There’s another way to look at Lincoln
February was filled with a month-long celebration of the 200th anniversary of the birth of the mythic and saintly Abraham Lincoln. Today we are mired in a deep recession, and the entire country today is suffering the adverse economic effects initiated in his presidency. Two centuries distance from his birth, we are still paying a very heavy price for what he did. But wait, you say, every schoolchild knows Lincoln was our greatest president. He freed the slaves. First let’s clear up this “He freed the slaves” nonsense. The war against secession was not fought to free the slaves. The slaves were freed to win the war. The enshrined Emancipation Proclamation was purely a last-minute military tactic to destroy the economy of the South. Though it actually freed not one slave, as a weapon of war, it worked. If not a war to free the slaves, what was that war about? It was not a civil war, as the South had no desire to take over national government. The rural agricultural states simply sought their own government and tried to secede from an historically oppressive and foreign power. Like the secession of the colonies from England. The war was about concentration of power. Before that horrible war, one would say “the united States are.” After the war, it became “the United States is.” The intention of our nation’s founders was certainly not a centralized all-powerful government, we were to be a “voluntary association of states.” In 1862, Charles Dickens nailed it: “The northern onslaught upon slavery is no more than a piece of specious humbug designed to conceal its desire for economic control of the Southern States.” Here’s what this concentration of power brought us in 2009: AIG, Citigroup, Merrill Lynch, the national banking system, the automakers, massive bailouts. Who is serving whom? What 620,000 young men (of a total population 30 million, which would equal 6.2 million today) died for was to shift the locus of power from the states to the federal government. The victory over the South meant the delivery of wealth and authority to fewer and fewer hands. The price we pay today is painful. It was Abraham Lincoln who censored a great many newspapers and who rained jail and violence on dissenters, without habeas corpus. Ohio Congressman Clement Vallandigham was kidnapped for extraordinary rendition outside the U.S. This is old history, so why should you care? Because Lincoln’s legacy affects us all today. He centralized power through blood, today we prop it up it through our money. Today’s rising populist anger results from we the people being forced to prop up the bigness Lincoln successfully solidified. Then there’s the health-care crisis. In 1948, President Truman was in favor of, along with 75 percent of Americans, national health care, but the Southern senators killed it because they thought blood might be mixed between races in hospitals. In so many instances we in the North, and all the united States, would be better off today had Lincoln not launched his war. The South is not like the North. Employing horrible violence, Lincoln forced this foreign culture to stay attached, against their unmistakable will. Much of Southern culture is repulsive to my values. But there were other options to end the profound evil of slavery. Lincoln chose war to violently impose centralized power on those who sought their own government. Like George III in 1776. Lincoln was certainly a powerful, exceptionally skilled president. If not for one night at Ford’s Theater, instead of today’s near-holy mythic giant, a fuller truth about Lincoln would be assessed.
State senator from 1990 to 2004, Burt Cohen now hosts a radio talk show. His Web site is www.burtcohen.com.