The Myth of Lincoln

The people of the United States have stridently avoided considering the impact of race on their society and government. Part of this refusal to consider unpleasant facts is the mythification of Abraham Lincoln. The myth serves the purpose of allowing Americans to avoid considering what kind of nation kills more than 624,000 of its male population over an issue that is morally indefensible, namely, the enslavement of human beings. The Lincoln myth allows the focus to be placed on the sufferings of the president, instead of the racism of the participants in the war.

The mythification of Lincoln involves imbuing the man with all the virtues of white middle-class American culture. He represents upward mobility, rising from a background of poverty to the highest office in the land. He is also a "regular guy," one with a terrific sense of down-home humor, which makes him one with the white middle class. Not only that, he is humble to the point of self-deprecation. He takes on martyr qualities as writers picture him persevering against the resistance of others not as committed as he to maintaining the union. And yet he is never preachy and never politically radical in a way that would make the middle class feel uncomfortable. The myth actually turns Lincoln into a Christlike figure, dying for our sins, because it constantly stresses the terrible personal sufferings of the nation's president during his tenure (Hofstadter 1973).

The truth is that Lincoln was the consummate politician who was the master of the appropriate political compromise. He was very ambitious and used his self-deprecating political humor to his political advantage. His main problem was his ineffectiveness. The list of areas in which Lincoln had trouble managing is seemingly endless, including his children (who ran wild in the White House even during important conferences); wife (who in eight months spent a four-year spending allotment for the First Lady and who publicly berated the president); his cabinet (which thought Lincoln weak and incompetent); the army (failing to appoint an effective military leadership); and the secret service (dismissing the head of the presidential bodyguard on the day of his assassination).

Part of the myth is that Lincoln was politically progressive, but was held back by mean-spirited politicians, especially the radical Republicans. Lincoln did face a very different Congress from that faced by his predecessors (Boinville 1982:116-119). The defection of the South meant that the Republicans almost totally dominated that body. But Lincoln was actually the conservative in this drama. The radicals would have supported him, if he had more liberal policies; however, the president followed a conservative course, which put him at odds with Congress. And especially vociferous in the Congress were the radical Republicans, who took a very tough attitude to the rebellious South. Under the leadership of Congressman Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania, the radical Republicans caused numerous problems for Lincoln. (Stevens was so powerful that he dominated the Senate.) The radicals especially opposed Lincoln's Reconstruction ideas, seeing them as far too soft.

The Senate, through such mechanisms as the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, tried to direct Lincoln's policies. Congress issued the Wade-Davis Manifesto asserting that the authority of Congress was paramount and must be respected by the president. Nevertheless, Lincoln had enough popular backing to he able to retain much of his independence from Congress (Boinville 1982:222).

The Myth of Southern Reconstruction: The South Loses the War but Wins the Peace

The myth of Lincoln closely ties in with the myth of southern Reconstruction. Both myths avoid facing the devastating impact of racism in America and both assert that everything would have been different if Lincoln had lived. This is comforting to conservative and liberal racists alike, but it is wrong.

Following Lincoln's assassination, the radicals stripped President Johnson of much of his power and even impeached him (although the impeachment was not successful). The power of Congress at this time was complete, and an age of influential, mostly Republican, Speakers of the House began.

The whole issue of Reconstruction was very controversial. Any position upset partisans of the North or South or both. Southern partisans contended that the Reconstruction policies of the North were excessively harsh, while northern sympathizers firmly maintained that the measures were necessary.

For American leaders at the time, the first main purpose was to bring the southern states back into the union while breaking the power of the southern planter class, the class that had led the South of the union and cause the war and all the trouble. The economic and political power of the planters was based on their ownership of land and slaves, and so the North abolished slavery in an effort to break their power. The slave system was incompatible with the labor needs of Northern urban capitalism, and therefore could be construed by Northerners as evil. But confiscation of Confederate land, and redistribution of it to freedman was another matter. Northern capitalists owned land too, and confiscation would have set a dangerous precedent. This was only seventeen years after the European Revolutions of 1848 and the Communist Manifesto. Confiscation was too extreme for all but the most radical of Republicans. Therefore freedmen did not get "40 acres and a mule," did not become economically self-sufficient small landowners, and for the most part, were forced int sharecropping and farm tenancy. And the enforcement of contracts between tenant farms and landowners was one of the most important functions of the Freedmen's Bureau.

