Was Lincoln really a humanitarian?

A previous Dispatch on crop rotations, revolutions, and past presidents Washington and Jefferson got me thinking about another president on Mount Rushmore–Abraham Lincoln.

Of course, who isn’t thinking about him again these days, thanks to the recent movie, Lincoln, and all its new Oscar nominations?

Perhaps with all the recent attention they’ll consider bringing back the accurate observance of his birthday on February 12th rather than the consolidated “Presidents Day” later in the month!

I remember the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birthday back in 2009. It garnered quite a bit of media attention. In fact, a reporter from the Washington Post contacted me to follow-up on whatever became of the proposal to test Lincoln’s DNA for Marfan’s Syndrome.

That had been a big story years earlier on February 12, 1991. Did President Lincoln have a genetic disorder that caused his unique appearance–and probably destined him for an early death in any case? In subsequent years, some Lincoln scholars have ruled out Marfan’s Syndrome. But Lincoln’s DNA never underwent testing for the genetic disorder.

Indeed, Abraham Lincoln’s life–from start to finish–makes a good story. It’s no surprise that they, once again, turned it into a movie.

I caught a recent interview with the movie’s producer and director, Steven Spielberg. To my disappointment, Spielberg expressed little real knowledge of U.S. history. I haven’t seen the movie yet. But sometimes the best history does not make for the best Hollywood stories. 

Now, if you want to learn something more about the real Lincoln, read Sick from Freedom: African-American Suffering during the Civil War and Reconstruction.

In this fascinating new book, Jim Downs, a history professor from Connecticut College, argues that Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was not a humanitarian effort. Lincoln signed it on January 1, 1863 primarily as a military and political tool.

Sound shocking?

I well remember the moment my excellent high school history teacher, Harvey Goddard, told us in class that the Emancipation Proclamation did not free a single slave. It “freed” slaves only in the states of the Confederacy not under federal control. It did not free the slaves in the “border states.” These states actually remained part of the Union under federal control. Some, like Maryland, only forcibly.

When Lincoln first issued the preliminary form of the Proclamation in September 1862, he meant it as a warning to the South. Give up secession or your slaves will be set free! If the South had returned to the Union voluntarily, it could have kept its slaves.

Lincoln’s main goal entering the Civil War was to preserve the Union. He sought this goal, at whatever the cost. He did not enter the war to end slavery.

Lincoln issued the September 1862 Proclamation following the single bloodiest day of battle in U.S. history at Antietam Creek, Maryland. He issued the Proclamation as a warning. Perhaps he felt the need to get some meaningful advancement from all the bloodshed.

In his book, Professor Downs seriously questions the humanitarian motivations vs. military advantages of this move.

Once in place, the Proclamation did just what Lincoln wanted. It drew thousands of former slaves to the advancing Union armies. It also depleted the Southern work force and provided the North with inexpensive labor.

Downs allows that Lincoln did not consider the human costs of his policies. He didn’t think in terms of their effects on the freed slaves. Nor, historians have long argued, did he adequately consider the long-lasting effects of the devastation and ordeal of “total war” to the South. He didn’t foresee that massive bloodshed, both North and South, would ultimately result from his policies.

Ric Burns reveals in his recent documentary, “Death and the Civil War,” that when freed slaves left servitude behind they suddenly and shockingly entered a world devastated by disease, poverty, and death. They became exposed to outbreaks of diseases like camp fever, dysentery, and small pox. These diseases killed more soldiers than did enemy armaments.

Experts estimate that a staggering 60,000 freed slaves died in the smallpox epidemic alone. This epidemic raged from 1863 to 1865 due to the ravages of war.

After the war, the federal government finally recognized it needed to do something to help the freed slaves. In 1865, it established the first national civilian healthcare system. The government called it the Freedman’s Bureau Medical Division.

The Bureau came to encompass 40 hospitals and a dozen homes for orphans and the elderly. Their 120 physicians treated over one million freed slaves between 1865 and 1868.

As I presented in a previous Dispatch, On Independence Day 2012, the Civil War also led to the first government health services, beyond the Freedman’s Bureau. These services were provided directly to individual civilians. Following the war, the City of Chicago became the first to give expensive prosthetic devices to amputee veterans of the war.

As a doctor and medical historian, I look at history differently. I’d say President Lincoln’s policies did not entirely benefit the health of his country. Hundreds of thousands died of diseases because of his policies. Those slaves who did survive their freedom faced poverty, sickness, racism, and, yes, more servitude of a kind.

So as the nation observes the sesquicentennial of the Civil War through 2015, many will celebrate the end of slavery. They will say Lincoln is the humanitarian ideal. But the government policies that he enacted failed as a humanitarian reality.


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