As the neo-Confederate movement grows more aggressive, 'Honest Abe' Lincoln is depicted as evil personified.
RICHMOND, Va. -- If you somehow managed to skip 19th century history, a driving tour of this Old South city would leave you in little doubt about who won the Civil War. The rebels, right?
The erstwhile capital of the Confederacy overflows with plaques, statues, streets, museums and monuments honoring the Southern cause. At Hollywood Cemetery, a hilly boneyard containing 18,000 dead rebels, a bronze memorial to Confederate President Jefferson Davis presides over the roaring James River, guarded by an angel.
In the central city, along busy Monument Avenue, traffic islands feature massive tributes to Confederate luminaries, led off by Gen. Robert E. Lee. Sixty-one feet high, with the general sitting tall in the saddle of a noble steed, Lee's monument is the spitting image of heroic triumph.
Last December, the Richmond-based U.S. Historical Society announced that it was donating a small measure of historical balance to its home town: a statue of Abraham Lincoln. Next to the elaborate homages to Davis and Lee, this nod to Lincoln would be decidedly modest — and anything but triumphal.
Sculptor David Frech was creating a likeness of Lincoln during his "healing visit" to Richmond on April 4 and 5, 1865, right after the city fell to Union forces and right before he was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth. While Lee's huge image looks eternally ready for battle, Frech's lifesized Lincoln would be resting on a bench, looking sad and spent after four years of war, his arm draped around his 12-year-old son Tad. The base of the statue would be inscribed with a conciliatory fragment of Lincoln's second inaugural address: "to bind up the nation's wounds."
But the notion of memorializing Lincoln in Richmond only succeeded in picking open old, festering scabs. As soon as the announcement was made, a clamor of rebel yells rose up, loud as Pickett's charge at Gettysburg. Outraged letters streamed into local newspapers, likening Lincoln to Hitler, Saddam and Osama. Protesters from the white supremacist hate group European-American Unity and Rights Organization (EURO) took to Richmond's streets, handing out pamphlets ironically accusing the "Great Emancipator" of being the "Great Segregationist."
More than 3,000 signed an online petition started by Ron Holland, a prominent member of the white supremacist League of the South hate group. Many petition-signers took the opportunity to vent their splenetic feelings about the man who consistently tops polls as the nation's most widely admired president.
"Just say NO to America's greatest WAR CRIMINAL — the murderer of 600,000!!" exclaimed Robert G. Patrick.
"Not even with a rope around his neck," declared Dewey Lee Martin.
"Why not put up a statue of Osama Bin Laden at Ground Zero?" wondered Mary Looney. "It is the equivalent, to Southerners, of what's proposed for Richmond."
"Build a John Wilkes Booth statue instead," suggested Ken E. Neff.
Complaining that the Lincoln statue would be "a not-so-subtle reminder of who won the war," Brag Bowling, hard-line commander of the Virginia Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, led the charge. To Bowling, Lincoln's visit to Richmond constituted an unsportsmanlike victory lap, a way for the "tyrant" to rub salt in rebel wounds. According to Bowling, Lincoln even "sat at Jefferson Davis' desk and propped his feet up" when he stopped at the White House of the Confederacy.
"They're protesting because there's a misunderstanding of history," counters Edward C. Smith, an American University professor who proposed the statue two years ago during a Heritage Day speech in Virginia. Like most historians who've written about the little-known event, Smith sees Lincoln's visit to Richmond, which was still on fire after retreating rebel forces torched the business district, as a brave act of reconciliation.
"Lincoln didn't come down to do an end-zone dance," Smith says. "He came down and risked his life and his son's life to say that what he said in the second inaugural — 'with malice toward none, with charity for all' — was true."
Like U.S. Historical Society president Robert Kline, who raised million to build Richmond's Museum of the Confederacy, Smith came to the controversy with serious bona fides among Southern "heritage" groups. In addition to sitting on the board of the Jefferson Davis Presidential Library, Smith is an honorary member of the Virginia Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans — "probably the only African-American with that honor," he says.
Even so, he didn't expect his support would make the statue an easy sell. "I was not so naïve as to presume this would be greeted with joy," Smith says. "That's sort of like going to Iraq and hoping it'll be over in a weekend."