Immediately after the war, the white South had for several years near-complete control over their state legislatures, and eight Southern states used their power to set up various black codes to resubjugate the blacks. The South used these codes of 1865-1866 to deny blacks the vote and make them ineligible for juries. In some states the freedmen were forbidden to engage in any occupations other than domestic service or agriculture.

This southern resistance greatly upset the radical Republicans, who had hoped that they could gain support for their party from the newly freed blacks. They reacted harshly to the prospect of a solidly Democratic South. Northern policies could have eased the South back into the nation and helped industrialize it, but industrial planning on a national basis has never been acceptable to America. (This bad planning also allowed the South to use Reconstruction problems as a justification for their racial apartheid system).

Radical Reconstruction was partly a reaction to southern behavior after the war. Under Lincoln's 10 percent plan, the Southern States in 1865 elected an array of ex-Confederate leaders to Congress, some of whom showed up wearing Confederate uniforms. There were constant reports coming to Congress between 1865 and 1867 of Southern violence against federal soldiers, blacks, white republicans, Freedmen Bureau officials, and American Missionary Association teachers. There were large white race riots in Memphis and New Orleans, and the southern states passed black codes to re-establish a form of labor control similar to slavery.

The Republican Party was not controlled by radicals. The majority were moderates, but the moderates accepted much of the radical's program because of the intransigence of the South. The great fear was that the old planter, ex-Confederate leaders would regain control, and renew the rebellion. The overriding problem for Congress in 1865-67 was that the South did not appear to be accepting the results of the war, and that it was trying to reverse the results the North had achieved on the battlefield. This is why Congress adopted the Radical's program.

In regard to the end of Reconstruction, by 1876 it had become clear that the Southern whites had accepted their defeat, were willing to remain part of the Union, and had accepted the abolition of slavery. Therefore, given the internecine warfare going on within the South, Republican leaders were willing to accede to a renewal of white control of the region. By then, the Reconstruction governments had fallen in all states except South Carolina and Louisiana. Southern whites had organized into guerrilla terrorist units, (e.g., the Klan in Tennessee, the Red Shirts in South Carolina, the Knights of the White Camellia in Louisiana, the Young Men's Democratic Club in Florida) to attack any one associated with Reconstruction -- blacks, carpetbaggers, scalawags, teachers from the North, Freedmen Bureau officials, northern troops, Republicans, etc. This is what caused the fall of Republican governments in the Southern States. By 1876, new, more moderate Republicans had replaced many of the Radicals in Congress. They were more interested in making investments in the post-war economy that in pursuing black liberation in the South. They felt they had gone far enough by establishing constitutional guarantees for the blacks, and they no longer feared a renewal of the war. Therefore, they allowed white southerners to regain control in order to achieve peace. The number of northern troops in the South was never significant enough to control things -- it was a token force (although Grant did suppress the Klan by 1871).

Early scholarly treatments of the 1910s and 1920s, those in the William Dunning school, were very harsh toward Republican Reconstruction policies. But scholarship of the 1940s and 1950s (see Foner 1988:xx-xxiii) showed that the Dunning theories were largely based on the racist belief in "Negro incapacity." Less biased research has shown that "Negro rule" in the South was a myth and that there was racism in northern Republican policymakers as well as among white southerners.

Foner says that the Reconstruction governments were progressive (the most progressive governments in Southern history until the post-1960s), that they established the public school systems, and rebuilt many buildings that were destroyed by the war, and that they were less corrupt than state governments in the North. He also shows that the black leaders were quite educated and competent. The revisionists (influenced by the 1960s New Left though) also maintain that blacks were betrayed by the North because they were not allowed to achieve economic independence.

