There’s a new Lincoln movie out with a guy with both British and Irish citizenship playing the part of the Illinois Rail Splitter. How appropriate. Why is our 16th president so adored? What did he actually do that was good for our nation? Some will say that he ended slavery. Ending slavery is certainly a good thing. Other nations had ended slavery. England, for example, did it without a war. Consider these comments from William Wilberforce (1759–1883), a champion of the anti-slavery movement:
“Let us not despair; it is a blessed cause, and success, ere long, will crown our exertions. Already we have gained one victory; we have obtained, for these poor creatures, the recognition of their human nature, which, for a while was most shamefully denied. This is the first fruits of our efforts; let us persevere and our triumph will be complete. Never, never will we desist till we have wiped away this scandal from the Christian name, released ourselves from the load of guilt, under which we at present labour, and extinguished every trace of this bloody traffic, of which our posterity, looking back to the history of these enlightened times, will scarce believe that it has been suffered to exist so long a disgrace and dishonour to this country.”1
More than 15,000 books have been written about Abraham Lincoln. A recent addition to the Lincoln library is one that depicts him as a vampire hunter. Wilson Tucker had entered the Lincoln fiction genre in 1958 with his The Lincoln Hunters. Almost all of them are hagiographic, a political saint who sits enthroned in our nation’s political temple.
But does Lincoln deserve all the accolades bestowed upon him?
Ending slavery was a righteous cause, but the means to bring about that end were unrighteous. Not only were more than 600,000 war deaths a tragedy (5 million in terms of today’s population) but the centralization of federal powers already in process have had far wider and longer effects on the United States. Much of what is wrong with our government today was solidified in a war that was unnecessary and morally reprehensible.
To say that slavery was a great evil is to state the obvious. How to rid this great evil from our nation was not so obvious, but to call for a war to do it was evil. Would it have taken longer to end slavery than what a war accomplished? Most likely it would have. The work of Wilberforce shows that to be true, although a war with France postponed the efforts of abolitionists. But consider that we are still a divided nation over race. Post-war conditions for former slaves were horrendous not to mention what the effects of the war did to the southern states.
People go back and forth over what Abraham Lincoln believed and didn’t believe about slavery and emancipation. That debate will go on. My concern is with how President Lincoln handled the slavery issue. A great president would have averted war.
The example of Lincoln going beyond the Constitution, even for what was a righteous cause, has been an inspiration for too many presidents, politicians, and special interest groups. If it was right and just to kill to right a wrong, then it’s certainly right and just to subvert the Constitution, issue Executive Orders, and pass masses of legislation that our founders would never recognize.
- Speech before the House of Commons, April 18, 1791. [↩]