Today is Presidents' Day in the United States.
It's a holiday declared by the federal government to celebrate the birthdays
of two presidents, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. George Washington
is often called "the father of our country," and for good reason.
Without his having led soldiers in the fight for independence from the British,
we might not have had a separate country as soon as we did. But Abraham Lincoln
is more problematic. He is known, of course, for leading the Northern states
during what has variously been called the "Civil War," "the War
Between the States," and the "War of Northern Aggression," and,
of course, for ending slavery in the United States.
From an early age, I was a fan of Abraham Lincoln. I read books on him, including
Stephen Vincent Benét's book-length poem, John Brown's Body. One
of my favorite passages from John Brown's Body is Benét's description
of Lincoln. (I write this passage from memory because the libraries are closed,
the book is not online, and my books were destroyed in a recent fire.)
"He ain't much on looks,
Much on speed.
A young dog can outrun him any time,
Outlick him and outeat him and outjump him.
But mister, that dog's hell on a cold scent,
And, once he gets his teeth in what he's after,
He don't stop until he knows he's dead."
I loved that passage, with the image of Lincoln as grimly persistent in
pursuit of his goal. In the household in which I was raised, Lincoln was celebrated
as the "Great Emancipator." It was only years later that I learned
that that was only part of the story. It wasn't just the well-known fact that
Lincoln's main concern was to keep the Union together and that ending slavery
was, for him, a distinctly secondary issue. Recall his famous
statement in his letter to newspaper publisher Horace Greeley:
"My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is
not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without
freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves
I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone
I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because
I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because
I do not believe it would help to save the Union."
Beyond Lincoln's lukewarm opposition to slavery was the fact that he suppressed
so many people's freedom in his attempt to quash dissent about his war. Many
people today rightly criticize George W. Bush for his attacks on habeas corpus,
the most important restriction on government action. But Lincoln made Bush look
like a piker. Although Bush has put in place laws and policies that would allow
him to put many people in prison without charging them with a crime, he appears
to have used his power sparingly, at least on U.S. citizens. But
Lincoln used his power against prominent political opponents.
To translate to the current context, imagine that Bush threw Rep. Ron
Paul or Sen. Russell Feingold in prison for the duration of the current war.
That would put him on a par with Lincoln.
Even beyond that, though, is the huge number of people killed because Abraham
Lincoln was president. It takes two to tango, of course, and so the Southern
leaders were also to blame. But what if the two sides had gotten together to
negotiate a dissolution of the Union with a freeing of the slaves and a compensatory
payment from northern taxpayers to southern slaveholders? Why should the North
have had to compensate the South for freeing the slaves? It shouldn't have.
But which is better: taxing people in the North at high rates for a short time
but not getting them killed or taxing people in the North at high rates for
a short time and getting many of them killed? The former is what would have
happened had an agreement been struck; the latter is what did happen because
the two sides went to war. It strikes me that high tax rates and no deaths are
better than high tax rates and hundreds of thousands of deaths.
Consider what Americans and American historians think about when they judge
whether a president is "great." One of the first things they think
about is whether he led the nation in a war, preferably a war that the United
States won. So, for example, Franklin D. Roosevelt is often judged to be great
because of World War II. As it happens, I think the United States might have
needed to get involved in the European part of World War II, but Roosevelt could
have easily avoided war with Japan. FDR's measures to cut off a major part of
the oil supply to Japan helped lead to the Japanese government's attack on Pearl
Harbor. So FDR certainly does not deserve the "great" label for his
actions in the war with Japan.
Or consider Woodrow Wilson, who got the United States into World War I. There
was a war that the United States could easily have avoided. Moreover, had the
U.S. government avoided World War I, the treaty that ended the war would not
likely have been so lopsided. The Versailles Treaty's punitive terms on Germany
helped set the stage for World War II. So it's reasonable to think that had
the United States not entered World War I, there might not have been a World
War II. Yet, despite his major blunder, which caused over 100,000 Americans
to die in World War I, Wilson is often thought of as a great president.
Another "great" president, Theodore Roosevelt, pushed for war before
becoming president and continued McKinley's war to make the Philippines into
a colony after McKinley was murdered.
Can you think of any presidents who are called "great" but who neither
got the United States involved in a major war nor carried out a major bloodbath
in a war they inherited? I can't.
Is the pattern becoming clear? I think it's clear to George Bush. I think it's
also clear to Hillary Clinton. If we really want peace, we need current and
future presidents to get the message. And to do that, we need to stop celebrating
presidents who made unnecessary wars.
Copyright © 2007 by David R. Henderson. Requests for permission to
reprint should be directed to the author or Antiwar.com.