Rewriting History

Neo-Confederates and others who have a more sympathetic understanding of the Confederacy don’t generally agree on much with far-left Progressives. And yet they do have at least one thing in common: they share a revisionist interpretation of the Civil War generally and Abraham Lincoln specifically. Both downplay the significance of the Civil War and the elimination of the scourge of slavery, and both portray Lincoln as a typically racist white man who didn’t really care all that much about the plight of slaves and whose interest in emancipation was purely part of a larger effort to preserve the Union and win the war.

In my life I have spilled a metric ton of digital ink arguing that this is an egregiously mistaken or warped view of American history, so I’ll address these inaccuracies briefly. First of all, with regards to the cause of the war, yes it was about slavery. One only has to read the documents produced by the secessionist states and speeches from the likes of Alexander Stephenson to understand this. The idea that tariffs or some other underlying economic motives were factors is frankly absurd. Lincoln and Douglas spent seven debates in Illinois arguing about popular sovereignty as it relates to whether territories should be able to choose whether or not slavery would be legal as they moved to statehood. Tariffs did not come up. Nor are they mentioned much in the articles of secession.

It is true that Lincoln and the union government did not engage in war to eliminate slavery, and many if not most union soldiers didn’t care one way or the other too much about the issue. And the same is also generally true of confederate soldiers. Yet there is no serious proof that the ultimate precipitating cause of the division between north and south was anything other than slavery. Once the war started the men were fighting for their country (in the north) or for their homeland (in the south). But why were they fighting to begin with? Surely not tariffs.

And this leads us to Lincoln and emancipation. First of all, it is true that Lincoln was not an abolitionist per se, though he was adamantly opposed to slavery. And his animating purpose at the outset of the Civil Was was the preservation of the union at any costs, including the potential of chastened seceded states returning and keeping slavery. But as the war wore on, Lincoln saw the opportunity to emancipate slaves and he took it. In part it was a war measure, but he also saw it as the right thing to do, and so overruled practically his entire cabinet in issuing it.

That the Emancipation Proclamation did not technically free any slaves at the time of its issuance is true but it misses the larger point. From that point forward the Civil War was now a war of emancipation. It meant that every territory reclaimed by the union would be free soil territory. It essentially signified that union victory in the war meant the end of slavery in America.

Lincoln also comes into criticism for his support for sending freed slaves to Africa, specifically Liberia. Once again this is an incomplete history. Lincoln initially supported this plan because he didn’t think freed slaves could live peaceably in the United States, and assumed they would want to relocate. As president he met with African-American leaders and freed slaves like Frederick Douglass and he learned that they wanted to be a part of the United States. So he ditched this idea halfway through his presidency, and by the time of his death he was fully committed to guaranteeing full citizenship and civil rights to freed slaves (a position which only intensified John Wilkes Booth’s hatred of Lincoln).

So what motivates this unusual coalition of Lincoln haters, aside from pure historical ignorance? For neo-Confederates and a certain element of conservatives, they view the Lincoln presidency as the end of the America of the Founders. According to them. the Civil War put an end to federalism and limited government and gave rise to the imperial presidency. This narrative would make more sense if we ignore pretty much the whole of American history from 1865-1933. Immediately after the war federal spending fell back to pre-war levels. While the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments restricted state powers in many regards, the actual lived experience of most Americans didn’t reflect a total consolidation of federal power (admittedly some of this is because those amendments were ignored, but that’s not the only reason). And the history of the American presidency after Lincoln until at least the Teddy Roosevelt administration is not exactly one of a domineering presidency.

And what of the Progressives? Admitting that 600,000 American lives were sacrificed to end slavery and that Abraham Lincoln was the primary driver of emancipation, and he did so for legitimate moral reasons would mean that something noble and good happened in America prior to, I don’t know, yesterday. And we can’t have that.