But this debate is a typical of the debates between conservative and liberal racists. It is a false debate because neither side ever had any intention of bringing blacks into the fold with the whites. How can the liberal racists maintain that blacks were "betrayed because they were not allowed to achieve economic independence" when no such promise was ever realistically made? You can't be betrayed if even the liberals never intended you to achieve parity in the first place. The liberals could not "sell-out" the blacks if they never had any real intention of promoting real advancement for blacks. The whites did not really care about the blacks, but only about how Southern whites would be reincorporated into the white Northern world. Your argument makes my point about the racist hypocrisy of whites.

James McPherson in his The Abolitionist Legacy: From Reconstruction to the NAACP (1994, second edition of original 1975) makes the point that liberals following the end of slavery did not merely give up on liberal causes but rather continued their liberal efforts to advance the cause of blacks. If you understand the nature of liberalism it would seem unnecessary to even have to write such a book. For the truth is that liberals always continue being liberals; that is, they continue to ask for moderate change within a thoroughly racist system. The cause of the misunderstandings about liberals is that when liberalism take on a new political focus in response to changing political conditions, the new liberals have to denounce the old liberals, and one way they do this is to argue that the old liberals were not liberals at all, but rather conservatives in liberals' clothing. They perform this slight of hand in order to discredit the old liberal position and the proponents of the old liberal positions. Ignoring such claims as mere paradigm fights, McPherson's message is no more than liberals continue being liberals. And that is the problem. They are always liberals. And liberals are way too optimistic about the nature of America. They consistently underestimate the degree of the problem and always work within the given system. Of course, they are always shocked, given their naiveté in the first place, that very few of their reforms actually led to a real change in the situation. In fact, following a cyclical liberal change, the liberals actually have to watch as their constituents lose ground. But all the while they continue believing that things are getting better; that is, until the conservatives win such victories as to cause a younger set of liberals to denounce the old liberals as conservatives who failed to see the oncoming conservative tide. These cycles continue on and on, but the actual claims of the liberals should never be seen as absolute truth, but rather as different political strategies used by the liberals.

This same false debate rages over the Great Society -- failure or success? It is another racist, false debate because neither side ever intended to accomplish much of anything as regards racial integration. (President Johnson slammed the lid on the civil right's movements hopes as soon as they started to challenged segregation in the North).

The debate over Reconstruction is much like the current debate over the success or failure of the War on Poverty during the presidency of Lyndon Baines Johnson. It is a false debate because both sides, conservative and liberal, are proponents of equality-of-opportunity racism. The debate deliberately ignores the fact that neither conservatives nor liberals were ever committed to erasing racism or poverty in the nation. The Johnson administration deserves credit for at least trying to alleviate poverty and racism, but liberals never acknowledge the deliberately limited nature of the programs.

Contrary to the conservative myth of southern Reconstruction, the North did try to help the blacks in the South, even if it was a meager and underfunded effort. In a sort of "affirmative action" atmosphere, in 1865 Congress created the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands. The purpose of this bureau was to aid the economic rehabilitation of freedmen and propertyless whites. Another purpose was to promote the education of blacks. The agency had at its disposal the ability to give land and tools to help the poor become self-sustaining farmers, but the funds for the bureau were woefully inadequate. Moreover, there was little enthusiasm for raising funds to carry through the task.

In April 1866 the joint committee reported a congressional plan for Reconstruction. It denied the right of statehood to the South until black equality was a fact in the laws of those states. This was done through constitutional amendments: the Fourteenth, which outlawed the abridgement of the full civil equality of all citizens, and the Fifteenth (made effective in 1870), which specifically denied the right to abridgement of the voting privilege "on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude." These amendments guaranteed blacks civil rights and the vote, while disenfranchising ex-Confederates who had formerly held federal office.

In many of the southern states, blacks were a majority. Such was the case for South Carolina, Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, and Louisiana. Hence, the new black-influenced governments drew up new constitutions that were very liberal.

