'A true thing poorly expressed is a lie.' -Christopher Hitchens

Abraham Lincoln - A Presidency of Controversy

by Ethan Glover, Fri, Oct 04, 2013 - (Edited) Fri, Oct 04, 2013

Note: This article was originally written for an American Government college course.

“Armies of scholars, meticulously investigating every aspect of [Lincoln's] life, have failed to find a single act of racial bigotry on his part.” (Kearns-Goodwin, Team of Rivals, 2006, p.207). “I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races, [applause]---that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry 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 for ever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality.” (Lincoln, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, 1858, pp. 145-146). It is only natural for writers from all walks to have certain biases that show in their books and essays. Lincoln has been a subject of many biases, and the goal of this paper is to present proper perspectives from proper sources that paint a clear picture of exactly who Abraham Lincoln was as a president. The best sources on Lincoln of course are from the man himself, direct quotes from his peers and the highest authorities on the studies of Abraham Lincoln. The goal here is not to take sides but instead to allow for clear opinions to be made. Many subjects of great controversy surround Lincoln's presidency to include his views on slavery, his abuse of power and his economic beliefs.

The most controversial of these topics and the one that often carries the heaviest assumptions and emotion is slavery. Thomas Fleming, who is a well respected historian and the author of many books to include the biographies of George Washington and Benjamin Franklin recently wrote a book, published May 7, 2013, called, “A Disease in the Public Mind: A New Understanding of Why We Fought the Civil War”. It is generally believed that the cause for the civil war was slavery, and while it should be recognized that slavery was indeed a factor, Fleming brings up some interesting points. He makes note of the fact that the United States was the only country that did not end slavery peacefully and that merely 6% of southern men owned slaves. It is hard to believe that so many southern states and so many southern men were willing to fight a war for these 6%. Fleming instead points to a long history of hatred between Northerners and Southerners. “[Northern] hatred for Southerners long predated their objections to slavery. Abolitionists were convinced that New England, whose spokesmen had begun the American Revolution, should have been the leaders of the new nation. Instead, they had been displaced by Southern “slavocrats” like Thomas Jefferson” (Fleming, A Disease in the Public Mind, 2013, Front Cover). This shows a growing tension between the two groups involved in the Civil War from the beginning, a battle between “Jeffersonian” and “Hamiltonian” ideals. If most southerners did not own slaves, why were they willing to fight and die for those ideals? It must be that there was much more to it than that. In fact, it could be argued that slave labor was harmful to the southern economy due to the fact that slave labor is inferior to even voluntary free labor, which made the entire South worse off. Fleming believes that the real reason the Civil War came to fruition, despite the decreasing slave trade was for two reasons. First, the hatred the South had for the North because of the belief that the “Yankees” believed that they were God's chosen people and should rule America. Second, for the tensions between Christianity and abolitionists which was heightened when abolitionists began embracing a mass murderer by the name of John Brown as their “savior”. Jon Brown was an abolitionist who often killed southern families not for owning slaves, but for being associated with the south.

Where Brown's influence becomes most relevant for the purposes of this paper is in Kansas. The Kansas-Nebraska act was the inspiration for Lincoln's famous “House Divided” speech. In this speech, he speaks about the fact that the current President, “...declares that all he wants is a fair vote for the people, and that he cares not whether slavery be voted down or voted up.” (Lincoln, 1858, House Divided Speech). Lincoln spoke of “slavery agitation”, which spoke to the violence that was coming from what he called, “[A] Government … half slave and half free.”. Lincoln, as a senatorial candidate, claimed the country must choose either one or the other and that this issue should not keep the country divided. Fleming notes, however, that the violence was not due to slavery. After all abolitionists directed their violence towards southerners who they simply believed were sinners. It was an us vs. them mentality that was keeping the United States divided, not slavery itself.

Later in his life and in his presidency Lincoln showed the same opinions of slavery that he spoke against in his House Divided speech. The quote at the beginning of this paper showed that he was never in favor of bringing about any kind of equality. The quote by Kearns-Goodwin is from “Team of Rivals” which was the inspiration for the Steven Spielberg's film, “Lincoln”. However, as Leronne Bennett Jr. notes in, “Forced into Glory: Abraham Lincoln's White Dream”, the main theme of the movie which was Lincoln's pushing of the thirteenth amendment was simply a “pleasant fiction”. Professor David H. Donald of Harvard University is the recipient of many Pulitzer prizes thanks to his historical writings which includes a biography of Lincoln. In his book, he says that Lincoln did discuss the Thirteenth Amendment with Representatives James Ashley and James Rollins. David Donald writes, "If Lincoln used means of persuading congressmen to vote for the Thirteenth Amendment, his actions are not recorded. Conclusions about the President's role rested on gossip...” (Donald, Lincoln, 1996, p. 545). There is simply no evidence that any vote was changed on the Thirteenth Amendment thanks to Lincoln's influence. Donald says that, "Lincoln was told that he might win some support from New Jersey Democrats if he could persuade Charles Sumner to drop a bill to regulate the Camden & Amboy Railroad, but he declined to intervene," (Donald, 2011, p. 554). David Donald is arguably the most respected authority on Abraham Lincoln and says in clear terms that there is no evidence that Lincoln influenced a single vote on the thirteenth amendment.

