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The Lincoln Legacy, A Long View

The Lincoln Legacy, A Long View

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Published by: quintus14 on Oct 13, 2012
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The Lincoln
Legacy:
A
Long View
WITH
THE
TIME
and manner of his deathAbraham Lincoln, as leader of a Puritanpeople who had just won a great victoryover “the forces of evil,” was placed beyondthe reach
of
ordinary historical inquiry andassessment. Through Booths bullet hebecame the one who had “died to makemen free,” who had perished that his coun-
try’s
“new birth’ might occur: a “secondfounder” who, in Fords theater, had beentransformed into an American version ofthe “dying god.” Our common life, accord-ing to this construction, owes its continua-tion to the shedding of the sacred blood.Now after over a century of devotion to themyth of the “political messiah,” it is stillimpossible for most Americans to seethrough and beyond the magical events ofApril,
1865.
However, Lincoln’s daily pur-chase upon the ongoing business
of
the na-tion requires that we devise a way of settingaside the martyrdom to look behind it
at
Lincoln’s place in the total context ofAmerican history and discover in him amajor source of our present confusion, ourdistance from the republicanism of theFathers, the models of political conductwhich we profess most to admire. The ex-amination of Lincoln’s career as dividedaccording to the formula of my study intoWhig, artificial Puritan, and seriousCromwellian phases should facilitate thatrecovery. And provide a proper word tobreak the silence that will not let us knowand judge.’Of course, nothing that we can identifyas part of Lincoln’s legacy belongs to himalone. In some respects the Emancipatorwas carried along with the tides. Yet ameasure of his importance is that he was atthe heart
of
the major political events of hisera. Therefore what signifies in a finalevaluation of this melancholy man is thatmany of these changes in the countrywould never have come to pass had Lincolnnot pushed them forward. Or at least notcome
so
quickly, or with such dreadfulviolence.
I
will emphasize only the eventsthat he most certainly shaped according tohis relentless will, alterations in thecharacter of our country for which he wasclearly responsible. For relateddevelopments touched by Lincoln’s wand, Ican have only a passing word. The majorcharges advanced here, if proved up, aresufficient to impeach the most famous andrespected of public men. More would onlyoverdo.The first and most obvious item in mybill of particulars for indictment concernsLincoln’s dishonesty and obfuscation withrespect to the nation’s future obligations tothe Negro, slave and free. It was of coursean essential ingredient of Lincoln’s positionthat he make a success at being anti-Southern or antislavery without at thesame time appearing to be significantly im-pious about the beginnings of the Republic(which was neither anti-Southern nor an-tislavery)
-
r significantly pro-Negro. Hewas the first Northern politician of anyrank to combine these attitudes into aviable platform persona, the first to makehis moral position on slavery in the Southinto a part of his national politics. It was aposture that enabled him to unite elementsof the Northern electorate not ordinarilywilling to cooperate in any political under-taking. And thus enabled him to destroythe old Democratic majority- a coalitionnecessary to preserving the union of thestates. Then came the explosion. But thiscalculated posturing has had more durableconsequences than secession and thefederal confiscation of property in slaves.Even after the passage of over a century,with each new day they unfold with addi-tional and ever-deepening iteration andModern Age
355
 
threaten to produce divisions that makethose explored on the battlefields ofVirginia, Maryland, and Tennessee seemmild indeed:
so
threaten most especiallysince it has become impossible to single outthe South as the particular locus of
“im-
proper” attitudes on the subject of race.In the nation as a whole what movestoward fruition is a train of events set inmotion
by
the duplicitous rhetoric concern-Lincoln into our first “sectional” President.Central to this appeal is a claim to a kind
of
moral superiority that costs absolutelynothing in the way of conduct. Lincoln, ininsisting that the Negro was included in thepromise of the Declaration of In-dependence and that the Declarationbound his countrymen to fulfill a pledgehidden in that document, seemed clearly topoint toward a radical transformation
of
American society. Carried within his rejec-tion of Negro slavery as a continuingfeature of the American regime, his asser-tion that the equality clause of the Declara-tion of independence was “the father
of
allmoral principle among us,” were certainmuted corollaries.4 By promising that thepeculiar institution would be made todisappear if candidates for national officeadopted the proper “moral attitude” on thatsubject, Lincoln recited as a litany thegeneral terms of his regard for universalhuman rights. But at the same time he add-ed certain modifications to this high doc-trine: modifications required by those
of
his countrymen to whom he hoped to ap-peal, by the rigid racism of the Northernelectorate, and by “what his own feelingswould admit.’IS The most important
of
these reservations was that none of his doc-trine should apply significantly to theNegro in the North. Or, after freedom, towhat he could expect in the South. It was avery broad,
very
general, and very abstractprinciple to which he made reference.
By
it
he could divide the sheep from the goats,the wheat from the chaff, the patriot fromthe conspirator. But for the Negro it pro-vided nothing more than a technicalfreedom, best to be enjoyed far away. Or
ing
the
Neg~
hat
helped
iide
Ahaham
the valuable opportunity to “root hog ordie.”’ For the sake of such vapid distinc-tions he urged his countrymen to wadethrough seas
of
blood.To be sure, this position does not pushthe “feelings” of that moralist who was oursixteenth President too far from what wascomfortable for him. And
it
goes withoutsaying that a commitment to “naturalrights” which will not challenge the BlackCodes of iiiinois, which promisessomething like them for the freedman inthe South, or else offers him as alternativethe proverbial “one-way ticket to nowhere”is a commitment of empty words. It is onlyan accident of political history that the finalReconstruction settlement provided a bitmore for the former slave- principally, thechance to vote Republican, and even that“right” didn’t last, once a better deal wasmade available to his erstwhile protectors.But the point is that Lincoln’s commitmentwas precisely of the sort that the North wasready to make- while passing legislation torestrict the flow of Negroes into its
own
ter-ritories, elaborating its own system ofsegregation by race, and exploiting blacklabor through its representatives in a con-quered South. Lincoln’s double talk left hispart of the country with a durable heritageof pious self-congratulation, what RobertPenn Warren has well described as “TheTreasury of Virtue.’I6 Left it with the,habit of concealing
its
larger objectivesbehind a faGade of racial generosity, of us-ing the Negro as a reason for policies andlaws which make only minimal alterationsin his condition, and also with the habit ofseeming to offer a great deal more thanthey are truly willing
to
give. In the wake ofthe just concluded “Second Reconstructionof
1955-1965,
the Northern habit hasbecome national, visible every time one ofthe respected polls examines our ostensibleopinions on race relations. There we ap-pear the soul of charity, though our con-duct voting “with our feet” belies everystatistic that we produce. Where such in-substantial sentiment will lead we cannotsay. It is enough
to
observe that masshypocrisy is a contagious disease. Or to put
356
Fall
1980
 
