The Truth About “Honest Abe” and American Slavery

Howdy, everyone! What’s up? Today we are going to talk about a really  controversial subject: Abraham Lincoln (or “Honest Abe” as the American public calls him) and American slavery.

Abraham Lincoln was born on February 12th, 1809, in Kentucky (yes, Lincoln was a Southerner). He grew up through a rather troubled childhood. His mother died from milk sickness (vomiting and trembling), but Lincoln managed to educate himself and eventually moved on in life, eventually becoming a lawyer. Lincoln was a Whig and a follower of politician Henry Clay. In 1846, he was elected to the House of Representatives.

This is not going to be about Lincoln’s life. Instead, I want to delve into his legend. Lincoln has often been identified as “the Great Emancipator” or “savior of the Union,” etc. But, in actual fact, Lincoln never did have concern over slavery. He said this many times during his career, and, during a debate in Illinois in 1858, he stated ,”I have no purpose to introduce political and social equality between the white and black races.” Lincoln also was said to have despised blacks, saying that they were “inferior.” When approached with the idea of emancipation, Lincoln again stated, “Free them and make them socially and politically our equals? My own feelings will not admit this.”

While we are on the topic of slavery, let’s look at what slavery was in the South.  When most people see the word “slavery,” what usually pops up is a vision of African-Americans working in fields while being constantly whipped, beaten, and harassed, which is inaccurate. For a start, let’s look at facts and simple logic. Slavery was a very controversial matter. It was wrong, and and many considered it sinful to own slaves, yet both Northerners and Southerners owned slaves. Even when the colonies began banning the slave trade in the 18th century, the first colonies to do so were Virginia and Georgia–even before the American Revolution began. The first practice of slaveholding was not in the South but the North (Massachusetts, to be exact). Now for the logic. In the Dominican Republic (Haiti back then), we have solid evidence that slaves were horribly treated, being whipped and even murdered. This mistreatment became so serious that the slaves revolted and massacred their masters. Napoleon Bonaparte had to send a army to try to suppress the rebellion. If slaves revolted against such oppression in Haiti, why didn’t they revolt in the American South?

Now, I’m not saying slaves weren’t ever whipped or mistreated. Yes, many were –but not as is portrayed in popular books and films; nor were there ears and tongues cut off. That was northern abolitionist propaganda, which was used in the hopes that slaves would rise up against their owners. Less than 10% of Southerners actually owned slaves. The rest were just laborers, some of whom were so successful they ended up owning their own slaves! Most Southern slave-owners were not wealthy aristocrats sipping mint juleps on their verandas. In fact, most had to work their farms right along with their slaves and hired help to make ends meet. On top of that, they had to provide adequate shelter and medical care to keep their workers fit. If they had abused their workers, they wouldn’t have anyone to help them and could never have survived. If you read the diaries of the time, you find that slaves could purchase their own livestock, keep their own gardens, and even sell what they produced back to their masters. It was a working relationship that slaveowners had every reason to protect rather than abuse. No one wanted a repeat of Haiti in America.

A lot of Southerners were merchants in the coastal cities. Some worked in factories, but a large portion worked in farming, because the North and South had two very different economic systems. The North (population 22 million)  was industrial and had a large number of factories in its cities. The South (population 9 million) was agrarian, meaning the majority of people were farmers and had quite a small industrial capacity. Even so, four of the Northern states (Maryland, Kentucky, Missouri, Delaware, and, by some accounts, New Jersey should be included as a fifth) were slave-holding states throughout the duration of the War Between the States.

Now, back to Lincoln. We’ve established that Lincoln was a racist and did not want equality of the races, but how about his political side? When Lincoln gave orders to mobilize troops, he did it without the consent of Congress, violating the Constitution. He also arrested thousands of northern citizens (including an Ohio senator) and shut down newspapers that spoke ill of him. Lincoln also suspended the writ of Habeus Corpus (which requires evidence before someone can be arrested or convicted) and ordered Federal troops to intervene in elections. These are all the acts of a dictator rather than a constitutional president.

Another conflicting factor is that when Union general John C. Freemont invaded Missouri, he declared that all slaves were to be freed, but Lincoln immediately dismissed Freemont and negated this policy. Slaves caught coming through the North were sent back to their owners, or, in some cases, the slaves were put to work doing every kind of menial task, down to polishing Union soldiers’ boots. Slaves who did run away didn’t do so because they were badly treated but because war had erupted, and the South was being ravaged. It was a matter of survival. The slaves who used the underground railway to escape ended up having to migrate into Canada, as blacks could not legally move into most northern states without paying exorbitant bonds ($500-$1000 per person) and producing proof of certain needed skills. In Lincoln’s own Illinois, blacks who didn’t have the proper paperwork showing they had paid a bond could be sold at public auction, according to a law passed in 1853! Alexis de Tocqueville famously wrote in his book, Democracy in America, “[R]ace prejudice seems stronger in those states that have abolished slavery than in those where it still exists, and nowhere is it more intolerant than in those states where slavery was never known.”

In analyzing Lincoln’s famous Emancipation Proclamation, we find it was a shrewd political move–not the work of a compassionate lover of enslaved people. In 1863, the Confederates were winning battle after battle, and Robert E. Lee had even crossed the border into Maryland, threatening the U.S. Capitol itself. Lincoln was desperate for a political victory to shore up support among Northerners who were weary of the war. After the battle of Sharpsburg (or Antietam) , he quickly drew up the proclamation, declaring that all slaves in states still in rebellion were now free. However, the document never mentioned the slaves still in the North, and the proclamation had little to no effect, as the president had no power in the states he claimed were still in rebellion. No Northern slaves were freed, and Lincoln had no way to enforce the proclamation in the South. It was a classic political maneuver that made the president look righteous without actually costing him anything.

so as you can see looking deep into the facts unlocks deep questions, as it turns out Lincoln wasn’t the greatest president ever, instead he was a dictator, he violated the constitution, he destroyed the right to secede and started a war that killed over 620,000 American lives.

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