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AHHS — Chapter 22

Chapter 22 – Abraham Lincoln:  Fact and Fiction, by Vance Caswell of N. C., S.I.S.H.


In 1939 American moviegoers enjoyed Young Mr. Lincoln.  A handsome, youthful Henry Fonda portrayed Abraham Lincoln’s early life.  The next year Raymond Massey was Lincoln in a similar story, Abe Lincoln in Illinois.  These films, along with a highly fictionalized “biography” by Carl Sandburg, encapsulate what most Americans believe about their most revered symbol and hero.  A young man of humble circumstances, he strived hard for an education.  He was so honest that he would walk miles to pay a small debt.  He was admired by his associates for his sterling qualities.  He was not above hard outdoor work – in fact, was known for his prowess as a rail-splitter.  His heart was broken when his love Ann Rutledge died in youth.  He took a raft trip down the Mississippi, viewing slavery first-hand, and vowed he would some day strike a blow at the evil institution.  Finally, a groundswell of popular admiration swept him into the White House, and he departed Springfield for a divine mission – to save the Union and free the slaves, and to achieve martyrdom.  (Nobody seemed to notice that the Union would not have been in any danger if Lincoln had not been elected and that more than 60% of American voters rejected him.)

Henry Fonda’s Lincoln is embraced by Americans as a sacred national myth – perhaps because it represents what Americans like to believe about themselves – a people down-to-earth, open, and practical, but capable of righteous wrath and action against injustice.  Generations of Southerners have accepted the Lincoln mythology because it helped to reconcile them to the Union and because it was useful to believe in a generous Lincoln who would have presided over a mild Reconstruction if he had not been killed. Yet almost everything “known” about “Honest Abe” is highly questionable.  As historians we ought to make an effort to evaluate Lincoln like any other important person in history and separate fact from myth and propaganda.

Obstacles to Knowledge

Important parts of Lincoln’s life – his birth and parentage and his assassination – are involved in so many doubts and contradictions that the truth will never be certain.   Howard Ray White in Bloodstains, vol. 1, discusses thoroughly the tangled question of Lincoln’s origins.  A number of writers have argued that the conventional story of the assassination leaves out important facts.  Strangely, Lincoln’s son Robert destroyed a large amount of his father’s papers.  You would think that every scrap relating to such a figure would have been preserved with reverence.  If you had a small piece of paper with an authentic “A. Lincoln” signature today, you could sell it for enough for a year’s vacation on the French Riviera.     Professor Thomas DiLorenzo, in his book Lincoln Unmasked, shows that an incredible number of statements have been attributed to Lincoln that he never uttered.  It seems that anyone who had an idea or a product to sell made up a Lincoln quotation endorsing it.  For generations Republican orators and pious writers embellished the story of a saintly, benevolent President.  A letter quoted a thousand times, in which Lincoln supposedly said that he would accept as voters African American men who were educated or who had been soldiers, has been shown to be inauthentic.  It is contradicted by reliable testimony that he still was hopeful for colonization of blacks outside the U.S. days before he died.

Herndon and Lamon

The writings of two men who knew Lincoln up close for long periods are perhaps one of our best sources on the real Lincoln.  Their writings have been suppressed and denigrated ever since they appeared.  William Henry Herndon was closely associated with Lincoln for 31 years.  They were roommates for four years and worked in the same law office for 18 years.  Herndon did much of Lincoln’s legal work, was his researcher and personal contact with abolitionists and eastern Republicans.  Lamon was a junior law partner who went with Lincoln to Washington, lived in the White House, saw the President almost every day during the war, and carried out confidential missions.  Both men were younger than Lincoln, admired him, and supported his cause.  Both were rather more antislavery than Lincoln himself.  But the Lincoln they admired was not the saint created after his death.  It was a tough, relentlessly ambitious and clever politician who had done whatever was necessary to save the Union.  They were realists who had contempt for pious mythmaking that distorted what they considered Lincoln’s true greatness.

