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Abraham Lincoln

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In his company I was never in any way reminded of my humble origin, or of my unpopular color.
—Frederick Douglass[1]
Lincoln becomes the American solar myth, the chief butt of American credulity and sentimentality. Washington, of late years, has been perceptibly humanized; every schoolboy now knows that he used to swear a good deal, and was a sharp trader, and had a quick eye for a pretty ankle. But meanwhile the varnishers and veneerers have been busily converting Abe into a plaster saint, thus making him fit for adoration in the Y.M.C.A.’s.
H.L. Mencken[2]

Abraham Lincoln (12 February 1809–15 April 1865) was the 16th President of the United States from 1861 to 1865. [3] A Republican (this was back when the Democrats supported slavery and the Republicans wanted to end it.)[4] from Illinois, he is most remembered for making the South angry enough to secede upon his victory, triggering the American Civil War (1861–1865), and for his fondness for railways. However, we here remember him as the President with the most pet goats.[5]

One of these is not like the other[edit]

There are two interpretations of Abraham Lincoln's presidency, depending on what historian you're talking to.

Lincoln immortalized on the most useless U.S. currency ever created.[6]

President Lincoln was one of our greatest leaders[edit]

The first and most popular one is that Lincoln was one of the greatest (if not the greatest) presidents in American history. He managed to keep the nation intact in the Civil War (perhaps not doing the best possible job, but still not bad) and almost singlehandedly made abolition politically palatable. As a testament to these successes, he was also the first president since Andrew Jackson to win re-election.

He is also remembered by WWE[7] for being an absolutely fantastic wrestler and has a place in the wrestling hall of fame.[8] Seriously, his wrestling exploits were often used during his political campaign, and after beating the leader of a gang by outright choke slamming him,[7] thereby inventing that particular move, he earned their respect, and they became some of his earliest political supporters. What have you done lately?

President Lincoln abused and overstepped his presidential powers[edit]

The second, less popular view is that Lincoln grossly abused the United States' executive branch's power.[9] In particular, he suspended the writ of habeas corpus, spent money without the approval of Congress, and imprisoned 18,000 suspected Confederate sympathizers without trial. Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Roger B. Taney (who infamously argued in the Dred Scott case of 1857 that African Americans "had no rights which the white man was bound to respect")[10] "issued a ruling that President Lincoln did not have the authority to suspend habeas corpus",[11] and claimed that such action "was unconstitutional".[12] Lincoln's friend and bodyguard, Ward Hill Lamon, later alleged that the president had planned to place Taney under arrest, and even issued a warrant to that effect, although it was never delivered; however, "Lamon's story was never confirmed by Lincoln's principal biographers, and it stretches credulity to believe that Lincoln would approve such a grand provocation [...] In fact, Taney was never molested by any official of the federal government".[13] While there are legitimate criticisms to be made of Lincoln here (like any president, or, hell, any person ever), an entire cottage industry of pseudohistories demonizing Lincoln has popped up, mostly pushing the Lost Cause of the South narrative (see also Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War).

It is true that such actions would be unconstitutional and inexcusable in a time of peace. However, it is also essential to note that Lincoln was president during a brutal conflict which was tearing the United States apart, circumstances in which the Constitution explicitly allows for the suspension of habeas corpus.[14] If there is any better "national security" excuse, we'd like to hear one.

Soft on slavery![edit]

President Lincoln and his cabinet, presumably busy freeing slaves...while posing for pictures.
Viewed from the genuine abolition ground, Mr. Lincoln seemed tardy, cold, dull, and indifferent; but measuring him by the sentiment of his country, a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult, he was swift, zealous, radical, and determined.
—Frederick Douglass, 1876[15][16]

When running for Illinois' seat in the U.S. Senate in 1858, Lincoln was tarred as a "closet abolitionist" (the political equivalent of being called "soft on terrorism" today) by his Democratic opponent Stephen Douglas. Douglas also accused Lincoln of supporting "negro equality",[17] and claimed that he would allow for such terrible things as voting rights, jury duty rights, and (horror of horrors) interracial marriage rights for blacks. Lincoln got around this by expressing what would today be considered horrifyingly racist things. In Lincoln's own words:

