10 thoughts on “Happy Lincoln’s Birthday (And I refuse to call it “President’s Day”)”

  1. The closer one looks at Abraham Lincoln the better he measures up. Roosevelt, not so much.

    It’s not that Lincoln ‘destroyed’ slavery. That was a corollary of destroying the plantation slavocracy system. There were plenty of whites both north and south who were oppressed by the slave aristocrats, particularly free soilers like Lincoln and upland small farmers. They were all for putting an end to that system that oppressed them. As free white republicans. But they didn’t give a rat’s ass about black slaves. Except that they wanted them to be gone from the region once the plantations were broken. If emancipating the slaves would best facilitate their going away, then whites were for that. But if selling the slaves south would do the trick then that was acceptable. If freed blacks could be colonized somewhere else, that would do as well.

    Lincoln understood all this and went through the motions and said the ambiguous things to bring opinion along. But as the Civil War unfolded and especially as blacks served under arms it was clear that the slavocracy would go down and yet the freed blacks would remain. They weren’t going anywhere and the country would have to deal with it.

    Which meant the road to full citizenship.The failure of Reconstruction ironically impelled the former black slaves to sell themselves north in the hope of a better life.

    1. Lincoln and FDR were both big government liberals. You might rank Washington above them both since he established the norms for the office of the Presidency, one of which, term limits, FDR violated. But Washington lived in another historical era. We’re still in the same era as Lincoln and FDR.

      Our two most anti-government Presidents, Cleveland and Coolidge, were both corporate hacks, although Cleveland did show a healthy skepticism about imperialism, which he did little to stop.

      Grant’s the biggest disappointment. He was a great politician as a general, a horrible politician as President. I doubt anybody could have defined the historical dialectic (progressive capitalism become reactionary when it finally takes power) but he did surround himself with a horde of corrupt gangsters. Kind of funny that in the horrible Roland Emmerich movie about Midway that Yamamoto is shown reading Grant’s memoirs. I think Grant visited Japan in the late 1870s.

      Lincoln supported full citizenship by the end of his life. He was also the very first major politician to suggest ending slavery without compensation. That letter to Horace Greeley that neoconfederates love so much (“If I could save the Union etc…..) was the first time any American had ever mentioned “freeing the slaves.”

      Of course there was an economic basis for ending slavery. Capitalism depended on “free labor” which meant a lot of German and Irish immigrants in the 1840s and 1850s and a lot of Italian and East European immigrants in the 1880s and 1890s. That was disastrous for the Plains Indians. The “Homestead Act” in the end meant ethnic cleansing.

      Had Lincoln lived to serve another term, we wouldn’t have had Johnson. But we still would have probably had the Republicans turn to right-wing, pro-business capitalists after 1876, and northern capital still would have meant an alliance between northern capital and the old southern planter class. Lincoln’s son became a famous union buster.

      My alternate history fantasy is that Lincoln lives to old age, travels to London and debates Engels sometime in the 1870s. Marx’s English wasn’t good enough.

  2. You are so right about Grant. The best of generals but manipulated by swindlers as a President. If he had stood firm for reconstruction history would be different. Interesting that about Yamamoto and yes Grant did visit Japan. He climbed the pyramids and enchanted Bismark.

    I see no evidence that Lincoln supported ‘full citizenship’ though in due course he would have. The matter was not on the political agenda by the time of his assassination. This was when people considered they were citizens of their state. The notion of an American citizenship was just emerging. It was the freeing of the slaves – never citizens of any state – that pushed this forward. And the notion was very complicated at the time. It was one thing for slaves to be ‘freed’ but that did not mean that they should be given the vote, right to attend juries, enter professions and so on. Hence, the 14th Amendment. I recall that one of the first things that Chase did upon assuming the Chief Justiceship is to receive at the court’s bar a black lawyer named Rock who had served as a Supreme Court Justice in Massachusetts. Such events helped define what citizenship meant and how this was to be defined nationally and not at the state level.

    No citizenship for the natives as you point out. The tragedy was that if the Radicals had their way soldiers and the immigrants would have been given their lands in the south. That would have provided the outlet. To re-colonize the place with union loyalists. With the failure of reconstruction the settling went on across the prairies.

    When the war broke out, southern plantation owners reneged on their endemic debt to northern banks, hundreds of which failed. The backing of the finance establishment behind the union cause was driven by revenge. Once they were in the saddle and with the federal government beholden to them they had the power to corrupt the Democrats Just as you describe.

    If he had lived, Lincoln being incorruptible, would have seen matters along a different path. For how long, it’s hard to say. How would the free-soiler Lincoln have dealt with trade unionism and socialism? But he always favoured the underdog.

    1. Technically the 14th Amendment gives everybody the right to full citizenship but from what I’ve learned it didn’t start being “colorblind” until a Chinese American challenged the Chinese exclusion act in the late 19th Century.

