Monthly Archives: July 2011

Obama on Lincoln as a compromiser

By Michael Lynch

Like many other American politicians, President Obama invokes the legacy of Abraham Lincoln from time to time.  He did so while discussing the current debt ceiling controversy, referring to the Emancipation Proclamation as an example of Lincoln’s willingness to make compromises:

“This notion that somehow if you’re responsible and you compromise, that somehow you’re giving up your convictions — that’s absolutely not true,” the president said at a University of Maryland town hall.

While the proclamation declared slaves who were in areas that had rebelled against the Union to be free, Lincoln exempted five slave states from the terms of the agreement.

The basis for the proclamation was its utility as a war measure and Lincoln excluded several areas on the basis that they were not at war against the U.S. because they remained loyal to the Union.

“Now think about that,” Obama said. “The Great Emancipator was making a compromise in the Emancipation Proclamation because he thought it was necessary in terms of advancing the goals of preserving the Union and winning the war.”

With the August 2nd deadline to default rapidly approaching, Obama asked if Lincoln can do it, why can’t Congress?

“So, you know what?  If Abraham Lincoln could make some compromises as part of governance, then surely we can make some compromises when it comes handling our budget,” Obama said.

Obama was correct in noting that the proclamation did not completely and immediately eradicate slavery.  Lincoln considered abolitionists’ calls for an immediate and total end to slavery to be unrealistic, and believed that he lacked the authority to simply extinguish slavery by decree.

When he finally issued his Emancipation Proclamation, he did so as a war measure, exercising his military authority in a time of rebellion.  Those states and portions of states still in revolt were the only areas where Lincoln could invoke this extraordinary power.  The loyal border states of Maryland, Delaware, Kentucky and Missouri were therefore exempt.  So was Tennessee (much of which had fallen into Union hands), along with parts of Virginia (particularly those western counties in the process of becoming a separate state) and southern Louisiana.

This map shows the Emancipation Proclamation's reach. Slaves in areas colored red were declared free. Slavery existed in the light blue areas, but these regions were exempt from the proclamation. Image from Wikimedia Commons

Critics of Lincoln sometimes claim that the proclamation was both ineffectual and hypocritical—ineffectual because it supposedly freed no one, and hypocritical because it applied only to areas over which Lincoln’s government had no effective control.  These critics are wrong on both counts.  The proclamation did free many slaves, and it did so immediately. Parts of the Carolinas, Alabama, and Virginia had fallen behind Union lines but weren’t exempted, so thousands of slaves in these regions became free when the proclamation took effect on January 1, 1863.  And, of course, slaves who were still in Confederate-held territory on that date eventually experienced emancipation once Union armies penetrated and occupied the areas where they lived.  The claim that the proclamation did not free anyone is therefore simply untrue.

Having taken the fateful step of moving against the institution, Lincoln also played a crucial role in securing freedom for those slaves in the areas exempted under the proclamation.  He sought and achieved the passage of a constitutional amendment which permanently and completely eradicated slavery in the United States, and the states ratified this Thirteenth Amendment after his death.  This measure freed those slaves who remained in bondage in Kentucky and Delaware; Maryland and Missouri had already taken action to end slavery within their borders by that time.

While portraying the Emancipation Proclamation as a half-way measure is somewhat accurate, it minimizes the political and constitutional realities Lincoln faced.  He acted decisively and dramatically, but he did so within the limits of what he believed his authority to be at the time.  The proclamation was thus something of a paradox—a measure both cautious and radical at the same time.

—Michael Lynch graduated from LMU with a degree in history, worked at the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum as an assistant curator, and now teaches survey-level history courses on campus.  He holds an M.A. in history from the University of Tennessee and blogs about historical topics at


Filed under Lincoln and Memory, Lincoln as Commander-in-Chief

Who is Thomas DiLorenzo arguing with, anyway?

By Michael Lynch

The SCV is kicking off Savannah’s sesquicentennial observances with a talk by Thomas DiLorenzo.  DiLorenzo, of course, is a critic of Lincoln and of the celebratory view of him that’s become woven into the fabric of American memory over the past 150 years.

