In honor of President’s Day, here comes the Writing Wombat again to shatter everyone’s historical myths.
I’m just going to throw it out there early: Abraham Lincoln was not a very good president.
I know, I know. Then how did he get on the penny and the $5 bill? And a Memorial built to him?
Remember when we used to celebrate both Washington’s and Lincoln’s birthdays this month? It used to be two days off, one for each. Then we fused two together to just make it President’s Day, and instead of putting it in the middle, we put it as close to Lincoln’s birthday as possible. Some schools still throw a second day off in there, either making it two 3-day weekends in a row, or taking Friday off to make it a 4-day weekend. They will often call the extra day off Washington’s Birthday (to distinguish from the REAL President), even though it’s nowhere near poor George’s birthday. This year, if a school took the Friday off and pretended it was “Washington’s birthday,” it was actually on February 12, ten days before Washington’s birthday. One day after Lincoln’s.
To be fair, Washington wasn’t all that great of a President, either. I don’t think he was bad, there just wasn’t a lot of political strife to deal with at the time. Shoot, nobody even ran against him for his second term. It wasn’t until John Adams came along that most Americans even became aware you could dislike the President. Washington was a popular figurehead in charge of unifying the new country while the real stuff was being done by those policy wonks (Hamilton, Jefferson, and Randolph) behind the scenes .
So Washington wasn’t great, but he was fine. But Lincoln? Let me amend my earlier statement. It’s not just that he was not a very good president. Lincoln was a BAD president.
Historically, he is helped by the fact that, even as a bad president, the guys before and after him were worse. James Buchanan and Franklin Pierce were quite possibly the two worst Presidents we’ve ever had. Andrew Johnson, Lincoln’s successor, was the only President to ever be impeached before Newt Gingrich decided that Slick Willie’s mistress wasn’t as cool as his own. Then again, Lincoln dumped his first Vice President to give the job to Andrew Johnson, so if Johnson was a bad President, that’s still on Lincoln. Had Lincoln stuck with his first VP, we would’ve had President Hannibal Hamlin after Lincoln died. I don’t know if he would’ve been any good, but how cool would it be to have had President Hannibal? After Johnson, there were a slew of bad to mediocre presidents – Grant, Hayes, Garfield.
All you have to know about how bad these guys were is the fact that Grover Cleveland was President, lost the race for re-election, then beat the guy that replaced him four years later. Imagine if we brought back Carter or Bush, Sr. four years later. I know, I know – different party structure and nomination/campaigning process, and blah, blah, blah. But to have a President be so bad that you bring back the guy you couldn’t stand four years ago? Even Mitt Romney thinks that’s crazy.
So a large portion of the Abraham Lincoln myth might stem from this time period. An American in 1890 looking back over the ten presidents of the previous forty years would have fixated on Lincoln as the least shitty. Much like a stage-four cancer patient might wistfully recall that minor bout of syphilis he had in his twenties.
The other source of the myth comes from historians and laity wrongfully assigning actions and motives to Lincoln, in either an honest or calculated desire to create a hero. The biggest lie of them all, of course, is that Lincoln freed the slaves. Of course, slaves were a constitutional issue, so only a constitutional amendment could free them. So the Emancipation Proclamation was just the first in a long line of executive actions that said, “Constitution? HAHAHA!” Had it actually freed some slaves, it certainly would have been thrown out by the Supreme Court.
Fortunately the Emancipation Proclamation had absolutely nothing to do with freeing any slaves. In fact, its purpose was the exact opposite: to allow states to keep their slaves. Issued in September, 1862, after the first major Union victory at Antietam, it stated that any slaves in any state that was still rebelling as of January 1, 1863, would be freed. In other words, if you stop fighting us before the new year, you can keep your slaves. But if you keep fighting us and we conquer you, we’re taking your slaves just like every invading army in history.
The slave states already in the Union, like Kentucky and Maryland? They got to keep their slaves. Lincoln’s hope in issuing the order was that states like Louisiana and Virginia would decide their slaves were more important than their namby-pamby Confederacy. It didn’t work, so when January, 1863, rolled around, the Civil War became about freeing the slaves. Or at least freeing some slaves.
Of course, the war was two years old by that point. But hey, making up the cause of the war as you go along is the stalwart of many a great wartime leader. Like George W. Bush. I’m sure they’re planning on carving his face into a mountain any day now, right?
The similarities don’t end there. In many ways, Abraham Lincoln was the George W. Bush of the nineteenth century. Almost losing a war where you had a 4-to-1 population advantage? Check. As well as being more advanced in technology and industry? Check. How about refusing constitutional protections to American citizens who may or may not be helping the enemy? Shoot, Lincoln wrote the book on that shit.
The wars themselves even had some similarities. In 2003, most of the Iraqis were just minding their own business, wanting to be left alone. But there was an American president with an ego and an army. Bush needed to outdo his father, who he felt had let Hussein off the hook in the first Gulf War. Ironically, Bush, Sr. could have easily knocked off Hussein in 1991. But as a former CIA Director and a man who believed in silly ideas like diplomacy and allies, Daddy Bush realized that might be a bad idea. Too bad W. was coked out during all of those family dinner conversations about sectarian violence.
In Lincoln’s case, the metaphorical father he was chasing was a mild-mannered little English bloke named George III. Okay, maybe he wasn’t all that mild-mannered. But how nice would you be if you were known as the king that lost the American colonies? Nobody wants to be the guy in charge when half the country bolts. So when one Jefferson (Davis) evoked another Jefferson (Thomas), Lincoln dug deep within his inner tyrant and let out a grandiose, “Oh, HELL no!”
So he picked up what was left of the army after all the Southerners bolted and invaded those bastards who had the audacity to besmirch his place in history. Then he spent the next two years getting his ass kicked (“Whoa, Texans are better with guns than Vermonters?”) and stumbling about for a reason why the war was just. A reason the Northerners, many of whom had the “just let them go” mentality, could rally behind.
Visit most political blogs, on both sides of the aisle, today and you’ll find a similar sentiment. How much better would my half of the country be if those [Rednecks/Hippes] were in another country?
Although it’s nice to not have to exchange money when we want to go look at Mardi Gras titties. Just as our forefathers dreamed.
And we have one man to thank for that. No wonder we get two days off for the guy. Abraham Lincoln saved the Mardi Gras titties!
Never mind, I’m back on board. Greatest President ever!
And I didn’t even have to go into his stellar vampire hunting skills.