America’s Worst President

“You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.”

-Unknown (apocryphally attributed to Abraham Lincoln)

No, it’s not Barack Obama – he’s trying hard, but he hasn’t had much time yet and the competition is very stiff. It wasn’t Richard Nixon – a vile person can sometimes be a tolerable leader, and Nixon was actually one of the better Presidents. FDR gets a lot of crap from certain quarters, and he certainly made some big mistakes, but he dealt adequately with a couple of very serious problems not of his own creation (though Roosevelt might have turned out to be a horrific failure had Hitler been satisfied with Czechoslovakia). Warren Harding and Ulysses Grant are well known for the corruption they tolerated, but neither managed to really do much damage. It was during the Coolidge administration that the groundwork was laid for the First Great Depression, but there wasn’t much he could have done about it if he wanted to. Herbert Hoover is reviled for his failure to address the Depression (as Obama will be) but Hoover, like Obama, would have faced serious political challenges had he attempted to implement a meaningful policy. There are plenty of other candidates for last place – Reagan, Carter, George Bush II, Lyndon Johnson (whom I’d give a solid second-to-last), Andrew Johnson, James Buchanan…

Buchanan was faced, near the end of his one term, with the secession of South Carolina and then six other Southern states (Georgia and the so-called “Gulf Squadron” of Florida, Alabama, Mississipi, Louisiana, and later Texas). His response was to do very little – he said that although secession was illegal, the US Government was not empowered to intervene (a very dubious Constitutional interpretation). While lame-duck Buchanan waited passively to leave office, the seceding states seized most of the Federal property in their territory – including forts and arsenals. Buchanan did send a civilian ship to resupply Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, which the Secessionists were trying to starve out, but Star of the West fled when fired on by South Carolina’s shore batteries. Buchanan was still not ready to precipitate the country into war, though, and let the incident pass. Though he had nothing to do with causing the secessions, Buchanan is usually severely castigated by historians for his failure to do anything about them.

And yet – what was he supposed to do? The US Army was hardly prepared for an invasion of the South in January of 1861 – as usual the peacetime army had been very small*, and loyalties to states were then much stronger than now. Any attempt to prevent the capture of the Federal arsenals might well have failed, and/or caused a mutiny, and would certainly have provoked a war. Up until March of 1861, desperate eleventh-hour negotiations were still going on to reverse the secession, and it was far from obvious at the time that these were doomed. One Congressional peace plan was stalled by only a single vote. It is likely that the seceded states would have rejected it, but not certain: there was still a great deal of pro-Union sentiment in the South, and some people plainly regarded Secession as a ploy to gain concessions. Jefferson Davis himself had at first opposed Secession. Could we really expect Buchanan to throw away the last chance, however slim, of escaping the horror of a civil war, as the best solution to a crisis that he had not created, and take the blame on behalf of the man who had created it?

It is said that the Civil War was caused by Secession, but there was no certainty that Secession need bring about war. Furthermore, Secession itself could not have happened without the election of Abraham Lincoln. Secessionists in the South even made it their first priority to ensure Lincoln’s election by attacking Stephen Douglas, the only truly national candidate in the 1860 Presidential race and the only one likely to prevent Lincoln’s victory. It was Lincoln’s intemperate anti-slavery rhetoric that guaranteed his unacceptability to the slave-dependent cotton states of the Deep South. Although Douglas was denounced as a “rank Abolitionist”, he clearly and consistently favored protecting slavery wherever the citizens might want it, and his election would have made Secession politically impossible for the time being.

Had Abraham Lincoln been sincerely dedicated to the abolition of slavery, we would surely forgive him for using anti-slavery agitation as his chief political weapon, but he was not. Lincoln, like most other politicians, claimed whatever positions were politically useful to him, and contradicted them without the slightest hesitation whenever it was convenient. He is famous for saying that, “This Union cannot forever endure half slave and half free,” – a clear declaration of Abolitionist intent; he also said repeatedly that his only priority was preservation of the Union, and he admitted that if he could do this without freeing a single slave he would do so. Lincoln promised the South that he would not interfere with slavery wherever it already existed, and even supported a Constitutional amendment (the Corwin Amendment) protecting the “peculiar institution” in perpetuity. Even after the outbreak of war, Lincoln ordered Union generals (Hooker and Fremont) to return freed slaves to their owners.