Early Life and Family

Lincoln did not attend his father’s funeral, perhaps because he believed that Thomas Lincoln was not his real father.  It is interesting that all of Lincoln’s relatives except one voted against him.  That was also true of his immediate neighbours.  Votes for him were always a bit lower in nearby areas where he was known than in areas a little further away.  As a young man Lincoln courted popularity as a story-teller around the cracker barrel in every country store and tavern he visited in his law circuit.  He was notorious for his obscene anecdotes, a fact well-known at the time that has since disappeared down a memory hole.  It was said that when Lincoln came to town, you put the women, children, and preachers to bed. He also had jokes ridiculing “Yankees” (New Englanders) to amuse his neighbours, most of whom came from the South.

There is absolutely no substantial evidence for the Ann Rutledge story.  We do know that he rather churlishly dumped a lady, Mary Owen, with whom he apparently had an understanding, and that he left Mary Todd at the altar the first time their wedding was scheduled.  His early associations in IL were with prominent slaveholding families from KY, who treated him kindly and nurtured his career.  He shared in his slaveholding father-in-law’s estate and took at least one legal case regarding the recovery of a runaway slave.

Family life in the Springfield Lincoln mansion was not happy. Herndon recorded instances in which Abe was driven from home by his wife’s rages.  In Washington he would take her to the window and show her the insane asylum in the distance where he was going to send her, and indeed she ended her life in an asylum.  In Washington she was morbidly jealous and greatly over-spent the White House accounts, which might, uncharitably, be called embezzlement.   By contrast, Varina Howell Davis, the wife of Jefferson Davis, is one of the true heroines of American history.  An intelligent woman who wrote books and could hold her own in discussion with the greatest statesmen of the day, she endured privation, danger, and detention without loss of faith in her husband and the Confederate cause.  When she died in New York City in the early 1900s she was given a royal funeral as a national treasure.

Mary Todd Lincoln, of course, had much to be sorrowful about.  Even before the assassination of her husband she had lost her little son “Tad.”   This poignant story is somewhat modified by another uncharitable fact.  Many visitors to the White House thought of “Tad” as an obnoxious, undisciplined brat.  The Davises also lost a young son during the war.  Outsiders have erected in Richmond a pious statue of Abe and “Tad,” but there is no memorial for young Joe Davis, dead at 5 from a fall.  While every relative of Southern leaders was in the thick of the fighting, Lincoln’s grown son Robert spent most of the war as a student at Harvard, his father having purchased for him a substitute.  When the war was almost over he was given a safe commission on Grant’s staff.  Things were very different among the leaders of the Confederacy.

Lincoln, alas, was no Henry Fonda.  One side of his face was disfigured and his arms were abnormally long.  This caused many of his close allies to call him, behind his back, “the Gorilla.”   His close allies also complained bitterly that when approached with a serious matter he would, instead of giving an answer, tell an irrelevant humourous story.  He had been kicked in the head by a horse or mule as a young man and had momentary blackouts that disconcerted some people.  He suffered from severe depressive spells and is thought to have had a degenerative disease that eventually would have incapacitated him.

Lincoln as Christian

It seems reasonable to say that for many Americans Lincoln is a kind of saint – wise, merciful, and sorrowful for the terrible war that had befallen his country.  After his death Republicans created such a image.  It did not exist while he was alive.  Generations of Sunday School children and magazine readers were inundated with Lincoln-centered sermons and pictures of the holy martyr being wafted to Heaven by flights of angels.  As a young man he wrote an atheist treatise which friends destroyed as harmful to his reputation.  Those who knew him best said he was a non-believer.  He was adept at couching his speeches in language reflective of the King James Bible, for which his hearers had familiarity and reverence.  Imagine the Gettysburg Address saying “87 years ago” instead of “four score and seven years ago” and “founded” rather than “brought forth.”  There is no evidence that he ever had any serious faith.  A Confederate wit said that Lincoln was the only person who became a Christian after he died.  He supported and rewarded the war crimes committed by his generals against Southern civilians.  There is no evidence that he suffered any serious regret for the immense suffering of his war.  He always treated the war as a political goal to be accomplished.   In his strange 2nd Inaugural Address he suggested that God had deliberately brought about the war to punish sins.  It was not his fault.