While there may be no evidence that Lincoln supported or did anything regarding the passing of the Thirteenth amendment, there is evidence that he provided a lot of support in getting the first proposal of the amendment through to the House and Senate in 1861. This amendment was otherwise known as the “Corwin Amendment”, and it was the first failed attempt to get the thirteenth amendment ratified. Lincoln personally helped this amendment through, but it is different from the thirteenth amendment we see today. The Corwin Amendment reads, “No amendment shall be made to the Constitution which will authorize or give to Congress the power to abolish or interfere, within any State, with the domestic institutions thereof, including that of persons held to labor or service by the laws of said State.” (Corwin, 1861, Corwin Amendment). This amendment followed Lincolns own beliefs in that he had no preference towards slavery or freedom. Lincoln says in this first inaugural address in reference to this amendment, “I understand a proposed amendment to the Constitution – which amendment, however, I have not seen – has passed Congress to the effect that the Federal Government shall never interfere with the domestic institutions of the States, including that of persons held to service. To avoid misconstruction of what I have said, I depart from my purpose not to speak of particular amendments, so far as to say that, holding such a provision to now be implied constitutional law, I have no objections to its being made express and irrevocable”. (Lincoln, 1861, First Inaugural Address). Lincoln believed that slavery was constitutional and had no problem with the states making their own decisions on the matter. It was the influence of this first inaugural address that gave the Corwin Amendment the popularity in order to make it through congress. In fact, on page 296 of Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns-Goodwin it is explained that after Lincoln was elected, and before he gave his address, he told Senator William Seward, his future Secretary of State, to get the amendment passed in the Senate. He also wanted Seward to get laws passed that would repeal the personal liberty laws that were used to nullify the Fugitive Slave Act. The Fugitive Slave act instructed Northern citizens to track down runaway slaves and return them to their respected owners. Lincoln was a tremendous supporter of this act. Kearns-Goodwin says, “He instructed Seward to introduce these proposals in the Senate Committee of Thirteen without indicating they issued from Springfield. The first resolved that 'the Constitution should never be altered so as to authorize Congress to abolish or interfere with slavery in the states.'”, and “All state personal liberty laws in opposition to the Fugitive Slave Law be repealed.” (Kearns-Goodwin, Team of Rivals, 2006, p. 296).

The fact is that Lincoln would have personally preferred to deport all blacks. He saw this as the best way to keep the States united over this issue. He has been quoted by saying in his speech on the Dred Scott Decision, “I have said that the separation of the races is the only perfect preventative of amalgamation … Such separation, if ever effected at all, must be effected by colonization” (Lincoln, 1857, Speech on the Dred Scott Decision). Amalgamation being defined of course as the act of uniting two things. Lincoln continued in the speech, “Let us be brought to believe it is morally right, and, at the same time, favorable to, or, at least, our interest, to transfer the African to his native clime...” (Lincoln, 1857, Speech on the Dred Scott Decision). Lincoln later in his Address on Colonization to a Deputation specified the locations of a possible deportation, “The place I am thinking about having for a colony is in Central America. It is nearer to us than Liberia.” (Lincoln, 1862, Address on Colonization to a Deputation of Negroes).

Lincoln was more concerned with maintaining peace, and he did not see that ever happening between whites and blacks. In his early career, he simply wanted governments to make a decision on whether blacks should be free or not in order to get things set in stone as a way to stop the constant arguing and violence. Later in his life, when states did begin to set their own rules, and hatred between Northerners and Southerners did not cease, Lincoln decided that deportation was the best option, but this belief of his was not supported. The perspective of the idea of slavery rather than slavery itself being a core tenant to the tensions between the North and South should be a consideration in understanding the past. All Southerners were pigeonholed and targeted by abolitionists and the actions of the abolitionists only made things worse. Lincoln saw the problems with the crimes and violence of the abolitionists but targeted the blacks as the cause. Instead of looking at groups and playing favorites a better solution may have been to look at the violent individuals who made diplomacy among the people nearly impossible.