Lincoln was also a racist, at least in public and in policy. He stated that blacks were by nature unequal to whites and could not be integrated into white civilization. Mexicans he despised as “a mongrel race not one in eight of whom are white.” His plan for dealing with freed slaves was to deport them to Africa. To this end, near the end of the war, a pilot colony was even established in the Caribbean. When the colony failed and many of the settlers died, Lincoln abandoned the plan for the time being, but it is uncertain whether he might later have yet undertaken mass deportations, had he lived and had Congress permitted.

It is said that Lincoln was no more racist than other men of his time, and that he could not afford to declare his supposedly genuine Abolitionist sentiments openly for political reasons. But there were Abolitionist political leaders, and even opponents of racism, who did declare themselves openly. If he lacked that much courage, why is Lincoln given any credit for being a visionary? He used Abolitionism to gain power, but at no time did he take any political risk for it, even though his strident exploitation of the anti-slavery movement had already destroyed any credibility his promise not to interfere with slavery could have had in the South. In fact, even during the war, Lincoln approached the abolition of slavery with all the eagerness of a man contemplating a dive into raw sewage. The Emancipation Proclamation had to wait until the tide of war was clearly running against the Confederacy, and even then was framed so that it did not immediately free any slaves. When slaves were eventually freed, it was at first only to be conscripted to labor for the Union armies, while the slaves of owners in non-seceded states were left in bondage.

Even without having any firm convictions, Lincoln managed to be perceived as an extreme partisan and was the most divisive Presidential candidate of his century, and perhaps ever. He achieved this partly through the manipulation of mobs. He owed the Republican nomination, which he captured from the leading (and more dignified) Republican, William Seward, to the fact that the Convention was held in Chicago, where organized crowds of Lincoln supporters could shout down pro-Seward speakers. (And, also, to backroom dealing wherein “Honest Abe” traded a Cabinet post for the votes of Simon Cameron’s delegation). His election campaign included virulent anti-Southern speeches and ominous pseudo-military parades, often conducted late at night by torch-bearing mobs. Lincoln worked hard to be perceived as the enemy of the South – a project in which the Secessionists wholeheartedly participated. Lincoln was not even on the ballot in most slave states, and where he was, his showing was miserable (26,395 votes altogether, most of them in Missouri).

Though he won the election, it was with a minority of the popular vote**. Lincoln was about as unpopular as a candidate can be and still win a bare majority in the Electoral College; he won almost all of the free states but in several cases (including his home state of Illinois) by small margins, and had essentially no votes in the slave states. Given Lincoln’s known political habits, it is not unlikely that he had some help from electoral fraud in certain key states (especially Pennsylvania, which Cameron had promised to deliver for him, and Illinois) in achieving this minority victory.

When his election precipitated the secession of seven slave states – as they had already been threatening to do – Lincoln participated in attempts to negotiate a peaceful solution (i.e., he cooperated with Buchanan’s much-derided policy), but any promises he made were of course disregarded in the South. Meanwhile, certain Northern states were already mobilizing troops.

Even before his inauguration, Lincoln had thus brought about the creation of the Confederacy. But the major questions remained unsettled: Would there be a war? If so, would the remaining Union hang together? Who would win? Lincoln decided the first two of these questions with some atrocious bungling which showed how completely out of touch he was with half of the country he had hijacked.

Lincoln was determined to rule over the entire United states, and not let any parts of it out of his grasp – this, not any Abolitionist intent, was his prime motivation throughout his administration. Negotiations having failed, his only alternative was to conquer the South by arms. On the surface, this seemed easy enough – the seven-state Confederacy had only a tiny fraction of the manpower and resources that the Union held, and no Navy or arms manufacturing capacity. Its only hope was foreign assistance. Lincoln’s problem was that, while the northernmost states were eager for bloodshed, in much of the Union there was little or no support for war. In particular, eight slave states had remained loyal but were obviously unsympathetic toward Lincoln’s aspirations.

