Seeing the Round Corners

October 9, 2017


Confounding to this writer is the modern-day, accepted practice of idolizing persons as American heroes while totally disregarding “character flaws” and downright reprehensible conduct in their early days.

Abraham Lincoln was always portrayed as a man of “humble beginnings,” but he was quite astute in what it took to win in politics. Lincoln’s background was most admirable and compassionate toward his fellow man EXCEPT toward the American Indians. Throughout speeches and correspondence, Lincoln’s true perception regarding the American Indians came through with “social expectations of conquest and possession driving the era of American expansionism.”

Historical scholars analyzing Lincoln’s speeches and correspondence leading up to his election to the presidency found it “striking that American Indians did not figure into Lincoln’s concerns for the security of America, nor his appreciation for its national origin.”

As early as 1838 in a speech Lincoln made before a Young Man’s Lyceum in Springfield, Illinois, he set forth his ideas on stability for America that historical scholars interpreted as a “prophetic warning that any threat to American stability and prosperity would be ind[o]genous to the United States.”

As mob rule escalated in the South and a string of lynchings in Mississippi and St. Louis, Lincoln recognized that mobs started by “killing gamblers and transients accused of inciting slave rebellions and ended up killing black slaves and white citizens indiscriminately.” (Note: This writer’s observation is that this situation provided Lincoln his first idea of a social issue on the road to the Emancipation Proclamation.) Remember, at this point in time, Lincoln’s contact and familiarity with black slaves and free black persons was almost negligible. 

What was most insightful and telling of Lincoln was his overall attitude in 1838 when Lincoln stated, “The United States was in ‘peaceful possession of the fairest portion of the earth, as regards extent of territory, fertility of soil and salubrity of climate.’” Yet, as scholars observed, American Indians did not figure into Lincoln’s concerns for the security of America or its national origins.

Lincoln knew full well that America did not actually possess all of the territories it claimed, and his omission of the American Indians was also noteworthy in a much later speech (1859). After describing numerous resources that were available to the American people, including textiles from Europe, buffalo hides from the Rockies, sugar from Louisiana, agricultural goods from the Tropics, whale oil from the Pacific, then mentioning the railroad and electricity – all available for American ingenuity and public services, Lincoln went on to discuss the origins of all the resources. Lincoln said, “...that America[n] owns a large part of the world, by right of possessing it; and all the rest by right of wanting it, and intending to have it.”

Analysis by historical scholars determined that American Indians were implicit in the statement because Lincoln knew that “America did not actually possess all of the territories it claimed.” At the time, Lincoln was aware that “the American Indians living west of the Mississippi still asserted autonomous control over the regions they inhabited practically, if not nominally. Social expectations of conquest and possession drove the era of American expansionism which Lincoln pursued from a politically opportunistic standpoint.

As the years passed, Lincoln mentioned American Indians in speeches as he pursued a path to his goal of becoming a national politician. Supporting his position, Lincoln justified American claims to possession of the regions with rich gold deposits. Lincoln imposed his viewed that Spaniards, Mexicans and American Indians in California lived and worked in the region without ever having noticed the rich gold deposits until American observers probed the area.

Readers should keep in mind that Lincoln continually “viewed the presence of American Indians in the West as a foreign one that would eventually be overcome.” Lincoln maintained his view that “it was the cultural habits of investigation that led to the discovery of California gold and other western resources that justified American claims to possession of those regions. Lincoln’s worldview:  “American Indian territorial possession was a foreign, though uninspiring concept.”

Next week, Lincoln continues with his view of the American Indians “as a foreign people that would need to be removed through purchase or conquest.”

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