The Historically Accurate Abraham Lincoln

President Abraham Lincoln

Presidents’ Day Special

Published February 19, 2018

I’ve always wondered why Black History month is commemorated in February. So this year I decided to look it up, and learned that one of the reasons is because February is the month which contains the birthdays of both Fredrick Douglas and Abraham Lincoln.

Choosing February as Black History Month because of Frederick Douglass makes sense. “He was a prominent American abolitionist, author and orator. Born a slave, Douglass escaped at age 20 and went on to become a world-renowned anti-slavery activist.” (History)

But choosing to put Black History Month in February because of Abraham Lincoln? That makes no sense at all. At least not when you understand the historically accurate Abraham Lincoln. You see, there are two Abraham Lincolns. The historically accurate Abraham Lincoln and the mythological Abraham Lincoln. Most Americans know only the mythological Abraham Lincoln and are clueless as to his actual history, writings, speeches and military exploits as Commander in Chief of the Unites States armed forces.
The mythological Abraham Lincoln is held up by both Democrats and Republicans alike. He is a beacon of freedom and a champion of racial equality. In fact, in the spring of 2016, House Majority Leader Paul Ryan (R-WI) referenced the legacy of Abraham Lincoln when he publicly rebuked GOP Presidential candidate Donald J. Trump for not distancing himself from the political endorsement of David Duke, a well-known KKK member. He said:

“If a person wants to be the nominee of the Republican Party, there can be no evasion and no games. They must reject any group or cause that is built on bigotry. This party does not prey on people’s prejudices. We appeal to their highest ideals. This is the party of Lincoln. We believe all people are created equal in the eyes of God and our government. This is fundamental. And if someone wants to be our nominee, they must understand this.” (Twitter)

Speaker Ryan was, of course, referencing the Abraham Lincoln most everyone knows and loves, the mythological Abraham Lincoln. I however, would like to invite you to meet the historically accurate Abraham Lincoln.

In the fall of 1858, Abraham Lincoln was in a brutal campaign for the US Senate. He was running against Judge Stephen Douglas, as well as against the perception that he was in favor of freeing the slaves. So, in the first debate, towards the beginning of his remarks, he sought to assure the white voters of where he actually stood in regard to slavery and racial equality:

“I will say here, while upon this subject, that I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so. I have no purpose to introduce political and social equality between the white and the black races. There is a physical difference between the two, which, in my judgment, will probably forever forbid their living together upon the footing of perfect equality, and inasmuch as it becomes a necessity that there must be a difference, I, as well as Judge Douglas, am in favor of the race to which I belong having the superior position.”
– Abraham Lincoln (First Lincoln Douglas Debate – August 21, 1858 – Ottawa, Illinois)

Several weeks later, during his fourth debate with Stephen Douglas, Abraham Lincoln reiterated his stance on both slavery and race, almost verbatim:

“I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races, [applause]-that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.”
– Abraham Lincoln (Fourth Lincoln Douglas Debate – September 18, 1858 – Charleston, Illinois)

Mark Charles

In 1861, during his inauguration speech, President Lincoln felt the need to once again reminded the nation as to where he stood on race and slavery. He reiterated his intention to not free the slaves in states where it already existed, and in regards to his thoughts on race, he referenced the country back to his speeches in the Douglas debates:

“Apprehension seems to exist among the people of the Southern States that by the accession of a Republican Administration their property and their peace and personal security are to be endangered. There has never been any reasonable cause for such apprehension. Indeed, the most ample evidence to the contrary has all the while existed and been open to their inspection. It is found in nearly all the published speeches of him who now addresses you. I do but quote from one of those speeches when I declare that–I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.”(1861 – Inaugural Address)

On August 19, 1862, Horace Greeley, the Editor of the New York Tribune wrote a scathing Op-Ed calling for the immediate emancipation of the slaves. President Lincoln had already written the Emancipation Proclamation but was not yet ready to issue it. He first wanted to assure the slave-owning states of the north (Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware) of his true intentions and beliefs, so he responded to Greeley’s Op-Ed with a letter which stated:

“If there be those who would not save the Union, unless they could at the same time save slavery, I do not agree with them. If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time destroy slavery, I do not agree with them. My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. 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.

