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A century ago, shortly after memorials to Confederate soldiers began popping up across the South, the Lincoln Memorial was built on the National Mall, complete with a pensive Lincoln, seated and in deep thought. In light of the current, and surprisingly successful movement to take down those Confederate soldiers, perhaps it's time to reconsider Lincoln's position on slavery, his famous letter to Horace Greeley, and the content of his pre-announcement of the Emancipation Proclamation. It maybe time to take down his memorial, too.

There was a time in California, and many other states, when Lincoln's birthday, Feb. 12, was a holiday, at least in Northern states. But by the late twentieth century it was more of an excuse for a vacation day than a commemoration of The Great Emancipator. At least one school district moved his birthday to a Friday when Washington's birthday came on a Monday so that students and staff had a four-day weekend. Now, Lincoln is simply remembered as part of "President's Day," a holiday primarily noted for a three-day weekend, one dollar TV sets, and another excuse for commercial sales. How long before some state legislator authors a bill to specifically omit Donald Trump from any mention on President's Day?

It's his role as "The Great Emancipator" that seems to mark his place in history. But, by his own words, he ought to be remembered instead as the man who saved The Union.

Should Lincoln be remembered on President's Day? It's his role as "The Great Emancipator" that seems to mark his place in history. But, by his own words, he ought to be remembered instead as the man who saved The Union. After an editorial by New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley had chided him regarding his policies, Lincoln responded with a letter to the editor. In it, he made clear what his primary interest was: preserve the Union, not the abolition of slavery. In the letter dated Aug. 22, 1862, Lincoln wrote:

"If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time destroy slavery, I do not agree with them. 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. I shall do less whenever I shall believe what I am doing hurts the cause,..."

Hardly the words of an abolitionist, or even an emancipationist.

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Lincoln's goal, as clearly stated to Greeley, was to preserve the Union. Emancipation of slaves was a tool he could use, believing that the threatened loss of their slaves would force some of the seceding states back into the Union. He was already working on the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, and it echoed his letter to Greeley. On Sept. 22, 1862, he issued that preliminary document, which contained the following order:

"That on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free; and the Executive Government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons, and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom."

Had any of the Confederate states ended their rebellion at that point, slavery would have continued under the United States Constitution, which recognized it in the "other persons," sometimes referred to as the three-fifths, clause regarding the apportionment of the House of Representatives. Lincoln would have presided over a re-united nation, one that still allowed slavery. That institution would probably have ended eventually, done in my economics, as the industrial revolution made mechanized cotton and rice growing more financially profitable than slavery.


Instead of commemorating Lincoln on this President's Day, maybe the anti-statue zealots ought to deface or tear down that monument to The Great Emancipator.

Ralph E. Shaffer

Ralph E Shaffer is professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly Pomona.