Was “Honest Abe” Really so Honest?

In our Political Theory lecture last Thursday we learned about the concept of “Dirty Hands,” or in other words, doing something ethically problematic to achieve something ethically praiseworthy. As I sat in discussion the following day, I tried to run a few people through my mind that followed this concept, and I started to think back to when I learned about Abraham Lincoln in my AP US history class with Gary Mangan (not the biggest Lincoln fan). I then realized, that despite the praise and admiration we give to Lincoln, which in my opinion he does indeed deserve, as it turns out, he had some very “dirty hands.”


Look at that little smirk!

In my class, we learned about how Lincoln preserved the union, which kept the United States of America as one unified whole, as well as, as we all know, emancipated the slaves of the south. Abraham Lincoln was a champion of unity and a hero to the enslaved, but also, as I learned in my US History, he was not afraid to employ some rather unethical techniques in order to achieve his entirely moral and praiseworthy goals. These tactics, which I had never even known about before my US History class with Mr. Mangan, gave Lincoln dirtier hands than most people might have ever thought.

In our society, we hold certain principles and basic rights to be incredibly central and important to us. Within the first paragraph of the Declaration of Independence we are told that if a government violates our natural inalienable rights life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, then, “it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.” While I, nor Lincoln, agreed with the beliefs and practices of those in the south, according to our own declaration, one of our most treasured and revered documents, they had every right to succeed from the Union. Therefore when Lincoln went to war with the South so that the union may be preserved, which ended up being the bloodiest war in our history, he was in no way entitled to do so.

In my class we learned of another tactic used by Lincoln that made his hands even dirtier: the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus. A writ of habeas corpus is used to “bring a prisoner or other detainee before the court to determine if the person’s imprisonment or detention is lawful.” Suspending habeas corpus, which is one of our constitutional rights as American citizens, gave Lincoln the ability keep his dissenters imprisoned for as long as he wanted, thus keeping them from interfering in his ultimate goals.

And just when you think he couldn’t have done anything else…. he does. Mr. Mangan clued us in on something that not many people are aware of: in 1864 Lincoln imprisoned all of the editors and publishers of the New York World and New York Journal of Commerce newspapers. This bold move by Lincoln was a direct violation of our sacred first amendment right, the right that made the United States as a nation so unique for the time; the freedom of speech and press.


Good Ol’ Abe

Now, don’t get me wrong here; I love and admire Abraham Lincoln just as much as the next person, but he did in fact have the “dirty hands” that we had learned about in lecture. If violating our basic rights and going to war, things that are entirely unethical, were necessary to free millions of enslaved humans and to ensure the unity and preservation of our nation, something ethically praiseworthy, then I do not believe that Lincoln was in the wrong. However, his hands were certainly not the cleanest.



  1. Christopher Shelley · October 9, 2014

    You make the mistake of conflating the right to revolution with the right of secession. They are fundamentally different. The Americans did not “secede” from Britain, since they were not a sovereign part of the Empire. But the Southern states in 1860 were a part of a larger sovereign entity, and so possessed no unilateral right of secession.

    In other words, Lincoln was right–he has no “dirty hands” when it comes to maintaining the Union by force.


  2. dverdere · October 10, 2014

    I think everything Lincoln did in order to keep the South from seceding falls under the category of “ends justify the means.” The South leaving the Union would have left the nation in shambles even worse than the Civil War did. I also think it would be easy to argue that if the South did successfully secede, that war between the two “nations” would be inevitable. Lincoln cared about slavery, but his main goal was to keep the United States together and slavery was the always the second thing on his mind. He had every right to use force to maintain the nation, so his hands are perfectly clean.


Comments are closed.