous.” The London Spectator was even more cynical, saying, “The principle is not that a human being cannot justly own another, but that he cannot own him unless he is loyal to the United States.”
With the slaves free in the South and still prisoner in the North, clearly the intent was strictly a military tactic: freeing slaves in the South symbolically might cause them to rebel against their owners and turn the war against the South. If the goal were truly humanitarian, why were the slaves in the North not free? Their freedom did not come until the 13th Amendment in 1865, ratified during the administration of Andrew Johnson (although, to be fair, Lincoln was president during the proposal of said amendment).
Lincoln, Man Above the Law: Habeas Corpus
Besides being a career politician, Lincoln’s background was in law. His adherence to the law was not as solid as one might expect from a lawyer, leading to some decisions that were not only hypocritical but also in line with actions of a dictator.
As a young man, Lincoln was a firm believer in the law. He made an address before the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois on January 27, 1838 where he expressed his belief that while not all laws were perfect, we must be held to follow the laws if we are unable to change them (not unlike Socrates’ position in Plato’s “Crito”). Lincoln specifically said, “When I so pressingly urge a strict observance of all the laws, let me not be understood as saying there are no bad laws, nor that grievances may not arise, for the redress of which, no legal provisions have been made. I mean to say no such thing. But I do mean to say, that, although bad laws, if they exist, should be repealed as soon as possible, still while they continue in force, for the sake of example, they should be religiously observed.”
But when the going got rough, Lincoln abandoned his high regard for the law. He instituted martial law in Maryland, and turned to prosecuting civilians through military hearings. People were locked up on the grounds of being treasonous for opposing the views of the government. Lincoln literally removed Habeas Corpus during the war, one of America’s very basic rights. Article I, Section 9 of the United States Constitution, which enumerates the powers given to Congress, says, “The privilege of the Writ of Habeas Corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public Safety may require it.”
Lincoln defied a directive from the chief justice of the United States (see below). His defense? These actions were “indispensable to the public safety.” [Alinsky: 29] He felt that denying people one right (habeas corpus) in order to save the union was a sacrifice worth making. But what he did was set a precedent that presidents can remove laws as they see fit, creating a virtual dictatorship — being able to imprison anyone who disagrees with the powers that be.
Francis Key Howard, grandson of Francis Scott Key, was arrested on September 13, 1861 by U.S. major general Nathaniel Prentice Banks on the direct orders of general George B. McClellan enforcing the policy of President Abraham Lincoln. The basis for his arrest was for writing a critical editorial in his newspaper of Lincoln’s suspension of the writ of habeas corpus, and the fact that the Lincoln administration had declared martial law in Baltimore and imprisoned without due process Baltimore mayor George William Brown, Unionist Congressman Henry May, the police commissioners of Baltimore and the entire city council. Howard was confined to Fort McHenry, the same fort his grandfather Francis Scott Key saw withstand a British bombardment during the War of 1812, which inspired him to write The Star Spangled Banner, which would become the national anthem of the United States of America.
Chief Justice Roger Taney, sitting as a federal circuit court judge, ruled that the authority to suspend habeas corpus lay with Congress, not the president. He wrote, “These great and fundamental laws, which congress itself could not suspend, have been disregarded and suspended, like the writ of habeas corpus, by a military order, supported by force of arms. Such is the case now before me, and I can only say that if the authority which the constitution has confided to the judiciary department and judicial officers, may thus, upon any pretext or under any circumstances, be usurped by the military power, at its discretion, the people of the United States are no longer living under a government of laws, but every citizen holds life, liberty and property at the will and pleasure of the army officer in whose military district he may happen to be found.” President Lincoln ignored the ruling, as did the Army under Lincoln’s orders.
The Army in general was full of dishonorable men who burned and pillaged cities as they went through. Their crimes are legion:
- Lincoln established a secret police force under Secretary of State William Seward that arbitrarily arrested thousands of Northern citizens. Some historians put the number of detainees as high as 13,000.
