With all the nastiness of politicians that's going on today I wondered how they compared to one of the greatest of all American Presidents, Honest Abe Lincoln. Was our 16th president a paragon of honesty or was he a shrewd politician who was not above stretching the truth if it served a political goal?
A professor of history at Columbia University, Eric Foner, claims that Lincoln was essentially honest, but while he acquired his "Honest Abe" nickname long before he ran for president, Lincoln and his supporters also realized it was a valuable label. Forner dubbed Lincoln as a consummate politician.
Maybe he didn't tell outright lies, but he certainly stretched the truth when the occasion suited it. And, like all politicians of today, Lincoln held private and public positions.
For example, in 1865 the House was debating the 13th Amendment which says, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction and Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.” rumors had reached Washington that negotiations with the Confederacy were about to begin.
Lincoln was afraid this would derail the amendment, so he issued a statement saying that no Confederate commissioners were on their way to Washington.
While that was technically true, Confederate commissioners were actually on their way to Hampton Roads, Virginia where Lincoln and Secretary of State William Seward then met with them. This reminds me of the time during the Vietnam war when we were watching the news on television in the company rec room and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, the main architect of the futile Vietnam war, announced that no troops were being sent to Vietnam. Technically that was true, but half the company had received orders to Okinawa FFT. That FFT meant “For Further Transfer.” Guess where?
Lincoln did not keep a diary, and he and his wife destroyed their personal letters, but historians have combed the many pieces of correspondence left behind that basically confirm his reputation as Honest Abe.
One Lincoln scholar has confirmed that Lincoln really did work to pay for a book he borrowed that had been damaged by water. He did pay off the debt accumulated by his failed New Salem store. And, even as a young man he was often recruited to judge horse races and wrestling matches.
Of course, as a Republican and northern candidate, Lincoln didn't get a single vote in the southern states and according to Lincoln historians, he was quite capable of changing his position on things like emancipation or race relations as conditions changed. At the same time it's pretty much agreed that one of Lincoln's best qualities was that he was open-minded and willing to learn. That quality right there puts him way, way ahead of the buffoons in the government today!
During the famous Lincoln vs. Stephen A. Douglas debates during the llinois Senate campaign of 1858 where Lincoln challenged Douglas' bid for a third term, the seven 3-hour debates were full of political zingers just like today.
On one occasion, Douglas accused Lincoln of hypocrisy on the issue of temperance, charging that he had once operated a grocery store that sold hard liquor. Lincoln drawled that if that was so, Douglas was his best customer. During the Senate race Douglas encouraged votes by providing liquor to those who supported him.
When Douglas claimed Lincoln was two-faced on the slavery issue, Lincoln shot back, "If I had another face, do you think I would wear this one?"
For his part, Lincoln argued that Douglas violated the spirit of the founding fathers by denying blacks their inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and in fact was part of a vast right-wing conspiracy to make slavery national and permanent.
Lincoln organized support among western state Republicans by secretly buying a German-language newspaper to sing his praises to immigrant voters who might tilt such swing states as Illinois and Indiana.
All this involved a senate seat, not a presidential race.
During the presidential race, politics were tumultuous, but the candidates did not campaign directly for the White House and did not face each other in undignified debates. During the 1860 presidential campaign Lincoln stayed home and did not say a thing while Douglas made one half-hearted campaign trip under the guise that he needed to visit his ailing mother.
That's not to say that getting the Republican Party's nomination in 1860 and then defeating Democrat Stephen Douglas didn't involve a little dirty politicking and cunning political moves by Lincoln's election team. Lincoln relied on his aides to do the ruthless dirty work and cut deals.
Prior to the 1860 Republican National Convention in Chicago, Lincoln's campaign team met with delegation leaders, sometimes promising Cabinet positions in exchange for support for Lincoln. Lincoln's campaign aides even printed out 5,000 counterfeit tickets to the Republican convention to pack the halls with his supporters.
Lincoln was firmly against slavery, but his position on what should happen to freed slaves wasn't so clear and it took him a long time to figure out exactly what should be done and he waivered considerably. His historic Emancipation Proclamation, which he delivered as President in 1863, stopped short of granting citizenship or any other rights to African-Americans. Instead he only stated that freed slaves should be paid reasonable wages for their work and should be allowed to serve in the US military.
In fact, in an 1854 speech he advocated sending them back to Africa. And in the debate with Douglas during the 1858 Senate race, Lincoln said, "I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races." That statement was repudiated by the Emancipation Proclamation, but did Lincoln's personal views really change?
Up until September 1862, the main focus of the Civil war had been to preserve the Union, but with the War not going well and the population becoming more and more disgruntled over it, the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation declaring freedom for slaves became a legitimate war aim and drew people's attention away from its cost, both in money and lives.
The bottom lines seems to be that Lincoln was about an honest a President we ever had, kept his personal opinions to himself and if there was any dirty work to be done, he let his staff handle it.