Was ‘Honest Abe’ So Honest?

By Theodore Cox-Dodgson

In a recently leaked private speech, Hillary Clinton was found to be making an interesting comparison between herself and sixteenth President, Abraham Lincoln.

“You need both a public and a private position…. if you saw the Spielberg movie, Lincoln, and how he was manoeuvring and working to get the Thirteenth Amendment passed…I mean, politics is like sausage being made. It is unsavoury, and it always has been that way”. [1]

This is a remarkable bit of iconoclasm against perception of Lincoln as “Honest Abe”. When hearing of this in the second debate, Donald Trump responded to much acclaim:

“Honest Abe never lied…. That’s the big difference between Abraham Lincoln and you [Clinton].” [2]

However it is clear that Clinton’s perceptions of Lincoln as a dirty politician are much more historically accurate than Trump’s repetition of the popular view. Though Lincoln cultivated an image of a folksy hick who knew little of politics, Lincoln’s lengthy career in Illinois and national politics, spanning from his career in the Illinois legislature in the 1830s to his death in 1865, leaves behind a slew of lies, corrupt bargains and contradictory statements, readily available for the historian to view.

This article evaluates Lincoln’s lengthy career, and will prove why Clinton’s assessment of him is more accurate than Trump’s. As a political operator in Illinois, Lincoln held multiple positions on race and slavery, each expedient to circumstance. Lincoln’s Whig economic policies enriched both himself and his associates at Illinois’s expense. He upheld corrupt bargains made at the Republican convention in his name, deceived the public about the events of Fort Sumter and used blatantly corrupt means to pass the Thirteenth amendment, the subject of Spielberg’s movie and Clinton’s praise.  Had Lincoln lived to write memoirs, it would have been interesting to see how he would have justified the numerous less-than honest things he did in his lengthy career. However, his assassination made him a martyr in American memory, with any question of his honesty being clouded with racism and sympathies to the Confederate government. This essay will avoid making normative claims about whether Lincoln’s actions can be justified, but it hopes to reassess his reputation as Honest Abe.

As many politicians of the time were wont to do, Lincoln spoke on race and slavery in contradictory fashions- allowing different historians to pick and choose the quotes they like to justify pre-existing notions of Lincoln either as a white nationalist or as a radical egalitarian.  His “public” position on race was very much one akin to a white nationalist, his opposition to the expansion of slavery into the territories was one rooted in a hope they would be white exclusive territories and while he was in the Illinois legislature he voted or supported legislation denying Blacks the right to sit on juries, vote and other basic economic and political freedoms. [3]

Yet when appealing to the base of his party, Lincoln was known to have another public position- that of an egalitarian. When running for Senate against Stephen Douglas in 1858, Lincoln spoke in a speech delivered in Chicago, a hotbed of abolitionism, and in that speech, he called for Americans to “unite as one people throughout this land, until we shall once more stand up declaring that all men are created equal”. [4] The implied racial egalitarianism, however, was later repudiated in front of a more rural audience in Ottawa during a debate with Stephen Douglas in which he claimed “There is a physical difference between the two, which, in my judgment, will probably forever forbid their living together upon the footing of perfect equality”. [5] Granted Douglas, who was working up the crowd, implied that miscegenation would run rampant in Illinois if Lincoln were to win. [6] Be that as it may, it hardly conveys the image of an honest politician who maintains integrity under pressure.

The scale of Lincoln’s contradictions become more impressive when viewed to the wider scope of his political career. In twenty-three years of litigation he never defended a slave but he did defend a slave owner. [7] Lerone Bennett calculates that between 1854 and 1860, Lincoln said blacks were inferior to whites on fourteen occasions. [8] Despite proclaiming in an 1858 speech to Illinois Republicans, that the US could not exist half slave and half free, in his inaugural address in 1861 he promised not to interfere with Southern slavery, even going so far as to support the ‘Corwin Amendment’, which would forever prohibit Congress from intervening in matters of slavery, also promising to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, an act he refused to condemn during the 1850s. [9] In contrast with a dichotomy of a public and a private position, Lincoln’s skill was to have multiple public positions, as well as some private ones, and hope nobody would notice.

