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Thursday, December 07, 2006


Saving President Lincoln

[This is reprinted from an academic web site.]
President Lincoln is the subject of much commentary of late. Some of it enhances the appreciation for him. Some misinforms.

I am a native of Illinois. I grew up in a home where two objects of reverence were on prominent display in the living room. One was a large edition of the King James Version of the Bible in which the family history was maintained. The other was a bust of Abraham Lincoln.

Both of my parents were schooled in Illinois and well indoctrinated in Lincoln history and lore . Working people of Illinois had a special regard for Lincoln. I remember a family vacation to New Salem and Springfield to see Lincoln's home and tomb. We dressed in our Sunday finest to denote the proper respect accorded to Lincoln. He is an important intellectual touchstone for me.

Lincoln is the subject of the lead article for the Dec. 4 edition of U.S. News & World Report. Lincoln was mentioned yesterday on a number of web pages and blogs, including Todd Epp's, which has a headline asking if Lincoln is the great emancipator or executioner. The occasion is that December 6, 1863, is the day Lincoln signed an order for the execution of 39 eastern Sioux who participated in the the Sioux Uprising of 1862. Todd provides a link to an expanded account of Lincoln's role in ordering the executions, which gives the full background, but some of it is in error.

Lincoln was in attendance at national tragedies which get the "most" designation. He gave the Gettysburg Address after a battle in which the most Americans were killed. The Sioux uprising of 1862 was one in which the most settlers--350--were massacred. And he signed that execution order for 38 Sioux to be hung, the most people to be killed in one mass execution. One of the original 39 was eventually pardoned.

In response to the uprising, Lincoln sent Gen. Pope to Minnesota to handle the matter militarily. This account is from David Herbert Donald's Lincoln. Pope did not like Lincoln, but switched his animosity from the President to the Sioux. He said, "It is my purpose utterly to exterminate the Sioux..." He arrested 1,500 Sioux men, women, and children and covened a military commission to try them. Lincoln sent a Dept. of Interior official (who later became Secretary) to Minnesota to investigate the problems and he consulted with Episcopal Bishop Henry B. Whipple. He soon learned that the Sioux were responding to fraud and embezzlement by the Indian agents. Pope's commissions came up with a list of 303 Sioux who were found guilty and to be executed. Lincoln ordered Pope not to stage any executions without the President's express order.

After consulting with his cabinet agencies on how to proceed, Lincoln ordered the records of the 303 Sioux to be sent to him. He went through the record of each condemned Sioux to sort out those who were guilty of the crimes of murder and rape from those who participated in the uprising. He ended up with the list of 39 men, which he wrote out in his own hand.

Pope said that if the entire list of 303 were not executed, the people of Minnesota would massacre all the Indians in the territory in revenge. Governor Ramsey also threatened that if they were not all executed, the people would extract private revenge. The resentment against Lincoln and his cabinet among the people of Minnesota cost the Republicans votes in the election of 1864 and Ramsey told him he could have won with a larger majority if he had hanged more Indians. Lincoln replied, "I could not afford to hang men for votes."

As a professor who teaches American literature and has a specialty in American Indian literature, I have come across the array of attitudes regarding Lincoln's handling of the execution order. Most people acknowledge the fact that Lincoln reprieved 264 men who were listed for execution by personally reviewing the cases and sanctioning the hanging of the eventual 38 who had committed heinous crimes. He also called the corrupt officials whose actions fomented the uprising into account. Some people, including members of the Sioux nation, castigate Lincoln for authorizing the execution of any Indians. On the other hand, many Dakota people, disapproved of the atrocities committed during the uprising and thought those who committed them had violated sacrosanct tribal rules. Participants in the uprising were recruited as Army scouts and helped control the renegade bands that roamed through the Dakota territory.

An account of the aftermath of the uprising is provided by one of South Dakota's first authors, Charles Alexander Eastman, a Dakota. As a boy, Eastman had been sent to Canada to live with his grandmother and keep him out of the conflicts surrounding Sitting Bull and the Sioux in the U.S. His father was one of the Sioux sentenced to death and then imprisoned at Davenport, Iowa. He was then pardoned by Lincoln. After homesteading near Flandreau, S.D., his father walked to Canada to get his son, who he took back to the U.S., entered him into the Indian Normal School at Flandreau, then sent him to Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, and then to Dartmouth and Boston University, where Eastman obtain a doctor's degree in medicine. Eastman was the physician in attendance at the Wounded Knee Massacre.

While people may disagree over the actions in response to the Sioux uprising, Lincoln brought a degree of diligence and integrity to the matter that angered people on both sides. He admitted having little knowledge and experience with Indian issues, but he tried to sort out the circumstances in a way that that adhered to the concepts of equality, liberty, honesty, and justice.

Lincoln was a literary man. He distrusted novels, biographies, and histories, but he had a compelling interest in the structure and resources of the English language and in the use of rhetoric as an intellectual and moral reference. He could quote prodigiously from the Bible and Shakespeare, and could recite poetry from Robert Burns and Oliver Wendell Holmes from memory. He saw the compression and precision of the language of poetry as hugely powerful, and he was drawn to poems that contained a story. He studied and admired the work of Thomas Paine. And he loved the theater, which was where he spent his last conscious moments, and the opera, and studied how the power and force of drama could be brought to bear on the genres of discourse.

The literary profession has allowed itself to be marginalized into the interpretation of imaginative literature--fiction and poetry-- to the point that it has left the literary analysis of written and oral rhetoric to other discplines. Consequently, there is little literary scholarship on Lincoln published in recent times. Two recent books, one written by a theologian and another by a historian, offer extended studies of two of Lincoln's most important speeches. One is Lincoln's Greatest Speech: The Second Inaugural by Ronald C. White (Simon & Schuster, 2002), and the one featured in this week's U.S. News is The Gettysburg Gospel: The Lincoln Speech That Nobody Knew by Gabor Boritt (Simon & Schuster, 2006). That is not to say that literary scholars have abandoned Lincoln's work as a rich subject worth studying. Professors at regional colleges keep the literary work alive. At the annual meeting of the Society for the Study of Midwestern Literature, papers from Millikin University at Decatur, the former Sangamon State University in Springfield (its absorption into the U. of Illinois is a sad story of how little tolerance there is for innovative education), the U. of Illinois--Chicago Circle, Knox College in Galesburg, and Grinnell College in Iowa have kept the Lincoln literary studies going in the past decade. But English programs have largely been reduced to service tutorials in spelling, punctuation, and the trivial aspects of grammar.

The problem with the Internet and blogging is that it sets tabloid journalism, if one can call it journalism, as the standard for writing and discussion. We literary scholars need to reassert our discipline to see if we can't save President Lincoln from the tabloids.

This is an excellent comment on Lincoln's action with regard to the 1862 Lakota War. I have posted on it at South Dakota Politcs.
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