Lincoln the Imperialist: A Long Bow to Draw

Lincoln the Imperialist: A Long Bow to Draw

Was Abraham Lincoln an empire builder? Was he an imperialist? Our correspondent, Christopher, thinks so. And one can easily find, on the net, Lincoln haters who argue that the aggrandisement of the American state has origins in the national consolidation of the Union in the Civil War. Certainly it is true that if the South had been allowed to secede and establish its own separate nation, then the ability of the remaining United States to project power regionally and globally would have been much more limited. Imagine trying to fight the Spanish-American War, that ended with the United States in possession of Cuba (as a protectorate till 1902 and a de facto protectorate until at least 1934), Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines with supply lines that had to skirt a possibly hostile, pro-slavery south holding New Orleans, Florida and Norfolk, Virginia. Imagine later maintaining the whole Caribbean as an American lake in the years 1898-1934. American imperialism might not have gained the foothold in the region that it did without the consolidation of the union, and the maintenance of a large, united territory that could later project power globally from a secure and unchallenged continental base.

Lacking a secure water passage for border state and Midwestern farmers to international markets via the Mississippi might also have hurt economic development. The rich resources of states such as Texas, which by the first decade of the 20th century included oil, would have belonged to another people. The growth of the American state in the 20th century would also have been difficult without the latent powers of the 14th amendment, which could not have been passed without the defeat of the Confederacy and the subsequent Reconstruction struggle.

So it’s an interesting hypothetical question. But there’s another side to this. As Lincoln understood, the secession of the states would not stop squabbles over such thorny questions as escaped slaves, and might have led to an eventual war anyway between the two separate nations. The South would have been free to pursue its own imperialist designs on Cuba and Santo Domingo, etc. It could be equally said that the rights of black people, and non-white people more generally, in the remaining United States, would have taken even longer to be protected, since the 14th amendment applied also to Northern and border states, which did not practice racial equality in 1865.

Christopher is correct that the Mexican War was an expansionist war. Some people do not want to call it imperialist because the country taken was thinly settled, but the rights of the indigenous people there and the quite substantial numbers of existing Hispanic settlers were trampled on in the process (and statehood was denied to Arizona and New Mexico for nearly seven decades!).

The occupation of the South after the Civil War was by a military force and military occupation, though provoked by the resistance of southerners to the terms of reintegration in the Union. In some ways, this could be seen as a rehearsal for 1898 and the occupation of the Philippines etc. See D. Meinig, Transcontinental America, 1850-1915 (New Haven, Yale University Press, 1995) But consolidation of national power in the decades after the Civil War was both contested and incomplete. The latent power of the 14th amendment to transform the relations between states and the federal government did not take full effect for a century.

Lincoln also did as much as he could possibly have done (many historians think too much) to appease the South and maintain the federal union, as it existed before 1861. See Potter, The Impending Crisis of the South (1976) and Lincoln and His Party in the Secession Crisis (1941), new ed. 1995). So I don’t think it makes sense to call Lincoln an imperialist or the tool of imperialists. History doesn’t always turn out exactly the way you intend, in fact it never does.

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