Lincoln chose Fort Sumter, still under siege in Charleston harbor, as the place to start the war. Sumter was running out of food, and had to be immediately resupplied or surrendered. The President was presented with a plan for smuggling supplies in at night by small boats slipping into the harbor from warships lurking at sea. This plan was adopted, but Lincoln insisted on making some modifications.

What Lincoln ultimately did was to send warships openly into Charleston harbor in broad daylight, under the Confederate guns, flying the Union flag. To ensure that no one missed the point, Lincoln even cabled the Charleston authorities in advance to warn them of the mission. Since the latter had earlier fired on Star of the West, and had already announced that they would fire on any other resupply attempt, there was little risk that they would allow Union warships to defy them openly. They did not; the warships were forced to withdraw and Fort Sumter surrendered.

Lincoln’s intent was to force the Confederacy into firing the first shot so as to unite public opinion against them – as he put it, they would be “firing on bread” in view of the whole country. But Lincoln was sadly ignorant of the real state of opinion in the Border states, and unaware that no one was fooled by his clumsy ploy. When he issued an immediate demand that all the states provide quotas of troops to put down the rebellion, four more slave states promptly seceded and three more exhibited marked disloyalty.

The expansion of the Confederacy from seven states to eleven might not at first seem critical, but it was. The original seven had very little industry, and though they had a large (and almost indefensible) territory were comparatively sparsely populated (most of Florida and Texas was then empty). A large proportion of their population was slaves, who could not be used for troops and whose loyalty could hardly be counted on. The seven-state Confederacy had very little liquid capital, as all its wealth was in land, and its economy was entirely dependent on crop exports, mainly cotton – for which the main consumers were England and the North they had just seceded from. Ships, shipyards, foundries, weapon factories, iron, coal, etc. – even the manufacture of clothing and shoes – were all severely or totally lacking. To worsen its defensive situation, the Confederacy had a very long front with the Union – stretching from Texas to South Carolina – but little depth, without a single significant port being more than 400 miles from Union territory (and New Orleans and Savannah much closer). The large slave population was a major liability as well, as was the pro-Union white population of the hill regions.

Three of the four new Confederate states – Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennessee – were much more developed and all including Arkansas had relatively few slaves (which is why secession had not at first seemed necessary to them). Their accession doubled the population of the Confederacy, and tripled its industrial capacity. Most of the new population was white, and the loyalty of whites in Appalachia was to some degree cemented by Lincoln’s aggression and (presumably) by the fact that the Confederacy now appeared to have a fighting chance.

The Confederacy’s geographic defensibility was improved as it not only increased in depth (without adding much length) but gained the Appalachians as a defensive barrier. The Southern seaports, and the potentially rebellious concentrations of slaves in the Deep South, were now farther from Northern interference. More Federal arsenals were seized, and through Virginia the Confederacy was able to burn the Navy yard at Norfolk and threaten the capital at Washington. Meanwhile the Union was forced to devote part of its forces to occupying Missouri, Kentucky, and Maryland – slave states which had not managed to formally secede, but were now as much pro-Confederate as pro-Union.

Every one of the four states which Lincoln forced into the Confederacy had already rejected secession, either explicitly or by refusing to vote on it. The regional, partisan President had ignorantly misinterpreted these decisions as conclusive, and even more foolishly had thought that his ruse at Sumter would turn local Unionism in the Upper South into support for a national war against their fellow slave societies. On the contrary, the Border states detested and feared Lincoln, and they supported the right of secession even when declining to exercise it themselves. A Union military conquest of the South would mean the end of their own slave societies and the subjugation of the South to the North, and they knew it. They preferred peace and Union, but given a choice between taking arms against their slave-owning allies and taking arms against their Abolitionist enemies, it should have been plain that they would choose the latter.

Lincoln had enabled the creation of the Confederacy by his vocal anti-Southern partisanship; by his arrogant fumbling he had turned it from a hopelessly weak and helpless nation into one with some ability to fight. But the North still had a huge advantage in resources – more than twice as many people, the vast majority of the nation’s industry, an excellent (by comparison) rail network, reserves of gold and silver, and (perhaps most importantly of all) virtually the entire Navy. The conquest of the Confederacy should not have been too difficult – but Lincoln wasn’t yet done screwing things up.