Plague located in museum at the base of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.

It is the latter half of this quote (italicized) that is engraved on a marble plaque which today hangs in the museum at the base of the Lincoln Memorial. It boldly declares President Abraham Lincoln’s belief that black lives did not matter.

1862 was a turbulent year for our country. It was the first full year of the Civil War, but that was not the only fighting taking place. In Minnesota, the US Government had recently signed a treaty with the Dakota Sioux nation, and in the fall of 1862, after the United States failed to meet its treaty obligations with the Dakota people, several Dakota warriors raided an American settlement, killed some of the settlers and stole food. This began a short period of bloody conflict between some of the Dakota people, white settlers, and the U.S. Military. After little more than a month, several hundred of the Dakota warriors surrendered and the rest fled north to what is now Canada. Those who surrendered were quickly tried in military tribunals, and 303 of them were condemned to death.

“The trials of the Dakota were conducted unfairly in a variety of ways. The evidence was sparse, the tribunal was biased, the defendants were unrepresented in unfamiliar proceedings conducted in a foreign language, and authority for convening the tribunal was lacking. More fundamentally, neither the Military Commission nor the reviewing authorities recognized that they were dealing with the aftermath of a war fought with a sovereign nation, and that the men who surrendered were entitled to treatment in accordance with that status.”(Carol Chomsky)

Because these were military trials, the executions had to be ordered by the President. 303 deaths seemed too genocidal for President Lincoln. But he didn’t order retrials, even though it has been argued that the trials which took place were a legal sham. Instead he simply modified the criteria of which charges warranted a death sentence. Under his new criteria, only two of the Dakota warriors were sentenced to die. That small number seemed too lenient, and President Lincoln was concerned about an uprising by his white American settlers in that area. So, for a second time, instead of ordering retrials, he changed the criteria of what warranted a death sentence.

Ultimately, 39 Dakota men were sentenced to die. And on December 26, 1862, by order of President Lincoln, and with nearly 4,000 white American settlers looking on, the largest mass execution in the history of the United States took place, making it abundantly clear that, not only did Abraham Lincoln not believe that Black Lives Mattered, but he did not believe that Native Lives Mattered either.

Less than a week later, on January 1, 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect. But, if you look closely, this proclamation did not free all the slaves. The wording of the Emancipation Proclamation was extremely specific, and limited the locations from which slaves were to be freed:

“Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana, (except the Parishes of St. Bernard, Plaquemines, Jefferson, St. John, St. Charles, St. James Ascension, Assumption, Terrebonne, Lafourche, St. Mary, St. Martin, and Orleans, including the City of New Orleans) Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia, (except the forty-eight counties designated as West Virginia, and also the counties of Berkley, Accomac, Northampton, Elizabeth City, York, Princess Ann, and Norfolk, including the cities of Norfolk and Portsmouth[)], and which excepted parts, are for the present, left precisely as if this proclamation were not issued.”

The Emancipation Proclamation exempted many areas and counties throughout the southern slave-owning states, and never even mentioned freeing slaves from the northern states where slavery was legal (Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware). These states had not seceded from the Union and therefore were exempted by Lincoln from the Proclamation. Some have argued that because President Lincoln was using his wartime powers as commander-in-chief to make the proclamation, it was legally necessary to limit the jurisdiction of the proclamation to states and counties that were actively fighting against the Union.  However, taken in the context of President Lincoln’s response to Horace Greeley, the limited implementation of the Emancipation Proclamation remained true to President Lincoln’s belief that Black Lives did not Matter. He fulfilled his commitment to the slave owners in Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland and Delaware that if he could save the Union “by freeing some and leaving others alone” he would do that.

Navajo Long Walk

In the 1860s President Lincoln also sought to put an end to the Indian wars being fought in the Southwest against the Navajo and the Pueblos. The military offensive against our tribes by the US Army intensified with the start of the Civil War in 1861 and steadily increased thereafter. In the fall of 1863, General Carleton of the US Army, the army of which Abraham Lincoln was the commander in chief, gave the following order to US Army Officer, Kit Carson, who had been brought into the Indian War Campaigns for the express purpose of removing the Navajo and Pueblo people to Brosque Redondo.

