In a recent discussion of the problems our country is facing, someone suggested that we need a "benevolent dictator" like Abraham Lincoln. A comment like this is usually made by a person who, like many Americans, has neither the time nor the inclination to look beyond the establishment’s portrayals of history. And court historians, with the help of a complicit media, have prevented the true Lincoln from being unmasked for a generation or more. They admit that Lincoln was a dictator, but try to sanitize his actions as being those of a "benevolent dictator," dismissing his illegal and cruel acts as simply minor abuses of power.
Of course, with politicians, abuses of power are a common occurrence. Not a day goes by that we do not read about an elected official’s involvement in some kind of scandal. The more flawed the individual, the more serious the breach of ethics. But these unethical lapses do not usually threaten lives nor cause death. And that is the difference between a corrupt public official and a tyrant. The actions of dictators often cause the loss of lives, yet dictators believe that their actions are defensible because the end justifies the means, however harsh they may be.
Dictators do not feel bound by rules of law; their actions must not be questioned, they do not negotiate, and they silence or eliminate those who oppose their policies. Unfortunately, no form of government has been designed that can prevent the emergence of a tyrant. Dictators simply ignore or circumvent established laws by using cunning verbal platitudes. And too often, those with influence do not speak out against them until it is too late.
But, contrary to what court historians claim, there is no such thing as a benevolent dictator. A brief look at some of history’s more famous tyrants will show that they all were cast from the same mold and they were not benevolent.
Although he was Emperor of Rome for only four years, that was enough time for Caligula to create a legacy of barbaric cruelty. Caligula had been raised by his uncle, the Emperor Tiberius, who decreed that Caligula and his nephew, Tiberius Gemellus should succeed him as joint emperors. But Caligula had his nephew murdered in order to become sole emperor. Caligula soon depleted the treasury and had to impose heavy taxation, including a tax on prostitutes, in order to maintain his lavish, debauched lifestyle. Like most dictators, he aggressively silenced and eliminated any opposition — primarily with "treason trials" for those he accused of "disloyalty." Conviction of treason was a foregone conclusion and those convicted were executed and their property confiscated. (So many so-called "criminals" were executed that there weren’t enough criminals to fight lions in the arena. On one occasion, Caligula became so peeved by the inadequate number of criminals that he literally ordered spectators to be dragged from their seats and placed in the arena to face the lions.)
Many believe that Caligula was insane and as evidence they cite his attempt to make his horse a senator. But this may have been the Emperor’s way of expressing what he thought of the Roman senate. Caligula created so many enemies that a member of his own guard finally assassinated him.
It shouldn’t surprise anyone that someone who becomes the absolute ruler of a nation at age three would eventually develop despotic tendencies. So it was with Ivan the Terrible who assumed the throne when he was three years old and became Russia’s first tsar at age sixteen. There were positive aspects of Ivan’s reign but they are overshadowed by his tyrannical actions. He enacted laws restricting the freedoms of peasants that eventually reduced them to virtual serfdom. Also, Ivan created the infamous Oprichnina; a personal security force whose purpose was to suppress those, primarily members of the nobility, who offered opposition to his actions. The Oprichnina murdered both nobles and peasants as Ivan viewed his rule as absolute and would not tolerate dissenters. Ivan murdered his own son during an argument. And history reports that a secret dose of poison caused Ivan’s death.
America’s founders thought they had fashioned a republic resistant to a dictatorship. But President Abraham Lincoln brushed aside the Constitution and the Bill of Rights that the Founders had so carefully constructed. "Saving the Union" was Lincoln’s excuse for refusing to meet with representatives from Southern states in order to attempt a negotiated compromise to the impending war. In true despotic fashion, Lincoln decided that there was only one way, his way, to save the Union. (Can you imagine George Washington, Thomas Jefferson or any of our other presidents refusing to attempt a negotiated compromise to a war; especially an internal war that would eventually cost the lives of over 600,000 young men?) Apparently, "saving the Union" was also Abraham Lincoln’s justification for waging war against defenseless civilians in Georgia, South Carolina and other parts of the South. In doing so he established a bloody precedent. Lincoln also shut down newspapers, arresting and imprisoning newspaper editors for being "disloyal."
