Kevin Myers: Lincoln myth hid one of bloodiest men in history of American project
Published 18/01/2013 | 05:00
Lincoln: an interesting place-name, combining the Celtic "Linn" meaning "pool, (as in Dub-lin) with the Latin "colonia", "settlement", abbreviated to "coln" (as in Koln, or Cologne). Thus Lincoln was originally a Roman settlement beside a pool: maybe some lingering imperial DNA explains the bellicosity of the eponymous US president, the portrayal of whom has just netted Daniel Day-Lewis a Golden Globe.
Such is the power of the Lincoln myth that any actor who plays him is almost guaranteed an award: though a few cliché characteristics help – wry gravitas, brooding wisdom, a sad but kindly humour, and so on. In actual fact, Lincoln was one of the bloodiest men in American history, whose savage conquest of the South brought terrible, indeed generational, suffering.
This worship of a charismatically ruthless narcissist is not a uniquely American disorder, merely human. Hence Churchill in Britain and Collins here, both addicted to bloodshed, and both utter failures in their larger ambitions: one to create a united Irish Republic – still no sign – and the other to defend a thousand-year empire: didn't even last seven. And both still revered.
To be sure, there's no point in judging historical figures by modern standards. So Lincoln should not be condemned for declaring (as he did) that black men were inferior to whites: most white people thought the same. Indeed, until the 1860s, the US census actually counted a black person as three-fifths of a human being, with rights to match. But even this was more than suspected opponents of the Civil War were allowed by the federal government. For having suspended habeus corpus, it then interned, without charge or trial, up to 38,000 Americans, merely on suspicion of being anti-war. The Supreme Court protested in vain. Unhelpful judges in Maryland and Kentucky were arrested in their chambers, and even in their beds, and held without charge. Three hundred newspapers were closed because of "doubts" about their loyalty.
By 1863, the entire internal security of the US was in the hands of a network of provosts-marshal under Provost Marshal General James B Fry, answering directly to the Secretary for War, Edwin Stanton. Lincoln was unapologetic: "(Some) measures, however unconstitutional, might become lawful by becoming indispensable to the preservation of the Constitution through the preservation of the nation."
To militarily prevent the Confederate states freely seceding from a Union they had freely entered, Lincoln introduced conscription – but the rich draftee could avoid this by paying $300, or by bribing some penniless dupe to take his place. Nonetheless, so loathed was the war that over 200,000 federal soldiers deserted. For the North, the war was largely for the poor and the conscripted.
Moreover, Sherman and Grant's ruthless strategies – the scorched-earth policy through the Shenandoah Valley and the destruction of Atlanta, both of which today would be accounted war crimes – left the South embittered and impoverished. But even if the price was high – a million lives – did the war not free four million slaves?
Only partly. Though slavery was the foundation-evil of the US, the economic and social complexities that it created meant it could not – even had Lincoln lived – be simply abolished by fiat from Washington. In the longer term, the federal government found it politically and legally impossible to impose its will on the "conquered" Southern states.
Meanwhile, the South had developed its own very special way of doing things. In 1866, with the war barely over, the Memphis police forced negro soldiers off the sidewalk. In the ensuing riots, 30 blacks were slaughtered, with three black churches and eight schools torched.
Ditto, passim, for roughly a century, as the South remained semi-detached, and the blacks there marooned in a limbo of oppression. It's surely not coincidental that some of the first blacks to be outstanding in their respective fields in the US – Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte and Colin Powell – were not of American slave stock at all, but Caribbean.
So morally, Lincoln failed because war was the wrong policy. Yet it is a sorry truth that charismatic politico-warriors are seldom blamed for their failures. Like Churchill and Collins, Lincoln was able to make strong men freely subordinate their own self-interest and self-esteem wholly to his, with historians invariably following suit. Which perhaps confirms that we are, after all, merely literate chimpanzees.