More should be said on Lincoln’s support for colonisation, the peaceful removal of Blacks from the South either to Liberia or to South America. In a eulogy to his political idol Henry Clay, he praised Clay’s support for colonisation, calling it one his most ‘cherished objects’. [10] In his Cooper Union speech of February 1860, the one that would allow him to be taken seriously as a Republican candidate against more established figures such as William Seward, Lincoln advocated for colonisation to fill up the space left with ‘free white labourers’, proof that anti-slavery opinion was not necessary anti-racist opinion. [11] Even as late as 1862 Congress appropriated $600,000 for a colonisation project and Lincoln signed a contract with businessman Bernard Koch to establish a colony in Haiti. [12] In a December 1862 message to Congress he continued to give voice to colonisation, saying explicitly ‘I strongly favour colonisation’. [13] In an attempt to get blacks on board, Lincoln even hosted them in August 1862 despite having already authored the Emancipation Proclamation by this point. [14] We can see that in the important year of 1862, Lincoln’s public position was still one of eventual removal of Blacks to make America a white country. But his private position, as Gabor Boritt pointed out, was increasingly moving away from this vision and toward one of peaceful coexistence between the races, something he knew couldn’t be achieved without the continued ‘lullaby’ of a white-only America, a lullaby that would temporarily pacify White America’s fears of abolitionism.[15]

But if he was inconsistent on race, his support for mercantilist policies were consistent from his very first run for state-assembly in 1832 in which he supported tariffs and internal improvements. [16] In 1837 the Illinois state legislature, thanks to pressure from Lincoln, appropriated over $10 million for internal improvements for the state – $3 million of which were spent on railroad subsidies, mainly to the Illinois Central Railroad. [17] The project was a failure, with the state left hugely indebted and with a mess of incomplete railways, bridges and roads in areas in which there was no economic use for. [18] However, the fiasco did come with personal benefits to Lincoln, who had wanted to become the ‘Dewitt Clinton of Illinois’. [19] New York Governor Dewitt Clinton was an earlier advocate of internal improvements, and through his use of patronage in dealing out contracts he is said by Paul Johnson to have invented the ‘spoils system’ in New York. [20]  Unlike Clinton, Lincoln’s project was an economic failure, however it is not a coincidence that the same railroad company receiving millions in subsidies later employed Lincoln as an attorney, paying as much as $5,000 per case. [21] Lincoln’s road to power was paved with corruption, perhaps an inevitable consequence of his crony-capitalist policies.

As well as making corrupt bargains for financial advancement, Lincoln made them for political advancement as well. Entering the Republican National Convention in Chicago, Lincoln was the outsider, trailing candidates such as New York’s Seward and Ohio’s Salmon Chase. It is believed he started the convention with only twenty-three confirmed votes, well short of the 233 needed for the nomination. [22] It was customary for candidates not to attend nominating conventions- so to do his dirty work for him was fellow Illinois lawyer David Davis, whom Lincoln in thanks for his service would nominate to the Supreme Court in 1862. First to be won over was Caleb Blood Smith, leader of the Indiana delegation to the convention, who, once Lincoln became president was appointed Secretary of the Interior. Goodwin claims that Smith was not bribed in advance. [23] However, he made it into the Cabinet despite Margaret Washington’s characterisation of Smith as ‘one of the most incompetent and lazy people’ at the convention[24]. It is doubtful Lincoln’s appointment of Smith was based on merit alone.

Simon Cameron, another politician with many flaws, mostly corruption, was next to be won over. [25] It is important to note that since none of the candidates were present at the convention, it would be false to say that Lincoln bribed Cameron. The more accurate statement would be Davis, representative of Lincoln, indicated to Joseph Casey, representative of Cameron, that Lincoln would be favourable to Cameron if the Pennsylvania delegation supported Lincoln on the second ballot. Legally, and morally cleaner, but not in fitting with our image of Honest Abe’.

Lincoln had instructed Davis to ‘make no contracts that will bind me’. What was or wasn’t said in that meeting between Davis and Casey has become the stuff of legend, with Casey convinced that Davis had been more explicit, promising Cameron a job, but to substantiate this he obviously had no evidence[26]. We know now that the Pennsylvania delegation dropped out after Cameron failed to win on the first ballot and Simon Cameron became Lincoln’s Secretary of War in 1861. Goodwin puts it bluntly: ‘whether or not explicit deals were made, the Lincoln men worked hard to convince Cameron’s contingent that Pennsylvania would be treated generously if Lincoln received their votes’. [27]

To be clear, responsibility must go to the top. While Lincoln was not present at the convention, he gave Davis guidelines on which he operated. ‘Make no contracts that will bind me’ was not a carte blanche rejection of dirty deal making, but simply a way of Lincoln claiming deniability should he walk back on his word. Doris Kearns Goodwin claims that ‘His guidance and determination were evident at every step along the way to the nomination’. [28] Put simply, Goodwin cannot write a book subtitled ‘the political genius of Abraham Lincoln’ and then attempt to separate the corruption from Lincoln.

