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Understanding Lincoln: Man of Complexity

Updated on April 26, 2018
Leland Johnson profile image

Leland is a patriot, a student of history, and a lover of freedom and truth. He enjoys sharing the fruits of his learning with others.

President Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln:   February 12, 1809 - April 15, 1865
Abraham Lincoln: February 12, 1809 - April 15, 1865

The Complexities Of Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln cannot be understood by isolating quotations attributed to him. He must be understood in the light of his actions. It is true that at times he would make statements that made it appear as though he were either indifferent to slavery or at least not ambitious about seeing the institution come to an end. For example, in a letter to Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune, Lincoln said,

"If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that."

Isolated, the above quote seems to suggest that Lincoln had no particular passion about freeing slaves, but that his objective was to retain the cohesion of the Union. To understand the context of his statement to Greeley 3 points should be appreciated.

  1. If the Union dissolved the states would be vulnerable to invasion from foreign enemies, or worse,would be subject to continual border wars with minor nation states from within as Europe had for centuries.
  2. If the Union were subverted ending slavery would prove futile as the entire nation stood to be enslaved by a conquering invader/invaders.
  3. It must be remembered the issue that was threatening the Union in the first place, slavery. In Lincoln's thinking, saving the Union and freeing the slaves were dualistic and intertwined.

Placing the importance of maintaining the Union above the issue of slavery is tantamount to fixing a hole in the boat instead of tending the injury of a wounded crew member. If the boat isn't repaired the crew member's wound will be irrelevant because the boat will sink and the entire crew will die. Lincoln's concern regarding the unity of the Union in no way diminished his hatred of slavery and his determination to see it abolished. It was a question of priorities, and the preservation of the Union had to come first because without that the abolition of slavery would have been impossible.

Actions Of The Great Emancipator

Those who deny freedom to others do not deserve it for themselves, and under a just God cannot long retain it.

— Abraham Lincoln- 1859

The Contradictions Of Lincoln

It is true that President Lincoln said things from time to time that would have the effect of making him appear to contradict himself. I touched on this in the above capsule. There are those who would attempt to repudiate the character of President Lincoln on the basis of such statements for they are unable to do so on the basis of his actions. There are numerous websites decrying his hypocrisy, how he viewed slaves as inferior, how he didn't care one way or the other if they were free, how he preferred the white race to be in a superior position to the black race. Some of these things, he said. Some are dubiously attributed to him. However, dubious or not, let us assume for the moment that all those statements attributed to him are true. They still do not besmirch the man so long as we hold to the standard shared in the summary of this article.

"Judge nothing by what he says, base all judgement on what he does."

Assuming he did make all the notorious statements attributed to him, we must interpret those statement through a particular lens of understanding. It is as follows:

Lincoln said the things he said, in order to get to the place he got, so he could do the things he ultimately did.

Here is a particular contradiction I like to explain to my friends who choose to think of Lincoln as a hypocrite. It is known by all of Lincoln's detractors that the Emancipation Proclamation did not claim to free all the slaves, but only the slaves of those states in rebellion against the Union. Maryland and Kentucky were not in rebellion, they remained faithful to the Union throughout the Civil War, and thus were exempted from the directive to free their slaves. "Hypocrisy!" some would say. Nothing could be further from the truth. Before explaining the reason behind the limited scope of the proclamation I would like to share a definition provided by Professor J. Rufus Fears of Oklahoma University. It is his definition of a statesman, one he applies with great certainty to Abraham Lincoln. A statesman, says Fears, is governed by 4 great principles. The true statesman possesses the following:

  1. a bedrock of principles
  2. a moral compass
  3. a vision for the future
  4. an ability to create a consensus to achieve that vision

Let the reader note, from the map below, the proximity of Maryland as it relates to Washington D.C. Had Lincoln included Maryland in his Emancipation Proclamation the result would have been Maryland being driven into the arms of the Confederacy, effectively bringing the enemy to the front porch of the nation's capital. This would have been disastrous as the Confederate Army would now possess a direct route to seat of the nation's power. Let the reader observe that excluding Maryland from the Emancipation Proclamation had nothing to do with an inconsistency on Lincoln's part, but was rather a clever, if not genius, strategic move that probably led to a Union victory, at least avoiding a greater protraction of warfare. We cannot say how many lives were saved because of this strategy; no doubt thousands.

"But Lincoln violated the Constitution by throwing most of the legislative body of Maryland in jail without habeas corpus! That is the action of a tyrant!"

Yes, Lincoln did that too, but why did he do it? He did it because that body of legislators was working laboriously for the state of Maryland to secede. Did Lincoln technically violate the Constitution in so doing? Probably, but in the way a police officer "technically" breaks the law when he is exceeding the speed limit to chase down a criminal or escort an ambulance to the hospital. The Civil War provided the president with certain "war powers" the extent of which were not fully known. When the limits of such a principle are not known it must be tested. Lincoln's test was the idea that if the people interpreted his actions to be corrupt or tyrannical then they would vote him out of office. They didn't, and they didn't. Don't we find ourselves in similar straits even today? A president takes a particular action. One group says "he can't do that!" Another group says, "Yes he can!" The ultimate decision will come from the people during the next election as to whether or not he could or couldn't.

