Thursday, February 12, 2009

Honestly, Abe...

Let's lighten it up a little. It seems like all of the posts for this year have been dedicated to trash or excrement of one kind or another, so I thought we should shift gears a little bit before things get really weird. This week marked the 200th birthday of Abraham Lincoln who is widely considered to be one of our greatest American presidents. “Honest” Abe has become something of a folk hero to the people of the U.S. He is a father figure to our nation, and it is impossible to mention the name of Abe without picturing a lanky man in a button-up shirt with his sleeves rolled up to his elbows wearing a top hat and sporting a scraggly beard while chopping wood outside his log cabin in Kentucky. I grew up in Illinois where people proudly proclaim that it is the Land of Lincoln from the top of every...uh...cornfield across the state. The main streets of every city and town are ubiquitously named after him, and every child in the state is subjected to great Lincoln folklore that places the man on a pedestal above all others. His mythology is so great that I found this actual quote, “...Abraham Lincoln was born in a log cabin in Kentucky which he built with his own hands...” Seriously, people. He is viewed as the Great Emancipator - the man that declared war on slavery and brought equality to every person in this country regardless of race. But did he? Does he deserve the god-like status that history has bestowed upon him?

I find it curious that even though Abraham Lincoln declared and presided over the most costly and divisive war in U.S. history that nothing bad is ever said about the man. Of course red flags start going off in my misanthropic brain right there. At least 620,000 American soldiers died in the Civil War which only lasted from 1861-1865. Possibly as many as 250,000 civilian casualties were tallied as well. This adds up to more fatalities than all of the other wars from the Revolution to Iraq combined. GW got lambasted over ~3k casualties in an eight-year effort on foreign soil. Imagine if he declared war on South Carolina, Mississippi, Georgia, Alabama, Florida, Louisiana and Texas. You think Rove and Cheney are evil…

I think part of the problem is the misconception that the Civil War was fought to end slavery. It is simply not true. When the war started in 1861 there were more slaves within the Union than outside it, and Lincoln hadn’t the slightest intention to free any of them. In an interview at the time he said, “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and it is not either to save or destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it.” And in a campaign speech three years before the war he said, “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; that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people…And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.” Nice. A little different than the “Four-score-and twenty” quotes that always get batted around, eh? However, admittedly this view isn’t too far out of line with the everyday point of view of Americans at the time. Hell, it’s still the point of view of most of white America today weather they come out and say it or not. Although Lincoln wasn’t in favor of abolishing slavery at the outset, he did, however, campaign against expansion of slavery in the U.S., which was a somewhat radical idea at the time.

The actual reason Abraham Lincoln’s northern army invaded the southern seven states was purely to regain the federal tax revenue that would be lost if they were allowed to secede peacefully. I find it glaringly strange that less than 100 years after the original 13 colonies seceded from British rule, and the founding fathers stated first in the Declaration of Independence , then in the Articles of Confederation and lastly the Constitution that the states were all “free and independent” (and thus retained the right to peacefully remove themselves from the Union) that Abraham Lincoln took it upon himself to negate that possibility at any cost in order to preserve the taxation powers of a large federal government…exactly what the colonies fought against to begin with. Kind of makes the Union sound a little like a Roach Motel - "Guests check in, but they can never check out."

During the war Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus and ordered the military to arrest tens of thousands of political opponents. He propagandized the war by closing ~300 newspapers and censoring all communications. Throughout the Union, Democratic voters were intimidated, and there is some evidence that elections were rigged (although this wasn’t uncommon before or even after Lincoln. Isn’t that right, President Gore?). In New York City, hundreds of protesters against conscription were shot, and it wasn’t uncommon even for outspoken congressional protestors to be arrested or deported. Also, in total disregard of the second amendment of the Constitution, citizens of the unfortunate Border States (Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri and West Virginia) were disarmed, and in the name of war private property was often confiscated. I suppose one could argue that during any civil war drastic measures must be taken since it is an almost impossible situation, but I would think that at least some of this information would tarnish Lincoln’s squeaky clean image. Much like Andy Dufresne from the Shawshank Redemption, Abe Lincoln was able to swim through a river of shit and come out clean on the other side. How is that possible?

I think it is more than coincidence that Abraham Lincoln, the penultimate American folk hero, was the fist Republican president of the U.S. As such, he is considered to be one of the flagships of the party image, and it simply won’t do to take a look at the man behind the curtain lest the party have to admit that the era he presided over was one of the darkest in American history on many levels. So they must prop him up as an iconic hero and loudly condemn anyone that dares question otherwise. Also, with the advent of the modern school system textbooks came into vogue, and there was fierce competition between publishers to gain a stronghold on burgeoning and impressionable American history students. Which book do you think sells better to grade school teachers: a book that dissects the atrocities committed during the civil war by a president that looks like Grandpa, or a book that is full of pictures that creates heroes for the children to look up to regardless of what that actual facts are? Not too difficult to see through the looking glass at that one. Heroes sell to children and keep them from dicking around too much in the classroom, and those children turn into adults that don’t ask questions.

Hero or dictator, Abraham Lincoln was the 16th President of the United States. He successfully led the country through one of its greatest internal crises, preserving the Union (weather it needed to be should be debated) and, as a side benefit, ending slavery in the process, and for all of his efforts he became the first president to be assassinated. He was a brilliant politician and orator who was forced to make some impossible decisions that undoubtedly changed the fate of the world today. Were his actions always in line with the greater good? Almost certainly not, but it is not possible to say if anyone else would have faired any better or any worse. That’s the problem with history, isn’t it? You can’t change the outcome no matter how much you second-guess another person’s decision-making abilities. You can, however, change public opinion of someone over time, and elevate ordinary men up to a pantheon of iconic heroes as a means to whatever end you choose, which in my opinion takes away from their actual legacy, good or bad. We should learn from history, not profit from it since the two motives almost invariably clash. I can’t help but wonder what Honest Abe would think about his rock star status today. Anyway, however you choose to view the man, I’ll leave you with some of his immortal words, “Be excellent to each other…and party on dudes!”

Happy 200th , Abe.

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