Just as Lincoln connived his way to the presidency, so too did he lie and connive his way into civil war. By the time Lincoln was inaugurated, seven states had seceded and formed a confederate government centred in Montgomery Alabama. Public opinion was largely against bringing them back into the union by force, William Wright’s collation of editorials shows that in the state of Pennsylvania, seventy-five percent of Democratic newspapers and twenty-six percent of Republican newspapers supported some form of secession in early 1861. [29] Some abolitionists such as Harry Ward Beecher supported the secession of the south if only to separate slavery from the union. [30]

Thus, as John Denson put it, if Lincoln wanted a war, he couldn’t be the one to fire the first shot, since the public was not with him. [31] In one of the most genius plots in American history, Lincoln manipulated the South into firing the first shot on Fort Sumter, outraging Northern public opinion and giving Lincoln the support he needed to call up 75,000 troops and crush the rebellion.

Fort Sumter had been garrisoned under the command of Major Robert Anderson on Boxing Day 1860, six days after South Carolina became the first state to secede from the union. Although the move into Fort Sumter was done without President Buchanan’s approval, it placed the outgoing president in a bind. To abandon the fort would indicate weakness, to supply it further would precipitate war. Buchanan stalled and so it remained with Lincoln during the first month of his presidency. The Confederate government allowed local merchants to sell the garrison food, enabling perhaps a perpetual stalemate should Lincoln continue not to act. [32]

Recognising the threat of war, Confederate peace commissioners were sent to Washington, however Lincoln refused to see them, and instead they had to negotiate via two Supreme Court Justices and Secretary of State Seward, who led them to think he spoke for the Lincoln administration when subsequent events would prove he did not. [33] Thus, in mid-march Seward led the Confederates to believe Fort Sumter would be abandoned. Indeed, that was the course of action he personally advocated for and had been voted for in Cabinet on the fifteenth of March. [34]

Diplomats sent to South Carolina reported to Lincoln that it was impossible to reinforce the fort by sea, that the south would fire upon any attempt to reinforce it by land and in fact any attempt to grant supplies to them would also be considered an act of war.[35]

However, a variety of pressures, political as well as economic (there were fears that Southern tariff revenue would be lost to the Union if the Southern secession was permitted) caused the administration to shift gears, and on the twenty-ninth of March the Cabinet voted overwhelmingly to reinforce Fort Sumter. [36]

The testimony of John Baldwin, a Unionist from (as, of then, loyal) Virginia who on the fourth of April 1861 told Abraham Lincoln the Virginians would not secede if he did not use force against Fort Sumter, to which he was told he was ‘too late’. Lincoln, it would seem had already decided on a policy of belligerence and made the appropriate orders by April fourth, eight days before the south would fire the first shot at Fort Sumter. [37] For Lincoln to claim in his July the fourth message that the South fired the first shot without premeditation was deeply dishonest. [38]

By the fourth of April it became clear to the South that Lincoln was intending to reinforce the fort, with force if necessary, and so food supplies were cut off, leading to Lincoln propagating the myth that the South had fired on ‘starving men’ (despite the fact the South were feeding the troops until April).[39]

On the eighth of April, Lincoln informed Governor Pickens that Fort Sumter would be reinforced, letting the Confederates know ahead of time of the coming provisions. [40] It was now Davis who had been placed into a position of weakness, either allowing the fort to be provisioned and thus surrendering Southern integrity or to fire on starving men. When the ships, not filled with troops but with provisions, arrived in Charleston bay, the shelling commenced and the public, having not seen the chicanery of the Lincoln administration but only the South’s callous act of firing on a federal fort, rallied around their minority president and thus the war was begun. Fort Sumter was a military defeat for the Union, indeed the fort was abandoned, but it was a political victory for the Lincoln administration. [41]