Lincoln's ultimate plan was to free all slaves. If that meant allowing some of them to remain in bonds until the end of the war, then unfortunately it would have to be so, albeit only temporarily. Be sure that Maryland and Kentucky despised him for his introduction of the 13th amendment freeing the slaves some 2.5 years after the the Emancipation Proclamation, viewing the amendment as an act of betrayal.

Proximity Of Maryland To Washington D.C.

Had Lincoln included Maryland in the Emancipation Proclamation the state would surely have gone over to the Confederacy, bringing the enemy to the doorstep of the Union.
Had Lincoln included Maryland in the Emancipation Proclamation the state would surely have gone over to the Confederacy, bringing the enemy to the doorstep of the Union.

The Character Of Lincoln (Was He An Atheist?)

The claim that President Lincoln was an atheist is a recurring theme in historical study. All though such claims are not correct, I do not suppose all of them to be put forth with a malicious spirit. The fact is, Lincoln has been such a beloved figure in our national identity that many groups, including atheists, would like to claim him as one of their own. But why would anyone think he was an atheist? It is because of certain statements he made (again remember our caution in holding Lincoln literally to his statements) regarding, not God, to Whom he often referred as our "good and merciful Maker," and also simply "Providence," but to religion in general. On one occasion he was invited to church and he responded by saying, "why would I want to go sit in a pew listen to a man run about the stage waving his hands and arms as though caught in a swarm of bees." Of course he was referring to the theatrics of some preachers. That didn't stop local eaves droppers from reporting the statement to the newspapers. Lincoln was called an atheist even then just for that remark. He made a public apology and put the matter behind him. Make no mistake; Abraham Lincoln was perhaps our most God fearing, and spiritual president. His bible was well worn and oft quoted.

In his second inaugural address, just weeks before he was assassinated, he said, "If every drop of blood drawn by the lash must be paid for by a drop of blood drawn by the sword, so be it, for the "judgements of the Lord are all together righteous."

That statement may well have been the final nail in his coffin and the deciding factor for Booth to pull the trigger that Good Friday evening at Ford's theater.

Lincoln As A Statesman

The Courage Of Lincoln

"He knew he was going to die," said Mrs. Lincoln years later. "He knew that he was going to die because of his role in the war. He was prepared to fight the bloodiest war in history and he knew it would cost him his life."

Indeed, it has been well documented that Lincoln had several dreams in which he died. In one such eerie account he walks downstairs from his room in the White House to see a coffin in the foyer. He approaches the guard near the casket and asks,

"who is in there?" The guard reply's, "It is the President of the United States, sir."

So it goes with the righteous; God informs them of the time of their death. He knew his days were numbered and yet he persisted in his vision of a nation where all people are free.

Lincoln knew of an account in the book of Exodus. The pharaoh commands midwives to kill the Hebrew male babies as they are being born. The midwives, Puah and Shiphrah, deceive the pharaoh telling him, "The Hebrew women are not as Egyptian women and are more vigorous and give birth before we can fulfill your command." Exodus 1:19 They disobeyed the command of the pharaoh, they lied to pharaoh, and in so doing the did what was right. Because of their actions we read that "God established the households of the two women." Exodus 1:22

Lincoln was a practical believer. He knew that there is a time to bend the truth, a time when deceiving is acceptable. He had seen the failure of John Brown and others. He knew a direct revelation of his convictions would not build the consensus he needed. He was called "honest Abe" and that was true. Still, the times called for a tactical deception of sorts. Didn't the Tenboom's deceive the Nazi's during WW2 by hiding Jews in secret compartments in their homes? Didn't the great Pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, take part in the July 20th plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler? Yes and yes. There is a time for such actions and freeing the slaves from the bitter bondage they suffered was such a time.

Let us revisit an earlier articulated theme: Lincoln said the things he said, so he could get to the place he got, so he could do the things he ultimately did. He ran as a moderate when he was, in fact, a radical abolitionist. He knew he couldn't get elected proclaiming his true disposition towards slavery in 1858. He was intentionally ambiguous, sometimes misleading, wily and clever. Occasions to enact these strange virtues are few and far between, but they coalesced during the life and in the person of Abraham Lincoln. His judicious applications of them led not only to the freedom of an entire race, but to the belief that greater freedoms were on the national horizon for everyone including suffrage, protections for minorities, and even greater freedoms of speech and expressions of religious belief.

My final wish for the reader is to see that understanding Lincoln, or anyone for that matter, goes well beyond reading what they said in certain situations from time to time. In the end it is what we have done that counts and tells our story more than any words we will ever utter.

“What do you think? A man had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ The boy answered, ‘I will not.’ But later he had a change of heart and went. The father went to the other son and said the same thing. This boy answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but did not go. Which of the two did his father’s will?” They said, “The first."

— Matthew 21:28-31

Who Was Abraham Lincoln?

What Do You Think Of President Lincoln?

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© 2018 Leland Johnson


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