- Ballots were made of different colors during the November 1861 elections in Maryland. Those who voted for the wrong party were arrested on the charge of “polluting the ballot box”.
- Episcopal priest Kensey Johns Stewart of Alexandria declined to pray for President Lincoln during a service on February 9, 1862 and was soon arrested for it.
- Union Army Major General Benjamin Butler hung William Bruce Mumford in New Orleans on June 7, 1862 for the “crime” of removing an American flag from the US Mint building.
- Lincoln refused to pay money owed to Native Americans in the summer of 1862, and instead sent out General John Pope to deal with them. Pope said, “It is my purpose to utterly exterminate the Sioux. They are to be treated as maniacs or wild beasts, and by no means as people with whom treaties or compromise can be made.”
- Lincoln ordered the execution of 39 Indians (without charges against them) from Minnesota on December 26, 1862 — the largest mass execution in American history.
- Similar to Maryland in 1861, the army watched over the New York elections of 1864 — and the Republicans took the state by 7000 votes.
Lincoln, Man Above the Law: Freedom of the Press
When we think of a leader shutting down a newspaper, radio station or television station, we generally think that it could only happen in a dictatorship. In a democracy, leaders are open to dissent and criticism. In America, we have as our first amendment to the Constitution the right to speech and the presses. But, for Lincoln, such a right had its limits.
In May 1861, the Journal of Commerce printed a list of more than 100 Northern newspapers that had written editorials opposing the war. Lincoln ordered the Postmaster General, Montgomery Blair, to stop the delivery of these newspapers, which effectively killed them.
The Federal government began censoring all telegraph communications on February 2, 1862.
Congressman Clement Vallandigham of Ohio gave a major speech (May 1, 1863) charging the war was being fought not to save the Union but to free blacks and enslave whites. To those who supported the war he declared, “Defeat, debt, taxation [and] sepulchers — these are your trophies.” Vallandigham denounced Abraham Lincoln, calling for “King Lincoln’s” removal from the presidency. On May 5 he was arrested by General Ambrose Burnside, and was ultimately deported to the South (and he then moved to Canada).
On May 18, 1864, Lincoln sent an order to General John Adams Dix (who would later be a Republican governor of New York): “You will take possession by military force, of the printing establishments of the New York World and Journal of Commerce … and prohibit any further publication thereof … you are therefore commanded forthwith to arrest and imprison … the editors, proprietors and publishers of the aforesaid newspapers.”
Lincoln as the Reincarnation of George III
On July 1, 1862, Lincoln signed a tax bill that filled more than seventeen triple-column pages of very fine print. The bill had 119 sections, imposing 100s of excise taxes, stamp taxes, inheritance taxes, gross receipts taxes and license taxes on virtually every occupation. Was it not taxes that brought on the American Revolution?
Lincoln as a One Man Treasury
Another illegality committed by Lincoln is one that Jacob Hornberger calls “a method of government finance on which tyrannical governments throughout history had relied.” Rather than use taxation or borrowing to fund the war, Lincoln decided to print his own legal tender. Up to this point, money was based on a gold standard — where the value of money had to match the value of gold that could back it up. Lincoln ordered money be printed at taken at face value, a move that in the long term decreased the value of money and led to numerous economic problems (including debatably the Great Depression).
Worse than simply creating imaginary money, Lincoln did this in direct violation of the United States Constitution, which prohibited the government (both state and federal) from issuing legal tender. They could makes coins and decide the value of coins, but not create new money from nothing (gold coins come from gold, whereas paper money comes from paper — a substance that prior to social construction has no value).
The Legal Tender Act of 1862 was enacted to issue paper money to finance the Civil War without raising taxes. The paper money depreciated in terms of gold and became the subject of controversy, particularly because debts contracted earlier could be paid in this cheaper currency.
