Abraham Lincoln- Tyrant or Savior of the Union?

With the upcoming release of Steven Spielberg's new biopic on Abraham Lincoln scheduled for this fall:

which is primarily based on Doris Kern Goodwin's really outstanding book Team of Rivals:

the debate over Lincoln resumes once again.

Abraham Lincoln remains one of the most controversial Presidents in American History.  So, as someone who LOVES a controversy, I cannot resist weighing in... Was Lincoln a tyrant or savior?  The President who preserved the Union or a dictator who ruthlessly crushed the 10th Amendment and state's rights?

First, let's look at the Lincoln as dictator theory.  I am using two books as sources here, both of which can be accused of being neo-Confederate in their outlook, although that's not a fair characterization.  Each of them attempts to portray Lincoln as trampling the natural right of secession and causing an unnecessary war to strengthen the federal government to either a) protect the industrial north or b) destroy those pesky Southern planters or both.

So, here are the basic themes both books have in common:

1)  Lincoln was a racist who cynically signed the Emancipation Proclamation but didn't really care about the slaves.  (Mostly true)  HOWEVER, Lincoln like many other Northerners probably concluded that slavery as an economic system was on the way out, and if it could be contained to the old South would probably die a natural death as industrialization and the mechanization of agriculture began to move into the South.  Truth be told, Lincoln, like many abolitionists was a little hypocritical.  While they wanted the slaves free, that didn't mean white Northerners wanted them as neighbors.  In contrast to the whiny victimization industry of Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, there was a genuine current of racism running through American society prior to the Civil War.  Lincoln was very clear that he had no desire to end slavery where it existed, but was determined to prevent its expansion.  This was not something Southern "fire-eaters" could accept, so the path to war was laid.

2) Lincoln wanted war.  (Not True)  Lincoln most assuredly did not want war and there was a concerted effort to seek political compromise prior to Fort Sumter.  Neither book talks about the Crittendon Compromise, probably the most concerted effort to avoid war.  The fact of the matter is, the central issue of the day--the expansion of slavery into the territories was NOT going to be resolved politically.  Again, in my opinion, the southern slaveholders, whose primary source of wealth was not their plantations or crops but their slaves, was looking at the writing on the wall, so to speak, and knew that unless slavery infinitely expanded, it was going to collapse as an economic system and ergo, so would most of their wealth.  It all comes down to the $$$$$...not politically correct but nonetheless accurate.

3)  Lincoln wanted to vastly expand the role of the Federal government at the expense of the states.  (Unknown).  Yes, that's a weaselly answer, but I was not convinced by DeLorenzo's argument that Lincoln was an eternal Whig who wanted to trample on states rights so he could build the transcontinental railroad.  Yes, there were actually debates in the 1840s and 1850s on the role of the government in "pubic improvements" and spending tax dollars on "infrastructure" projects (sound familiar), but I find it hard to believe any sane person would launch a war in order to advance their pet political projects.  Yes, I said that.   

4)  Lincoln was a dictator that trampled the Constitution (Hardly).  Yes, this is the most controversial statement.  Both authors think that Lincoln acted like a dictator, throwing people in jail without a trial, controlling or muzzling the press, and waging war on Southern civilians.  I have to say that in my opinion, these gentlemen interpret history very differently than I do.  FOR ONCE, I will say that the Civil War was an unprecedented situation in American history, with a large part of the population duly in rebellion against a FREELY elected government.  Maybe not the one the South wanted, but I could snarkly say that if the Democratic Party had not split into Northern and Southern wings, Lincoln may very well have lost the election...ponder that for a second.  As I will show below, the Constitution is kinda vague on dealing with a rebellion and would seem to grant the President pretty wide latitude.  Now these authors will say that only Congress can suspend habeas corpus, and technically they would be correct, but given the state of Congress in the early parts of the war, and the speed (or lack thereof) of communications, it is not unreasonable for Lincoln to have taken action and let Congress catch up...which is pretty much what happened.  Did Lincoln take some extraordinary acts?  Yes..was he a dictator?  Hardly..as I will argue below.

