(MintPress) – While much of the legacy of Abraham Lincoln is tied up with the fight to pass the 13th Amendment, which effectively abolished slavery in the United States, there is much more to the man than meets the eye. Or the eye of Hollywood, which paints a prolific and much mythologized picture of the 16th president in one of its latest blockbusters.
Since the Steven Spielberg film on Lincoln came out a few weeks ago, the media has been abuzz with a renewed interest in the Great Emancipator. While some are touting his heroic stance on slavery and describing him as a role model for leaders of today (hint, hint President Obama), others are critical of the methods he used to get the votes needed to secure passage of the 13th Amendment, with one critic going so far as to say that Lincoln should have been impeached.
The complex Mr. Lincoln
“Lincoln himself stands several cuts above the vast majority of U.S. presidents. After some equivocating, he freed the slaves, a monumental undertaking that was a service to the country and to humanity in general. He was also friendlier to workers than most presidents, an affinity noted by Karl Marx, who exchanged letters with Lincoln leading up to and during the Civil War,” writes Lynn Stuart Parramore in a rare type of statement made by GOP member, the editor of Alternet and a doctor of Cultural Theory.
In fact, Marx, the grandaddy of socialism, who spent most of his working life as a journalist, wrote of Lincoln in an 1865 news article published in the Bee-Hive Newspaper calling him “the single-minded son of the working class” and praising Lincoln for leading “his country through the matchless struggle for the rescue of an enchained race and the reconstruction of a social world.”
Indeed it seems that Lincoln possessed a great deal of sympathy toward the working man, the faceless and nameless cogs in the Marxian machine, and even a certain degree of disdain for corporate corruption.
In 1864, Lincoln wrote a letter to Col. William F. Elkins stating, “I see in the near future a crisis approaching that unnerves me and causes me to tremble for the safety of my country … corporations have been enthroned and an era of corruption in high places will follow, and the money power of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working upon the prejudices of the people until all wealth is aggregated in a few hands and the Republic is destroyed.”
However, Parramore points out that while Lincoln may indeed seem to have engaged in a variety of righteous and noble pursuits, he was also quite close to the railway barons, some of the most powerful corporate giants of his time.
Lincoln’s ties to the railroad industry harkens to his early days as a lawyer, where he successfully made a career for himself as a railroad attorney.
“Through Lincoln’s skilled legal arguments, the railroad barons increased their wealth and a lot of others got the short end of the stick. Land owners were sharply limited in the compensation they could receive when a right-of-way was granted over their property for a railroad line,” Parramore relays.
“Through his carefully prepared cases, railroad companies got windfall tax exemptions that many felt constituted favoritism and unfairly burdened other taxpayers,” she adds, explaining that railroads were America’s first big business, and one which had a vested interest in putting an end to slavery in order to grow and expand west.
The industry taped Lincoln and supported him in his presidential bid to help it move forward in this regard. So while Lincoln’s move to end slavery may have gone down in history as one of the most courageous moral actions a U.S. president has ever stood behind — the question looms as to whether the reasons behind Lincoln’s anti-slavery stance are undercut by his ties to the railroad industry. Oh, and did I mention his ties to Big Bad Wall Street?
Indeed, as the railroad industry grew, it fed other industries like the iron and steel manufacturers — this in turn “led to the growth of Wall Street, which needed to handle the enormous amounts of capital required to build and operate the lines. As they grew more powerful, the railroad companies began to squeeze out competitors and charge outrageous prices. Farmers were held hostage to railways that refused to move their goods unless they paid what was demanded of them. Because of their wealth, railroad barons could afford to buy and rent politicians in Washington,” Parramore articulates.
The case for Lincoln’s impeachment
A recent report from Wendy Murphy, professor of Law at the New England Law school in Boston and a leading victim’s right advocate in Enterprise News, does not paint Lincoln in such a favorable light. While the common perception of Lincoln is one of “an altruist of Kantian proportions who made decisions only for the benefit of humanity.”
Murphy says, this is really more of a misconception, as Murphy charges the president’s mission to free the slaves was really a ruthless ploy to win votes, and in doing so, Honest Abe engaged “in outright corruption,” instructing his underlings to dole out jobs and cash in exchange for the votes needed to pass the 13th Amendment.
Murphy does not believe that if one were to argue that “times are different now,” corruption in the 1800s would be more acceptable than it is today. She argues, “Indeed, the framers of our Constitution explicitly endeavored – unsuccessfully as it turned out – to design a government of shared powers in order to insulate democracy from sustainable systemic corruption.”
In her estimation, the bad news for Lincoln lovers is that the president should have been impeached, and she charges that “Lincoln should have listened harder to his own rhetoric about slavery and persuaded himself that the sale of votes, like the sale of people, is too great a price to pay no matter the benefit to society.”
Murphy draws parallels between the iconic leader and the current day Massachusetts Probation Department, which she says is being investigated for engaging in “roughly the same kind of corruption. Former Probation Commissioner John O’Brien and others are facing criminal charges in connection with an alleged widespread patronage hiring scandal that allegedly gave probation jobs to politically connected candidates as a way of currying favor and influence.”
This kind of unethical behavior may be lauded by some who have a greater good — namely the end of treating human beings as chattel — in mind. However, others may say that an immoral action — even when done in pursuit of a higher good — is reprehensible.
“Either Lincoln was an unethical scoundrel or O’Brien is a hero,” Murphy determines, adding “Spare me the ends-justify-the-means argument because tolerance for any corruption legitimizes all corruption.”
However, in an 1837 speech to the Illinois Legislature, Lincoln sounds more like an Occupy protester than a big business crony when he stated, “These capitalists generally act harmoniously and in concert to fleece the people.”
If anyone knew this all too well, I suppose it would be Mr. Lincoln.