Lincoln: A Lying Duplicitous Bigot

This review of David Donald's Lincoln ( New York and London: Simon & Schuster, 1996)  was commissioned and published by the Spectator (London),  for which I wrote with some frequency, once upon a time before the world ceased pretending to exist.  (Surely all the events of 2020 were scripted by filmmakers of the type who created Dark City and Total Recall.)   It is amusing to imagine the response of an American editor today.   The title above was given, as I recall, by the editors, but I cannot find a reference on the Spectator's website.  "I know you'll think I', crazy, but...what if everything I'm supposed to remember, never really happened, someone just wants us to think it did?"

In 1862 Col. John Basil (né Ivan Vasiliev) Turchin led his Union troops into Athens, Alabama.  Turchin, formerly a Colonel of Cossacks for the Czar, took offense at the contempt displayed by the townspeople, black and white.  "Saying, for one hour I close my eyes," the Cossack officer turned over the town to be sacked by his soldiers, who burned, pillaged, and raped to their hearts' content.  Turchin's commander, General Don Carlos Buell, convoked a court marshall presided over by future president James Garfield.  Garfield found Turchin guilty and stripped him of his rank.  But Turchin had influential friends back in his adoptive state of Illinois, and they appealed the conviction to President Lincoln, who promptly reinstated the Cossack and arranged for a promotion. 

In his new biography of Lincoln, David Donald is silent on this and many other episodes that caused many Americans to regard Lincoln as a brutal dictator instead of the saint and martyr that is almost uniformly offered up in the long series of hagiographies that have been published since his assassination.  (distinguished exceptions are the honest memoirs published by his law partner Herndon and the debunking biography written by Illinois poet, Edgar Lee Masters, the author of Spoon River.)

Only Richard Nixon--the great Satan of American history--has more books devoted to him than the Suffering Servant, and foreigners who wish to understand the nature of the American regime could not do better than to contemplate the polarity between the mythical Lincoln and the mythical Nixon.  (The Nixon myth is so well-established by now that Oliver Stone's film can be described as a sympathetic portrait.  I knew Richard Nixon, and believe me, Anthony Hopkins is no Nixon.)  

It is as easy to write critically of Lincoln today as it would have been to attack the memory of Lenin in 1940.  Every other American hero has come in for a serious debunking--Washington and Jefferson, for example-- but it is still lèse majesté to tell the truth about either Richard Nixon or Abraham Lincoln.  The American regime rests upon Lincoln's accomplishment, because Lincoln destroyed the old republic of the founding fathers and laid the foundation for a new order.  This point has been made in recent years by the late M.E. Bradford who lamented the change and by James McPherson, who celebrated it, but for many Southerners and a few Northern conservatives in the United States, Lincoln remains a highly ambigious figure: a man of many good qualities and, perhaps, even greater weaknesses, an essentially humane and kindly man, whose personal ambition and political incompetence led to a war that devasted the wealthiest section of the United States and turned the peaceful republic of Jefferson and Jackson into a plutocratic empire. 

This latest book on the 16th American president may be as honest a biography as we are likely to see, but it stops short of holding Lincoln accountable for his personal and political failings.  Donald has not dealt with the larger issues raised by Lincoln's career: the rightness or wrongness of the Southern cause, the morality of total war, the long-term consequences of the president's assumption of dictatorial powers, including the suspension of habeas corpus and the wholesale arrest of his political opposition.  

He does, however, take up the question of Lincoln's character.  The key, as Donald sees it, is to be found in the President's letter to a Kentuckian, explaining his shift from his promise never to interfere with slavery: "I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me."   In Donald's view, Lincoln's "fatalism," while it led to indecision, was also responsible for his compassion and tolerance.  In fact, Lincoln seemed remarkably incapable of dealing with either his wife's tantrums or the arrogant contempt displayed by General George McClellan. 

But there is another side to Lincoln's fatalism, a side that his latest biographer does little to elucidate:  Even as a young man, the future president regarded himself as a man of destiny.  As Donald does relate, Lincoln's mother, from a poor white family in Virginia, told her son that she was illegitimate.  Her true father, she said, was a Virginia planter.  From this tale (told to his law partner, William Herndon),  Lincoln constructed a personal myth.  According to Herndon, Lincoln was proud of his mother's background and believed that he inherited his own ambition and intelligence from "this broad-minded, unkown Virginian."  Out of such a fantasy, Hardy might have written an Abe of the D'Urbervilles.  In fact, there is much in Lincoln's story that would have appealed to Hardy: like Jude or the Mayor of Casterbridge, the young Abraham was a lower class boy with ambitions.  Despising his own father for his poverty and lack of ambition, he dreamed of making his way in the world, and like the mayor, he was not above throwing over an inconvenient woman.  

