Friday, June 30, 2017

The Likes of these Folks Part II: Honest Abe

But everybody likes Abe Lincoln don't they?
Bust of Abraham Lincoln in front of his tomb,Springfield, Illinois
Bronze reproduction of original marble bust
in Washington DC, by Gutzon Borglum
Photograph by Theo Iska

In preparing for this post, I conducted a survey, consulting the internet by Googling this question: "what do Southerners think of Abraham Lincoln?" From my very unscientific query of three or four internet forums, I concluded that the consensus opinion is the following: "a great majority of Southerners could (not) care less about Lincoln, while a small minority care deeply about him, and those people hate him." Many Southerners voiced the opinion that our northern myths about the South are all wrong, that indeed, save for a handful of lunatics, they are not still fighting the Civil War down there. Lincoln, contrary to what most Northerners think, is admired, albeit with reservations in Dixie. Heck, you'll even find a few statues of Honest Abe, if you look really hard. "Contrary to what you Yankees may believe..." one commenter noted, "...we don't spend a lot of time thinking about Abraham Lincoln down here, but then again, neither do you."

Clearly that last person hasn't spent much time up North. Here in the Chicago area alone there are at least seven public artworks dedicated to Lincoln, one of which is considered the finest portrayal of the man to be found anywhere. Lincoln's portrait can be found in schools, libraries, courthouses,  public buildings and private homes. Here in Illinois, the "Land of Lincoln" his likeness in even on our license plates. Our largest park and one of our longest streets are named for him. So are countless institutions and business including a notorious company that tows cars occupying private parking spaces. Here is a mock tribute to Lincoln Towing from Chicago's poet laureate, Steve Goodman:

Try as we might up here, it is impossible not to be confronted with Abraham Lincoln in one way or other on a daily basis. 

The Seated Lincoln, Grant Park, Chicago
Augustus Saint-Gaudens, 1908
It would not be an exaggeration to say that the consensus opinion of our sixteenth president in the Northern states is extremely positive, in some cases, bordering on veneration. As I mentioned in my original post on Confederate memorials, public monuments reflect a community's deeply held values. That goes for small objects of devotion as well as for great works of public art. In the United States, north of the Mason-Dixon Line that is, with the exception of Jesus, there is probably no human being who is more represented in images, monuments, or objects named in honor of him, than Abraham Lincoln.

It goes without saying that the relative lack of representations of Lincoln in the South, is a good indication of how they feel about him. In the North, most of us view Lincoln as the great Emancipator, the defender of the Union, and our greatest president. In the South, Lincoln is viewed (by some), as a racist, a tyrant, and a war criminal. Lincoln in some measure, depending upon your point of view,all of those things. Like all great historical figures, Abraham Lincoln's legacy is complicated. 

The linchpin of all the issues that led to the American Civil War was slavery. Defenders of the Confederacy as well as conservative critics of Lincoln, take great pains to minimize the issue, holding that the main reason for the southern states to secede from the Union, was not slavery, but the alleged violation by President Lincoln and his administration, of the principles laid forth by the founding fathers, that discouraged a strong central government, over the rights of the individual states. 

It's true that you will find in some of the Articles of Secession of the states of the Confederacy, mentions of unfair tariffs, taxes and other perceived over-reaches of the federal government. But he issue of slavery is mentioned in each and every Confederate state's declaration of independence from the United States. Some expressed concern about the expansion of slavery in the West, others, the violence brought upon by abolitionists, others, their economy's dependence on slaves, while others still expressed their concern about the refusal of northern states to comply with the Fugitive Slave Act by returning escaped slaves apprehended in their jurisdiction, to their southern owners.

While he considered the institution of slavery abhorrent, Abraham Lincoln was not an abolitionist. He understood that the agrarian economy of the South depended upon its slaves, and that the constitution (rightly or wrongly) protected the institution. In a letter to a Kentucky newspaperman,
Albert C. Hodges, dated April 4, 1864, Lincoln wrote this:

The Young Lincoln, Senn Park, Chicago
Charles Keck, c. 1945
I am naturally anti-slavery. If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong. I can not remember when I did not so think, and feel. And yet I have never understood that the Presidency conferred upon me an unrestricted right to act officially upon this judgement and feeling. It was the oath I took that I would, to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States. I could not take the office without taking the oath. nor was it my view that I might take an oath to get power, and break the oath in using the power.  
But Lincoln also believed that while the Constitution provided for the maintenance of slavery as it existed at the time of its writing, it did not provide for the expansion of the institution into new territories soon to become states. There is good evidence to back up the idea that the Civil War could have been prevented if the southern states had not "gone ape shit" (as a responder to one of the internet forums I read so delicately put it), over the expansion of slavery into the new territories. The general theory of the writer is that slavery in the South would have eventually died a natural death, just as it had in the northern states in the four score plus years since the founding of this nation. Had the southern states gone along with restricting slavery to the South, Lincoln, so the theory goes, would have been happy with the status quo and be willing to wait for slavery do die out on its own.

