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Cutting through the Lincoln myth

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tags: Abraham Lincoln



Walter Kamphoefner teaches American history at Texas A&M University, specializing in immigration history and the Civil War era.

One measure of Abraham Lincoln's towering stature, sevenscore and ten years after his death, is the way people of various ideological stripes attempt to harness Lincoln's words in support of their own positions.

Among the most cited Lincoln quotes is his August 1862 reply to the abolitionist pleadings of Horace Greeley, in which he stated: "My paramount object ... is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it. ... What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union."

This provides a convenient prop for revisionists who claim that the Civil War was not about slavery, and that Lincoln was indifferent to the issue, but only if one edits out the punch line: "I have here stated my purpose according to my view of official duty; and I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men every where could be free."

Notwithstanding his nickname "Honest Abe," Lincoln at the time already had the Emancipation Proclamation drafted, just waiting for a Union victory before he issued it. Lincoln was not only a statesman but also a very savvy politician as well. Both were absolutely essential for him to achieve what he did, given the obstacles he faced as president.

Although slavery stopped at the Mason-Dixon Line, racism did not. Republicans kept hammering on the issue of slavery, seeking above all to block its expansion, a measure that united both racists and idealists within their coalition. Democrats kept trying to change the subject to race.

In his 1858 debate with Douglas, Lincoln's political survival required him to defuse the race issue. He put forth a statement fondly quoted by an odd coalition of neo-Confederates and black militants: "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."

Again, they omit the punch line, where Lincoln denied that "because I do not want a [N]egro woman for a slave I must necessarily want her for a wife. My understanding is that I can just let her alone."

Reminding his audience that many Southern Democrats including Martin Van Buren's notorious vice president, Richard M. Johnson, could not "let her alone," he regaled his listeners with some racy humor that skewered Democratic hypocrisy on race mixing and left the crowd roaring with laughter.

Lincoln was also an ethnic politician of no mean accomplishment.

In 1859 he bought a silent partnership in a Springfield German language paper to keep it from going under and keep it in the Republican fold. It was well worth the $500 investment: in Illinois at least, German-American voters lined up solidly behind his candidacy.

Defense of immigrant rights was a matter of longstanding principle for him; as early as 1844 he sponsored a resolution condemning the anti-Catholic violence that erupted against the Irish in Philadelphia over the issue of Bible reading in public schools.

He had taken a clear stand against the nativist Know Nothing movement in his famous 1855 letter to his friend Joshua Speed.

Those same principles were echoed four years later in a public letter which his silent partner, immigrant editor Theodore Canisius, circulated widely in English and German: "Understanding the spirit of our institutions to aim at the elevation of men, I am opposed to what ever tends to degrade them. I have some little notoriety for commiserating the oppressed condition of the Negro; and I should be strangely inconsistent if I could favor any project for curtailing the existing rights of white men, even though born in different lands, and speaking different languages from myself."

Lincoln was rewarded not only at the ballot box: One-quarter of the Union army was foreign born, often denounced by Confederates as Hessians and mercenaries, but in fact the great majority of them were genuine immigrants and knew what they were fighting for -- or against.

Back when Reconstruction was viewed as a fool's errand imposing "Negro rule" on a prostrate South, critics often quoted Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address, calling for "malice toward none; with charity for all."

The preceding paragraph goes largely ignored: "It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. ... Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away.

"Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, ... still it must be said 'the judgements of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.'"

Opponents of Radical Reconstruction often portrayed Lincoln's successor Andrew Johnson as a martyr for following Lincoln's magnanimous policies toward the South.

Immigrant statesman and Lincoln confidant Carl Schurz knew better, writing in 1906: "It was pretended at the time and it has since been asserted by historians and publicists that Mr. Johnson's Reconstruction policy was only a continuation of that of Mr. Lincoln.

"This is true only in a superficial sense. .. Had [Lincoln] lived, he would have as ardently wished to stop bloodshed and to reunite as he ever did. But is it to be supposed for a moment that, seeing the late master class in the South intent upon subjecting the freedmen again to a system very much akin to slavery, Lincoln would have consented to abandon those freemen to the mercies of that master class?"

Unfortunately, we will never know, but Lincoln's own statements, without the deceptive editing, give us a good idea.

Read entire article at The Eagle


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