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 of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. 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.[18]

His anti-abolitionist credentials secured, Lincoln promptly turned around and stated that blacks deserved the same right to freedom, the "right to eat the bread without the leave of anybody else which his own hand earns,"[19][20] as he put it. He went on to say that "there is no reason in the world why the negro is not entitled to all the natural rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence, the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I hold that he is as much entitled to these as the white man."[21]

This was actually a very calculated move; Lincoln, himself a lifelong opponent of slavery and an abolitionist early in his life, knew the actual abolitionists had no one else to go with but him. He needed to woo the moderates and wingnuts of the time to get elected, so he tried to play to both sides as a way to preserve the Union. (Southerners were straight-up calling him a "Black Republican," for Christ's sake.[22])

Historian Eric Foner has addressed the issue of Lincoln's views on race: "Which was the real Lincoln, the racist or the opponent of slavery? The unavoidable answer is both. [...] [I]t was possible in 19th century America to share the racial prejudices of the time and yet simultaneously believe that slavery was a crime that ought to be abolished."[23] During his debate with Douglas, Lincoln also remarked: "I do not perceive that because the white man is to have the superior position the negro should be denied everything."[18] It is true that "[f]or much of his career, Lincoln believed that colonization—or the idea that a majority of the African American population should leave the United States and settle in Africa or Central America—was the best way to confront the problem of slavery. His two great political heroes, Henry Clay and Thomas Jefferson, had both favored colonization; both were enslavers who took issue with aspects of slavery but saw no way that Black and white people could live together peaceably."[24] Jefferson had argued "that the freed slave had to be literally "removed beyond the reach of mixture" or he would soon be "staining the blood of his master"."[25] Lincoln "became a member of the American Colonization Society in 1856";[26] the ACS encouraged African Americans to emigrate to Liberia, and plans were also made involving colonies in Panama and Belize during Lincoln's presidency, but the project was a complete failure, and abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips ridiculed the whole idea. Novelist Ralph Ellison later described the ACS as "the product of a free-floating irrationality."[27] As late as 1862, Lincoln was telling a group of free blacks whom he had invited to the White House that "[y]our race suffers greatly, many of them by living among us, while ours suffers from your presence. If this is admitted, it affords a reason why we should be separated."[27] After hearing about this incident, Frederick Douglass derided Lincoln as someone who "assumes the language and arguments of an itinerant colonization lecturer, shows all his inconsistencies, his pride of race and blood, his contempt for Negroes and his canting hypocrisy."[28] Although from a modern perspective the idea of colonization is abhorrent, at the time it was seen as a practical solution to the problems of slavery and race relations in America. "In spite of his unquestioned greatness, Abraham Lincoln was a man of his times and limited by some of the less worthy thinking of his times. This is demonstrated [...] by his involvement in a plan of purging the nation of blacks as a means of healing the badly shattered ideals of democratic federalism."[27] Lincoln eventually abandoned colonization altogether "sometime in 1864 because he realized that it was an impractical plan",[29] and because he had been persuaded by men like Douglass that the whole thing was an absurd idea to begin with.

The South promptly left the Union anyway, leading to the Civil War. Frederick Douglass said that Lincoln's victory in the election of 1860 "demonstrated the possibility of electing, if not an Abolitionist, at least an anti-slavery reputation to the Presidency of the United States."[30] Although he had no need to play to the slaveowners anymore, Lincoln was nonetheless reluctant to risk antagonizing the Union border states, namely Kentucky, Maryland and Missouri, in which slavery existed. Lincoln therefore set about waging war on secession rather than on slavery. Lincoln's letter to abolitionist campaigner Horace Greeley (who complained that the president was "unduly influenced by the counsels, the representations, the menaces, of certain fossil politicians hailing from the Border Slave States")[31] is often quoted in order to demonstrate that he didn't actually oppose slavery. In it he writes:

