Abe Lincoln: Overhyped?

Why is it that wherever I go, people seem to hail Abe Lincoln as one of the nation’s greatest presidents?

First, consider the fact he didn’t get elected president by a majority. The majority of the people voted democrat, but since there were 4 democratic candidates, Lincoln won by them splitting the vote.

Second, the whole fact that he “ended slavery”. First off, consider the situation that was happening: The nation had been split in two(During his presidency no less… Hmm). Lincoln had no juristiction to the southern half of it. When he declared the freedom of all african-american slaves, his power was only in the north, which was relatively slave free.

One might argue that Lincoln was the first president to try and end slavery. This was because the presidents before Lincoln realized that ending slavery would, in effect, screw the south’s economy royally. And the south, being half of the United States, would be responsible for half of it’s economy… You get the picture.

So you’re saying that it was better for those earlier presidents to keep the Southern economy going rather than freeing human beings from slavery?

Yeah, gosh, I can’t see why anybody would think Lincoln did a good thing…

I don’t believe I ever said that it was better for the other presidents to keep slavery going. It’s quite troubling to see you put words in my mouth.

What I did say, however, is that any man in Lincoln’s place would have done the same thing. Consider Columbus: Sure, eventually the western hemisphere would be discovered, but it took a degree of courage for Columbus to set out on his journey. It did not take courage for Lincoln to state that all the slaves were free, for the reasons I explained in my earlier post.

Actually, no words were put into your mouth – I just used what you had typed. Blame yourself for not explaining better.

And you still didn’t explain very well. Why could anybody have done what Lincoln did?

To the first point, the quality of a president should be measured by what he did while President. How many votes he got may measure his success as a candidate, but has no bearing on the quality of his term.

And I believe if you go to the South, you may find some who disagree with the statement that “people seem to hail Abe Lincoln as one of the nation’s greatest presidents.”

lenin there were only two Democratic candidates for president in the 1860 election: Douglas and Breckenridge. There was a fourth candidate: Bell, but his party was a mixture of the old Whigs with some Know Nothing nativism tossed in.

Lincoln still won a majority of the states in 1860 and he wasn’t on the ballot in most of the South.

There are numerous points you could have brought up to bolster your argument against Lincoln, but you chose to leave these out, e.g., suppression of civil rights, illegal transfers of funds from the Treasury, the legality of the Southern naval blockade, ambivalent attitude toward civil rights, etc.

Also, the first Southern states seceded BEFORE Lincoln was inaugurated. South Carolina seceded in December 1860 in anticipation of Lincoln taking over. James Buchanan looked at the issue with the “take charge” attitude of “you can’t secede, but I can’t use force to keep you from doing it either.”

Lincoln’s perceived greatness is not just because of the Emanciapation Proclamation. His fight to stop the expansion of slavery before the war began, his resolve to hold the nation together, his leadership during the war, and his proclaimed intention to foster reconciliation with the defeated southerners were all factors contributing towards the high esteem in which he is held. The fact that he was a martyr for his ideals also certainly doesn’t hurt his reputation.


First, the above is inaccurate- Lincoln still would have won in the electoral college even if the opposition was united around a single candidate instead of divided among three candidates. If all the non-Lincoln popular votes were given to a single candidate it would take only 11 electoral votes away from him- 4 in New Jersey, 4 in California and 3 in Oregon- leaving him with 169 electors to 134 electors for his opponent. Basically he won by getting about 55-60% of the popular vote in two thirds of the country and close to 0 in the other third (and lets not overlook the fact that 36% of the population in that third had extremely good reason to favor Lincoln, but could not vote.)

As far as actually freeing any slaves goes, Lincoln didn’t do that. Congress & the states did with the 13th Amendment. That was the only legal way to do it without compensating slaveholders for property taken (See US Constitution- Amendment 5). Slavery is now (almost) universally considered evil, but it was legal then to own a human being.

Lincoln was pretty shrewd in restricting the EP to slaves in areas over which he had no control (“within any State or designated part of a State the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States”). There were still plenty of slaves held in areas that remained loyal to the Union, and freeing them by executive order (without just compensation) would have been illegal, and divisive WRT the remaining loyal states.

Is Abe Lincoln overhyped? I think so.

Like, gag me. he’s soooo 1860’s.


Lincoln didn’t enter office with any platform of launching a radical crusade to end slavery, and he didn’t initially prosecute the Civil War with abolition as a war aim. He was, however, the first person elected President on an explicitly anti-slavery platform. “Anti-slavery” didn’t necessarily mean “radical, immediate abolitionist by any means necessary” any more than “anti-communist” necessarily meant “start World War III now–better dead than Red!” during the Cold War. But the fact that he was an anti-slavery Republican was crucial to why most of the slave states chose to secede.

The slave states saw the handwriting on the wall. Realizing that with Lincoln’s election, failure to spread slavery into the territories would increasingly marginalize and put pressure on them to reform, they took the suicidal step of secession.