An infamous example of Lincoln’s oppressive and illegal acts against civilians occurred in October 1862, in Palmyra, Missouri. The Union relied on secret informers to disclose the locations of Confederate sympathizers so they could be arrested. When their informer in Palmyra suddenly disappeared, General John McNeil ordered that a public decree be issued warning that if the informer was not returned within ten days, military forces would execute ten Palmyra civilians. The townspeople didn’t take the threat seriously because they couldn’t believe the federal government would ignore due process and certainly would not slaughter innocent civilians. However, when the informer was not located within the allotted time, ten civilians were selected by lottery and executed. (One was a nineteen-year-old man whose wedding had been scheduled for the day following his execution.) Newspapers in the South, the North and even Europe furiously condemned this murder of innocent civilians, labeling General McNeil the "Butcher of Palmyra." But President Lincoln rewarded McNeil by promoting him to Brigadier General of the United States Volunteers.
Lincoln conducted his presidency using the same techniques he had used as a country lawyer. He would support one position in one case, and the opposite position in another. And, although a non-believer, he laced his compassionate speeches to jurors with biblical quotations. His passionate, high-flown and manipulative rhetoric worked well with jurors and seems to be the only basis for today’s "Lincoln mythology." But Lincoln’s tyrannical behavior earned him the hatred of thousands of Americans and, as we know, one of those enraged Americans assassinated him.
The designation of history’s most notorious dictator might come down to a contest between Joseph Stalin, Benito Mussolini and Adolph Hitler. Although the enormity of Hitler’s atrocities still amazes us, his method of operation was no different from other dictators. Like Lincoln, Hitler also utilized the military to suppress any opposition to his policies. He shut down newspapers; had books burned, spied on and harassed ordinary citizens, and created concentration camps. Adolph Hitler also borrowed a page from Lincoln’s play book and converted the "saving the Union" ploy to lebensraum — living space — as justification for war. Whereas Lincoln had made Southern secessionists his scapegoat, Hitler blamed Germany’s problems on the Jews. So successful was Hitler’s propaganda machine that he was able to eliminate millions of European Jews. But Hitler’s grand scheme was too grandiose and unrealistic to succeed and when it eventually collapsed, the demoralized dictator took his own life.
Smaller nations have also been plundered by dictators as evidenced by Francois (Papa Doc) Duvalier of Haiti. One of Papa Doc’s first acts was the creation of a secret police force, the Tontons Macoute, that was used to silence and eliminate his opponents. In addition to the Tontons Macoute, Duvalier also had a Palace Guard and his own personal army. Like Lincoln, Papa Doc, claiming "seditious acts," arrested and jailed the country’s leading newspaper editors and radio station owners. Duvalier had his opponents executed and even went so far as to execute his own allies if he felt they were becoming too ambitious. Papa Doc was able to terrify the uneducated mass of Haitians into subservience by claiming to be a voodoo spirit of the dead. For years Duvalier duped Washington into giving him larger and larger sums of foreign aid, usually playing the race card by accusing America of leaving his "poor Negro Republic out in the cold." Although during his lifetime Papa Doc took in enormous amounts of foreign aid, he died leaving Haiti in financial ruin; a land of miserable slums filled with a homeless and starving populace.
These tyrants I’ve mentioned were all cut from the same cloth, all were seriously flawed individuals, and all are distinguished by their arrogance, an insistence on the absolute rightness of their opinions and a refusal to negotiate differences. History will remember them for their inhumane treatment of others, especially those who opposed their actions. The fickleness of destiny thrust each into a position of power for which they were unsuited, either by temperament or ability. Consequently, the lives of those they ruled were made worse by their appalling abuses of power.
But there are those who say that we mustn’t forget that Mussolini made the trains run on time; that Hitler planned and constructed the Autobahn, or that Lincoln "freed" the slaves. These rationalizations are supposed to mitigate the barbaric actions of these dictators. However, intelligent people are not fooled. Also these justifications are not true. Mussolini did not make the trains run on time. The corrections to Italy’s railway system began long before Mussolini came to power and even during his reign they were still sub-par. The construction of the German Autobahn began years before Hitler came to power. And, not a single slave was freed during Lincoln’s presidency as a result of any initiative of his — some slaves were voluntarily manumitted by their masters but not as a result of any government directive. Slaves were finally freed as a result of the 13th Amendment. When it was ratified, Lincoln had been dead for almost a year.