Stephen Harper and the Myth of Lincoln

Errol Mendes, a University of Ottawa law professor, has published an opinion piece entitled Lincoln was a uniter, Harper is a divider.” In it, he cultivates the statist myth of Abraham Lincoln.

Lincoln was driven by deep-seated, universal principles of human dignity for all citizens and the application of neutral justice for all — even for those who despised his principles and attempted to destroy his presidency and, indeed, the country.

These “deep-seated, universal principles of human dignity for all citizens” were hardly on display during the Lincoln vs. Douglas debate of 18 September 1858 when Lincoln remarked:

I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been in favour of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races, [applause] — that I am not nor ever have been in favour of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, not to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will for ever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality.

Mendes continues:

While the Spielberg film does show how Lincoln resorted to bribery and patronage to secure the 13th Amendment, his overarching goal was to ensure that, regardless of the outcome of the Civil War and the terms of the Confederacy’s surrender, his work would secure freedom and human dignity for emancipated slaves and their children for all time.

Was this his overarching goal? In a letter to Horace Greeley, a prominent abolitionist, Lincoln noted:

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 coloured 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.

Next, Mendes offers this comparison between Lincoln and Stephen Harper and their treatment of contemporary political opponents.

Lincoln, no doubt, was prepared to engage in unsavoury politics in the right cause. The Harper Conservative government also engages in unsavoury politics, but to what end? Killing the Liberal party? Imposing policies on most of the country in order to secure a base that can deliver elections? Focusing on wedge politics to divide Canadian society? Abandoning principled conservatism in order to push through massive budgets that hide environment-damaging measures that advance the interests of the most powerful lobbies?

Lincoln was a man of great warmth and generosity. He may have stretched the boundaries of political integrity in politics in the service of universal principles but he had deep respect for all of his fellow citizens, even his enemies — something he summed up in the closing words at his second inaugural address: “With malice toward none, with charity for all …”

The patent absurdity of this comparison cannot be over-emphasized. Was Lincoln’s “great warmth and generosity” on display when he signed an arrest warrant for the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court after he ruled that Lincoln acted unconstitutionally by suspending the writ of habeas corpus (i.e. protection against unlawful imprisonment)? Did his “deep respect for all of his fellow citizens, even his enemies” compel him to jail 13,000 citizens, including hundreds of newspaper editors and owners, because they expressed opposition to the war? By the way, none of these people received a trial or heard evidence against them. Was there “malice toward none” when Lincoln ordered that adult male civilians in the South swear a loyalty oath to the federal government or be executed?

Abraham Lincoln was a ruthless dictator. About 700,000 people died during the bloody Civil War. By contrast, other countries successfully ended slavery through peaceful means.

There is no shortage of ways to criticize Stephen Harper. Glorifying Lincoln in the process is ridiculous.

(HT Chris Rossini of

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  • About Gregory Cummings

    Gregory Cummings writes about Canadian monetary and economic policy. His writing has been featured at the Ludwig von Mises Institute of Canada and the Ludwig von Mises Institute's Mises Daily publication. Read more.

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