The Dumbest Thing I Have Ever Read on the Internets

A rightie named Thomas Bray has come up with the most tortured, desperate, sophomoric howl of flaming ignorance yet known to mankind to excuse George W. Bush’s mishandling of Iraq. Get this:

The President “lied” us into war. Much of the pre-war intelligence was wrong. The civilian defense chief was detested as “brusque, domineering and unbearably unpleasant to work with.” Civil liberties were abridged. And many embittered Democrats, claiming the war had been an utter failure, demanded that the administration bring the troops home.

George Bush? Well, yes – but also a President who looms far larger in American history, Abraham Lincoln.

Let’s take these claims one at a time.

1. “Lincoln ‘lied’ the nation into war.”

The ‘lie” Bray thinks he sees is that while campaigning for president in in 1860, and early in his presidency, Lincoln tried to end the secession crisis by assuring the South that he had no intention of abolishing slavery in the slave states. Indeed, it is clear he believed a president had no constitutional authority to do such a thing. In his first inaugural address he said,

I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.

This had been his stated opinion for a long time before he considered running for president, in fact.

Since the Late Unpleasantness, generations of American idiots have discovered this and other Lincoln quotes about slavery in the slave states and jumped to the conclusion that Lincoln supported slavery. Years ago I spent a lot of time on civil war history usenet forums, and you could count on one or two such idiots popping by about once a week. However, in fact, Lincoln detested slavery. The most prominent plank of his 1860 platform — the one issue he ran on more than any other — was a promise to keep slavery from spreading into the federal territories. He didn’t think the constitution gave the federal government the power to abolish slavery in the slave states, but federal territories were another matter.

This was a huge issue in 1860, as most of the country west of the Mississippi River was still territory, and citizens north and south cared passionately about what kind of economy would take hold in the territories — free enterprise and capitalism, or slavery? Slavery killed free enterprise; before the war the South’s slave plantation-based economy remain locked in 18th-century agrarianism while the North had marched into the industrial revolution. Thus, the issue of whether Kansas would enter the Union as a free or slave state had sent the entire nation into a murderous rage.

Conventional wisdom of the time said that unless slavery could spread into the territories eventually it would die. For this reason, when the “free soiler” Lincoln became president, the southern plantation owners were certain that secession from the Union was necessary to protect their wealth. For the secessionist point of view on this matter, see the Declaration of Causes adopted by the secessionist convention of Mississippi, for example.

Several states had seceded before Lincoln was inaugurated. His first few weeks in office were taken up with trying to persuade other states to remain in the Union and with troops at Fort Sumter, who were running out of food because South Carolina refused to allow them to be re-supplied. Sumter was, note, a federal military reservation, not part of the state of South Carolina. But South Carolina claimed it. And when South Carolina fired on Fort Sumter, South Carolina started the war.

The South started the war. They’ve denied this lo these many years, but they started it, not Lincoln., They began the hostilities, not Lincoln. If anyone “lied” anybody into that war, it was the plantation owners, not Lincoln. Therefore, Lincoln neither lied the nation into war nor “truthed” it into war, as he didn’t started the bleeping war.

Let us go to back to Bray:

Lincoln repeatedly asserted that his aim was to prevent the spread of slavery, not eliminate it in the South. “I believe I have no lawful right to do so,” Goodwin quotes him as saying. Thus when he finally issued his Emancipation Proclamation two years into the war, freeing the slaves in the Confederate states, his Northern critics claimed that he had misled the country.

Regarding emancipation — as soon as the war started, abolitionists began calling on Lincoln to abolish slavery. But Lincoln resisted this idea at first. In fact, when Major General John Fremont emancipated slaves in Missouri in 1861, Lincoln countermanded the order and relieved Fremont of duty. Lincoln feared emancipation would cause Missouri to secede as well.

So why did Lincoln issue the Emancipation Proclamation, which emancipated slaves only in the seceded states, in September 1862? As I explained in more detail here, Lincoln realized emancipation could be a tool to help the war effort. It would swing British public opinion against the Confederacy, for example, and discourage the British government from sending military aid to the secessionists. It would also allow for recruiting former slaves to serve in the Union Army.

