© Gavin C. Schmitt, firstname.lastname@example.org
This article was last modified on December 5, 2006.
Abraham Lincoln: Hypocrite and Dictator
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.
Already 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 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.” This letter quite bluntly states Lincoln’s apathy towards slavery – he could not assert himself clearly for or against it.
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 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.
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).
In summary, I leave Lincoln to express his views of the inferiority of blacks: “I will say, then, that I am not now, nor never have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social or political equality of the white and black races. I am not now, nor never have been, in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor of intermarriage with white people; and I will say, in addition to this, that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which, I believe, will forever forbid the two races living together in terms of social and political equality. Inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together, there must be a position of superior and inferior, and I, as much as any other man, am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white man.”
Lincoln, Man Above the Law
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. He defied a directive from the chief justice of the United States. 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.
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).
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.
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. Or what about when 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 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 much territory as they inhabit.”
Lincoln had forgotten his own words, 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.
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.