matters another way, it would be well if welearned to say no more than we meant. Forthe alternative is to produce in the targetsof our beneficence the kind of anger thatcomes with the receipt of a promissory notethat contains, as one of its terms, the condi-tion that it need never be paid. Better thanthis would be a little honest dealing,whatever its kind.The second heading in this “case againstLincoln” involves no complicated pleading.Neither will it confuse any reader who ex-amines
his
record with care. For
it
has to dowith Lincoln’s political economy, hismanagement of the commercial andbusiness life of the part of the Republicunder his authority. This material is ob-vious, even though it is not always con-nected with the Presidency of AbrahamLincoln. Nevertheless, it must bedeveloped at this point. For it leads directlyinto the more serious charges upon whichthis argument depends. It is customary todeplore the Gilded Age, the era of theGreat Barbecue. It is true that many of thecorruptions of the Republican Era came to
a
head after Lincoln lay at rest in Spring-field. But it is a matter of fact that theybegan either under his direction or with hissponsorship. Military necessity, the “Warfor the Union,” provided an excuse, an um-brella of sanction, under which the essen-tial nature of the changes being made in therelation of government to commerce couldbe concealed. Of his total policy the North-ern historian Robert Sharkey has written,“Human ingenuity would have had dif-ficulty in contriving a more perfect enginefor class and sectional exploration:creditors finally obtaining the upper handas opposed to debtors, and the developedEast holding the whip over theunderdeveloped West and South.”’ Untilthe South left the Union, until a HighWhig sat in the White House, none of thisreturn to the “energetic government” ofHamilton’s design was possible. Indeed,even in the heyday of the Federalists it hadnever been
so
simple a matter to translatepower into wealth. Now Lincoln could
try
again the internal improvements of theearly days in Illinois. The difference wasthat this time the funding would not berestrained
by
political reversal or a failureof credit. For if anything fell short, Mr.Salmon P. Chase, “the foreman” of his“green printing office,could be instructed“to give his paper mill another turn.”Andthe inflationary policy of rewarding thefriends of the government sustained. Theeuphemism of our time calls this “incomeredistribution.” But it was theft in 1864,and is theft today.A great increase in the tariff and the for-mation of a national banking networkwere, of course, the cornerstones of thisgreat alteration in the posture of the federalgovernment toward the sponsorship ofbusiness. From the beginning of theRepublican Party Lincoln warned hisassociates not to talk about their views onthese subjects. Their alliance, he knew, wasa negative thing: a league against the SlavePower and its Northern friends. But inprivate he made it clear that the hiddenagenda of the Republicans would have itsturn, once the stick was in their hand. Inthis he promised well. Between 1861 and1865, the tariffrose from 18.84% to47.56%.And it stayed above 40% in all but two yearsof the period concluded with the election ofWoodrow Wilson. Writes the Virginiahistorian Ludwell H. Johnson, it would“facilitate a massive transfer of wealth,satisfying the dreariest predictions of John
C.
Calh~un.~ he new Republicansystem of banking (for which we shouldnote Lincoln was directly accountable) waspart of the same large design of “refound-ing.” The National Banking Acts of 1863and 1864, with the earlier Legal TenderAct, flooded the country with $480,000,000of fiat money that was soon depreciated byabout twoJthirds in relation to specie.Then all notes but the greenback dollarwere taxed out of existence, excepting onlyU.
S.
Treasury bonds that all banks wererequired to purchase if they were to have ashare in the war boom. The support forthese special bonds was thus the debtitself -Hamilton’s old standby. Speciedisappeared. Moreover, the bank laws con-Modern Age
357

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