Detail of The Chicago Lincoln
Lincoln Square, Chicago
Avard Fairbanks, 1956
Abraham Lincoln did not believe that whites and blacks were equal. He did not advocate for the enfranchisement of African American people until late in the Civil War when he asked that black war veterans be given the right to vote. He thought the idea of people of the two races living together was untenable, and proposed the solution to that problem after abolition, was to send former slaves back to their ancestral home in Africa.

What about his role as the Great Emancipator? Well truth be told, the Emancipation Proclamation was an act brought forth by the War. Simply put, while Lincoln was not by any means a supporter of slavery, the Proclamation was a pragmatic move on the president's part to disrupt the Confederate war effort by inspiring slave rebellions, and recruiting black soldiers in the South to fight against the Confederacy. Slaves in border states supporting the Union, including Maryland resident Philip Reid who cast the Statue of Freedom which sits atop the US Capitol Dome, would not be freed until the end of the war.

Lincoln took executive powers to places it had never been and in some cases, hasn't been since. He famously suspended the writ of habeas corpus, meaning that suspects could be arrested and held without charge for an indefinite length of time, typically the duration of the war. He called up an army of 75,000 men without congressional approval. He shut down newspapers that printed negative editorials about him. He had demonstrators arrested. The list goes on and on. Tyrant was one of the milder terms used to describe Abraham Lincoln by his critics.

Of course the biggest gripe against Lincoln is that he was largely responsible for a war that would take 700,000 lives, the greatest number of Americans killed in any war, and he signed off on horrific tactics that caused tremendous devastation to the civilian population of the South.

Return Visit, Pioneer Court, Chicago
Seward Johnson, 2016
Historical figures are seldom one dimensional, because at the very nature of human existence is the struggle over the rights, needs and desires of disparate peoples. If Abraham Lincoln's motives were not pure, it was because he was a practical man who understood that good will alone could not save the nation. His primary concern, if you believe him, was the preservation of the Union. Despite claims to the contrary from the South, Lincoln firmly believed that secession was not a right guaranteed the states by the constitution. (After the war, that belief was confirmed by the Supreme Court.) Why then did he not seek legal redress to the issue rather than go to war(?) ask his critics. Well the answer to that question is obvious. As the Confederates by seceding from the Union effectively formed their own government, they clearly would not have recognized any decision of the Supreme Court of the United States.

Lincoln the Railsplitter, Garfield Park, Chicago
Charles Mulligan, 1911
That slavery was a secondary issue to Lincoln cannot be denied. Judging by the standards of our day and age, Lincoln's hesitancy to abolish slavery outright, and his general feelings about black people, are lamentable. But then, Abraham Lincoln was a man of his time, not ours. The bottom line is that an abominable institution was lost by the end of the Civil War, but not before nearly three quarters of a million people perished on the battlefield, and an untold number off of it. The union was reunited, but the hatred and division exist to this day. Lincoln admirers in both the North and the South suggest that had he not been assassinated just five days after the end of the Civil War, perhaps he could have helped heal the wounds that linger to this day. We will never know. 

A great symbol of our current division is the issue of what to do with our Civil War monuments. The argument to remove monuments to the Confederacy last month in New Orleans, and just this week in St. Louis, is that these symbols of the lost cause of slavery have no place in the diverse culture of 21st century America. The argument for leaving them where they stand is that while they may be offensive to particular groups of people, they are a part of history, and by removing them, we are denying our past.
As I've written in these last two posts, there are lots of things not to like about the Civil War heroes immortalized by monuments throughout the north. William Sherman and Phillip Sheridan both inflicted indescribable horrors in their campaigns against the people of the south. Their actions were authorised by Abraham Lincoln and Commander-in-Chief of the Union army, Ulysses S. Grant. On top of that, Sheridan waged illegal and unjustified war against Native American people in the West, under the watch of then President Grant. Before the Civil War, and his conversion to a supporter of human rights, John A. Logan sponsored legislation barring African American people from settling in the state of Illinois. And Abraham Lincoln was not altogether the great champion of the rights of black people that he is often portrayed. 

