by Thomas R. Wells
Lincoln consistently scores top or at least top 3 in every ranking of US presidents. This high standing has long puzzled me. After all, this is the leader who presided over a long brutal civil war that killed 620,000 of his own people. For context, as a percentage of the population, that is more American lives than all other presidents put together have managed to expend in all America’s other wars. On the face of it, that is a massive failure of statesmanship. The usual response is that the war was a necessary sacrifice to end the supreme evil of slavery. I do not find this convincing.
I. The civil war was not inevitable: Lincoln caused it by his election and choices
War happens because politics fails. Lincoln’s Republican party was perceived as anti-Southern, as evidenced by its immediate promise to impose import tariffs that would hurt the South’s economy (to the benefit of the industrial North) and long-term commitment to the abolition of slavery. Although not the most radical candidate the Republicans could have nominated (more on which below) Lincoln was thus an extraordinarily divisive presidential candidate who was elected entirely by Northern voters. The Southern states launched their secession as soon as they heard Lincoln had won because they believed he (and his Republican party) intended to pursue an anti-South agenda that would further cement their political marginalisation within the USA. Perhaps reflecting his party’s political ignorance of the South and his administration’s inexperience, Lincoln seems not to have understood this. He therefore dramatically underestimated popular support for secession in the South and assumed a show of force would quickly crush it.
It is reasonable to suppose that if a different party’s candidate had won the 1860 election, secession would not have happened then (or perhaps at all), despite the long-running tensions between South and North. Moreover, it seems likely that a different president could have managed any secession crisis without resorting to war because that president would have had the trust and legitimacy in the South that Lincoln lacked. (For example, one of Congress’s various efforts to resolve the secession crisis by constitutionally protecting slavery might have succeeded.) Or the South could have been allowed to secede, on the same principle that the colonies had claimed in declaring their independence from Britain. The South’s goal was just to leave the USA, and this was perfectly compatible with the continued existence and flourishing of the country that remained (though perhaps not with its pride). It was the South’s choice to declare independence from the USA, but it was the choice of President Lincoln’s government to go to war to force them to stay.
II. Lincoln’s war cost too much and achieved too little
The costs of the civil war were 620,000 soldiers killed, 475,000 wounded and some $20 billion in 1860 dollars in direct and indirect economic costs (about twice annual GDP). The benefits were that approximately 4 million slaves were freed by the North’s victory in 1865. Breaking that down, for every 7 slaves freed, 1 soldier died and $35,000 in economic value was lost (as a share of GDP, equivalent to $155 million today). Moreover, ‘freedom’ did not mean equality. Due to the federal government’s abject failure to enforce the Reconstruction Amendments (because retaining the Southern states meant installing a large block of white supremacists in the national legislature), African Americans continued to be deprived of basic political, civil and social rights for another 100 years. In 1900 for example, life expectancy for African Americans was a mere 33, about the same as in 1860 and 15 years less than for Whites.
Freedom from slavery is about dignity, and dignity is something that is worth any price. Nevertheless, I want to emphasise the very high price that Lincoln made America pay for abolition: more than all America’s other wars put together. No other country (except Haiti) paid so dearly. Britain for example ended slavery in its empire in 1833 by borrowing £20 million (5% of national GDP at the time) to pay off the slave-owners. Some have criticised Britain for paying off the bad guys, among the other moral compromises of the Slavery Abolition Act, but it seems eminently more sensible to achieve the end of slavery in that way than by grinding up hundreds of thousands of your own citizens. It is true that the political economics were harder for Lincoln because slavery was a larger fraction of America’s economy than Britain’s, and paying off its slaveholders would have added up to perhaps 20% of GDP). Nonetheless, that is about what the North raised in taxes to fight the war anyway and about 1/10 of what the civil war ended up costing Americans in total.