Lincoln, as a Congressman in 1847 introduced the infamous ‘Spot’ resolutions demanding to know the location where Polk claimed Mexicans had attacked Americans, firing the first shot of the American-Mexican war of 1846-48, and whether that spot was on American soil as Polk claimed. This was a brave anti-war stance to take in a period when jingoism was sweeping the country and criticism of the war was considered unpatriotic, however fifteen years later it was clear that Lincoln was himself, an agent of deception in attempting to coax his enemy into firing the first shot and misleading the people as to how meditated the firing was. However much he may have criticised Polk, it was clear that he learnt a lot from him. [42]

As the civil war ended and it looked like the states would soon be reunited, the great issue that had started it, slavery, had not been resolved. In the spring of 1864, the Thirteenth Amendment to abolish slavery had passed in the Senate with the necessary two thirds majority, but had been defeated in the house. Lincoln revived the amendment in January 1865, hoping that it would pass in the dying days of the 38th Congress. Though Lincoln could have passed the amendment in a special session of the 39th Congress after March, when the Republicans had the necessary two-thirds majority, Lincoln also wanted to show the South that abolishing slavery was not just a Republican concept, but a bipartisan policy of both Northern parties, hence his keenness for Democrat votes. [43] Passing the amendment in January, not after March, was key to Lincoln’s post-war agenda as president. To this purpose he spent a lot of political capital during his final few months as President.

The bill passed with unanimous Republican support and the votes of fourteen Democrats.[44] The story of how Lincoln got these fourteen democrats to abandon their party over one of its central issues is a story of bribes, corruption and great moral quandary. Many of the representatives Lincoln hoped to court were ‘lame duck representatives, who had been defeated for election in November, but still continued to hold their seats until March. Lincoln knew these men would be looking for work, and since they had already been defeated how they voted on this amendment would not matter. Ten of the fourteen democrats who voted for the bill were ‘lame ducks’. [45] As Goodwin put it ‘it was clear to his emissaries that his powers extended to plum assignments, pardons, campaign contributions and government jobs for relatives and friends of faithful members’. [46]

One only needs to look at the career paths of some of those who helped Lincoln get the bill through the House of representatives who broke with their party to see the exploitation of the president’s power of patronage. For example, outgoing Democratic representative Moses F. Odell voted for the amendment in exchange for a job as a navy agent in New York’s docks. [47]  Mike Ashley (on behalf of Lincoln) made a promise to Anson Herrick to nominate his brother, Hugh, as assessor of internal revenue for his district.[48] Homer Nelson was offered a foreign post at the end of his term in exchange for his support. [49] George Yeaman, a ‘lame duck’ member of the Unionist party which was mainly against the Bill, voted yes, and was subsequently appointed ambassador to Denmark. [50]

What Lawanda Cox and John Cox have called “The Seward lobby” also played a decisive role in the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment. [51] They were led by William Bilbo and, by mostly focussing their activity on Democrats in New York, whom Seward knew so well, managed to get seven New York Democrats to vote for the bill. The extent of Lincoln’s knowledge about the activities of the Seward lobby can be disputed, however he did reward a favourable New York Editor with the role of minister to France in February 1865. [52] Such corrupt bargains do not make Lincoln much worse than many other presidents and politicians, but they aren’t exactly “honest”.

As well as bribed Congressman, Lincoln deliberately misled Congress with the aim of passing the Thirteenth Amendment. On the morning of the vote, rumours circulated that there were Confederate peace commissioners on their way to the capital. Had this rumour been true, it is likely that the Democrats could have postponed the vote, squandering Lincoln’s plan.

Lincoln, upon hearing these rumours, promptly replied ‘so far as I know, there are no peace Commissioners in the city, or likely to be in it’. Lincoln in fact knew that there were peace commissioners on their way as he had authorised Preston Blair Sr to send for them. But Lincoln, the consummate lawyer as always, was to argue they were only on their way to Fort Monroe, where the Hampton Roads peace conference was held four days after the vote. [53]

These studies in deception, bribery and corruption during Lincoln’s political career may seem an exercise in pedantry. After all, was Lincoln not a great president who maintained the union and freed the slaves? Well yes, but to blanketly justify such deception on account of presidential greatness is to invite less well-meaning politicians, such as Hillary Clinton, to justify their brazen dishonesty and corruption by comparing themselves to ‘Honest Abe’. History books justify Lincoln’s actions by their consequences. Considering recent events, one is now entitled to ask: what consequences will Clinton’s lies further result in?