Andrew Johnson, who had assumed the presidency on Lincoln's assassination, unsuccessfully tried to stop many of the radical measures. Secretary Stanton leaked cabinet happenings to the radicals. In the 1866 off-presidential election, northerners returned a sufficient Republican majority to override any presidential veto. In March 1867 military rule replaced the civil administrations that had been operating in the South for almost two years. An army of occupation of 20,000 soldiers imposed military rule. The North could not sustain the occupation, however, and by 1869 the southern states were taking back control.

In one sense, it does not matter which version of the Reconstruction myth is the most accurate because, regardless of what the North did, white southerners ultimately would retake the political power and deny the vote to the former slaves. Since the North did not want to keep troops stationed in the South for a long period, there was no question that ultimately the blacks would be denied the vote. All the South had to do was wait.

The racism of liberal scholarship (not to mention the even worse conservative efforts) is no more clearly illustrated than by what happened in the small town of Boston, Texas (Crouch 1992). In Boston, the Illinois-born William G. Kirkman was the agent of the Freedmen's Bureau. This overworked man had the responsibility for preserving order in a vast region comprising 1838 square miles. His entire staff was never more than nine soldiers. When Kirkman tried to settle quarrels between the freedmen and the landlords, the entire white community ostracized him. Then the numerous threats on his life began, with Boston's white sheriff refusing either to help or protect him. On October 7, 1868, Kirkman was called out of his office at two o'clock in the morning. A fusillade of bullets riddled his body. He lay in the street for hours before anyone dared remove him. And yet liberals still debate whether or not Reconstruction efforts were adequate.

The assassination of Abraham Lincoln shortly after the end of the war was a terrible national tragedy. But would his policies have made any real difference? There probably would have been less bitterness, but the great compromiser could not have changed the end result. White southerners could not be denied. In fact, to perpetuate the myth that everything would have been much better between the two regions if Lincoln had lived is to ignore the power distribution in the South and perpetuate the southern version of Reconstruction.

Reconstruction in the North

Usually, histories of Reconstruction deal almost exclusively with southern Reconstruction. This section shows that the North was subject to racism just as the South was, even if to a lesser extent (Foner 1988). The last time we discussed segregation in the North the emphasis was on the creation of the black codes. The northern states perpetuated many of these codes following the end of the Civil War.

Although northern public life opened to blacks in ways inconceivable before the war, it must be remembered that this a relative statement. It is true that the Civil Rights Act of 1866 voided laws barring blacks from entering northern states, testifying in court, and voting. But state courts often held that segregated facilities did not violate the Fourteenth Amendment. Blacks in the North soon found themselves trapped in urban poverty. Foner (1988:471) concludes that "the North's racial Reconstruction proved in many respects less far-reaching than the South's."

There were several groups pushing for more equality in the nation. Among these groups were the feminists, the "antimonopoly" movement (especially strong in the West), and the labor movement. As these movements pushed for more equality for themselves, more and more Americans came to feel threatened socially (see Foner 1988:479- 480 and Montgomery 1967). They especially felt that labor threatened the capitalist structure of the nation. (Racism also infected those white groups pushing for greater equality. For instance, all across the country, nearly all unions barred blacks from membership. White labor, not wishing to cooperate with blacks, forced the creation of separate black and white labor organizations.) In addition to antilabor sentiment, many southerners felt that if white women received the vote, it would strengthen the claim of black women and, later, black men for the vote.

The demise of slavery led to a more competitive system between the races. This in turn increased the need for some system of justification to limit black encroachment into white society. Biological racism provided this justification. Therefore it is not surprising that the doctrine of biological racism reached its peak at the start of the post Civil War period (Wilson 1972:93).

Compared to the situation in the South, in the North, the situation was more liberal but was still very restrictive. Most northern whites accepted the racist view that blacks were biologically inferior. In fact, Fredrickson (1971:253) writes that while northerners had opposed the southern stand on slavery, they never made a commitment to racial equality. Consequently, caste discrimination continued in the North.

