OK, so it’s Oscars time and all the buzz is about the movie Lincoln. It’s really past time to dispel some of the myth surrounding Honest Abe. The movie is based in part on the Lincoln biography by Doris Kearns Goodwin, titled Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. Not everyone agrees with Goodwin’s take on Lincoln, a view that I would term the orthodox view. In defense of Ms. Goodwin, I have not read her book although I have read numerous other pieces on Lincoln and the antebellum period of U.S. history. As stated, Goodwin’s views are quite orthodox with respect to Lincoln and I have endeavored to get at the truth by shying away from the “path most taken” and therefore looked elsewhere.
So, why the war? Was it to preserve the Union, after all, that’s what we’re told when not being told it was to end slavery? These are the words of the man who buried the U.S. in four long, bloody years of brother killing brother in the name of the preservation of the Union to the tune of 700,000 dead Americans, “Any people anywhere, being inclined and having the power, have the right to rise up and shake off the existing government, and form a new one that suits them better… Nor is this right confined to cases in which the whole people of an existing government may choose to exercise it. Any portion of such people that can may revolutionize and make their own of so much of the territory as they inhabit.”
The preceeding are the thoughts of Mr. Lincoln on secession when it involved Texas, a legal part of Mexico, breaking ties with the homeland to form its own government. It’s called the right of self-determination and was the foundation of the Declaration of Independence as well as the impetus of the Southern Confederacy.
When it came to reducing the power of the U.S. government, however, Mr. Lincoln sang a much different tune. And therein lies part of the rub…power; and I will come back to this thought in a moment.
Looking in other directions, did Lincoln go to war to end the evil of slavery? Surely you jest! It’s really not beneficial to even entertain this argument so I will keep my comments here to a minimum. If someone should so desire to debate the merits of Lincoln and slavery, I am up for the task and welcome any that want to debate such from history.
“I have said a hundred times, and I have now no inclination to take it back, that I believe there is no right, and ought to be no inclination in the people of the free States to enter into the slave States, and interfere with the question of slavery at all” (Lincoln, Chicago, IL, 10 July 1858).
“I have never sought to apply these principles to the old States for the purpose of abolishing slavery in those States. It is nothing but a miserable perversion of what I have said, to assume that I have declared Missouri, or any other slave State shall emancipate her slaves. I have proposed no such thing” (Final Lincoln/Douglas debate, Alton, IL, 15 October 1858).
“I say that we must not interfere with the institution of slavery in the states where it exists, because the constitution forbids it, and the general welfare does not require us to do so” (Lincoln, Cincinnati, OH, 17 September 1859).
By the time of Lincoln’s first inaugural address (4 March 1861), seven Southern states had already seceded from the Union. Lincoln’s address was primarily addressed to the people of the South as an attempt to heal the breach his election had created. On the issue of slavery, Mr. Lincoln stated he had “…no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so."
Have you heard of the Corwin Amendment? Doubtful, so allow me to elaborate. Mr. Lincoln stated that he had no objection to the Corwin Amendment to the Constitution which had already been approved by both houses of the U.S. Congress and was a formal protection of slavery where it already existed as well as assuring each state the right to establish or repudiate slavery as they so desired. In fact, Lincoln expressed his belief that such rights were already provided for in the Constitution and that the Corwin Amendment was merely a reiteration of such. Finally, Lincoln asserted that the Constitution did not address slavery either way in the Territories (those areas not yet designated as states) and that he would enforce the Fugitive Slave Act as long as it was not misused via kidnapping and the subsequent sale of free slaves – i.e., he would support the apprehension and return of escaped slaves to their rightful homes but would not support the kidnapping and transport of freed slaves to slave states.
What about the Emancipation Proclamation? “I view the matter (Emancipation Proclamation) as a practical war measure, to be decided upon according to the advantages or disadvantages it may offer to the suppression of the rebellion…I will also concede that emancipation would help us in Europe, and convince them that we are incited by something more than ambition" (Abraham Lincoln).
The words of one of Lincoln’s closest cohorts in the execution of the war, Secretary of State, William Seward, are instructive on this point. "We show our sympathy with slavery by emancipating slaves where we cannot reach them and holding them in bondage where we can set them free." The Emancipation did not even free the salves in the several states of the Union where it was still legal (Maryland, Delaware, Kentucky) but purported to free slaves in places where the U.S. government had no real jurisdiction. This was the hypocrisy of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation; mere political grandstanding and Seward as much as acknowledged that.
At this point it would do us well to “follow the money.” Doctor of Economics, Walter Williams, informs us on some of the economic issues that faced the nation at the time of the War Between the States. For many years the center of American thought and power could be understood to have been centered in Virginia. At the time, before the War Between the States, Virginia was much bigger than its current size and included the state now recognized as West Virginia. Even though Philadelphia was named as the birthplace of our nation it is of note that four of our first five presidents (Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe), and eight in all, were natives of Virginia along with the likes of Patrick Henry and George Mason.
The fact is that the rising industrial northern states were jealous of the prestige, power, and wealth of Virginia and the South and attempted to balance the scales through the passage of laws favorable to the North and harmful to the South.
Pay very close attention here because this is the crux of my argument; the main source of federal revenue throughout our early history came from the imposition of excise taxes and tariffs. In fact, tariffs were the main source of federal revenues prior to the 1850s. During the period before the War Between the States, 90 percent of federal revenues came through tariffs and (HERE IS THE CLINCHER) Southern ports paid a whopping 75 percent of those tariffs in 1859. Try withholding that kind of revenue from your government and see who and what shows up at your door. That, in itself, might explain Mr. Lincoln’s change of heart when it came to his views on the self-determination of the South with respect to the Union versus the situation between Texas and Mexico; Lincoln was no fool.
I’m sure there are advocates for Lincoln that will be scandalized by what I have written but I welcome any challengers and would be more than happy to take on any questions or accusations of inaccuracy in what I have posted.