My paramount object in this struggle 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; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.[32]

However, Lincoln ended the letter with the following 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.[32]

In the summer of 1862, Lincoln decided to emancipate the slaves and, on September 22nd, 1862, exactly one month after he wrote Greeley the above letter, he issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which would come into force on January 1st, 1863, and which would effectively free the slaves. He also made the South's readmission into the Union conditional on its emancipation of self-freed slaves who had crossed the border, and its permanent abolition of slavery. During the war, he ordered the Union Army to protect freed slaves, made sure they treated freed slaves as equals while in the Union Army and encouraged the border states to free their slaves. When Lincoln was about to go to sleep after re-election, he noticed a crowd of black D.C. natives who had been waiting patiently outside the White House to congratulate him. He went outside and spent several more sleepless hours personally shaking every one of their hands.

When the Confederates threatened to re-enslave or murder black Union troops, Lincoln retaliated with a promise to execute rebel prisoners of war for every black Union soldier that was re-enslaved or murdered. During the war, Lincoln pushed for equal pay for Black soldiers, legalized black witnesses in federal courts, was the first president to invite a black man, Frederick Douglass, to the White House, dropped his plan to colonize freed blacks outside the Union after Douglass persuaded him to do so, and he desegregated services in the US Mail and D.C. streetcars.

He established the Freedman's Bureau to help freed slaves to get on their feet and make decent lives for themselves. He appointed his power-hungry and politically treacherous Secretary of the Treasury, Salmon P. Chase, to Chief Justice because he knew the man would support and protect cases and laws dealing with freed slaves and equality (luckily for Lincoln, his nemesis, Chief Justice Taney, had died in 1864).

The reason he was killed by actor John Wilkes Booth? Lincoln suggested, as the hallmark of Reconstruction, equality of suffrage, and civil rights for blacks. To Booth, that meant one thing: "Nigger citizenship [...] That is the last speech he will ever make."[33]

"Soft" indeed.

Modern political symbolism[edit]

Many modern politicians have, either directly or indirectly, drawn analogies between themselves and Abraham Lincoln. President Barack Obama, while balking at outright equivalencies, often subtly encourages surrogates and fans to do the same: he opened his bid for the presidency at the Illinois State House (Lincoln's old stomping grounds), dined on china patterned after Mary Todd Lincoln's directly after his inauguration, was sworn in on Lincoln's Bible, and openly sought to create a "team of rivals," historian Doris Kearns Goodwin's phrase to describe Lincoln's cabinet.

But Obama was by no means the first. Because Abraham Lincoln was America's first Republican president, some Republicans attempt to trace a "continuity of political thought and philosophy from Lincoln, the country’s first Republican president, to the era of George W. Bush."[34] However, the two men share little more than the same party name: Lincoln was a social progressive, fighting intensely for, and building his reputation on, opposition to the quite status quo institution of slavery.[35] He imposed the US's first ever progressive tax to pay for the war,[36] was responsible for the creation of the National Academy of Sciences,[37] and historian Merrill Peterson even called him "the best friend labor ever had in the White House."[38] And Lincoln was at least a deist,[39][40] one of only three presidents that did not join any church.[41]

Furthermore, the Republican Party has reinvented itself three times since the 1860s — first to become the anti-Southern, freedmen's rights party after Lincoln's death, second to become the deregulation party in the 1930s, and finally to place social conservatism above fiscal conservatism in the Reagan era; the bastions of the Union now drenched in blue. Clearly, the fact that Lincoln and modern Republicans share a party name does not mean they share anything more than that.

Keep scrolling down if that's tl;dr.