Government as the Primary Source of Monies in the First Reconstruction

Following the first Civil War there was a brief period in which the federal government pushed a number of inadequate programs to help the freed slaves in the South. Following the death of Abraham Lincoln, the great black spokesperson Frederick Douglass became disgusted with President Andrew Johnson. By the end of 1865, the president had completed the emasculation of the Freedmen's Bureau Act, restoring to pardoned Confederate landowners the acreage that this legislation had marked for redistribution. (McFeely 1991:246)

Reconstruction programs that were quickly overcome once they met the inevitable resistance of Southern whites. For all intents and purposes, the first reconstruction was over once the agreement was made to pull federal troops out of the South. So the first reconstruction actually ended with no real reconstruction but rather with Southern whites taking back the power. This was not supposed to have happened, but a number of supporters of civil rights were notoriously blind and naive as regards events taking place in the South.

One of the blind ones was the great Frederick Douglass himself. Like most black men of his time, "Douglass himself was terribly optimistic. He believed that if the blacks had the vote they could elect sympathetic local and state officials, thereby leading to their own advancement. The passage of the Fifteenth Amendment was seen by Douglass and others as the capstone of the revolution. All shared the euphoric hope that the former slaves were now in a safe position, ready to move ahead." (McFeely 1991:271-273)

Douglass had called for a black vice-president. The white response had been accusations that he wanted offices to be granted according to race, without regard to merit. (McFeely 1991:317) In some respects, there is little that is new under the sun. Here we find early charges of "reverse racism" brought against blacks who supported a role in government for African-Americans.

President Hayes consulted Douglass on the reliability of black petitioners. Douglass took pride in being able to take English friends to the White House and introduce them to the president and sometime even to the first lady. Like an earlier version of today's Tony Brown, Douglass started to rely more and more on his pull-up-your-socks sermons, including a version of his most familiar lecture, "The Self-Made Man." He refused to see that something had changed for the worse. He also maintained that conditions in the Southern states were steadily improving. (McFeely 1991:292-293 & 298-300).

Douglass was virtually oblivious to the concession to white supremacists in the South made by President Rutherford B. Hayes that led to the pullout of federal troops from the South. Indeed, Douglass became part of the growing, self-conscious black establishment of the capital. President Hayes named Douglass marshal of the District of Columbia. Douglass was not opposed to personal nepotism, employing many of his relatives in government agencies over which he had control.

Douglass himself was terribly optimistic. He believed that if the blacks had the vote they could elect sympathetic local and state officials, thereby leading to their own advancement. He became part of the growing, self-conscious black establishment of the capital. The passage of the Fifteenth Amendment was seen by Douglass and others as the capstone of the revolution. All shared the euphoric hope that the former slaves were now in a safe position, ready to move ahead. (McFeely 1991:271 & 273)

"Douglass was used as part of Hayes's shrewdly constructed screen to conceal the cessation of truly significant federal action in behalf of black people. The stances on various issues that Douglass was to take between 1877 and 1881 were the least honorable and least helpful to his fellow former slaves of any in his long life. They were, in fact, entirely consonant with the betrayal of promises that ended Reconstruction." (McFeely 1991:289 & 291)

He started to rely more and more on his pull-up-your- socks sermons, including a version of his most familiar lecture, "The Self-Made Man." He refused to see that something had changed for the worse. He maintained that conditions in the Southern states were steadily improving. (McFeely 1991:292-293 & 298-300). McFeely (1991:300) notes that Douglass became so conservative that black audiences "hissed and shouted" him down.


Northerners did not want to see blacks attain full and equal status. They and many abolitionists declared that now that blacks were free, the barriers to equality of opportunity had been eliminated, and blacks were on their own to climb the social ladder in the traditional American style. Reinforcing this attitude was the newly sociological-racist theory of social Lamarckianism, another version of the old laissez-faire ideas (see Goldman 1955). Conservatives argued that economic processes worked like the Lamarckian Herbert Spencer's survival of the fittest. Therefore, wealthy capitalists were socially the fittest and deserved to enjoy their accumulated wealth. Of course, these attitudes ensured black impoverishment.