In August 1862 Lincoln wrote to Horace Greeley, who had been pressuring Bush Lincoln to emancipate the slaves,

My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union. I shall do less whenever I shall believe what I am doing hurts the cause, and I shall do more whenever I shall believe doing more will help the cause.

Lincoln did not change the purpose of the war from saving the Union to abolishing slavery. He changed his policy toward emancipation to support the goal of saving the Union. Yes, the proclamation pissed off a lot of racist white northerners. Some Union volunteers deserted and went home because of it. But it proved to be a brilliant tactical move; it really did prevent Britain from entering into an alliance with the Confederacy (a plan being pushed by British textile mill owners who needed southern cotton), and it added about 200,000 highly motivated recruits to the Union army and navy.

Bray continues to try to draw parallels between Iraq and the Civil War, calling the latter “A bloody and unnecessary war was being fought in a Utopian effort to bring the blessings of democracy to a people who had little experience with it.” Is he saying the southern states had little experience with democracy? Perhaps not, but they might disagree. As for the freedmen, in 1863 it had not yet been decided if they could become citizens. Historians are still arguing about whether Lincoln would have supported the 15th Amendment had he lived long enough to read it. Bringing “the blessings of democracy” to the freedmen remained a goal way down the priority list while Lincoln was alive.

Bray continues,

Oh, and by the way, where did this President get off claiming, as Lincoln did, that his implied powers as Commander in Chief allowed him to tinker with institutions, such as slavery, expressly acknowledged in the Constitution?

The express acknowledgment of slavery in the Constitution didn’t make it legal everywhere in the nation; only where state governments had made it legal. But the states in rebellion weren’t states any more, genius. They had seceded, remember? I don’t believe there is consensus whether the seceded states had reverted completely to the status of federal territories, but they were required to go through a process of re-admission to the Union after the war.

And not until 1865 did the administration get around to pushing for the 13th Amendment officially ending slavery.

I’m not sure what Bray’s point is — maybe that Lincoln was for slavery before he was against it — but the 13th Amendment wasn’t Lincoln’s baby. Republicans in Congress came up with it. Lincoln didn’t take an active role in the 13th Amendment until after it was passed by the Senate in 1864.

2. “Much of the pre-war intelligence was wrong.”

Bray isn’t talking about faked pre-war intelligence that the confederates had weapons of mass destruction, but the opinion held by most that the Civil War wouldn’t last long, and that the rebellion would be put down in a few weeks. If you spend much time with military history you notice this is a common theme; when wars are getting started, people nearly always underestimate how bloody they will be and how long they will last. That’s not always true, but it’s very often true. For example, lots of Confederates believed the yankees would give up quickly without much of a fight. They were wrong, too.

Bray’s point is way stupid, in other words.

Bray points out General George McClellan complained he hadn’t been given enough troops to do the job, an obvious dig at current complaints that more troops should have been sent to Iraq in 2003 to secure the occupation. However, history shows us that McClellan was an idiot. Once Lincoln found a general who knew how to fight — Ulysses S. Grant — he had plenty of troops to do the job. In Iraq, on the other hand, events have shown us clearly that the Pentagon civilian planners were wrong about the number of troops required.

3. “The civilian defense chief was detested as ‘brusque, domineering and unbearably unpleasant to work with.'”

Bray is referring to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. Stanton was a snot, but he was a very smart snot who was good at his job. Rummy, on the other hand, is an incompetent snot.

4. “Civil liberties were abridged.”

Bray writes,

… Or suspending the writ of habeas corpus, perhaps the most fundamental bulwark of liberty in the Anglo-Saxon tradition?

Only much later did Lincoln seek congressional authorization for the suspension of habeas corpus, despite the Constitution’s explicit instruction that Congress must agree beforehand.

As I explained in more detail here, Lincoln made emergency use of a power given to Congress (to suspend habeas corpus) to deal with riots and unchecked lawlessness in some of the border states while Congress was not in session. The next time Congress came back into session (not “only much later”), Lincoln went to Congress, acknowledged this power rightfully belonged to Congress, and asked for their retroactive approval even while the Civil War was still heating up. Unlike Bush and his NSA spy program, he didn’t act in secret, nor did he declare he could ignore Congress entirely because there was a war on. I agree Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus is still controversial, but if Lincoln was wrong, then Bush is thrice wrong.

5. “And many embittered Democrats, claiming the war had been an utter failure, demanded that the administration bring the troops home.”