Lincoln was indomitable in pursuing the Civil War despite all the naysayers and compromisers, and was chiefly responsible for preserving the Union. I can’t speak for everyone in the South, but this is generally recognized as a Good Thing.

Have you ever read about the Lincoln-Douglas debates? Douglas was vocally in favor of allowing slavery to continue. There’s no reason to believe that he would have acted as Lincoln did.

He wasn’t an abolitionist. In his famous letter to Horace Greeley in 1862, before the announcement of the Emancipation Proclamation, he said (paraphrasing from memory) “If I could save the Union by freeing all the slaves, I would do it, if I could by saving some of the slaves, I would do it, and if I could by saving none of the slaves, I would do it.”

Lincoln also gave himself dictatorial powers when the war started and before Congress was in session. He suspended the writ of habeas corpus, he closed newspapers and jailed their editors, and even had several members of the Maryland legislature arrested while they were on their way to vote for secession. Sure, it was for “military neccesity” as he liked to put it, but it was deliberately extra-Constitutional.

Lincoln was a dictator, and a tyrant, even. But it can certainly be argued in this case that the ends justified the means.

There is also the issue that, when the South seceded, Lincoln:[ul][li]Raised a Federal army without the consent of Congress – even though in 1848, Lincoln had attacked president Polk on the House floor for doing this very thing in the Mexican war;[/li][li]Ordered a blockade of North Carolina before North Carolina had seceded – this blockade was upheld by a 5-4 Supreme Court decision, of which 3 of the 5 consenting justices had just been put on the Supreme Court by Lincoln himself; and[/li]Occupied Maryland with Federal troops to ensure that Maryland didn’t secede, suspended Habeas Corpus within Maryland, and made large-scale arrests of Maryland’s citizens and state legislators – Supreme Court Justice Taney told Lincoln that the president did not have the power to suspend habeas corpus, but Lincoln ignored him.[/ul]Two years later, Lincoln suspended habeas corpus throughout all areas under Federal control.

Lincoln was not a radical abolitionist, no, but he was most definitely an anti-slavery candidate. The entire Republican Party was largely founded as an anti-slavery party. As Georgia’s declaration of secession said:

MEBuckner quoted Article I, Section 9, Clause 2 of the U.S. Constitution:

Problem is, Lincoln suspended Habeas Corpus in the Northern states, where there was neither rebellion nor invasion.

One year after the Civil War, the Supreme Court ruled that Martial law cannot arise from a threatened invasion; the necessity must be actual and present, and the invasion real. Ex Parte Milligan, 71 U.S. 2 (1866)

He was the anti-slavery candidate because he was the only one who would actually consider ending slavery, not because he was only in favor of ending slavery, with no other alternative considered. That’s what I meant when I said that “He wasn’t an abolitionist.” I should have said he wasn’t a radical one, instead.

The Republican Party came into being as a combination of the Whig Party’s economic stance (pro-national bank) and the Free Soil Party’s slavery stance. (Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men, Fremont! John Fremont, a general during the Civil War on the Western front, was the first Republican candidate for President in 1856.) So it was the anti-slavery party, and Lincoln was the anti-slavery candidate, but he was more moderate than most in the party.

Well, the court ruled that suspension of Habeus Corpus couldn’t arise from a threatened invasion, not martial law. Ex Parte Milligan wasn’t decided until after the war was over, though…so while Lincoln’s action was found to be unconsititutional, that was after the rebellion was ended.

Personally, I like Lincoln. Some of the decisions he made were edgy, but he succeeded in beating the traitors and putting down the rebellion, and, the Republicans found time to pass the Homestead and Morril acts.

It appears to me that all the “great” American presidents have been those who led the country through times of great stress. Independence, Civil War, Great Depression & WWII have produced those presidents that have been regarded as great. Two possibities, both likely true:

  1. People tend to rally around a leader in times of crisis, whereas that same leader in absense of crisis would face more opposition, and less fervent support from his supporters.

  2. A crisis gives much more import to the actions and decisions of a leader. Thus a president with qualities that would lend themselves to greatness but who is in an uneventful time, will simply not have the opportunity to be “great”.

For these reasons, I think it is likely that Lincoln, had he held office in another era, would not be thought of as highly as he currently is. Whether that makes him overhyped is another question though. It may be that some of our other presidents are underhyped.

This is a common misconception. The reason he restricted it to areas under rebellion was not to make it a moot point. The reason was because the federal government had no authority over the Union States, and could not tell them to free the slaves. The Confederate States, however, were under federal authority, and therefore the federal government had the authority to free the slaves there. It’s similar to how Congress can pass municipal regulations applying to Washington DC, but not to any other city. Furthermore, since any rebel territory under control of the Union would be held by the military, and Lincoln was the Commander in Chief of the military, he had the right to order the military to enforce his proclamation in any territory they conquered.