'Hitler Was a Lincolnite'
The statue skirmish came at an auspicious time for Lincoln's detractors. Since the late '90s, neo-Confederate historians, "heritage" advocates and hate groups have declared total war on what they call the "Lincoln myth." Firing away in books and articles and Web sites, they've been battling to transform Lincoln into a figure few history students would recognize: a racist dictator who trashed the Constitution and turned the U.S.A. into an imperialist welfare state.
"They've decided to make him into a kind of Stalin or Hitler," says historian George Ewert, who directs Alabama's Museum of Mobile. For proof, check out the bulging "King Lincoln" archive on the libertarian Web site LewRockwell.com (see also Ludwig von Mises Institute), where the headlines tell the story: "Heil, Abe," "Lincoln vs. Liberty," "Hitler Was a Lincolnite," "Lincoln: Slavery A-OK," and, for Lincoln's birthday, "Happy Dictator Day."
Or take a spin through Lincoln, the Man, a widely discredited 1931 screed by Edgar Lee Masters that was reprinted in 1997 by the far-right Foundation for American Education. Full-page ads for the book ran in Southern Partisan magazine, proclaiming: "If You Think Bill Clinton Has a Character Problem, Take a Look At ... Lincoln, the Man."
The appeal of demonizing Lincoln is simple, Ewert says. "A scapegoat makes it easier to revive the old argument that the war was about states' rights, not slavery. Now, rather than having to deal with the case for preserving the Union, they can view everything through the lens of one personality, one person's character and political record. And Lincoln did have a rather spotty record."
The issue is larger than Lincoln. David Goldfield, author of the prize-winning Still Fighting the Civil War, says that Lincoln-bashing has the same roots as other white supremacist campaigns in the post-Civil Rights era. "Some people who have wrapped up their identity in white history feel challenged, if not disregarded and neglected," Goldfield says. "They realize the tide of history is rolling very heavily."
A recent headline on WorldNetDaily, a far-right Web site, showed what neo-Confederate and white supremacist groups believe is at stake: "'Taking America Back' Starts with Taking Lincoln Down." The anti-Lincoln campaign is not simply another series of shopworn arguments about the past. Instead, Lincoln is blamed for everything far right-wingers believe is amiss in the America of 2003: big centralized government, welfare giveaways, rampant capitalist greed, shrinking civil liberties and reckless imperialism.
The most popular expression of this revisionist view is Thomas J. DiLorenzo's 2002 book, The Real Lincoln. "It was not to end slavery that Lincoln initiated an invasion of the South," writes DiLorenzo, an economics professor at Loyola College in Maryland. "A war was not necessary to free the slaves, but it was necessary to destroy the most significant check on the powers of the central government: the right of secession."
Lincoln didn't care about freeing blacks, argues DiLorenzo, a frequent contributor to the "King Lincoln" section of LewRockwell.com. Instead, once Lincoln had destroyed states' rights, he was free to pursue his "real agenda": the "much more centralized governmental system" that "Americans labor under today." Reconstructing Lincoln
Anti-Lincoln sentiment has not always been rampant among unreconstructed Southerners. Far from it, in fact. During Reconstruction, John Wilkes Booth was often considered as blamable as Lincoln, whom many Southerners believed would have treated the post-war South more mercifully than his successors.
"During the war Lincoln was the black Republican, the one whose very election justified immediate secession," says Harry Watson, director of the Center for the Study of the American South at the University of North Carolina. "Eventually, he became the kind, generous, 'malice-toward-none' guy who would never have allowed the Radical Republicans to fasten black suffrage and other such enormities on a prostrate South."
That sentiment emerges from the treacly pages of The Clansman, the baldly racist 1905 Thomas Dixon novel that helped ignite the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan. While Dixon paints the Southern cause in absurdly rosy tones — and blacks as brutal and stupid savages — he also treats Lincoln as a God-like wise man interested only in saving the union.
Had Lincoln not been betrayed by wicked Reconstruction officials and ultimately assassinated, the book suggests, all would have been well and white supremacy would have been resuscitated.
Lincoln was certainly not beloved by all Southerners, but Lincoln revisionism did not take off until the 1950s and 1960s, when the civil rights movement launched a fresh assault on white supremacy. In the 1950s and 1960s, White Citizens Councils, formed to combat school desegregation, dredged up quotes designed to show that the "great emancipator" was a segregationist just like them.
