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Abraham Lincoln, war criminal

John Rentoul

121102Lincoln 6858033 300x225 Abraham Lincoln, war criminalAdam Gopnik in his review of Lincoln, the film, deals squarely with a question that has long interested me: Was Abraham Lincoln a war criminal?

There is another side to the film that needs some airing, though. The movie is inspired by Doris Kearns Goodwin’s much and justly praised Team Of Rivals. But good books often cast strange shadows, and Goodwin’s account of Lincoln’s enormous instinctive shrewdness in managing his stroppy cabinet of prima donnas has been confused with the idea that Lincoln’s genius was for conciliation and compromise. This leads, in turn, to the notion that Lincoln was a kind of schmoozemeister, reaching out across the aisle, a sort of Tip O’Neill on the Atkins diet. It can’t be said too often, or too clearly, that the whole point of Lincoln is that he—and the Republican Party he then represented—marked the end of the policy of conciliation and compromise and cosseting that had been the general approach of Northern Presidents to the Southern slavery problem throughout the decades before. When the South seceded, Lincoln chose war—an all-out, brutal, bitter war of a kind that had never been fought until then. “Let the erring sisters go in peace!” the editor Horace Greeley recommended, and Lincoln said, “Lock the doors and make them stay.”

A rational case can be made that this was mistaken, or even immoral. A friend, himself no ally to racism, God knows, wrote after seeing Lincoln that the real question is “whether he would have embarked on the Civil War had he known that its toll would have been so unfathomably great.” And, the details of Fort Sumter aside, it was a war for the North to make. The South did not seek to conquer the North; it merely sought to withdraw. It was the North that acted like some deranged abusive husband: “You’ll never leave me, not alive!” How, my friend asked, could the slaughter that followed provide an object lesson in the glory of democracy? Many quavers and objections might be raised to the above: if any one side had been the provocateur, it was, after all, the South; more important, secession from the Union would have involved the unwilled secession from all hope of the black population of the South. Still, any honest account of Lincoln’s life and its meaning must turn honestly not around conciliation and its joys, but around confrontation and its horrors, even when the confrontation is necessary and the horrors can be seen as honors.

Gopnik goes on to make some interesting arguments for the conventional view of Lincoln’s moral heroism, but I still feel uneasy about them.

Too few people point out, as Goodwin recounts well, that Lincoln did not intend to abolish slavery at the start of the Civil War, and that the North was driven to it in the end partly by the need to break the military deadlock by recruiting black soldiers and by giving the black people of the South a direct interest in the North’s victory.

Thanks to Ian Leslie, whose brilliant Marbury blog led me to Gopnik’s article.

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  • creggancowboy

    Didn’t he hang dozen of Sioux/Lakota? Oh but they do not count, bit like Iraqis under Blair/Brown.

  • JohnJustice

    No, the Iraqis killed by the Coaltion tended to deliberately murder civilians rather more than the Sioux/Lakota, although there may not have been much in it.

  • Don Reed

    Only Adam Gopnik – the patron saint of the decline of the New Yorker magazine – would think of this angle. Sure, Adam, why not? Any thing you say.

  • creggancowboy

    Are those the same Iraqis that the coalition supported as a bulwark against Iran? Just checking.


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