The Unknown Lincoln

In a recent article on ("Fake Lincoln Quotes", July 10) I discussed how much of what Americans think they know about Abraham Lincoln is false, thanks to all the fake Lincoln quotes that fill the literature. But it gets worse: On top of that, much of what is true about Lincoln is virtually unknown to the American public, thanks to generations of Court Historians who have hidden the facts from the public. Most Americans "know" a Fantasy Lincoln but are almost completely ignorant of the Real Lincoln.

Many of these well-documented facts are discussed in a fascinating book entitled The Lincoln No One Knows by the late Webb Garrison, who was an associate dean at Emory University and the president of McKendree College in Lebanon, Illinois.

The subtitle of the book is "38 Mysteries of One of America’s Most Admired Presidents." Each chapter title is in the form of a question, such as: "Why is He Still Seen as a Hayseed Lawyer Who Barely Made a Living?"; "What Induced a Foe of Slavery to Serve as a Counsel for a Slaveholder?"; "What Persuaded a Veteran Attorney to Order Suspension of the Writ of Habeas Corpus?"; and "How did a Tenderhearted Man Direct Wholesale Slaughter for Month After Month?"

As I argue in The Real Lincoln, these questions are not "mysteries" at all if one comes to understand the real, as opposed to the mythical Lincoln. Let’s consider just a few of these well-documented "mysteries." (And well-documented they are: In his preface Garrison thanks the "dean" of "Civil War" historians, James McPherson, and Thomas Schwartz, curator of the Lincoln Collection at the Illinois State Historical Society, for their fact checking assistance. They read the manuscript with "scrupulous care," says Garrison).

Lincoln has long been portrayed as a folksy, hayseed country lawyer. But the truth is, he was the highest-paid trial lawyer in Illinois whose clients included the Illinois Central Railroad, which at the time was the biggest corporation in the world. He "was one of the most skillful and highly paid attorneys of the region" who was "ready support either side of any case…. Lincoln’s earnings placed him among the wealthy elite." He was essentially a lobbyist for the Northern plutocracy and its anti-populist, mercantilist policies.

Lincoln has also been portrayed as a champion of personal liberty and a defender of the Constitution. He frequently promised to uphold the law and the Constitution. But the "Lincoln No One Knows" suspended the writ of Habeas Corpus, the only personal liberty law in the Constitution, and ordered the military to arrest tens of thousands of Northern citizens for merely voicing opposition to his administration. This number included hundreds of Northern newspaper editors and owners who criticized the Lincoln administration. None of these individuals was ever served a warrant and some spent four years in military prison without any due process. A member of Congress, Clement L. Vallandhigham of Ohio, was deported because of his outspoken opposition to the Lincoln administration.

Lincoln signed into law the first military conscription law which, at the time, was considered to be unconstitutional by the chief justice of the US Supreme Court, Roger B. Taney. Taney issued a private opinion, but the issue was never brought to the Supreme Court during Lincoln’s time. The New York Evening Press denounced the conscription law as "slavery, accursed slavery," and there were violent draft riots in Ohio, Illinois, New York, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Indiana, New Jersey, and Wisconsin. Lincoln’s own son Robert remained at Harvard until 1864, when newspapers began making a stink about his lack of military service. Lincoln then placed him in a safe and secure place as an "official escort to notables" (including his father) on General Grant’s staff. His military "service" only lasted three months, however.

What led Lincoln to "countermand early efforts to free some slaves," Garrison asks. He refers here to the efforts early in the war by Union Generals John Fremont and David Hunter to issue orders to emancipate slaves in Missouri and Georgia, respectively, that were owned by secessionists (loyal Unionists could keep their slaves). Lincoln rescinded both orders. As Garrison wrote, "During a ten-month period, repeated efforts at emancipation were thwarted by Lincoln."

Garrison labels this behavior a mystery, but it is not so mysterious if one takes Lincoln’s word when he said that his "paramount objective" was to destroy the secession movement, not to do anything about slavery.

The "railsplitting," hayseed lawyer was in fact a master politician. This is why a supposed political "novice" got the upper hand over Congress, as Garrison explains in one chapter. Lincoln the master politician launched an invasion without consent of Congress, blockaded Southern ports, suspended Habeas Corpus, and essentially declared himself dictator. "It was almost as though the nation’s lawmaking body didn’t exist," writes Garrison.

And "how did a tenderhearted man direct wholesale slaughter for month after month?" Garrison notes how Lincoln was a master micromanager of the war effort. He paid numerous visits to the headquarters of various regiments, repeatedly reviewed troops, directly made many military appointments himself, rather than leaving it to his generals, and paid special attention to weapons. He developed "an enthusiasm for testing weapons of every kind and size" to be used to bombard both Confederate soldiers and Southern civilians. He even "considered the use of body armor and may have tried it on himself."

Lincoln mythology includes tales of how many times he supposedly wept over the news of acquaintances being killed in the war, and in his 1860 campaign biography he claimed to have been emotionally devastated over having shot a turkey as a child. But as hundreds of thousands of men were killed in the war, and hundreds of thousands more maimed for life, no one around Lincoln "reported anything approaching a public display of emotion" upon learning of such massive battlefield deaths, writes Garrison.

Informed of how the federal army had pillaged, plundered, burned, and raped its way through the defenseless Shenandoah Valley in 1864, Lincoln only conveyed "the thanks of a nation" to General Philip Sheridan, the chief plunderer, and added his personal gratitude.

Hundreds of thousands of Northerners favored a peaceful resolution but were conscripted into Lincoln’s army. When their deaths were brought up, Lincoln claimed that they were "endeavoring to purchase with their blood and their lives the future happiness and prosperity of the country."

Lincoln is also hailed as a champion — if not savior — of American democracy. But his notion of democracy was quite odd. In his December 8, 1863, Message to Congress he declared that "democracy" could be restored to the conquered Southern states if ten percent of the population could be found who were Unionists and could be used to govern the other 90 percent — with the "support" of Federal troops. "Use only trusted Union men," Lincoln proclaimed, and "exclude all others."

Perhaps more importantly, Lincoln’s stated purpose in the war was to destroy the principle of the Declaration of Independence that governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. Southerners no longer consented to being governed by Washington, DC, so Lincoln waged total war against them for four long years. Of course, he didn’t put it this way but instead sugarcoated his objective with language about "saving the Union." At the time many Americans — including dozens of Northern newspaper editors — considered the act of compelling a state to remain in the Union at gunpoint to be destructive of the voluntary union of the states. And they were right.

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