The incompetence of Union general officers during the first half of the Civil War is legendary. Their specific failures receive plenty of attention (and deservedly so); the fact that they were all political appointees approved by Lincoln is less emphasized. It may be that they were forced on him by Congress, but in this (as in so many other things) the best that may be said of our sixteenth President is that he failed to stand up against pressure. The bloodthirsty alcoholic Ulysses Grant, often considered the best Union general, finally won the war, but at horrendous cost in life – his most remarkable quality was his relentless aggression and disregard for casualties.

Lincoln wasn’t always content to let his generals make all the military mistakes, either. For political reasons he sometimes insisted on attacks even when these were militarily wasteful or even counterproductive, and he refused to withdraw the government from Washington where its vulnerability crippled Union operations. Lincoln was much more concerned with his own political future (which was obviously tied to the war’s progress) than with the carnage among the soldiers who had to fight his war.

If it hadn’t been for Lincoln’s assistance in winning over the Border states for the Confederacy, it is unlikely that a war would even have been needed to bring the original seven secedors (eventually) back into the Union. The Deep South was ill-equipped to survive on its own and, heavily dependent on imports, very vulnerable to blockade. Even the eleven-state Confederacy might have succumbed eventually to the so-called “Anaconda Plan” even without a massive war; perhaps even the Anaconda was unnecessary. The Confederacy was very loosely organized, united only by its fear and hatred of Abolition, and each state was naturally determined to retain its own full sovereignty. It was also very dependent on Northern markets for cotton.

President Lincoln, however, was not willing to wait for economic pressure and internal disorder to bring the South back into the Union. This could only have been completed under a different President, less hateful to the South, and he was not about to surrender the power to which he felt he was entitled, by virtue of a quirky electoral system, to wield over the slave states. He was also surely aware that his chance of reelection was small if he displeased his fanatical followers by failing to take firm action against the “traitors”. His ambition, as he himself showed through both words and actions, was never to liberate slaves but to preserve the Union, and it would be fair to say that by “Union” he meant Union under his own personal rule.

During the war to restore the Constitutional Union, Lincoln constantly and flagrantly violated the Constitution he was allegedly defending. His opponents were arrested without charge and imprisoned without trial; critical newspapers were seized; the Supreme Court was even prevented by armed force from hearing key cases. By 1864, the outcome of the war was no longer in doubt and Lincoln was less unpopular than before (and of course most of the slave states weren’t voting), but he still hedged his bets with ballot fraud to ensure his reelection. Quite likely the near-dictatorship that he created for himself would have carried on indefinitely, but for two fortuitous circumstances: his early death and the fact that he had picked a Democrat for Vice President in 1864, vainly hoping to thereby appear less partisan. Andrew Johnson was in no position to take over the dictatorship, and it died with Lincoln.

Had Lincoln lived longer, his present fame would certainly be much diminished. He would surely have sought a third term, and to retain his dictatorial powers. As the thrill of victory wore off, his impositions would have become harder to tolerate, and his flaws more controversial to his allies. But a dead man is always safe to make into a hero, and the time and circumstances of Lincoln’s death made him an ideal martyr for the Republicans and Abolitionists whereas, had he lived much longer, many of them would have been working to undermine his dangerous autocracy.

The Lincoln legend was reinforced during the rapprochement of the later nineteenth century between North and South, when the leaders of both were re-cast as heroes. It was at this time that the motive of the North, which had been to annihilate State’s Rights and preserve the personal authority of Lincoln, was reinterpreted as the liberation of the slaves, and the motive of the South, which had never in reality been more than a defense of its brutal institution of slavery, was transmogrified into an idealistic crusade for State’s Rights. By mutual agreement (among whites) the self-serving perpetrators of slavery and of slaughter became saints.