Too many awesome quotes[edit]

A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved — I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other. Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become lawful in all the States, old as well as new — North as well as South.
—The most famous passage of Lincoln's House Divided speech.
In your hands, my dissatisfied countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. The government will not assail have no oath registered in heaven to destroy the government, while I shall have the most solemn one to preserve, protect and defend it.
—Lincoln, warning the South in his Inaugural Address.
Allow the President to invade a neighboring nation whenever he shall deem it necessary to repel an invasion, and you allow him to do so whenever he may choose to say he deems it necessary for such purpose, and you allow him to make war at pleasure.
—Lincoln, managing to predict the rise of Dubya in 1848.[42]
As a nation, we began by declaring that "all men are created equal." We now practically read it "all men are created equal, except Negroes." When the Know Nothings get control, it will read "all men are created equal, except Negroes, foreigners, and Catholics." When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty — to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.
Sound familiar?[43]
Those who deny freedom to others, deserve it not for themselves; and, under a just God, can not long retain it.[44]
The severest justice may not always be the best policy.[45]
I shall try to correct errors when shown to be errors; and I shall adopt new views so fast as they shall appear to be true views.
—Lincoln, on pragmatism.[46]
The Bible says somewhere that we are desperately selfish. I think we would have discovered that fact without the Bible.[47]
The world has never had a good definition of the word liberty, and the American people, just now, are much in want of one. We all declare for liberty; but in using the same word we do not all mean the same thing. With some the word liberty may mean for each man to do as he pleases with himself, and the product of his labor; while with others, the same word may mean for some men to do as they please with other men, and the product of other men's labor. Here are two, not only different, but incompatible things, called by the same name — liberty. And it follows that each of the things is, by the respective parties, called by two different and incompatible names — liberty and tyranny.
—Lincoln, 1864[48]
Already the liberal part[ies] throughout the world, express the apprehension "that the one retrograde institution in America, is undermining the principles of progress, and fatally violating the noblest political system the world ever saw." This is not the taunt of enemies, but the warning of friends. Is it quite safe to disregard it — to despise it? ... In our greedy chase to make profit of the Negro, let us beware, lest we "cancel and tear to pieces" even the white man's charter of freedom.
Ann Coulter, this is for you.[49]
Passion has helped us; but can do so no more. It will in future be our enemy. Reason, cold, calculating, unimpassioned reason, must furnish all the materials for our future support and defence.[50]
I do not like that man. I must get to know him better.
—Lincoln, just being awesome.[51]
In relation to the principle that all men are created equal, let it be as nearly reached as we can. If we cannot give freedom to every creature, let us do nothing that will impose slavery upon any other creature.
—Lincoln, continuing to be awesome.[52]
You say you are conservative — eminently conservative — while we are revolutionary, destructive, or something of the sort. What is conservatism? Is it not adherence to the old and tried, against the new and untried? We stick to, contend for, the identical old policy on the point in controversy which was adopted by "our fathers who framed the government under which we live;" while you with one accord reject, and scout, and spit upon that old policy, and insist upon substituting something new. True, you disagree among yourselves as to what that substitute shall be. You are divided on new propositions and plans, but you are unanimous in rejecting and denouncing the old policy of the fathers.
—Lincoln, telling off slaveholders in the most awesome way possible.[53]
And, once more let me tell you, it is indispensable to you that you strike a blow. I am powerless to help this. You will do me the justice to remember I always insisted, that going down the Bay in search of a field, instead of fighting at or near Manassas, was only shifting, and not surmounting, a difficulty—that we would find the same enemy, and the same, or equal, intrenchments, at either place. The country will not fail to note—is now noting—that the present hesitation to move upon an intrenched enemy, is but the story of Manassas repeated...I beg to assure you that I have never written you, or spoken to you, in greater kindness of feeling than now, nor with a fuller purpose to sustain you, so far as in my most anxious judgment, I consistently can. But you must act.
—Lincoln in a telegram to Union General George B. McClellan on April 9th, 1862, essentially telling him to defecate or vacate the pot.[54]

...and what he didn't really say[edit]