So, now that we have heard from these sources...and I will debate them more later, let's see what the Constitution actually says about the powers of the President to deal with a "rebellion."  As I pointed out in an earlier post, the actual language in the Constitution is pretty vague and does not deal with a lot of specifics except for the Writ of Habeas Corpus, which is pretty clearly spelled out and appears to give the government pretty wide latitude in suspending it.
Article I, Section 8:  To provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions;
Article I, Section 9:  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.
Article I, Section 10:  No State shall, without the Consent of Congress, lay any Duty of Tonnage, keep Troops, or Ships of War in time of Peace, enter into any Agreement or Compact with another State, or with a foreign Power, or engage in War, unless actually invaded, or in such imminent Danger as will not admit of delay.
Article II, Section 2:  The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States                                         
Article III, Section 3:  Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort. No Person shall be convicted of Treason unless on the Testimony of two Witnesses to the same overt Act, or on Confession in open Court.
So, what were Lincoln's views of government, the rebellious states and most importantly, how should persons in the Confederacy be treated, especially military officers and political leaders?

This is not an inconsequential questions as there were Congressmen and Senators that took a more severe view of the South than Lincoln.  The so-called "Radical Republicans" wanted to not only crush the South politically and economically, they wanted to try the senior Confederate leadership, including President Jefferson Davis and General Robert E. Lee for treason.  Two interesting articles tell of the eventual resolution of these matters after Lincoln was assassinated.

Secession, Salmon Chase, and the Treason Trial of Jefferson Davis

Lincoln's own words were much more conciliatory and politically savvy. Considering the aftermath of most civil wars from 1700-2000, where the vanquished suffered mass executions, economic ruin, and often ethnic cleansing, the American Civil War ended with an almost miraculous reconciliation within a generation (shown by the fact that both former Confederate and Union generals commanded troops in the Spanish-American War). Most of the credit for this must go to Lincoln, who instinctively knew that a military victory must lead to political reintegration of the south to avoid a long festering sore of an American "Irish Problem" with never ending political violence, insurgency and upheaval.
The Confederate leadership in late 1860 and early 1861 seemed to make decisions almost entirely on emotion, without a lot of regard for the political consequences. Fort Sumter was probably the greatest blunder of all. The Union garrison would likely have surrendered by 15 April without a shot being fired due to a lack of supplies. But the South opened fire, rallied the Union, and launched the war that led to the end of the antebellum South.

It must also be remembered, that by most contemporary accounts, the North may have won the war, but the South won the peace, and, at least for 100 years after the war, most of the history. I am no great proponent of the "
Lost Cause" school of history, but the fact that books like The South Was Right! can still be written today shows that the Confederacy continues to stir strong emotions. The whole period of Reconstruction would present a fascinating case of a successful insurgency where a militarily defeated force nonetheless manages to win the political fight by reinstituting segregation, the political dominance of the WHITE SOUTHERN DEMOCRATIC party, and racial inequality for nearly 90 years. Now I am no touchy-feely liberal, but I would not have wanted to be a black man in the early 1900s South. It does of course kind of annoy me that the modern DemocRATic Party can so successfully whitewash (so to speak) the role of their party in slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, segregation and the opposition to the civil rights movement. But that's another blog post.

SO, this Grouchy Historian will say that Lincoln, while imperfect, was the savior of the Union. I cannot imagine the chaos, despair and anarchy if the South had successfully seceded. The thought of a modern day Balkans in the United States makes me cringe. I think Lincoln did quite well under the circumstances in keeping the country together, ending slavery, and putting America on the path to the country it is today.

AND, if you want to talk about trampling the Constitution and expanding the powers of the Federal government at the expense of the states and the 10th Amendment, I would look more toward Woodrow Wilson, FDR and the turn of the century progressives. Whatever Lincoln did pretty quickly faded into the Gilded Age of American industrialization....what FDR did is STILL haunting us today....but that's another blog post.....

HINT-- Glenn Beck was right on the money...if a little emphatic for some people's sensibilities...