Support for the war waxed and waned during the four years it was fought. The most prominent opposition to the war came from the “copperheads,” or Peace Democrats. In those days, the Democratic Party was the party of right-wing conservatives and the Republican Party was much more liberal and progressive, a distinction generally lost on righties today. The copperheads were pro-slavery white supremacists who favored a negotiated settlement with the Confederacy that would have protected the peculiar institution. They were on the wrong side of history, which IMO is where Bray is now.

Bray’s effort, dumb as it is, might have been a respectable effort for a ten-year-old. But he looks older than that in his photo, so there’s no excuse for him.

See Bennet Kelly at Huffington Post for more reasons why Bray deserves to be laughed off the Web.

23 thoughts on “The Dumbest Thing I Have Ever Read on the Internets

  1. Glad someone is knocking this around, as well it deserves to be. I got a post going on it in the course of being blogggered so it should be up next week some time…it doesn’t take near the studied approach you do here, which is always appreciated. That dig about McClellan was pretty funny, and the whole analogy he makes is off base by a few light years. I wonder if Ken Burns would paint a portrait of wartime Bush that is similar to the one he painted of Lincoln? Anyway, thanks for all your politeness here, I’m trying to stick a finger in the dudes eye with my post, if it ever comes unbloggered…don’t know if it’ll help laughing him off the web, but it can’t hurt.

  2. Lincoln did some questionable things but there was an army across the river and he did go to congress and admit what he did etc.
    If I tried to compare myself to Lincoln and Churchill everyday people would say I was delusional. Looks like the koolaid of delusion is still quite strong.

  3. The old expression “neccesity is the mother of invention” comes to mind. If these apologists would put as much energy into something constructive…like an honest evaluation of the facts… they might not have to live in lala land. The bigger question is what is the underlying “pathology” that drives this kind of desperation?
    If it weren’t so funny, I’d actually feel sorry for the guy.

    read more observations here:

  4. Not to mention that Lincoln’s “lies” were not so much lies as adaptations. Lincoln (and FDR, for that matter, since we’re into comparing Bush to former presidents) adapted where necessary, making changes to policy as the nature of the war changed. Bush seems determined to “stay the course” without adapting. There should have been a radical change in Iraq policy the moment we noticed there weren’t flowers and chocolates being handed out in Baghdad.

  5. Two good things: 1) righties at least sense that something has gone wrong, and they therefore feel they must come up with some sort of rationalization to save face, 2) their conconction is so strained and ridiculous that it’s easy to laugh in their faces. Nice exegesis, Maha, for those of us who are Civil War challenged.

  6. Bray sounds to me like those pseudoscience people who claim that because Galileo was ridiculed at first before everyone discovered he was right, that they must eventually be proven right because people are ridiculing them now. Sometimes you just deserve the ridicule.
    Or as Carl Sagan put it, “They laughed at Columbus, they laughed at Fulton, they laughed at the Wright brothers. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown.”

  7. Pingback: PSoTD

  8. Lincoln would pee standing up. George Bush pees standing up. The two are obviously both equal in greatness.

  9. Whoa, I spent a lot of years in the South and down there everyone knows the Civil War was not about slavery, oh no. It was about States Rights. And freedom. Not for the slaves, because if you really got down to it, they were better off where they were and a lot of them wouldn’t wander off “free” even if they had the chance. The war was fought by the sons of the Confederacy to preserve the God-given freedom of the plantation owners to continue growing cotton. That’s what it was all about. /snark.

  10. Correct me if I’m wrong, but didn’t some of Lincoln’s cabinet advise him to start a war with another nation (European? Did it matter?) in order to distract everyone and “rally ’round the flag”? Wasn’t this one of the criticisms of the Mexican War (that it was partly intended as a distraction from the growing sectional tensions btwn. North and South)? Lincoln didn’t listen to that line of thinking, did he? Hmm… wonder what Dubya would have done.

  11. Pingback: The Mahablog » More History Notes

  12. Correct me if I’m wrong, but didn’t some of Lincoln’s cabinet advise him to start a war with another nation

    There was talk of putting down the foreign invasion of Mexico. The French-sponsored invasion occurred at the same time as the Civil War. Maximilian’s troops took Mexico City within days of the battle of Gettysburg, as I recall. That’s probably what you are thinking of. I don’t believe it got past the talking stage. After the surrender at Appomattox, however, General Grant arranged to send some military support to the Juaristas without actually getting permission to do so. It’s a long but interesting story, that.

