The word hagiography literally means “images of the saints,” and is used to describe the study of the lives of holy people. Its second meaning is pejorative – an idolizing biography. I suspect that more hagiography in the second sense has been written about Abraham Lincoln than of anyone else in American history, George Washington included. By contrast, history is a record of significant events. We expect history to contain the truth about the past; but in reading about the causes of the conflict incorrectly referred to as the “Civil War”, we are often disappointed. This issue is important to us today, because critics of state sovereignty like to hide the truth by idolizing Lincoln’s desire to save the union.
The official narrative taught in the North claims that the Southern states seceded from the union to preserve and expand the institution of slavery. It is true that slavery was one of the issues motivating both sides to support the war, and one that Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens unfortunately emphasized in his account after the war ended. However, this explanation leads to several anomalies:
- Why did African-Americans fight for the Confederacy, and why do H.K. Edgerton and some other Southern blacks passionately defend the Confederate cause for which their ancestors fought? Keep in mind that Mr. Edgerton is also passionate about civil rights, and is a former president of the NAACP in Asheville, North Carolina, a fact that even his critics acknowledge.
- Why did the Emancipation Proclamation only free slaves in the South, and why did Lincoln repeatedly make clear that he only cared about the issue as a way to preserve the union?
- If the purpose of the war was to abolish slavery, why did Lincoln, on assuming the Presidency, not even propose to negotiate with the South for legislation or a Constitutional amendment to free the slaves? He could have modeled such a proposal on legislation that worked peacefully for Britain in 1833 or France in 1848.
- Why would the South care about extending slavery to Kansas and Nebraska, when New Mexico (which also included the present State of Arizona) was a “slave” territory with a slave population of … 24?
- If the purpose was to extend freedom, why did Lincoln virtually scrap the Constitution during the war by:
- Suspending habeas corpus without the consent of Congress? (The Constitution is not explicit about whether the President or Congress has this privilege; but its location in Article I Section 9 – and not Article II – strongly implies that they intended for Congress to have this power. Early commentators on the Constitution, including such strong unionists as Daniel Webster, agree with me on this).
- Summarily arresting and imprisoning without trial members of the Maryland legislature who were sympathetic to the South, to prevent that body from voting on an ordinance of secession.
- Failing to call Congress until three months after the war started, to approve the expenses of raising 75,000 troops and sending them into action. By that time, Congress was confronted with an accomplished fact and had only two choices: approve the expenditures or impeach the President. The latter choice clearly did not exist in reality, since most Congressmen were intimidated by what Lincoln had already done to his political opponents.
- Does it make any sense that Lincoln would destroy the Constitution in order to save it?
- What accounts for the popular support given in Pennsylvania and the Midwest for the Peace Democrats or “Copperheads,” who wanted to let the South go? Racism is not an explanation – a racist could support either Lincoln or the Copperheads (see second bullet point).
If the purpose of the war was to abolish slavery, why did Great Britain, a power that strongly supported the worldwide abolition of slavery, remain neutral throughout the war, instead of throwing its weight behind the North?
These questions came to mind as I was reading Charles Adams, When in the Course of Human Events (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2000).*
In Part II, I explain the real reason the war was fought, why many in the South remain bitter about their loss 150 years later, and why this history is especially relevant to our situation today.
* All of the arguments that do not include links come from this book, which further supports them with contemporary historical evidence. Charles Adams is an economic historian. Most of his work specializes in taxation, which led him to the study that resulted in this book.