Lincoln the Statesman

No one elected President before Lincoln and very few after were as completely a single-minded politician as Lincoln.  He never had any vision or agenda of doing good.  As law partner Herndon said, Lincoln’s primary drive and motivation was always ambition, an ambition which gave him no rest.  He spent most of his career as a follower of Henry Clay, spokesman for the Whig program of tariff, national bank, and internal improvements.  Clay was also a slaveholder and a severe critic of abolitionists, and his program at bottom was a selfish one of limited appeal.   Lincoln had never been senator, governor, Secretary of State, or a successful military officer, unlike every previously elected President.  In 1853-1854, when the Kansas/Nebraska question ignited Northern public opinion, Lincoln was a wealthy corporation lawyer, living in one of the biggest mansions in Springfield.  His political career had consisted of one term in the U.S. House of Representatives almost a decade previously for which his Whig party had not even re-nominated him.  His political ambitions seemed to have no future.  He spent much time on the couch in his law office, reading the political news while Herndon carried on the business.  The 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act gave him his opportunity.  Very cautiously at first and somewhat secretly he began making contacts with “free soil” leaders and groups that were rising into becoming the Republican Party.  From then on, still relatively unknown, he was a tireless presidential candidate, quietly buying up newspapers and networking.

Several lucky advantages came Lincoln’s way.  He was invited east to speak at NY’s Cooper Union.  (His gofer Herndon had already been on quiet connection-making missions to Republicans and anti-slavery men in the East.)   There and elsewhere Lincoln used his considerable rhetorical skills to position himself as an enemy of slavery but not associated with the unpopular abolitionists.  His chief rivals for the Republican leadership, William H. Seward of NY and Salmon P. Chase of OH, were already on record with statements offensive to the South and many moderate Northerners.  He got the Republican nomination for U.S. Senator from IL, to run against Stephen A. Douglas, the likely next Democratic presidential nominee.  Douglas generously and unwisely agreed to a series of debates with Lincoln across the State.   Lincoln changed around his speeches so as to be agreeable to Republicans in the northern part of IL and not give ammunition to Southern-origin Democrats in the southern part of the State.  He lost the election but got big media exposure and managed to trap the forthright Douglas into a position on slavery in the territories that raised doubts among his Southern supporters.  The notion that a great surge of popular admiration swept Lincoln into the White House is a joke.  There was never a campaign that was more intensely plotted and unscrupulously carried on.  A high mark was the 1860 Northern States nominating convention in Chicago, where Lincoln’s men engaged in various dirty tricks and physical intimidation to enhance their candidate’s appearance of popularity.  Lincoln’s step-brother, Dennis Hanks, appeared on stage with rails which he claimed the candidate had split as a young man – a bit of demagoguery that would have sickened the Founding Fathers.   Cynical neighbours later reported that Lincoln was not fond of hard work and had split fewer rails than any man in the county.

Lincoln, the President

It seems compulsory for historians to say not only that Lincoln won the war but that he was a supreme genius in everything he did as President.  But Lincoln’s performance was far from outstanding.  He had no government experience and had never managed anything bigger than a small law office.  His entire being was political.  After the election and after his inauguration he spent his time filling offices with greedy Republican supporters and said nothing about the secession crisis that his election had caused.  Given that he was a minority candidate, a statesman would have made every possible move to preserve peace.  The Founding Fathers would have wept.   The Republicans gloried in their seizure of power and were not about to make any concessions, although an overwhelming majority of Americans hoped for peace.  Stephen Douglas said that Lincoln faced a choice – he could please his party or he could save the country.  He chose the first alternative by his maneuvering at Fort Sumter.  When he had the incident he wanted, he declared war on the Confederacy.  The Upper South repudiated him and doubled the size of the Confederacy.  Was this the greatest blunder in U.S. history?

As President, Lincoln did not often get involved in details other than maintaining his and his party’s control. At times his hands-off attitude was excessive.  His admiring secretaries Nicolay and Hay said he never wrote more than one letter a day.  He allowed his subordinates to run separate empires.  Vast corruption flourished in Union army contracting.  Many Northerners treated the war as a money-making opportunity. The oft repeated assertion that Lincoln was a military genius is an absurdity.  He time and again forced unwise decisions on his generals and appointed them for political reasons.  Confederate President Davis made one great mistake in supporting General Braxton Bragg, but most of his appointments were good and made for military rather than political reasons.  It took the North four very bloody years to defeat a country with one-fourth its manpower and wealth.