A question worth asking ourselves is this, if we take down all the statues of Confederate heroes in the South because they are offensive to particular groups of people, as many suggest, would it also make sense to remove the statues of Union heroes in the North? 

Bas-relief portrait of Lincoln in terra cotta
Sulzer Library, Chicago
Artist unknown, c. 1922
In light of the current removal of monuments in New Orleans and St. Louis, I expect to see a movement in the near future, petitioning that at least some of the statues up north, especially the ones of the more controversial figures like Phillip Sheridan, be removed from their public perches. Sheridan's Chicago monument has already been obscured by decorative trees planted in front of the sightline of the statue. Perhaps it's only a matter of time before the superb equestrian work, the creation of the same artist who carved the faces of four presidents on Mount Rushmore, will be taken off of public view. If that happens, the best case scenario is that it will end up in a museum, The worst, well, your guess is as good as mine.

It's a difficult and valid question. Some might suggest as a compromise, we could trade one Ulysses S. Grant for a Robert E. Lee, a Phil Sheridan for a Stonewall Jackson, and an Abe Lincoln for a Jeff Davis.

Personally I hope it doesn't come to that. There is no one size fits all solution to the problem of when monuments and the values of the community are no longer in synch. One solution, seen in New Orleans and St. Louis, is simply remove the offending monuments. Another one, suggested by the mayor of Richmond, VA, is to put the monuments in context, perhaps by installing didactic plaques describing the ins and outs of the person being depicted, why he's there, and why some people think he should not be. It may be a cumbersome solution but at the very least, it gets people to think about history.

The best for last, Abraham Lincoln, (Lincoln the Man, or The Standing Lincoln), Lincoln Park, Chicago
Augustus Saint-Gaudens, 1887
William Tecumseh Sherman famously remarked that "war is hell." The same can be said about history. It is truly disheartening to come to the realization that our heroes are not necessarily all they were cracked up to be, and that our villains weren't necessarily as evil as we made them out to be. They were after all, only human beings, just like the rest of us.

The following is an excerpt from a biography of the architect John Wellborn Root, written by his sister-in-law Harriet Monroe. This marvelous passage describes a fourteen year old's experience of war, and his brush with none other than General Sherman himself, as he marched his troops into the youngster's home of Atlanta. Much to the boy's surprise, the Sherman he viewed with his own eyes was neither the devil incarnate that he expected, nor the Augustus Saint-Gaudens version of him in Central Park:
Broken shells were children's playthings, and the two great armies playing their mighty game throughout that hot July made pretty fireworks on the mountain by night and dim smoky lines by day. The dreadful drama grew so familiar that people forgot it and even boys learned to keep out of range or to tempt danger, as boys will, careless of the present and fearful only of the Yankee monsters who might burn the city soon and massacre its inhabitants. For the negroes filled young minds with imaginary terrors, and pictured General Sherman as the giant of the fairy tale. I have often heard John tell of the entrance into the city of "Old Tecumseh," the ruthless conqueror about whose head the boy, in spite of fourteen years of wisdom, vaguely expected to find traces of this lurid halo of horror. But neither the glory nor the terror of war lodged in this grim, battered warrior, unwashed, unshaven, shabbily clad from soft hat to dusty top boots, who raised the Stars and Stripes over Atlanta and marched on to the sea.
I stand by my original statement that the future of Civil War monuments in both the South and the North must be decided by the communities where they stand, and not by the public at large, because it is the values of the community that are reflected in those monuments; they are the ones that must live with and answer for them. I truly respect what the mayor of New Orleans recently said in defense of removing his city's statues. But having given it a great deal of thought since he made his remarks, my preference at the moment, for what its worth, would be to follow the suggestion of the mayor of Richmond, and leave the statues where they stand, but putting them in proper context. The recent hubbub over these monuments is stirring the pot of history. It's getting us to talk about our past in hopefully a constructive way, which is a good thing. Leaving the statues where they stand, disturbing as they are to some, creates a dialogue about history, about who we are, where we've come from, and hopefully where we're going as a people.

Putting them behind lock and key, out of sight and out of mind, does none of that.

History can be a difficult thing. We should embrace that, not shy away from it.


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