  13. I did not know that Lincoln suspended Habeas Corpus when Congress was out of session and went out of his way to make sure Congress took charge of the matter the minute it was back in session.

    Makes Bush look very very small.

  14. The “member of Lincoln’s cabinet who advised him to start a war with another country” in order to unite Americans and prevent a civil war was Secretary of State Seward, who appeared to have done that in a memorandum to Lincoln dated April 1, 1861 (April Fools Day, hmm). But not every historian accepts that Seward was trying to do anything like that. There is a discussion of this by Norman Ferris in the Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association at

  15. Just FYI, I’m sorry to report that Bray actually makes his living writing this nonsense, and spent 17 years as the editorial page editor of the Detroit News. Here’s his bio from the Wall Street Journal online edition. I see his column once a week (I subscribe to the Detroit Free Press, a much better paper, and they do a combined edition with the News on Sunday), and while this is certainly the most idiotic thing I’ve seen him write, it’s far from atypical.

  16. One more thing about Lincoln, which Bray conveniently ignored: Lincoln’s initiative in the Emancipation Proclamation wasn’t all about freeing slaves as “Team of Rivals” by Doris Kearns Goodwin delineates. It was partly about Lincoln’s political assessment that–at that particular moment in the war–issuing the proclamation would incite slaves in the southern states to migrate to the North. Lincoln surmised that allowing slaves who escaped North to join the Union Army would so demoralize the Confederates that it would give the Union a huge psychological advantage. Lincoln was a brilliant political strategist at his core. The Emancipation Proclamation was a tactic of psychological warfare in Lincoln’s mind; though he detested slavery, he was not an abolitionist–he was an astute politician, determined to hold the Union together. He supported the Missouri Compromise–until he realized the Emancipation Proclamation would have more far-reaching effects than simply abolition of slavery.

  17. Just a guess, folks. I think the rightie attempts to compare Bush to Lincoln had just got started when Maha swamped ’em with history.
    The second phase of comparison was supposed to dreg up all the 1860’s buffooning and cartooning of Lincoln which took place back then… an attempt to therefore explain away or diminish the fact that Bush’s tarnished image has become a laughing stock in the present.

  18. Bush is a turd !…Originally I gave Bush the benefit of the doubt in thinking that some people have difficulty in public speaking, and that his malapropisms were the result of unease in the public spotlight. After lenghty observation, I’ve come to the conclusion that Bush’s fumbling with words is the result of a confused and atropied mind struggling to express itself with a limited source of knowledge and understanding from which to draw. Bush is a joke that been played on the American public..a marketing ploy. And to try to put him in the same league as Abraham Lincoln is even a bigger joke. Lincoln exhibited brilliance in communication by both the written and spoken word, whereas the best Bush can do is repetitively belt out mindless little oneliners like..”we’ll stand down when they stand up”..” Freedom is on the march” ” we weep and we mourn”, Really, I can train a parrot to articulate better than that.
    Come-on America, it’s time we pulled the plug on this clown and put him out of our misery.

  19. Does anything stand out is this letter that gives a hint of the differences between Bush and Lincoln?

    _Letter to General Grant. July 13, 1863_

    My dear General, I do not remember that you and I ever met personally. I write this now as a grateful acknowledgment for the almost inestimable service you have done the country. I wish to say a word further. When you first reached the vicinity of Vicksburg, I thought you should do what you finally did–march the troops across the neck, run the batteries with the transports, and thus go below; and I never had any faith, except a general hope that you knew better than I, that the Yazoo Pass expedition and the like could succeed. When you got below and took Port Gibson, Grand Gulf, and vicinity, I thought you should go down the river and join General Banks, and when you turned northward, east of the Big Black, I feared it was a mistake. I now wish to make the personal acknowledgment that you were right and I was wrong.

    Yours very truly,

  20. Z wrote: Lincoln would pee standing up. George Bush pees standing up. The two are obviously both equal in greatness.

    W pees himself if anyone has the temerity to criticize him. Lincoln made an effort to understand why someone was critical of him. Two very different things.

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