Civil War Profiles — The demonization of President Abraham Lincoln

Date Published: 
February 17, 2017

Since the inauguration of Donald John Trump as the 45th president of the United States on Jan. 20, members of the opposition have endeavored to cast him in an unfavorable light. The typical “honeymoon” period for a new president has been short-lived, if it existed at all.


Adversarial rhetoric has continued to escalate during Trump’s brief time in office, which is reminiscent of the Southern wing of the Democratic Party and the anti-war, or “Copperhead,” element of the Northern Democratic Party’s reaction to the election of Abraham Lincoln on the Republican ticket in 1860. Aversion for Lincoln was so intense that North and South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Tennessee, Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and Texas refused to list his name on the presidential election ballot.

The demonization of Lincoln stemmed from the wording in his party’s platform and his vow if elected president “to deny the authority of Congress, of a territorial legislature, or of any individuals, to give legal existence to slavery in any territory of the United States.” Slave owners interpreted that as a direct threat to the survival of the institution of slavery, unless it could be expanded into the territories that had not yet become states. (http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=29620)

Author Larry Tagg published a sizable portion of this negative rhetoric in “The Unpopular Mr. Lincoln: The Story of America’s Most Reviled President.” It contrasts with what is believed to be Lincoln’s legacy in modern times as, in Tagg’s words, “a mythic icon enshrined in a magnificent twenty-foot tall statue that looks down on visitors from beneath the dome of his Memorial.”

In 1861, Virginia Congressman Sherrard Clemens met Lincoln, and later described him as “a cross between a sandhill crane and Andalusian jackass. He is … vain, weak, puerile, hypocritical, without manners, without social grace, and as he talks to you, punches his fists under your ribs. He swears equal to Uncle Toby, and in every particular, morally and mentally, I have lost all respect for him.”

A year later, historian George Bancroft said Lincoln “is ignorant, self-willed, and is surrounded by men some of whom are almost as ignorant as himself.” Well-known diarist George Templeton Strong added his impressions, “A year ago we laughed at the Honest Old Abe’s grotesque genial Western jocosities, but they nauseate us now.”

Even abolitionist Wendell Phillips, who politically was more in sync with Lincoln, thought, “He may be honest … [but] he has neither insight, nor prevision, nor decision ... I will tell you what he is. He is a first-rate second-rate man.”

After Lincoln had been in office for two years and had issued the Emancipation Proclamation, a lawyer named Richard Henry Dana wrote, “As to the politics of Washington, the most striking thing is the absence of personal loyalty to the President. It does not exist. He has no admirers, no enthusiastic supporters, none to bet on his head … He is an unutterable calamity to us where he is.”

In November 1864, the Lacrosse Democrat newspaper in Wisconsin editorialized and minced few words, “If Abraham Lincoln should be reelected for another term of four years of such wretched administration, we hope that a bold hand will be found to plunge the dagger into the tyrant’s heart for the public welfare.” Even one of the radicals in his own Republican Party campaigned against his reelection with the slogan, “Out Lincoln … is to be the war cry.”

Following John Wilkes Booth’s assassination of Lincoln in April 1865, retaliation was called for against the president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis — who at the time was on the run after the fall of Richmond. A federal government proclamation offered a $100,000 reward for his capture, and the promise went forth, “We will hang Jeff Davis.”

As with the current U.S. president, others have had to suffer the slings and arrows of hostile citizens, politicians and the press. However, Lincoln, who is now considered by many as our greatest president, stands alone as the recipient of vituperative reaction to his leadership during his tenure in office.

Tom Ryan is the author of the multiple award-winning “Spies, Scouts & Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign.” Signed copies are available at Bethany Beach Books and Browseabout Books in Rehoboth. Contact him at pennmardel@mchsi.com, or visit his website at www.tomryan-civilwar.com.