Representative Joe Courtney (D–CT) recently penned an open letter to the man who wrote the movie Lincoln. The film depicts a divided Connecticut state congressional delegation, with three members voting to uphold slavery. Courtney declares that cannot stand. He clarifies that, in 1865, Connecticut’s representatives voted unanimously to abolish slavery.
Lincoln writer Tony Kushner doesn’t apologize for the error. Lincoln is a work of fiction, he says, and real events were exaggerated to add to the drama. (The writer of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter has yet to clarify that his portrayal of the 16th President as a vampire slayer is also fictional.)
Historical accuracy is crucial. So as we celebrate Abraham Lincoln’s 204th birthday this week, let’s separate the fact from fiction about Honest Abe:
1. Lincoln was a tyrant.
Many who make this claim rely primarily on his decision to suspend the writ of habeas corpus at the beginning of the Civil War. As The honorable Frank J. Williams explains, Lincoln defended his decision on constitutional grounds: Since the Constitution does not specify who may suspend habeas corpus “in cases of rebellion or invasion” (Article I, Section 9), he as President did so because Congress was not in session. When Congress did reconvene, Lincoln requested it retroactively approve all the emergency measures he had taken since the commencement of the war, and Congress did.
Critics of Lincoln also fail to mention the most impressive piece of evidence against the tyranny claim: free and competitive elections were held in the midst of the war in 1864. Democrats openly campaigned on a pledge to end the war and drop the slavery issue. They were trounced at the polls.
2. Lincoln didn’t really care about slavery. He was only interested in preserving the Union.
Lincoln believed that slavery was evil and absolutely incompatible with the central American truth of equality. He also believed that it was wrong for a political official to exceed the constitutional authority granted to him. In reality, Lincoln was able to abolish slavery while preserving the Union.
As President of the United States, Lincoln had only the powers granted to him in the Constitution, and the power to abolish slavery was not one of them. Lincoln’s unwillingness as President to abolish slavery unilaterally in the states should be contrasted with his eagerness to outlaw slavery in the territories. Since the Constitution gives the national government power to govern territories—but not to govern states’ domestic policies—Lincoln adamantly opposed allowing slavery in the territories.
3. Lincoln was the father of big government.
President Obama invokes Abraham Lincoln’s legacy to support the vast expansion of the federal government. Yet by any measure, Lincoln was not the father of big government, as Allen C. Geulzo’s Special Report explains.
Ballooning budgets? Nope. The budget expanded to cover the cost of the war, but then shrank again.
Numerous civil servants? Not at all. The entire State Department was staffed by 33 people in 1863, including the Secretary of State, William Seward, and the department’s four security guards.
Expansive bureaucracy? Think again. Between the 1850s and the end of the Civil War, the federal government added seven new agencies (only one of which had any sort of extensive power, and all were lightly staffed) with a total of 22 agencies (there isn’t room to list all of the agencies, commissions, boards, and departments we have now).
If you really want to blame a president for big government, begin with number 28. It’s a Wilsonian world, regrettably.
4. Lincoln’s greatest legacy was preserving the Constitution.
Lincoln was deeply committed to the framework of limited government set forth in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. He stated that he “never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence.” Lincoln vindicated the Constitution against the twin heresies of secession and nullification. Lincoln affirmed the two central principles of the Union: divided sovereignty and equal citizenship based on the natural rights of individuals. His true legacy is therefore preserving the Constitution and the Union.
I am loath to close, dear readers. There are too many facts and fictions to discuss. Though passion, movies, and misguided speeches may have strained our understanding of Lincoln, it must not break our bonds of affection.
Happy birthday, Mr. Lincoln.