“Henceforth every Navajo male is to be killed or taken prisoner on sight….Say to them ‘Go to the Brosque Redondo or we will pursue and destroy you….We will not make peace with you on any other terms. This war shall be pursued until you cease to exist or move. There can be no other talk on the subject.'” (Locke, “The Book of the Navajo”, Mankind Publishing, pg. 356)

The strength and numbers of the Navajo people had already been depleted. Most of our crops were burned and our livestock killed. Raymond Friday Locke, once again, in his book titled “The Book of the Navajo” records the next step of the operation:

“with the coming of the first snows, Carson put his second plan of operation into action. He knew that, even with the loss of most of their livestock and crops, the Navajo people could still survive the winter on game and wild seeds and plants – but not if they were constantly kept on the move. Again breaking his command up into small patrols, he sent them out to crisscross Dinehtah (the traditional lands of the Navajo people) until the Navajos were broken up into small family units and scattered. They could never remain in one place for more than a few days at a time, camped in mountain crevices or caves without sufficient food, shelter or clothing…By the middle of December most of the weak and aged had died. There is hardly a Navajo family that cannot remember tales of an aged grandfather, a pregnant mother or a lame child that had to be left behind when the camp had to be quickly deserted. The patrols were not interested in taking captives; it was too much trouble to transport them back to the forts. Any Navajo they saw was shot on sight. Mothers were sometimes forced to suffocate their hungry crying babies to keep their families from being discovered and butchered by an army patrol or taken captive by the slave raiders.”
(Locke, “The Book of the Navajo”, Mankind Publishing, pg. 358)

Ultimately over 8,000 Navajo people were rounded up by President Lincoln’s army, and marched from Fort Wingate to Bosque Redondo in what is known as “The Long Walk.”

About that same time (1864), in Colorado, the US Army, still under their Commander in Chief Abraham Lincoln, committed the Massacre at Sand Creek:

“On November 29, 1864, approximately 675 United States soldiers under the command of Colonel John Chivington killed more than 200 Cheyenne and Arapaho villagers, mostly elderly men, women, and children, approximately 180 miles southeast of Denver near Eads, Colorado.  Despite assurance from American negotiators that they would be safe, and despite Cheyenne Chief Black Kettle raising both a United States flag and a white flag as symbols of peace, Colonel Chivington ordered his troops to take no prisoners and to pillage and set the village ablaze, violently forcing the ambushed and outnumbered Cheyenne and Arapaho villagers to flee on foot. Colonel Chivington and his troops paraded mutilated body parts of men, women, and children in downtown Denver, Colorado, in celebration of the massacre.” (Colorado Senate Joint Resolution 14-030)

In 1865, the mythological President Lincoln was given credit for abolishing slavery. But that’s because most people have never actually read the text of the 13th Amendment. Here is what it says:

“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

To this day, slavery in the United States is completely legal. The 13th Amendment did not abolish it, it merely codified slavery and put it under the jurisdiction of the criminal justice system. And I am sure that the historically accurate Abraham Lincoln would be delighted to learn that, 153 years later, the United States of America now has nearly twice as many more black males over the age of 18 in prison, on parole and on probation, than were enslaved in 1850.

As a Navajo man, I find many of the holidays celebrated by the United States of America lamentable. Every Fourth of July we celebrate a Declaration of Independence that refers to Natives as “merciless Indian savages.” Columbus Day celebrates a “discovery” of lands that were already inhabited. On Thanksgiving we celebrate a mythological potluck between natives and settlers (that never happened). But President’s Day. The fact that as a nation we celebrate Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. and have whitewashed the exploits of a racist, genocidal, ethnic-cleansing president like Abraham Lincoln is morally, ethically, politically and socially reprehensible.

Mark Charles (Navajo) serves as the Washington DC correspondent for Native News Online and is the author of the popular blog “Reflections from the Hogan.” His writings are regularly published by Native News Online in a column titled “A Native Perspective” which addresses news directly affecting Indian Country as well as offering a Native perspective on national and global news stories. Mark is active on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Instagram .

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