Donald gives just enough information on Lincoln's courthship of Mary Owens to arouse suspicions.  Abraham was a negligent lover, and the half-hearted attention he paid to his fiancee turned to aversion that he expressed in coarse abuse.  " A fair match for Falstaff," he described her in a letter to a friend.   In Donald's version of the affair,  the hero is guilty of, at worst, crude manners and a change of heart.  But a closer reading of the letters [such as my friend Tom Landess performed] reveals a clever lawyer bullying the poor woman into breaking off the engagement in order to prevent a suit for breach of promise.  

An early clue to both Lincoln's character and his political career is an address he made to the Young Men's Lyceum of Springfield in 1838.  Condemning recent incidents of mob violence, Lincoln went on to warn against ambitious men who might sieze the opportunity to "overturn that fair fabric" of republican government.  While lesser men might be satisfied with a career that reached to the Congress or even the White House, "such belong not to the family of the lion, or the tribe of the eagle."  Raising the spectres of Alexander, Caesar, and Napoleon, Lincoln warned (hoped?) that such a genius, which "thirst and burns for distinction" would have it, "whether at the expense of emancipating slaves or enslaving freemen."  Wittingly or not, Lincoln had sketched out his own career.

Although he broke his promise not to interfere in the institution of slavery, the Emancipation Proclamation was a strictly political move, meant to pacify his abolitionist colleagues and, what is more important, to curry favor with European liberals.  His own views on slavery was colored by his strong distaste for blacks.  Part of Lincoln's negrophobia is due to his family's Quaker background, part to the difficulty his poor white father had in making a living in Kentucky.  But fear and loathing of African Americans made up a good part of the abolitionist creed.  In the Lincoln-Douglas debates, Lincoln had put the question with brutal frankness: "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 [applause]--...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...there is a physical difference betwen the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of equality."  Early in his career, Lincoln had favored the deportation of negroes to Africa or Latin America, but realizing the impracticality of such schemes, he was "in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race."

Lincoln's racism was no piece of campaign rhetoric: from first to last he favored racial separation and white hegemony, and if he sometimes spoke out of both sides of his mouth on this question, it was because such duplicity was normal with him.  I have often thought that the sobriquet "Honest Abe" was bestowed on Lincoln as a frontier example of the trope known as lucus a non lucendo--like calling a tall man "shorty."  

Lincoln's colleagues in the Republican Party, including the senior members of his own cabinet, despised him for his cowardice as well as for his inexperience and incompetence.  Donald cites some of their criticisms, but whole volumes could be published with nothing but the jibes and sneers of Secretaries Stanton (War) and Chase (Treasury).  The Secretary of State, W.H. Seward was more polite.  Of his relationship with his president, Donald says only that they met as adults and "never confided their deepest feelings to each other,"  but in his letters, Seward is clearly aware of his own superiority, and he apparently found it difficult to avoid condescension.  It was hard to take this crude "pettifogging lawyer," seriously.  His famous homespun humor could be effective, on the right occasion, but Lincoln, who had no sense of timing, was fond of cutting the fool on the most solemn occasions.  Two weeks after the bloodletting at Gettysburg, Lincoln was composing satiric doggerel on General Lee's invasion of Pennsylvania.

The ambassador to the Court of St. James, Charles Francis Adams, was a descendant of two presidents, and he was shocked by Lincoln's apparent frivolity at the outset of the national crisis.  Donald, in telling the story of Adams' meeting with Lincoln, emphasizes the president's personal indifference to the ambassador who had been chosen by Seward and not himself, but the ambassador (according to the biography written by his son) was dismayed by Lincoln's absorption in "the distribution of offices."  Over a decade after Lincoln's assassination, Adams still recalled the "moral, intellectual, and executive incompetency" displayed by Lincoln upon taking office. 

