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In American Culture, there are many historical figures that we commemorate for what they have contributed in molding our country so that it could develop into what it is today. One such figure is Abraham Lincoln, who is popularly characterized as the great emancipator who advocated for equality, became president, led the nation in a civil war, abolished slavery, made peace, and then was finally assassinated in cold blood. This story paints Lincoln into a martyr who died after making bold and powerful changes in our country to make it more acceptant to everyone, and optimistic people spread this story as a tale of greatness and equality.
However, while the story is true, the basis in which it is told is not. While Lincoln achieved all of the feats listed above, his intent for performing them were not out of empathy, ethics, or personal perspective, but rather as a tactical maneuver akin to that of any politician. Lincoln is not the great emancipator our modern society paints him as, but rather just another politician who acts on his own behalf.
While he did abolish slavery and advocated for equal rights, his motive and intent for performing these feats were not moral and therefore he is not the incredibly ethical martyr that American history has shaped him to be.
The primary reason Lincoln is not the “Great Emancipator” he is commonly characterized as is because his decision to free the slaves was used as a tactical maneuver, instead of the result of an ethical opinion or personal ideology.
This is transparent in document six, where Senator Charles Sumner from Massachusetts urges Lincoln to free the slaves, as they both share that popular Northern opinion. However, Lincoln counters that he “would do it if I were not afraid that half the officers would fling down their arms and three more states would rise.” Lincoln initially worked so hard to avoid the civil war and said himself that he believed that slavery was morally wrong, but in the midst of the civil war, he refuses to end slavery because he is afraid that doing so would ultimately harm the current position of the Union. Lincoln then follows that statement by saying, “Wait – time is essential.” In essence, from this situation it can be derived that Lincoln valued several officers and a few states more than the lives of thousands of slaves who lived in chains. While it can be argued that Lincoln was making a decision that was ultimately best for the Union in a time of war, this decision (and the last comment about timing) makes it clear that Lincoln prioritizes his political actions over his ethical priorities, and the consequences of these decisions are what make up our history. Through this document, Lincoln is clearly illustrated as just another politician doing his job, rather than the fabled “Great Emancipator” we fantasize him to be.
Furthermore, Lincoln’s prioritization is shown to be focused on the Union and politics rather than the draconian conditions slaves face in document seven. Lincoln explicitly states in his letter to Horace Greenly that his primary objective as President of the United States is to “save the Union, and is not either to save or destroy slavery. If I could save the Union by freeing the slaves, I would do it, and if I could save the Union by not freeing the slaves, I would do it. If I could save the Union by freeing some slaves and not freeing others, I would also do that.” What Lincoln means in this quote of his address is that slaves are not his paramount concern. The lives of slaves are only variables in a larger equation of preserving the Union, and Lincoln is unconcerned with them except for how they will prevent or halt the Civil War. Lincoln is not the famous emancipator who advocates for equal rights, but rather a patriotic citizen of his country. Lincoln loves America and is attempting to keep it intact, but is willing to use slaves in any way he can to designate a safe future for the rest of the Union. From that perspective, Lincoln is simply a kinder version of the masters who order the slaves to do their will for their own benefit, and cannot be viewed as an emancipator or abolitionist at all. Lincoln gets rid of slavery because it benefited the Union, but would not have done so if it had an undesired effect or no effect. In this situation, Lincoln is not being utilitarian, but just selfish and hypocritical as he manipulates the lives of slaves in accordance to how they most benefit the Union.
Additionally, Lincoln’s manner of manipulating slaves throughout his presidency show how he remains indifferent to slave’s rights, but rather only cares about himself and the Union. Many individual citizens also have picked up on Lincoln’s tendency to politically pivot himself favorably when the topic of slavery is brought up, and documents 8 and 9 reflect on this with almost comedic accuracy – document eight shows Lincoln gripping a slave by the head, about to drop him into the stormy sea, as he is wrapped in a life preserver while holding the Emancipation Proclamation in the other hand, as he shouts, “I’m sorry I have to drop you, Sambo, but this concern won’t carry us both!” In essence, this cartoon is making a jab at how Lincoln is sacrificing the already-suffering slaves in order to deliver the Emancipation Proclamation in order to bolster the slaves. He uses the Proclamation as a weapon to stir up an uprising in Southern States, clearly manipulating everything from behind the scenes. In document nine, Lincoln offers a gun and a soldier’s bag to a slave who has his arms crossed angrily as Lincoln says, “Why I do declare it’s my dear old friend Sambo! Course you’ll fight for us, Sambo. Lend us a hand, old hoss, do!” This cartoon illustrates how Lincoln always acts under the pretense of caring about the rights of slaves, but then essentially forces them to fight for the Union, even when they too understand that Lincoln doesn’t care about them and sees them as resources for the Union, just as their slave masters did. Simply by looking at the same situation from another perspective, we can see that Lincoln is highly comparable to the slave masters who held the slaves in shackles in the first place.
While there is no questioning that President Abraham Lincoln made significant contributions and additions to the history of our country that no doubt should allow for him to be remembered, there always is room for questioning his moral integrity and ethics. Lincoln did some great and horrible things throughout his life, but often had invalid or manipulative reasons for the good things that he did. Lincoln is not at all the beautified “Great Emancipator” that our country commemorates him as, but rather just another politician who manipulates other people to bend the situation into one favorable to him. Lincoln is perfectly willing to sacrifice the lives of hundreds of thousands of slaves, or not, depending on how it benefit him as the leader of the country. The fact that Lincoln essentially utilizes slave lives as resources shows that there is a very slim line of separation between him and the slave masters he emancipated the slaves from. However, whether Lincoln is viewed as a master manipulator and schemer, or a noble martyr who died for equality, there is no denying that what he did made a significant impact on our country and his name will be remembered and honored for years to come.
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