In the late '60s, a very different voice chimed in. Lerone Bennett, a longtime editor for Ebony magazine, created a stir by labeling Lincoln a "white supremacist" — not only because he used the word "nigger" and showed a fondness for blackface minstrel shows, but also because he advocated "colonization," the voluntary return of black Americans to Africa.
Bennett elaborates his claims in a 2000 book, Forced Into Glory, where he argues that the Emancipation Proclamation, far from being a ringing cry for black freedom, was a "ploy" Lincoln used to further his "conservative plan to free Blacks gradually and ship them out of the country."
Bennett's book has been cited and championed by such partisan defenders of Dixie as syndicated columnist Joseph Sobran and Emory University Professor Donald Livingston, a former leader of the League of the South. Harry Watson sees a distinct irony in neo-Confederates like these agreeing so heartily with Bennett that Lincoln was not a champion of black people.
"This makes secessionists look pretty foolish when you think about it," Watson says. "Why secede if Lincoln was such a friend of slavery? But logic is not the controlling power here."
Power and History
"What irritates the hell out of me," says statue advocate Edward C. Smith, "is that the people who are opposed to Lincoln, Lee wouldn't have had anything to do with them." After all, it was the beloved Confederate general who famously commented, "I surrendered as much to Lincoln's goodness as I did to Grant's armies."
Lee's sentiments probably would have gotten him hooted out of the room when upwards of 300 Lost Cause devotees came to Richmond in March for a "Lincoln Reconsidered" conference. The brainchild of The Real Lincoln author Thomas J. DiLorenzo, the conference was sponsored by LewRockwell.com, which advertised the cost of attending as "just $49 in Yankee money."
The tone for the proceedings, held in an ornate ballroom of the old John Marshall Hotel just two weekends before the scheduled unveiling of the Lincoln statue, was set by the invocation given by Father Alister Anderson, who also serves as the Sons of Confederate Veterans' national chaplain. After giving thanks for "the last real Christian civilization on Earth," namely "the Southland," Anderson laid curses on "hypocrites and bigots" who have tried to dismiss "the righteous cause for which our ancestors fought."
Then he posed a question that is now at least 138 years old: "Are we, true Southerners, facing a cultural genocide?"
To David Goldfield, this notion of "cultural genocide" helps explain the resurgence of Lincoln-bashing. "History is really about power," Goldfield says. "Now that African-Americans have more economic and political power, a lot of American history is being rewritten — in textbooks, museums, historical markers, plantation tours, monuments."
But nothing rankles so much as seeing Lincoln's reputation soar while the Confederacy's sinks. "If you want to tilt at windmills," Goldfield says, "Lincoln's the biggest windmill around."
The 'Lincoln Fable'
Nobody tilts more fiercely than Clyde Wilson, professor of Southern history at the University of South Carolina and board member of the League of the South, a white-supremacist hate group that prominently publicized "Lincoln Reconsidered" on its DixieNet Web site.
Holding forth in the John Marshall ballroom, Wilson won the day's most raucous applause with a no-holds-barred assault on what he calls the "Lincoln fable."
Wilson scoffed at "the pathetic cabin that Lincoln was born in," saying it showed how "shiftless" Lincoln's father was. Lincoln spoiled his own children, Wilson charged. Far from a Christian hero, Lincoln was a "non-believer" and a "notorious retailer of dirty stories." Lincoln's management style resembled Hitler's in its "Machiavellian" quality. And what about Lincoln's reputation for brilliance? Forget it, Wilson said. Lincoln had "no intellectual curiosity." If the man could readily quote Shakespeare and the Bible, well, "So could everybody else in his day."
A statue of such a person in the capital of the Confederacy, Wilson declared, would constitute a "whole-hog capitulation to the Lincoln fable." Better to keep alive the spirit of the South just after Lincoln's assassination, he suggested, joking about what happened when the Union mandated only the most abbreviated church services honoring the slain president. "They consisted only of the doxology: 'Praise God from whom all blessings flow,'" Wilson said, drawing laughs and cheers.
At the same time that neo-Confederates have rallied around Gods & Generals, the critically panned Civil War epic that paints Gen. Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson as a Christian martyr (see Whitewashing the Confederacy), they remain furious at what Wilson called "the blasphemous association of Lincoln with Christ."