      What really hurt blacks after 1865 was the fact that the federal government no longer needed them to fight the secessionists and the northern ruling class saw the south as a semi-colonial, anti-union “pressure valve” against (German and Irish) immigrant labor.

      But I do think that at the end of his life Lincoln accepted the inevitable, something which you can see in the transformation of the attitudes of “apolitical” generals like George Thomas and Grant.

  3. There s a most excellent book on the reconstruction entitled “After Appomattox”. It deals with what is a state of war and makes clear that Congress did not consider that the war war over with the surrender of the large Confederate armies. Both Grant and Sherman firmly believed that unreconciled southerners were simply continuing the war by guerilla means and so occupation by large numbers of federal troops with full war powers was required. I found the details of this to be an eye opener. Both Grant and Sherman completely resisted Johnson on this. Grant, when president was eventually whittled down once the radicals loss their power in Congress. But his personal views were very good. He just wasn’t a very good president. Both Grant and Sherman would have favoured settling their discharged soldiers into the south as colonists under military protection.

    I concur with you about Lincoln completely.

    1. “Both Grant and Sherman would have favoured settling their discharged soldiers into the south as colonists under military protection.”

      It’s a recurring theme in American cinema that southern and northern veterans reconciled in the west and came together to fight the Indians. You see it in even so liberal and anti-racist movie as John Ford’s Sergeant Rutledge. It’s almost as important a trope in American culture as the “horrors of reconstruction for white southerners” trope.

      It’s interesting to think about what might have happened if Lee had not put his weight behind demobilizing the Confederate armies. But I suppose it wouldn’t have been much different. The white south basically waged a guerilla war to overthrew reconstruction. In the broadest possible terms the slow motion general strike waged by the slaves from 1861 to 1865 gave way to the white supremacist guerilla war waged by the Klan.

      Whether or not Lincoln would have had much of an effect on these broader historical patterns is a mystery we’ll never really know. He was certainly a better politician than Grant but would he have waged an even harder peace to guarantee the rights of the slaves? I doubt it. Lincoln was a capitalist, not a socialist, and by Grant’s Presidency northern capital was pretty reactionary. It’s easy to forget that in Chicago the state, not the Klan, just grabbed a few random German radicals and lynched them.


  4. If Lee had released, dispersed his soldiers – something that was considered – history would have taken a sharp turn. Under the rules of war federal forces would have occupied the south in depth. The Radicals had control of Congress, Lincoln’s assassination would have infuriated and empowered them. Recalling that initially Johnson as president took a hard line, the push to re-colonize the south would have become the order of the day.

    Vast areas of the slave south were only very recently colonized – the white slavers had weak roots. Jacksonland stolen from the natives and Texas taken by filibusters. How easy to throw them out and replace them with demobbed soldiers, immigrants. The financial elites would have much profited by grabbing up property and land rights.

    A large number of blacks would have been welcome in the army where they would be needed. Giving them power, rank and prestige. The whole business would have been very bitter but once northerners took up southern land their relatives back home would never have consented to abandon them. So, the war would carry on.

    So long as the war against and in the south carried on and there was profit to be had from it for all classes in the north then that would have papered over their emerging differences. First, let’s all loot the south! No in-fighting until we’ve squeezed that lemon dry.

    The Confederacy reached the point where it was willing and did grant the plains natives a degree of sovereignty and there were formal military units established by natives that fought under their own banners on both sides.

    At the Appomattox Court House surrender there was a remarkable incident. Grant was attended by an aide – Col. Ely Parker the last full blooded Sachem of the Six Nations and a lawyer who had been Grant’s friend before the war. When it came to writing up the terms Grant turned to Parker to do the work. Lee recoiled at first thinking that Grant was insulting him by using a black man. But then he figured that the man was an ‘Indian’. He commented ‘At least one of here is a true American’. To which Parker replied ‘We are all Americans now’.

    1. Yes.You make good point. A lot of what we consider “the culture of The South” was defined after the Civil War. Before Appomattox, the deep south, Mississippi and Alabama was very much a frontier society.

    1. I wouldn’t say I have much “love” for him but he’s certainly a key political figure the American left needs to confront. After the Radical Republicans went into eclipse after Grant’s death, the USA was governed by a succession of nonentities, who let the plutocracy reign free. Teddy Roosevelt (and to some extent McKinley) are one way the ruling class responded to the naked corruption. They kept Lincoln’s statism and progressive nationalism. They’re very much like today’s liberals, if today’s liberals had any nerve. The country should be governed by an imperial elite and an aristocracy of lawyers for the good of the people but not necessarily with the people’s consent. It culminated in Wilson’s very effective progressive government and authoritarian crackdown when he entered the war. We *did* get a lot of national parks out of it. We also got the tradition of liberal militarism.

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