When Lincoln’s widow, Mary Todd, died in 1882 of the syphilis which surely contributed to her insanity, the real cause of death was suppressed by her doctors, who ascribed to an accidental fall the diagnosis of tabes dorsalis (known even then to be caused only by syphilis). The legend of Abraham Lincoln was already too entrenched to be tarnished by mere truth. The likelihood is that Abraham, true to his character as we know it, knowingly infected his wife but never told her even after she became ill. Mary Todd sought treatment only in 1869, when she had been seriously ill for several years. There is evidence that “Honest Abe”, however, was being treated for syphilis before he even met Mary Todd.

The historical picture of Lincoln is of a man rather less than heroic: a venal, inept, and unscrupulous megalomaniac. He brought about a terrible war, which killed more Americans than both World Wars combined; he prosecuted that war incompetently; he was a typical crooked politician who lied, contradicted himself, broke his promises, and even cheated in elections; he scorned the Constitution and ruled as a dictator. But at least he freed the slaves, even if he hadn’t set out to do so, even if he dragged his feet at every turn and planned a mass deportation of blacks?

The simple answer is yes – but with or without the Civil War, slavery was already a dying institution by 1860. Slavery – of the antebellum American kind – was principally an adjunct of plantation agriculture. It had completely failed to take root in the New Mexico or Kansas territories, and even in the oldest districts of the Old South the small farmers of the hill country owned few or no slaves. By 1850 slavery was already fading out in the Border states. In the East, slaves were more plentiful than needed, and the real motivation behind much of the obsession with legalizing slavery in the territories was the vain hope that new markets would open up where these unwanted slaves could be disposed of. It was for financial, not humanitarian, reasons that the Confederate Constitution banned the importation of slaves. Some Southerners even hoped to conquer new territories in Mexico or the Caribbean where their slaves could be sold, not realizing that these places had no use for slaves (or, like Cuba, already had their own surplus). In reality, the handful of slavery-dependent cotton states had a fixed realm which could not expand and they would have been increasingly powerless as the rest of the world grew around them.

Before the Civil War, there was controversy in the South about whether slavery was even profitable. The slaves cost less than free workers, but they also produced less, stole more, and could not be simply fired when they got sick or were too old to work. In post-war writings, it is not unusual to find Southerners claiming that the end of slavery was an economic boon, which is not implausible. The real purpose of slavery was, arguably, the social control of the Negro, and this control did not end with slavery.

An independent South, especially if it were just South Carolina and the Gulf Squadron, would have had other problems in maintaining slavery. Without the Southern votes in Congress, the Fugitive Slave Laws would have disappeared, making it easier for slaves to escape. Public opinion in the industrial world in general was increasingly anti-slavery, especially in Britain which was the greatest buyer of cotton, and a country totally dependent on exports could not ignore this forever. If nothing else, agricultural machinery would eventually have replaced most slave labor, being cheaper.

The process of emancipation might have taken several decades, but not necessarily: slavery had been abolished throughout the Western world by the end of the century, even in places like Brazil and Cuba that had been totally dependent on slave-worked plantations. Was the nominal freedom of a generation or two of American slaves worth the tremendous cost in lives, the dislocation of war, and the permanent end of the balance between State and Federal power? Maybe so, but we should remember that the “Great Emancipator” was perfectly willing to take all those lives without freeing a single slave.

President Obama likes to be compared with Abraham Lincoln. He does in fact share many of Lincoln’s virtues: divisiveness, partisanship, narrow-mindedness, arrogance, corruption, dishonesty, total unscrupulousness, fanaticism in the pursuit of personal power, expertise at dirty politics and a facility for rhetorical public speaking. Both men rose suddenly to the Presidency from a position of obscurity, partly by means of cultivating a mob mentality among their followers. The comparison is less flattering than Mr. Obama thinks.

I am not much in the habit of citing sources, since I write on my own time, but I feel obliged to draw attention to Bruce Catton’s The Coming Fury as a key resource for events leading up to the Civil War, especially the details about the Fort Sumter affair, which are usually censored from popular histories.

*The US Army had only 16,000 men total in 1860, of whom a substantial part had already deserted or surrendered to Secessionist militias even before the debacle at Fort Sumter.

**Lincoln won slightly less than 40% of the ballots in a four-way race. Curiously, Lincoln would have carried the Electoral College even if the votes of all three other candidates had been united behind a single candidate. The election of 1860 was by far the most regionally-dominated in American history.

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