[1] Hilary Clinton (2013) quoted in “The Podesta Emails” (WikiLeaks, 2016)- Retrieved from https://wikileaks.org/podesta-emails/emailid/927 (Last accessed 2nd November 2016).

[2] Donald Trump quoted in “Transcript of the Second Debate” (New York Times, 2016). Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/10/us/politics/transcript-second-debate.html?_r=0 (Last accessed 2nd November 2016).

[3] DiLorenzo, The Real Lincoln: A New Look at Abraham Lincoln, His Agenda and an Unnecessary War (New York 2003) p.21-22, Ibid p.29.

[4] Roy Basler, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln (New Brunswick, 1953). Volume II page 501.

[5] Ibid III.16.

[6] Gabor Borrit, Did He Dream of a Lily-White America? The Voyage to Linconiain Gabor Boritt (ed.) The Lincoln Enigma: The Changing Face of an American Icon.  (New York 2001) pp. 3-4

[7] DiLorenzo, Real Lincoln, p.16.

[8] Bennet quoted in DiLorenzo, Real Lincoln, p.12.

[9] Basler, Works of Lincoln II. 452, Ibid IV.250, Ibid. IV 251, Ibid III.320

[10] Ibid II.132.

[11] Ibid III.541

[12] DiLorenzo, Real Lincoln p.18

[13] Basler, Works of Lincoln V.534,

[14] Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (London, 2009), p.468-469.

[15] Borrit, ‘Dream of a lily-white America’, pp.12-13.

[16] DiLorenzo, Real Lincoln p.54.

[17] “THE INTERNAL IMPROVEMENTS ACT OF 1837” http://www.museum.state.il.us/RiverWeb/landings/Ambot/Archives/vignettes/government/internal_20improvements_20aDD0.html (Last accessed 2nd November 2016).

[18] Thomas DiLorenzo, ‘Abraham Lincoln and the Triumph of Mercantilism’ in John Denson (ed.) Reassessing the Presidency: The Rise of the Executive State and the Decline of Freedom (Auburn 2001) p.209-210

[19] Goodwin, Team of Rivals, p.91.

[20] Johnson quoted in DiLorenzo, ‘Lincoln and Triumph of Mercantilism’ p.210

[21] Ibid p.211.

[22] Race to the White House (2016) [Netflix documentary] USA, CNN.

[23] Goodwin, Team of Rivals p.245.

[24] Margaret Washington quoted from Race to the White House.

[25] Goodwin, Team of Rivals, p.290.

[26] Michael Green, Lincoln and the Election of 1860 (Carbondale, 2011).

[27] Goodwin, Team of Rivals p.246.

[28] Ibid p.255.

[29] DiLorenzo, Real Lincoln p.105.

[30] John Denson, ‘Lincoln and the First Shot: A study of Deceit and Deception’ in John Denson (ed.) Reassessing the Presidency: The Rise of the Executive State and the Decline of Freedom (Auburn 2001) p.233.

[31] Ibid p.232.

[32] Ibid. p.238.

[33] Ibid. p.245.

[34] Ibid. p.246-250.

[35] Ibid. p.249.

[36] Ibid. p.251

[37] Ibid. p. 259.

[38] Basler, Works of Lincoln, IV.425.

[39] Denson ‘First Shot’, p.262, Basler IV 243.

[40] Denson ‘First Shot’ p. 264.

[41] Ibid p.271.

[42] Ibid. p.278-9.

[43] Goodwin, Team of Rivals pp.686-687.

[44]  Govtrack: To pass S.J Res.16. https://www.govtrack.us/congress/votes/38-2/h480 ((Last accessed 2nd November 2016).

[45] Christian Samito Lincoln and the Thirteenth Amendment (Carbondale, 2015). p.93.

[46] Goodwin Team of Rivals p. 687.

[47] Ibid. 687

[48] Samito, Lincoln and the Thirteenth Amendment, p.97.

[49] Frank Williams Judging Lincoln (Carbondale, 2002) p.141

[50] Ibid. p.138.

[51] Lawanda Cox and John Cox, Politics, principle, and prejudice, 1865-1866 dilemma of Reconstruction America (New York 1963). p.1

[52] Ibid p.29.

[53] Goodwin Team of Rivals p.588-590.


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