A more competent president could have prevented the war, but few Southern leaders had any direct knowledge of Lincoln and those who did, like Alexander Stephens (vice president of the Confederacy), simply did not trust him.  Even after the first shots had been fired, peace was still possible, but the president would have none of it, and when his commanders could not win victory on the battlefield without incurring terrible losses, he found a general (U.S. Grant) willing to make the sacrifice of blood, and he unleashed William Tecumseh Sherman upon the defenseless women and children of the South.  Some Southerners curse Sherman--and Lincoln--to this day, but Sherman's appalling march receives only two lines out of 599 pages.  Lincoln approved of Sherman's campaign, and when his general related stories of his "bummers," the President "laughed...and told others in return."  There are parts of the South that have never fully recovered from Sherman's bummers, and some of the people of Georgia and South Carolina are still not laughing. 


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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

16 Responses

  1. Allen Wilson says:

    I have heard a couple times (once even on a TV talk show back in the 80’s) that Lincoln’s wife inherited five slaves from relatives in Kentucky, and that they were kept in the white house as slaves. Of course it’s impossible to find out anything about this which is the least bit informative online. Is there any truth to it?

  2. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    The Todds were well-to-do slaveholders, and, if I am remembering correctly–perhaps Clyde Wilson will correct me–two of her brothers were Confederate officers. Grant allowed married into a slaveholding family from Missouri and bought a slave from his brother-in-law Fred Dent. I don’t know how many abolitionists–sincere or hypocritical–there were in the Lincoln cabinet or among his top military commanders, but freeing slaves was not one of the stronger motives for the subjugation of the South, any more than it was a British motive during the Revolution, although British troops did “liberate” a great many Africans, only to sell them in the Caribbean.

  3. Clyde Wilson says:

    Correct. Thank you for this piece. Liberation from the Lincoln Myth is the first step of wisdom for an American. To understand the full depth of Lincoln’s duplicity, read Howard R. White’s recent REBIRTHING LINCOLN. I have always been skeptical about mysteries about famous people. I chided Joe Sobran for his belief that Shakespeare’s plays were not written by Shakespeare but by some noble or other. But a very strong case can be made that Lincoln was born in 1804 (3 years before the official date) in Rutherford County, North Carolina, the illegitimate son of servant girl Nancy Hanks and married landowner ABRAHAM Enloe. Pictures of Enloe are startlingly similar to Lincoln’s lanky unusual frame, while Thomas Lincoln was short and stocky. The only written evidence of Lincoln’s birth in 1807 is a leaf in a Bible that Lincoln purchased and wrote the date in his own hand–forty years after the fact.

  4. theAlabamian says:

    Dr. Fleming,
    I really enjoyed this article, I always learn facts from you I did not previously know. Even if someone were to disagree with Lincoln being incompetent, I do not understand how people who are well read continue to feed the fantasy of a well meaning President Lincoln. For instance, when I attack Lincoln’s actions regarding invasion of the South, his atrocities in Maryland, and on their legislators, I have had responses saying Lincoln had never encountered anything like this before and was responding to a rebellion the best way he could think of…blah blah blah. However, using common sense, Lincoln was even if incompetent was not stupid. What I mean by this is that after year one of war, year of two of war, the thousands who were dying, Lincoln could certainly see the effects of his actions. How long before an “honest” man would realize this is wrong, and not worth it? I mean his refusal to meet with or acknowledge Southern representatives (who did contact Seward) looks on purpose to me, not a fumble on Lincoln’s part. I would argue that Lincoln kept pushing war even after seeing how costly it was, and knew of its devastating effects on the South year after year. I cannot fathom how people view his actions as an honest attempt at anything noble. This was a huge bloodbath, and was to be waged by Lincoln until he could effectively turn the South into an economic colony of the North, to secure what could no longer be done legally, but now through violence because Southerners had had enough. I do not see how you are a president, hear of the death tolls due to your actions month after month, continue butchering the South, and are considered an honest, inexperienced president who done his best. His actions look purposeful to me, and somehow people want to keep saying weird things like both sides were fighting for an honorable cause. You can possibly respect the humanity of a drafted Yankee, but to apply any nobleness to the Yankee cause seems dishonest to me.

  5. theAlabamian says:

    *the meeting with Seward and Lincoln’s decline of it I am referring to was that prior to the Fort Sumter incident.

  6. theAlabamian says:

    I suppose the blind labeling of Lincoln’s handling of the war as honest, is similar to the blind labeling of today’s endeavors of the U.S. military as honest, and Southern support of imperialism.

