To my mild surprise, the face that generated the most controvery—in both comments and email—was that of Abraham Lincoln, who was born 201 years ago on this day. Readers pulled no punches. ScottN wrote: “Lincoln is on a different list I have: People Who Caused the Most Unnecessary Deaths.” Peter wrote: “[Lincoln] was a tyrant and a racist to boot.” And the consistently provocative and thoughtful Bob Murphy wrote:
I would love to hear your reasons for including Lincoln. I have the same misgivings as the other commenter above, though I was going to introduce them with levity. (E.g. “I know you like math, Steve, so is that why you included the guy who maximized the wartime deaths of Americans?”)
I replied to Bob (and others) by email, with some sketchy thoughts and a promise to blog about Lincoln sometime on or before his birthday. With the deadline looming, I realize that I have little to add to those sketchy thoughts. So here, with only some minor editing, is the email I sent to Bob Murphy:
First, I do believe that a perfectly reasonable person could come to the judgment that Lincoln was a bloodthirsty madman.
Second, however, I am not one of those reasonable people. My reading of history is that Lincoln was motivated by a passion to end slavery, above all else. I agree that alternative readings are reasonable (see above). I also agree that there are a lot of other people who are more well-versed in this history than I am.
Third, even if we grant that freeing the slaves was a noble cause and Lincoln’s sole motivation, we might well take the position that the victory was not worth the bloodshed.
Fourth—on the other hand, 3/4 of a million people died to save 4 million slaves. That’s over five slaves freed per war death, which does not seem to me to be an unreasonable ratio. And that doesn’t even count all the future generations who would otherwise have been enslaved. (Of course it also does not account for the possibility that slavery could have been brought to a more peaceable end.)
Fifth—moreover, I think it’s clear that neither Lincoln nor any other reasonable person had any way of anticipating that there would be casualties on that order, so the war looks like a much better bet ex ante than ex post; and I think ex ante is the right standard for judgment.
Sixth—On the other hand, Lincoln had a lot of pretty ugly secondary motivations. (Protectionism, something like a national industrial policy, etc.) Well, so did Reagan—but you’ll never take Reagan’s portrait off my wall.
Seventh: Bottom line is that I think Lincoln was out, above all, to end slavery (though a reasonable person might disagree) and that the price he paid, while enormous, was a reasonable one (though a reasonable person might disagree), and that the clarity of his vision was a form of greatness and a force for good (though a reasonable person might disagree). I am also acutely aware that I might change my mind about these things if I were better educated.
So ends the email. Those readers who care to contribute to my better education are invited to fire away.