“While Lincoln is a hero to many,” according to the reporter who wrote the piece linked above, “‘Honest Abe’ is no hero to DiLorenzo. ‘There is the fairytale version of Abraham Lincoln that he was sent from God to free the slaves,’ he said. ‘My book is much more realistic of who he was.'”

Much more realistic than what, exactly?  The notion that Lincoln was sent from God, like some nineteenth-century John the Baptist?  I would certainly hope so.

The article also quotes DiLorenzo as stating that Lincoln “was a real-life politician and not some God-like creature.”  One wonders who, among serious Lincoln researchers, believes that Lincoln was something other than a real-life politician.  Sure, the “apotheosis” of Lincoln was very much a part of the mythology that developed after the war, and one doesn’t have to look very hard to find examples:

But I’m curious as to why any scholar would feel that debunking such romanticized notions is worth his time.  Of course Lincoln “was a real-life politician and not some God-like creature.”  If sentimentalized patriotic myth is the standard of credibility against which DiLorenzo wants us to measure his portrait of Lincoln, then I think the odds are in his favor.

If you want to sift through the debris that’s accumulated after 150 years of myth-making and try to make sense of what it all means, that’s a fine and worthwhile endeavor.  But again, trying to prove that popular mythology is not the same thing as objective truth seems to be aiming rather low.  Merrill Peterson and Barry Schwartz have already done an excellent job of dissecting Lincoln’s place in American memory.  But simply stating that myths are, indeed, just myths seems sort of like reminding us all that Blackbeard didn’t really lead a crew of zombies to capture a live mermaid as he does in the latest Pirates of the Caribbean installment.  Sure, what you’d be saying would be true, but most of us already get it.

Whenever I read a newspaper article about DiLorenzo, I get the feeling that the person who wrote it doesn’t really know with whom or what DiLorenzo is arguing.  Indeed, sometimes I suspect that DiLorenzo himself isn’t really sure who or what he’s trying to engage.  He’s been a vocal critic of Lincoln scholars, using terms such as “court historians” and “the church of Lincoln.”  But rather than engaging the work of serious Lincoln researchers, he seems to spend much of his time either knocking down the straw men of popularized memory, as noted above, or relating common knowledge and then drawing all manner of sinister implications from it:

Before entering politics, Lincoln was a businessman. “Lincoln spent 25 years of his life involved in economic policy debates about money and power,” he said. “He was an advocate of a government-run bank.

“He supported what we today call corporate welfare, including tax subsidies for corporations to build railroads,” DiLorenzo said. “I argue that this was a very important part of why he was elected president and what he did as president.”

That’s all very well and good, but DiLorenzo is hardly the only person “arguing” this.  Indeed, this so commonly known that I don’t think stating it constitutes an “argument” at all.  Like any good Whig of his day, Lincoln was a firm believer in government support for internal improvements and commercial activity.  Anybody who’s read any decent work on nineteenth-century politics or on Lincoln himself should already be aware of this.

At the time he was president, Lincoln was reviled by many people, perhaps the most reviled president of all, DiLorenzo said. “After his death, he was turned into a martyr by the Republican party with the help of the New England clergy,” he said.

“In the northern states, Lincoln shut down over 300 opposition newspapers and suspended habeas corpus,” DiLorenzo said. “He enforced military conscriptions and there were draft riots. It’s not too hard to understand why he was so unpopular. That all changed after his death.”

Again, most of this is common knowledge.  Readers can find discussions of Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus, his conscription policies, and the criticisms he received as a result of these measures in any good treatment of the war or of Lincoln’s administration. In fact, Mark Neely devoted an entire book-length study to Lincoln’s curtailment of civil liberties.  (It’s also worth noting that conscription, rioting, and an invasive government weren’t limited to the Union.  The Confederacy also drafted soldiers, provoked civil unrest, and involved itself in various aspects of life to a degree that would have been remarkable in peacetime.)  The only thing that DiLorenzo really seems to be adding to the mix is his polemical tone.