  7. theAlabamian says:

    Also Dr. Fleming mentioned Sherman’s campaign, I would like to ask Dr. Fleming and Dr. Wilson what to think of people’s mention General Joseph E. Johnston’s friendship with Sherman after the war? This seems to me to be used to downplay Sherman’s atrocities by people who want to regard Sherman as a hero. I suppose the logic would be that Johnston did not view Sherman as a war criminal, and certainly not evil, so why should we 140 years later? Of course I do not regard Sherman as a hero, but a butcher who “campaigned through Georgia, and South Carolina with almost no resistance and loot, burning, rape of the people.

  8. Gregory Fogg says:

    We have to remember that many generals on both sides were West Point graduates. Johnston graduated in 1829 and Sherman in 1840. I believe that Johnston caught the cold that killed him marching bare-headed in Sherman’s funeral procession. At a postbellum alumni gathering Confederate MG Henry Heth, Class of 1847, was offended when some yankee made a comment about “you damned rebels”. Heth replied something along the lines of ” If not for us damned rebels Sam Grant would still be tanning leather in Galena and Bill Sherman would be teaching school in Louisiana”.

  9. theAlabamian says:

    Do you see how Unionists/
    progressives who view Sherman as a hero can use their friendship to seemingly downplay what Sherman did?

  10. Gregory Fogg says:

    I can’t justify it, as I consider Sherman a war criminal. I knew an elderly lady in Gaffney SC whose grandmother, as a small girl had witnessed the heartless destruction. She told me she could never forget her grandmother’s stories.

  11. Gregory Fogg says:

    We have to consider that from about 1877 until fairly recently we at least superficially tried to reconcile our differences.

  12. Vince Cornell says:

    I could be wrong, because I’m not very knowledgeable about the man, but what I have read so far about Joe Johnston hasn’t impressed me.

  13. Robert Reavis says:

    I am no expert but my reading of it is that the South had some really good Generals and some very average military minds as you might expect. Jackson, Lee, Nathan Bedford Forrest were exceptional but all three were men of different backgrounds, talents and temperaments. Some had talent that was not expressed or exploited because of their personal conflicts with their superiors or their inability to work well within a hodge podge beauracracy. Beauregard was like that and then there are fellows like Joe Johnston and Lee’s old war horse, Longstreet, who were no doubt good military men but embraced certain tactics that fitted their personality more than others. When I was younger I liked only a certain type and mostly the familiar names we have all heard but the more I have read the more I enjoy the variety in Lee’s Lieutenants or Bragg or Hood and many of
    the others whose names will soon be taken down and forgotten from some of our major installations. As Tom Fleming likes to say, ‘My God, what a country!”

  14. Gregory Fogg says:

    Joe Johnston was hardly the worst of the CSA’s generals, but like many of his ilk he could have a prickly personality. When Jefferson Davis ( USMA 1828 ) appointed the first five men to the rank equivalent to today’s four star generals they were all West Pointers and their seniority was based on the order they graduated from the academy. Thus the senior general was Samuel Cooper, 1815, followed by Albert Sidney Johnson, 1826, Lee, 2nd in the class of 1829, Joe Johnston, 13th in the same class, and Beauregard, 1838. Joe Johnston thought he should have been first as he held the highest rank in the US Army. Upon his appointment as Quartermaster General in 1860 he became the first West Pointer ever to attain general officer rank in the US Army (BG). Albert Sidney Johnston had been a general and Secretary of War in the Republic of Texas and held Brevet BG rank in the US Army, but his RA rank was COL.

  15. Vince Cornell says:

    Gentlemen, thank you for the responses. I suppose it’s unfair for me to judge Johnston against Jackson, Lee, and Forrest as many a good general would wind up short of those impressive marks. I do sometimes wonder what would have happened if Albert Sydney Johnson had survived Shiloh and if he, like Johnston, would’ve slow-waltzed with Sherman down to Atlanta, but I do try my best to refrain from armchair warfighting, as I make no pretense that I know or could have done any better than any of them in any of the battles (except for maybe Pillow and Johnson at the surrender of Ft. Donelson – I can’t imagine anyone could have done any worse!).

  16. Robert Reavis says:

    Still getting whipped in this world on every front and every losing battle. Moves and spreads like a glob of green goo and colors everything it comes in contact with like a parasite turning a red face pale. But outside of that the southern life in every other way is still more lovely than the dawn. We just never have won enough on the worlds terms and because the world hates the losers it gets to say whatever it wants about the winning. Mostly lies but that’s the prerogative of winners in our time in almost every field.