III. War was not necessary: Slavery would have ended anyway
The civil war definitely ended slavery in America in 1865, but that doesn’t mean that slavery would have gone on forever without it. The economic inefficiency of slavery is fairly clear (at least to economists; some non-economist historians seem to have trouble understanding the point). It is certainly true that cotton plantation owners could make money using slave labour, and that once they had built an economy around slaves as assets they were financially dependent on the perpetuation of the system (like oil companies whose balance sheets assume continued high demand for their products). This political economy of slavery explains why the South’s slave-owning oligarchs were so vehemently opposed to abolition in 1860 (just as it explains why oil companies lobbied so hard against climate science and carbon taxes). However, looking at the economy as a whole, slave labour has an opportunity cost relative to free labour since it deliberately underutilises the economically valuable set of (potential) skills, motivation, creativity and so on of a large percentage of the population. Hence slavery is a less efficient economic institution: it misallocates resources and so leaves a society poorer than it would have been.
So it is not surprising that the economy of the South was poorer than that of the North in 1860 and was growing at a slower rate. It is also not surprising that every other Western country abolished slavery over the course of the 19th century, with Brazil the last to do so in 1888. As slavery’s limitations in a modern capitalist economy became increasingly obvious – and were systematically analysed by the classical pro-market economists so hated by proponents of slavery – political opposition to morally based abolitionist movements declined. It is reasonable to expect that the same would have happened in America within a few decades. (At least, the burden of proof is on those who think America so exceptional that it would have followed a different path.)
IV. Nor was Lincoln ‘Morally Great’
To summarise the case so far, Lincoln launched a terrible war he didn’t have to in response to circumstances he partly brought about. For the high price of killing more Americans than everyone else put together has managed, he ended slavery in America a few decades early. Politically, these do not look like the achievements of a Great Statesman. (Note: I do not claim that Lincoln a terrible president – one has to keep in mind the many far more appalling people who have held that office.) But perhaps he meant to do better and was merely thwarted by the extreme circumstances he faced? Perhaps Lincoln’s greatness was in his moral compass?
Not so. Lincoln would now be termed a white supremacist. He won the Republicans’ nomination because he was a ‘moderate’ abolitionist who was considered more electable. This meant that although Lincoln opposed slavery, he did not believe that Blacks could be full and equal citizens with Whites in a future America but expected they would leave after abolition. Even in Lincoln’s own time, and his own party, there were many people with more progressive views who would better qualify as a moral compass.
“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. I say upon this occasion I do not perceive that because the white man is to have the superior position the negro should be denied every thing. I do not understand that because I do not want a negro woman for a slave I must necessarily want her for a wife. [Cheers and laughter.] My understanding is that I can just let her alone. I am now in my fiftieth year, and I certainly never have had a black woman for either a slave or a wife. So it seems to me quite possible for us to get along without making either slaves or wives of negroes. I will add to this that I have never seen, to my knowledge, a man, woman or child who was in favor of producing a perfect equality, social and political, between negroes and white men.” (Extract from Lincoln’s speech at the Fourth Lincoln-Douglas debate, Charleston 1858)
Although the defense of slavery was the explicit motivation for the South’s secession, Lincoln’s declared war aim was merely to preserve the Union by forcing the South back into it. Eventually it seems that Lincoln was reluctantly persuaded by Radicals to make abolition a war aim and to support the 13th Amendment, but it is not plausible to describe him as a leader on the issue.
V. So why is Lincoln considered great?
Americans seem deeply attached to the idea of Lincoln as a secular saint, presumably because it has been continually repeated to them in school and on TV. It is one of the few things they still seem to agree on in these polarised times. As a non-American, I lack that conditioning, but I think I can see how it came about. When something extraordinarily terrible happens – like a civil war – we search for a narrative that will make sense of the events and comfort us, for example by framing the huge costs as a sacrifice for a proportionately worthy goal. Therefore the very fact that the war was so awful makes it necessary to inflate Lincoln’s greatness and goodness to compensate. (Lincoln’s assassination also helps the beatification along.) Even losers in a war can be comforted by the idea that they were beaten by the best, which explains why even many Lost Causers claim to admire Lincoln. Ironically then Lincoln’s reputation rests on the size of his war, not what the war accomplished. If the abolition of slavery had been accomplished by killing half as many people then he would be less well-remembered and revered.