I have two great enemies, the southern army in front of me and the financial institutions in the rear. Of the two, the one in the rear is the greatest enemy.
—Often claimed to be from an 1864 letter to a Union Army Colonel, this one apparently originates from approximately 20 years after Lincoln's death.[55] Eustace Mullins' This Difficult Individual, Ezra Pound from 1961 possibly also had a role in keeping it alive for the conspiracy theorist circles.[56]
You cannot bring about prosperity by discouraging thrift. You cannot strengthen the weak by weakening the strong. You cannot help little men by tearing down big men. You cannot lift the wage earner by pulling down the wage payer. You cannot help the poor by destroying the rich. You cannot establish sound security on borrowed money. You cannot further the brotherhood of man by inciting class hatred.
—Actually from a 1916 pamphlet by William J. H. Boetcker, a conservative minister. The fact that the pamphlet also contained genuine Lincoln quotes probably helped perpetuate this bogus one.[57]

See also[edit]

External links[edit]

  • The Gettysburg Address - All 272 words of it. Possibly the most remarkable homage to fallen veterans ever written.


  1. Frederick Douglass, 1818-1895, UNC
  3. official biography
  5. Inside the whitehouse
  6. Well, look on the bright side: He's also on a considerably more useful piece of currency worth 500 times as much as the one pictured. (And on the 2010 presidential dollar coin, but nobody ever spends those.)
  7. 7.0 7.1 Abraham Lincoln: president ... and wrestler? WWE
  8. Honoree: Abraham Lincoln National Wrestling Hall of Fame
  9. Indeed, some said he was little more than a big government socialist.
  13. McGinty, Brian (2008). Lincoln and the Court. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. p. 77. ISBN 978-0-674-02655-1. 
  14. "The privilege of the writ of habeas corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in cases of rebellion or invasion the public safety may require it."
  15. Frederick Douglass: Expression of Gratitude for Freedom, Unveiling of the Freedmen's Monument, Lincoln Park, Washington, D.C., April 14, 1876
  16. Abraham Lincoln: lukewarm abolitionist or radical? by Allen C. Guelzo (February 14, 2016, Updated: February 14, 2016, 4:15pm) San Francisco Chronicle.
  18. 18.0 18.1;view=fulltext
  20. Smithsonian magazine's article (page 4) on the Lincoln-Douglas debates.
  22. Election of 1860, Dickinson College (He played a very similar game in his first inaugural addressWikipedia as a last effort to persuade the South not to secede; the Civil War began the day after, and the Emancipation Proclamation was conceived the next year.)
  27. 27.0 27.1 27.2
  32. 32.0 32.1
  34. "Old School - Greenberg remembers" at Halfway There
  35. A Southern GOP Can't Be the Party of Lincoln, New York Magazine
  36. See the Wikipedia article on Revenue Act of 1862. (Indeed, throughout his political career he was very willing to soak the rich.)
  37. Founding and Early Work, National Academy of Sciences
  38. Lincoln's Prophecy, Snopes
  39. Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals, ch. 3.
  40. Seemed to use more religious-tinged words during his presidencyWikipedia, but nowhere close to the Baptist fundie-speak of the time. (His law partner, William Herndon, even called him a pantheist. [1])
  41. The Religious Affiliations of U.S. Presidents, Pew Research
  42. Letter to William H. Herndon, University of Michigan (opposing the Mexican-American War)
  43. Letter to Joshua Speed, Library of Congress
  44. Letter to Henry L. Pierce and Others, University of Michigan
  46. Letter to Horace Greeley, The New York Times
  47. Seventh Lincoln-Douglas Debate at Alton, National Park Service
  48. Address at Baltimore Sanitary Fair, UC Santa Barbara
  49. New light on a Lincoln quote, Rice University
  50. Lyceum Address on Wikisource
  51. Colorado State University
  52. Speech in Reply to Senator Douglas at Chicago, Tufts University
  53. Cooper Union Speech, National Park Service
  55. Madville Falls For Fake Lincoln Quote
  56. This Difficult Individual on
  57. The Right’s Library of Fake Quotes by Steve Rendall,, April 1st 2010