Questioning Lincoln

What must happen to tarnish a reputation? What must happen to push a person off a pedestal? What must happen to turn an icon into a human?

To cast doubt on the secular sainthood of Abraham Lincoln is the rough equivalent of casting doubt on the glory of the American flag. It just isn’t done, or, at least, it isn’t done now and it isn’t done in public and it isn’t done by anyone who would claim even a modicum of political correctness. After all, Lincoln preserved the Union and he abolished slavery – both achievements that place him, properly, in the American pantheon.

But to place a person in a pantheon does not mean – or it should not mean – that he is, for all time, above reproach. That he is so perfect he is ossified, so fully encased in marble that he is untouchable.

Off and on over the years I have wondered about the number of dead during the American Civil War. This number has always seemed to me to be humungous, proportionately certainly, so big as to be beyond imagining. But, then, I am anything but a Civil War historian, or even any sort of an expert on American history. And so I never said much about it, or even asked much about it, not to speak of ever having written about it – until now.

Here though is what I do know. I do know that when you read these two sentences, as I just did a few days ago, they ought to give pause. “The Civil War’s death toll was catastrophic.  At about 2% of the population, the equivalent today would be something like seven million gone.”*

Seven million gone in today’s numbers– seven million Americans dead! As a point of comparison, 2% of Americans died during the Civil War; well under half of one percent of Americans died during World War II.  Was there, then, nothing else that President Lincoln could have done? Did he have no recourse other than the course he chose?

Clearly the conventional wisdom is that the answer to this question is no. There was no other way for Lincoln both to preserve the Union and abolish slavery, at least not in the early 1860s, other than to further the war and have Americans endure its calamitous costs. Still, I, perhaps naively, cannot help but wonder if this conventional wisdom about our lionized leader necessarily holds true.


*Martha Hodes, Wall Street Journal, March 7-8, 2015.


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