The diabolical nature of American racism can be seen in white endorsement of the conservative black spokesperson Booker T. Washington. Washington became the president of Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. He became famous virtually overnight with his 1895 conservative speech on racial issues. White America immediately adopted him as the "official" leader of the black race. Backed by conservative whites, Washington built a virtual black empire. With white support and funds, he took over the radical National Afro-American Council (established as early as 1890 by T. Thomas Fortune as the National Afro-American League).


Ulysses S. Grant and the Election of 1868

The nation chose Ulysses S. Grant as its president in the election of 1868. Grant was no liberal. His wife, the former Julia Dent, was from a slaveholding family and had spent a lifetime romanticizing her childhood into a vision of life at Tara (McFeely 1981:20, 71-72). Even in the White House she continued to apologize for slavery. The president even honored his wife's prejudice that blacks were an inferior race. Grant served for two terms, and as long as he occupied the presidency, no help for blacks would come from the White House.

Radical Republicans suffered a near fatal blow with the death in 1868 of Thaddeus Stevens. His passing cost radicalism its fighting edge. The white South resorted to violence to reassert white dominance. An important group using violence was the Ku Klux Klan, which started in Pulaski, Tennessee, even before congressional Reconstruction. In 1872 the federal government removed disabilities imposed on former Confederate leaders, disabilities that had prevented their participation in political affairs. The government also abolished the Freedmen's Bureau.

The Election of 1876

The event that sealed the fate of blacks came in the 1876 election. This pitted Republican Governor Rutherford B. Hayes of Ohio against Democratic Governor Samuel Tilden of New York. Tilden actually won a majority of the popular vote, but a question arose over the electoral vote. Both the Republicans and the Democrats claimed victory in South Carolina, Florida, and Louisiana. The vote in Oregon was also in question. Congress set up a commission to award the votes. It had fifteen members -- five from the House, five from the Senate, and five from the Supreme Court. The commission finally voted eight to seven to give the twenty votes in question to Hayes.

The commission's decision outraged the Democrats, who felt the Republicans had stolen the election. To placate them, the Republicans compromised. The Democrats accepted the commission's decision, while President Hayes agreed to remove the last of the federal soldiers from the South. This Compromise of 1877 between northern Republicans and southern Democrats proved to be even more long lasting than the Missouri Compromise of 1820. It endured from 1877 until the administration of Harry Truman, in other words, for seventy years. And for seventy years it kept the racial issue, the country's most divisive issue, out of the national arena.

By 1877, when the nation saw Rutherford B. Hayes inaugurated as president, liberal regimes had been overthrown in every southern state except South Carolina and Louisiana. Soon after the inauguration, South Carolina was in the hands of an all-white government. By 1877, all former Confederate states were back in the union and in charge of their own domestic affairs.

Why was there so little protest over this agreement between North and South? One factor was that the nation felt exhausted over the war and the continuing problems of Reconstruction. It wanted to get on with other things. The belief in the laissez-faire system also provided a convenient excuse. Abolitionists believed that market forces and the "American way" would work to improve the condition of blacks. Of course, this was politically naiveté in the extreme. And how much of it was sheer rationalization probably will never be known.

Perhaps the most important reason for the compromise with the South was the sheer political power of the region. David Potter (1972) notes that the South emerged from the war stronger than it was before the conflagration. Formerly, the slaves had been counted at a three-fifths ratio for purposes of representation. Now their Electoral College representation counted as a full five-fifths, yet virtually none of them could vote. Ironically, for causing the Civil War, the nation rewarded the South with a bonus of twelve additional seats in the House.

Potter further notes that by 1881, the majority of Democratic members in the Senate came from the South. That region, along with a few border states, formed a majority within the Democratic party almost continuously in both the Senate and the House for a period of fifty-eight years. This allowed the South time to gain mastery over those devices of control it had begun to develop before the war: obstructionist potentialities in the Rules Committee in the House and the filibuster in the Senate; the two-thirds rule in the Democratic convention; and the seniority system, the caucus, and the autonomy of committee chairmen in the Congress. Naturally, the South used its power for conservative and racist purposes.


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