Abraham Lincoln is widely considered one of America’s greatest presidents. Professional historians routinely rank Lincoln at or near the top of their official rankings of the best presidents, with only George Washington consistently able to knock Lincoln out of the top spot. Lincoln’s apocryphal image as “Honest Abe” and his slightly less apocryphal connection to the abolition of slavery, not to mention his preservation of the Union, justify his place in the pantheon of great American presidents in the eyes of most historians.
Despite his trophy case of posthumous accolades, there is a small but vocal number of historians who consider Lincoln to have been a tyrant. As evidence, they cite his prosecution of the Civil War, his abuses of executive power and the rampant violations of civil rights that occurred under his watch.
So where does the truth lie? Was Lincoln a hero? Or was he a tyrant?
Close scrutiny of the historical record severely undermines the heroic image of Abraham Lincoln that the history books paint for us. Many opinions and motives have been ascribed to Lincoln that he himself never expressed, and many embarrassing or inconvenient opinions and motives he did express have been swept under the rug.
For instance, although he was against slavery, and said so many times, he was not an advocate for the equality of races. While Lincoln is constantly held up as a proto-civil rights activist, his true views on race lie closer to the dictionary definition of a white supremacist – that is, he literally believed that whites were inherently superior to other races.
Historians, hoping to rescue Abe from his embarrassing opinions, don’t typically tell us this. But the revisionists who constantly harp on this facet of Lincoln’s worldview are emphasizing the man over the culture. Yes, Lincoln held beliefs about race that we today find repugnant. But he was a product of his time. His belief system – against slavery and equality – was a moderate middle ground in his day. It was, in fact, a very common position.
The surrounding culture does not, of course, excuse Lincoln for these beliefs. Racism was as morally wrongheaded then as it is now. But removing Lincoln from his historical context for the sole purpose of criticizing him doesn’t help us understand his legacy, just as it is similarly unhelpful for mainstream historians to ignore large, stated sections of his belief system in order to present to us a sanitized version of the man.
However, even Lincoln’s anti-slavery sentiment has been overstated. Historian Robert Johannsen summarized Lincoln’s views towards slavery as “opposition to slavery in principle, toleration of it in practice, and a vigorous hostility toward the abolition movement.” He constantly deprioritized the issue throughout his career, even going so far as to support a pro-slavery amendment to the Constitution upon his ascension to the presidency.
In the 1920s, Journalist H. L. Mencken critiqued Lincoln’s commitment to abolitionism, writing
“Even his handling of the slavery question was that of a politician, not that of a messiah. Nothing alarmed him more than the suspicion that he was an Abolitionist… An Abolitionist would have published the Emancipation Proclamation the day after the first battle of Bull Run. But Lincoln waited until the time was more favorable…until the political currents were safely funning his way. Even so, he freed the slaves in only a part of the country: all the rest continued to clank their chains until he himself was an angel in Heaven.”
An instructive lesson on Lincoln’s views on slavery comes from his career as a lawyer, in which he had a few opportunities to participate in fugitive slave cases. In an 1841 case he successfully argued that a woman who had been sold as a slave and later escaped should be set free. In 1847, Lincoln participated in another fugitive slave case, but this time he represented the plaintiff, a slave-owner from Kentucky who was seeking the return of an entire family of fugitives.
Fortunately for the family, Lincoln and his slave-holding client lost their case. But it raises troubling questions about why a man who was supposedly such a staunch opponent of slavery would, as a lawyer, argue that those who had escaped should be forced back into it. Furthermore, if Lincoln’s opinions about slavery were progressing towards abolitionism, it is doubtful that he would argue in favor of re-enslaving an entire family six years after he argued for a single fugitive slave’s freedom.
Just as it is true that Lincoln held deplorable views on race and vacillated in his commitment to emancipation, it is also true that he participated in and supported violations of civil rights during the war. These violations included the imprisonment of political opponents and restrictions on the freedoms of speech and the press. We might even be able to lay the intentional targeting of southern civilians during the war at Lincoln’s feet.
But where the anti-Lincoln crowd errs is in its depiction of him as some kind of unique monster. The truth is that Lincoln was always a cog in the wheel of the Whig and then the Republican political machines. From his initial involvement in politics until the disintegration of the party, he dutifully toed the Whig line. He continued to be a party man when the Whigs, and much of their platform, were absorbed into the Republican Party.
The reality is that if Lincoln had not taken the actions he did, then some other member of the Republican Party would have. For instance, some people lambaste Lincoln for pursing war with the South, but Jeffrey Rogers Hummel has made the case that “The war would have likely been prosecuted by any of the other potential Republican candidates of 1860 if any one of them had been elected instead.” This is also likely true of his behavior during the war.
None of this excuses him for violating civil liberties and pursuing a war that resulted in an estimated 750,000 deaths. But it seems unlikely that this was a result of his unique lust for power. If Lincoln’s actions earned him the label of tyrant, it would merely have elevated him to the status of a tyrant among other tyrants.
Many who insist on labeling Lincoln categorically as a hero or a tyrant typically do so in order to make a larger point. Lincoln’s defenders use him and his manufactured reputation to support government centralization. His detractors paint him as the locus of political oppression, as if to say that, but for Lincoln, Americans might even now be living in freedom. Neither side is often inclined to take a nuanced view of the sixteenth president.
Ultimately the question of whether Lincoln was a hero or a tyrant is best answered by this statement: he was a politician. By the time of the 1860 election, he had been one for over a quarter of a century. As the consummate politician, he knew how to claim to believe in a principle, such as emancipation, without being too radical about it. Like modern politicians, he prioritized his own political priorities, like centralization, over more lofty ideals. Lincoln the politician held primacy over Lincoln the humanitarian, hence his repeated statements that he would have permitted slavery to continue in order to preserve the Union.
Throughout his career, Abraham Lincoln revealed himself to be the perfect prototype for the modern American politician. As we survey our political landscape, it is clear what low praise this is.
Note: This article is part of a series on the Civil War. Click here to see all the articles in the series.