In the ultimate irony, the issue reached the Supreme Court in Hepburn versus Griswold. The justice writing the opinion that Lincoln’s law was unconstitutional was Salmon Chase, who during Lincoln’s presidency was the Secretary of the Treasury. According to Hornberger, “Chase pointed out that there was no express power in the Constitution authorizing legal-tender laws. And he rejected the notion that the express power to wage war included an implied power to enact legal-tender legislation, observing that the Constitution expressly gave the government the powers to tax and borrow to finance its wars.”
While there is no solid evidence, many historians have speculated that John Wilkes Booth found this practice to be abominable — its continuation would make people’s money increasingly less valuable as more money was printed. This would be the tipping point that lead him to assassinate Lincoln, making Booth a national hero (although too late).
The way this court decision was overturned is another story of abuse of power , and continues to this day — a practice that ensures we will only sink deeper into our own debt, creating money that does not actually exist and reducing the value of existing money each time around.
A Constitutional Right to Overthrow the Government
A final thought to ponder about Lincoln’s hypocrisy and need to hold a dictatoresque role in America’s shaping. Why did he not allow the South to secede? The answer seems obvious — he held the union to be important and did not desire to see the country split in two (although by declaring a war he succeeded in splitting the country and destroying the infrastructure). Yet, if he felt unity to be sacred, he did not make a point of saying so earlier on.
On January 12, 1848, he said:
“Any people, anywhere, being inclined and having the power, have the right to rise up and shake off the existing government, and form a new one that suits them better. This is a most valuable and most sacred right – a right which we hope and believe is to liberate the world. Nor is this right confined to cases in which the whole people of an existing government may choose to exercise it. Any portion of such people that can, may revolutionize, and make their own, of so many of the territory as they inhabit.”
During his first inaugural address (March 4, 1861), he declared, “This country, with its institutions, belongs to the people who inhabit it. Whenever they shall grow weary of the existing Government, they can exercise their constitutional right of amending it or their revolutionary right to dismember or overthrow it.” These words are inspired by such an important document as the Declaration of Independence, which reads:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government. [emphasis mine]
A constitutional right to overthrow the government? Apparently Lincoln forgot about this once the South raised their voices. On the 50th anniversary of the Constitution (1839), John Quincy Adams reaffirmed the Constitutional right of secession:
“If the day should ever come (may Heaven avert it!) when the affections of the people of these States shall be alienated from each other; when the fraternal spirit shall give way to cold indifference, or collision of interests shall fester into hatred, the bands of political associations will not long hold together parties no longer attracted by the magnetism of conciliated interests and kindly sympathies; and far better will it be for the people of the disunited states to part in friendship from each other, than to be held together by constraint.”
Lincoln had forgotten his own words, the Constitution, and the words of Jefferson who said, “If any state in the Union will declare that it prefers separation … to a continuance in the union … I have no hesitation in saying, ‘Let us separate.'” Even the newspapers stood to support the South. New York favored it in the New York Tribune editorial on February 5, 1860, where they wrote, “If tyranny and despotism justified the Revolution of 1776, then we do not see why it would not justify the secession of Five Millions of Southrons from the Federal Union in 1861.” And Maryland Representative Jacob M. Kunkel said, “Any attempt to preserve the Union between the States of this Confederacy by force would be impractical, and destructive of republican liberty.”
Abraham Lincoln: hypocrite, dictator, and a man standing against his own countrymen.
 During the Hepburn case, the Supreme Court had seven justices voting on the matter, which was decided 4-3. During Grant’s presidency, two more justices were added, ones who favored legal tender, and the issue was overturned 5-4. Strangely, these cases are largely overlooked by historians and economists and never mentioned in schools whatsoever.
Alinsky, Saul D. Rules for Radicals Vintage Books, 1971.
DiLorenzo, Thomas J. The Real Lincoln: A New Look at Abraham Lincoln, His Agenda, and an Unnecessary War Three Rivers Press, 2003.
Hornberger, Jacob G. “Legal Tender and the Civil War” Freedom Daily, November 2000.
Lincoln, Abraham. Numerous speeches, all easily accessible online or at your local library.
Shenkman, Richard. Legends, Lies & Cherished Myths of American History Harper and Row, 1988.