"Evil is habit-forming," Donald Livingston reminded the "Lincoln Reconsidered" audience, and no habit is so evil as worshipping the myth of a good Lincoln.
But while the speakers reveled in goring Lincoln's image, they returned often — though more soberly — to the lasting damage his presidency allegedly has done. Since the conference coincided with the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the theory that Lincoln launched the "American empire" on its plundering path was a consistent theme.
"If there was no Lincoln then, there'd be no George W. Bush now," Clyde Wilson rasped, winning applause from a roomful of rather unlikely anti-war activists.
"Honest Abe" Lincoln was also recast as the personification of Yankee greed. When it came his turn to talk, DiLorenzo pointed out that Lincoln asked in 1861 for tariffs even higher than the ones that had supposedly been "bleeding the South dry" since 1824. Lincoln was a toady for railroad interests, DiLorenzo claimed, adding that Richmond was now seeing fresh evidence of his avaricious legacy.
"That statue is all about money," DiLorenzo said, referring to opponents' claims that the U.S. Historical Society was trying to fraudulently profit from sales of miniature statues that are supposed to pay for the bronze Lincoln. (Pressed to investigate, the National Park Service found no improprieties.)
Time Marches On?
In the end, no amount of protests, petitions or pedagogy could prevent Lincoln's return to Richmond. On the overcast afternoon of Saturday, April 5, a gaggle of children and dignitaries pulled back a green cloth, unveiling David Frech's pensive rendering of the 16th U.S. president.
The sight of Lincoln was greeted with enthusiastic cheers from the audience of 850 inside the Civil War Visitor Center, and even more enthusiastic jeers from the estimated 100 protesters outside, most of them members of hate groups and Southern heritage organizations.
As state and local dignitaries hailed Richmond's modest tribute to Lincoln's "healing visit," the latter-day Confederates did their damndest to drown them out with wolf whistles, "Dixie" singalongs, and the drone of a small plane hired by the Heritage Preservation Association (see Hate and Heritage). For two hours, the plane kept circling over the festivities, its red banner proclaiming: "Sic Semper Tyrannis" ("Thus always to tyrants," the words spoken in Latin by Booth after he assassinated Lincoln).
On a hilltop nearby, in plain view of the spectators, a group of men in the back of a 4-by-4 pickup unfurled a huge Confederate Navy Jack, letting loose a blood-curdling rebel yell. For these folks, the most vexing words of the day were shouted over the din by Lt. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, who proclaimed on behalf of Virginia, "Abraham Lincoln is one of us."
"Time marches on," said former Virginia Gov. Douglas Wilder, "and leaves many in its wake." But, Wilder added hopefully, "the wake lessens with the passing of the years. There are not many people who will continue to live in the past."
As if to prove him wrong, unreconstructed Southerners massed in force the next afternoon for a march honoring Confederate Heritage and History Month, hosted by the Virginia Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. Led off by a platoon of bikers with rebel flags fixed to their Harleys, an estimated 1,500 to 1,800 — many of them decked out in butternut Confederate uniforms and black hoop skirts of mourning — paraded past the Confederate tributes on Monument Avenue and wound their way toward an afternoon of festivities at Hollywood Cemetery.
"Kill the time machine," bellowed one unimpressed Richmonder. But the neo-Confederates marched on undaunted, with Abraham Lincoln now a primary target in their sights. The Richmond controversy appears to have only added fuel to the fire started by Lincoln's detractors. They lost the battle over the Lincoln statue. But can they win the war over Lincoln's image?
Like other historians, David Goldfield doubts it. In fact, considering the venom of the arguments against Lincoln — and considering who's making those arguments — "the contrary will probably happen," Goldfield suspects.
In the past, attempts to discredit Lincoln have only stirred mainstream historians to vigorously defend Lincoln's role as savior of the Union and emancipator of the slaves. These efforts, in turn, have further burnished his public image. "Lincoln's stature has only increased over the last decade," notes Goldfield.
That may be true. But during the "Lincoln Reconsidered" conference, Ron Holland served up a bit of anecdotal evidence that suggests the Lincoln-bashing effort is making an impression on at least some of the impressionable.
The future of the Confederate cause, said Holland, lies with folks like young Stacy Wade Harris, who signed the petition opposing the Lincoln statue and wrote a note that won ringing applause from his elders: "I'm only 10," Harris said, "but I feel like I've hated Lincoln for 110 years."