Slavery was not the only controversial issue that comes from Lincolns presidency. Lincoln made it clear that his goal was to “preserve the Union” as he saw it. That is with a federal government having ultimate power over the states. Congressman Clement L. Vallandigham was a major rival of Lincoln and spent a career speaking against him and what he saw as significant abuses of power. On May 5, 1863, 67 soldiers broke into Vallandigham's home in the middle of the night and put him into a military prison on the orders of Abraham Lincoln. Vallandigham was later escorted to Canada where he remained until Lincoln's death. Lincoln was able to do this because of his suspension of habeas corpus years earlier when he gave the order to General John Dix, “...you are therefore hereby commanded forthwith to arrest and imprison in any fort or military prison in your command the editors, proprietors and publishers of thee aforesaid newspapers.” (Lincoln, Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, 1864, p. 348). Vallandigham's official crime was “discouraging enlistments” in the army which was deemed illegal by military order. Officers in the state of Ohio under that order had the power to decide what speech was legal and what was not.

Vallandigham was the leader of the Democratic opposition against Abraham Lincoln and was constantly smeared as a “copperhead” which was a general term used by Republicans to describe those who were anti-war and did not believe that war was necessary in order to preserve peace between the states. The speeches Vallandigham made against Lincoln in expressing his opposition for the President can be found in a book called, “Speeches, Arguments, Addresses and Letters of Clement L. Vallandigham”. In a speech in 1861 Vallandigham summed up his views on the Lincoln presidency by calling it, “the wicked and hazardous experiment of calling thirty millions of people into arms among themselves, without the counsel and authority of Congress.” (Vallandigham, 1861, Executive Usurpation Speech). Vallandigham spoke against Lincoln's belief that the federal government had a right to intervene in the case of secession as he did in the Civil war by saying, “He omits to tell us that secession and disunion had a New England origin, and began in Massachusetts, in 1804, at the time of the Louisiana Purchase; were revived by the Hartford Convention, in 1814, and culminated, during the war with Great Britain, in sending commissioners to Washington to settle the terms for a peaceable separation of New England from the other States of the Union.” (Vallandigham, Speeches, Arguments, Addresses, and Letters of Clement L. Vallandigham, 2012, p. 308). The congressman even criticized the President's first inaugural address by saying that it was spoke “with the forked tongue and crooked counsel of the New York politician [Thurlow Weed, Lincoln's campaign manager], leaving thirty millions of people in doubt whether he meant peace or war.” (Vallandigham, 2012, p. 99). This was a heavy claim and it refers back to the fact the Lincoln talked of keeping the Union together but never explained how. It may have been assumed that Lincoln meant diplomacy rather than acts of law. Vallandigham even went so far as to say that the Republican Parties refusal to compromise with the southern states was due to, “the necessities of a party in the pangs of dissolution.” That is, they needed war in order to keep the people's favor.

Vallandigham further expands on his reasons for the cause of the war as, “the passage of an obscure, ill-considered, ill-digested, and unstatesmanlike high protectionist tariff act, commonly known as the 'Morrill Tariff.'” The passing of the Morrill Tariff was a part of Abraham Lincoln's admiration for Alexander Hamilton's and Henry Clay's, “American System”, which was a British mercantile economic system. This was a law that was meant to create rapid industrial growth by limiting the competition from the lower-wage industries in Europe that sold goods for cheaper. The concern of the congressman and many others was that it favored particular industries and businesses as a way to play political favors. The Tariff also placed very large taxes on particular industries to create the funding. Abraham Lincoln threatened to invade any state that refused to pay for the federal tariff tax in his first inaugural address, long before secession, “..there needs to be no bloodshed or violence, and there shall be none unless it be forced upon the national authority. The power confided to me will be used to hold, occupy, and possess the property and places belonging to the Government and to collect the duties and imposts; but beyond what may be necessary for these objects, there will be no invasion” (Lincoln, 1861, First Inaugural Address). Congressman Vallandigham said about Lincoln's claim, “he is only preserving and protecting the Constitution” that he was actually destroying it. Vallandigham said, “The Constitution can not be preserved by violating it. It is an offense to the intelligence of this House, and of the country, to pretend that all this, and the other gross and multiplied infractions of the Constitution and usurpation’s of power were done by the President and his advisers out of pure love and devotion to the Constitution.” (Vallandigham, The Record of Hon. C. L. Vallandigham on abolition, the Union, and the Civil War, 1863, p. 107). Vallandigham said that all of this, “would have cost any English sovereign his head at any time within the last two years.” (Vallandigham, The Record of Hon. C. L. Vallandigham on abolition, the Union, and the Civil War, 1863, p. 104).