Lincoln’s great achievement was as a politician.  He held together a coalition that finally won.  He kept together elements that agreed on very little – Radical Republicans,  the Border States, vast numbers of Northerners who did not agree with Republican rule.  Lincoln entered office with little respect.  His associates in his cabinet and Republican leaders in Congress thought of him as incompetent and opportunistic, certainly lacking their zeal.  He gathered respect in some quarters as the war went on, but most of the leaders that later canonized him despised him when he was alive.  They especially feared the hints that he was giving toward the end of a more lenient Reconstruction approach than they wanted.  There have always been observers who see more to his assassination than the official story.  Who profited from Lincoln’s death?  The Radical Republicans who assumed real power when he was gone.  Why was John Wilkes Booth, cornered and injured, killed instead of captured and questioned?  Why were pages missing from Booth’s diary?  Why were the “conspirators” held nearly incommunicado by the army and swiftly executed without ever being allowed to tell their story in open court?   We will probably never know.  We do know that assassinations were not in the repertoire of Confederate leaders but that Radical Republicans like Edwin Stanton and Thaddeus Stevens were fully capable of such.

The Lincoln Legacy

Few historians would dispute that the period after the WBTS was one of immense government corruption.  But somehow this seems to have mysteriously come about after Lincoln was off the scene.  But corruption was implicit in Lincoln’s program from the beginning.  The expected favours to Big Business were exponentially increased by war expenditures.  There is no question that a great many fortunes, bigger than had existed before in the U.S., were made by the war and that many Northerners regarded the war primarily as a money-making opportunity.  Visiting foreigners in the North noted that they hardly noticed that a war was going on except for those busily seeking government contracts.  Northern soldiers complained often about shoddy shoes and bad food.  There was a great deal of currency manipulation.  Lincoln himself enraged his Secretary of War by personally giving favoured businessmen exemptions from the rule against trading with the enemy, which allowed them to get cotton on the Texas coast in exchange for materiel needed by the Confederacy.

Lincoln is remembered for “emancipation.”  His emancipation is rather tainted by expediency and white supremacy.  But emancipation would have come sooner or later anyway – in a far less destructive way.  Lincoln’s more lasting legacy was the establishment of the virtual rule of Big Business which lasts till this day.  By “capitalism” Republicans meant not “free enterprise” but private ownership and profit with government subsidy and support.

In the “Gettysburg Address” Lincoln justified, and even glorified, his war.  Americans have made this a sacred document.  But a close look raises all sorts of questions.  The Confederacy was never a threat to “government of the people,” as Lincoln claimed.  It could be argued that his government was a greater threat.  The essential “proposition” of the Declaration of Independence was not Equality but the Consent of the Governed.  The Declaration did not establish a “nation,” but was a manifesto of 13 colonies struggling to become “free and independent States.”  The Constitution did not establish a “nation” but a confederacy, a Union.  Lincoln himself did not often use the term “nation” until the war was well underway. Edgar Lee Masters, a great poet from Lincoln’s home region of central Illinois, wrote that the Address only works if one does not inquire into its truth and reads it apart from the facts.  A “refusal of the truth” of Lincoln’s brutal war is written all over it, Masters said.  The popular gadfly writer H. L. Mencken wrote this about the Address in the 1920s:

It is genuinely stupendous.  But let us not forget that it is poetry, not logic; beauty, not sense. . . . The doctrine is simply this: that the Union soldiers who died at Gettysburg sacrificed their lives to the cause of self-determination – “that government of the people, by the people, for the people” should not perish from the earth.  It is difficult to imagine anything more untrue.  The Union soldiers in that battle actually fought against self-determination; it was the Confederates who fought for the right of their people to govern themselves.

Suggestions for Class Discussion

How does the Lincoln mythology affect American public affairs today?

Recommended Readings

  • The Real Lincoln, A New Look at Abraham Lincoln, His Agenda, and an Unnecessary War, by Thomas J. DiLorenzo, pub. 2002.
  • Lincoln, the Man, by Edgar Lee Masters, pub. 1931.
  • Mr. Lincoln Goes to War, by William Marvel, 4 vols., pub. 2006-2011.