Maybe that’s what he’s after; maybe he’d rather we see him as a political critic, not a historical scholar who’s out to make an original contribution to our understanding of the past.  Perhaps he wants to engage present-day policymakers and voters, rather than historians.  Or perhaps he simply wants to knock down the idealized Lincoln sentiments of popular historical memory (but again, I think that’s a rather modest ambition).

If DiLorenzo wants a hearing from Lincoln scholars, he’ll need to engage the work that these scholars have done, rather than the straw men of historical memory.  Whoever he’s trying to take on, I doubt he’ll run into much disagreement at SCV-sponsored speaking gigs like the one mentioned in the article.

—Michael Lynch graduated from LMU with a degree in history, worked at the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum as an assistant curator, and now teaches survey-level history courses on campus.  He holds an M.A. in history from the University of Tennessee and blogs about historical topics at

(Both Lincoln images above taken from Wikimedia Commons)


Filed under Lincoln and Memory, Lincoln Historiography

Lincoln and Mandela

It’s not only Americans who take their national heroes and see how they measure up to Lincoln.  An editorialist used the occasion of Nelson Mandela’s birthday to compare his legacy with that of the Great Emancipator.

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Filed under Lincoln and Memory

Lincoln’s Treasury Secretary

Ben Tarnoff has written a short piece for the New York Times blog on Salmon P. Chase and his contributions to the Union war effort. Here’s a sample:

A solemn man with tremendous self-discipline and unfaltering faith in himself, Treasury Secretary Chase faced the greatest challenge of his career — and the most urgent of the many problems plaguing the Union in those tense months after Fort Sumter. President Lincoln had given him the unenviable task of figuring out how to fund the war. Chase landed the job not because of any financial experience — he had none — but as a reward for supporting Lincoln at the Republican convention.

Neither of them could have anticipated how important a position it would become. Upon taking office on March 7, 1861, Chase inherited an epic mess. At the opening of the Civil War, the Treasury was a bureaucratic tangle of independent fiefdoms, marred by decades of mismanagement. The government had run a deficit every year since 1857, and revenue from taxes and tariffs, its principal source of income, had fallen dramatically. Lincoln commanded a poorly provisioned army of fewer than 20,000 men. He needed guns, ships, tents, uniforms. The war would be expensive, and Lincoln didn’t have time to find the money to fight it. For that, he needed Chase.

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Filed under Lincoln as President

Another trial for Mary Surratt

Mary Surratt, executed for her role in the conspiracy to assassinate Lincoln, will get two more chances to try and prove her innocence in Illinois this fall:

The historic retrial of Mary Surratt will involve well known Illinois attorneys and the same judge who oversaw the Blagojevich trial.

Surratt ran a boarding house where John Wilkes Booth and others plotted the Ford’s Theater assassination. She will be portrayed by an actress to be determined, and she’ll actually get two retrials. The re-enactments are courtesy of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, and the Illinois Supreme Court Historic Preservation Commission.

The first retrial will be Sept. 23 at Chicago’s Harold Washington Library. The second is set for Oct. 3 at the Lincoln Museum in Springfield.

More details here.

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Filed under Lincoln Updates

Gettysburg National Military Park receives lock of Lincoln’s hair

From The Washington Post:

On April 15, 1865, as surgeons in the White House conducted the autopsy on Abraham Lincoln’s body, the dead president’s widow, Mary Todd Lincoln, sent in a messenger requesting a lock of her husband’s hair.

The president’s physician, Robert K. Stone, reached over and clipped a lock from a spot near the head wound that had killed the chief executive and gave it to the messenger. Others in the room made the same request, and other locks were clipped, according to historical accounts.

On Wednesday, one of those specimens — which had been kept in a bank vault for almost a quarter-century — was donated by its owner to Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania.

The small sheaf of hair is framed along with a faded, stained, handwritten note stating that it was given by Stone to the Baltimore businessman and philanthropist Enoch Pratt.

“This is one of those special objects that gives you the chills when you see it,” said park superintendent Bob Kirby, according to a park statement.

He said it will become part of the collection in the new, state-of-the-art Gettysburg museum later this year.

LMU’s Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum has a similar item which was on display for many years; it’s now housed in one of the building’s vaults.



Filed under Lincoln Updates