Vallandigham saw Lincoln's economic policies and by extension that of Henry Clay and Alexander Hamilton as economic interventionism and corporate welfare. He had this to say about it, “national banks, bankrupt laws, a vast and permanent public debt, high tariffs, heavy direct taxation, enormous expenditure, gigantic and stupendous speculation.. No more state lines, no more state governments, but a consolidated monarchy or vast centralized military despotism.” This may all sound like vitriol, but Vallandigham was only one voice and one that collaborates many views that many people shared with him. Lincoln's ideas were not common and very different than what any people were used to or what they wanted, especially when it came to the South. Vallandigham once made a speech on the floor of the House of Representatives showing that the Democratic and Republican parties had become alarmingly opposite, he noted that his Democratic party was in favor of, “The support of liberty as against power; of the people as against their agents and servants; and of State rights as against consolidation and centralized despotism a simple government; no public debt; low taxes; no high protectionist tariff; no general system of internal improvements [corporate welfare] by the Federal authority; no National Bank; hard money for the Federal public dues; no assumption of state debts; expansion of territory; self government for the Territories...” (Vallandigham, Speeches Concerning Politics and Government During the Civil War, 1864, p.29). All of this, Vallandigham believed, was the exact opposite of Lincoln's Republican Party. When Abraham Lincoln claimed that he was attempting to save the Union, Vallandigham responded by saying, “The president professes to think that the Union can be restored by arms. I do not. A Union founded on consent can never be cemented by force. This is the testimony of the fathers.” (Vallandigham, The Record of Hon. C. L. Vallandigham on Abolition, the Union, and the Civil War, 1863, pp. 145-146). Vallandigham believed, as did others, that using force to create the Union defeats the purpose and shows the true nature of the Lincoln government. He had a similar view on Lincoln's conscription when he said that the conscription law “is a confession that the people of the country are against this war. It is a solemn admission … that they will not voluntarily consent to wage it any longer.” (Vallandigham, Speeches, Arguments, Addresses, And Letters of Clement L. Vallandigham, 1864, p. 460). Soon after saying this the Congressman made a speech in New York City which received loud applause and cheers he noted “instead of crushing out the rebellion.. [the]..effort has been to crush the spirit of liberty”.

The final speech Vallandigham made before he was deported was in response to Lincoln's “General Order Number 15” which illegalized gun ownership. Vallandigham said, “unnecessary, impolitic, and dangerous” and “a violation of civil law”. He also asked his audience, “Are we a conquered province governed by military proconsul? … And has it come to this, that the Constitution is now suspended by a military General Order?” (Vallandigham, A Life of Clement L. Vallandigham, 1872, p. 244).

Vallandigham put a lot of pressure on the Lincoln administration and was surely a constant frustration but did that warrant arrest and deportation? Did Lincoln take his power too far or was he justified in doing everything possible in order to “preserve the Union” and did the Union need Lincolns “preserving”? Vallandigham was only one voice in the opposition to Lincoln's controversial presidency, but he was certainly the loudest and maybe the most representative of what Lincoln's political enemies thought of him. Lincoln was no stranger to challenging the Constitution for the sake of getting things done his way. Some notable quotes from him in this regard are, “The dogmas of the quite past [referring to the U.S. Constitution], are inadequate to the stormy present.. so we must think anew and act anew.” (Lincoln, Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, 1858, p. 537). “The resolutions quote from the constitution, the definition of treason; and also the.. safeguards and guarantees therein provided for the citizen.. against the pretensions of arbitrary power.. But these provision of the constitution have no application we have in hand.” (Lincoln, Collected works of Abraham Lincoln, 1858, p. 262).

There are many varying opinions of Lincoln. There is the classic view of Honest Abe who was born to free the slaves and fought his whole life to make it happen. After Spielberg's movie, the perspective rose about a conniving and brilliant politician willing to do anything to get the job done. There is also the opinion that he was a racist and a tyrant; and that he set forth the standard that has led to many of the negative things about government we see today. These opinions, however, are of no importance. When looking purely at the facts, the quotes and the rhetoric of the time we see a man who was devoted to what he believed in whether that was right or wrong. Many people in the southern states wanted to hang on to their sovereignty and did not see slavery as a concern as it was on its way out anyways. Abolitionists in the northern states had an isolated opinion of those in the south and responded with violence. Lincoln suspended habeas corpus and free speech, and deported a congressman who spoke against him. He saw this as necessary in a time of war. Understanding this and painting a clear and full picture of Lincoln can help us understand the present and future. It is best to learn from Lincoln's presidency as best as possible instead of drawing opinions about the man himself. Ignoring some of the more negative facts about Lincoln's presidency is no better than exaggerating them, all opinions should be formed by the reader and not the writer.