An Irishman's Diary


THIS Thursday, February 12th, is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln. Barack Obama’s frequent acknowledgement of Lincoln as a source of inspiration and guidance has meant that in recent months America’s 16th president has got a lot of press.

Some of this commentary has been conventionally laudatory, citing Lincoln’s humble beginnings, his opposition to slavery, his honesty and idealism. But a balancing viewpoint has also been aired – that Lincoln was very much a man of his times, with a white vision of the United States that did not grant true equality to African-Americans, brought against their will to America, or to Native Americans, who were there thousands of years before white colonisation.

In this newspaper several weeks ago, Fintan O’Toole reminded us that in 1862 Lincoln “ordered the largest mass execution in US history – of Dakota Indian prisoners”. While acknowledging that Lincoln was “probably the greatest of American presidents”, O’Toole nevertheless wrote that he “oversaw Indian genocide” and was part of America’s long history “of shooting first and asking questions later”.

As is so often the case in history, the truth lies in the middle, between idealism and revisionism. The 1862 execution of Dakota Sioux, for example, was a complex incident that merits careful study – not just for the light it throws on the shameful treatment of Native Americans, but also for the insight it gives into Lincoln’s character, both his shortcomings and the sound moral compass that helped him overcome his limitations.

The executions followed a Dakota uprising in south-western Minnesota that resulted in 350 whites being killed, the largest massacre of whites by Indians in American history. The uprising was particularly savage: not only were many women and children among the dead, but there were documented instances of rape, the decapitation and evisceration of victims, and the nailing of children to trees while still alive.

The Dakotas’ violence was a response to systematic mistreatment, consistent deceit, and state-sponsored racism. Driven from their land, denied annuities agreed by treaty, and suffering from widespread starvation on the inarable land of their reservations, the Sioux people felt they had no choice but to declare war on white settlers, including attacks on forts and towns as well as raids on farms to secure food.

Because this conflict happened at the height of the American Civil War, it was some time before federal troops arrived to support the settlers. In less than six weeks, however, a large force led by Maj Gen John Pope (recently detailed to this distant territory after losing the Second Battle of Bull Run) had quelled the uprising. Thousands of Dakota Sioux were interned and nearly 400 summarily tried for “murder and other outrages” by a five-member military commission. Of these, 303 were convicted and sentenced to be hanged.

Minnesota whites were baying for vengeance, and Pope, still smarting from his loss of prestige, took out his hostility on the Indians, announcing: “It is my purpose utterly to exterminate the Sioux if I have the power to do so. . .They are to be treated as maniacs or wild beasts.” But when news of the convictions reached Washington, Lincoln told Pope there would be no executions without his sanction. Acting on advice from the Episcopal Bishop of Minnesota, Henry Whipple, an early reformer who believed that the Dakota had been “wronged and neglected,” Lincoln directed Pope to send him complete records of the 303 convictions.

Under enormous pressure from Pope, the governor and senator of Minnesota, and the threat of mob violence and vigilantism, Lincoln carefully reviewed every record, seeking to identify those guilty of rape and the killing of innocent civilians. He reduced the list to 39 names. After one man was pardoned, 38 went to the gallows – indeed, the largest mass execution in American history – yet Lincoln was reviled by whites for his clemency. It was not a politically popular move.

In this case Lincoln did not “shoot first and ask questions later”. He asked hard questions, carefully considered the answers, and acted according to his conscience. It is true that he was not well informed on Indian affairs, and that he considered Native Americans barbarous. All the more to his credit, then, that he took the trouble, when tens of thousands of American soldiers were dying on his watch, to save 264 Indian men from being hanged.

Had Lincoln’s 19th-century successors brought his sharp legal mind, deep moral sense, and openness to change to the problems of Native Americans, their history would certainly have been less tragic. The reason Lincoln has been revered by African-Americans for a century and a half is not that he was against slavery – there were many abolitionists whose opposition had been stated earlier and more earnestly than Lincoln’s – but because his Emancipation Proclamation brought about an end to slavery in the US politically. Lincoln worked hard to identify what was morally right, and even harder to bring it into being.

Fintan O’Toole is correct to point out that the history of the US has its shameful side. the country has also been blessed occasionally with elected leaders who, in spite of their faults and the blinkers of their times, have acted in ways that justify idealism and faith in democracy, and set a standard towards which present and future presidents can strive.