Last month the San Francisco Board of Education decided to rename 44 schools in the city. Among the names designated for removal are Paul Revere, who was guilty of having led the Penobscot Exhibition of 1779 (which was actually intended to free mid-Maine from the British control, but which the Board wrongly thought had to do with Penobscot Indians), as well as Abraham Lincoln, who, en route to ending slavery in America, oversaw the execution of 38 tried-and-convicted Dakota Indians.
A jaw-droppingly incoherent interview with School Board President Gabriela López in the New Yorker did little to explain why, on either count:
“There’s this idea that because we’re removing the names we’re somehow removing the stories in what we’re learning, and that in fact is not the case. It’s really just sharing in our schools what is and isn’t uplifted … I think Lincoln gets more praise than the… how can I say this? Yeah. I don’t know. I don’t think that … Lincoln is not someone that I typically tend to admire or see as a hero, because of these specific instances where he has contributed to the pain of the decimation of people—that’s not something that I want to ignore.”
On December 26th, also in San Francisco, a statue of Lincoln was defaced with red paint. The Los Angeles Times reported that the vandalism coincided with the 158th anniversary of the aforementioned hanging of 38 Dakota Indians. The paper provided a brief summary of the events and called the incident a “blot” on the President’s legacy and suggested it means his legacy is something to be “grappled with.” Earlier this month, a statue of Lincoln was also vandalized in a public park in Boise, Idaho. Posters left at the statue referenced the Dakota incident.
If this execution following the 1862 Dakota Uprising is the crime of Lincoln’s life, that which undoes his formerly untouchable place of esteem in our nation’s historical pantheon, and if this event is worth vandalism, “reckonings” and re-namings, then every American ought to know the truth about what happened. It is a complicated, fascinating, and tragic story—one in which our 16th President affirms his reputation as a man dedicated to law, justice, and fairness.
AMERICAN-INDIAN DIPLOMACY … AND WAR
The Eastern Dakota, or Santee, are one of the three main subcultures of the Sioux tribe. They currently have reservations in the Dakotas, Minnesota, and Iowa. The Santee had lived in the Great Lakes until 1659, but were then pushed west into Wisconsin and Minnesota due to war with the Iroquois. There, they encountered French traders and allied with them against the British. They traded successfully with the French for much of the 1700s, but also endured bloody wars with the Ojibwe, a tribe from the north and east that also established a trade relationship with the French.
[D]elayed payments, food shortages, increased frontier settlement, dwindling game, dishonored treaties, and a devastating corn famine had created an unstable situation…
Losses in those wars pushed the Santee farther south and west, below the mouth of the Snake River in Minnesota, and farther out of their traditional woodland territory. Bowing to years of economic and political pressure created by wars with the Ojibwe, new diseases such as smallpox and malaria, mounting debts to fur traders, and American settlers (illegally) encroaching into their territory, the tribe signed two treaties in 1851: The Treaty of Mendota and The Treaty of Traverse des Sioux. Ceding lands in the new Minnesota Territory to the U.S. government, the Santee agreed to live in designated reservations in exchange for money, food, and supplies.
These treaties came after months of tense and challenging negotiations by Minnesota Territorial Representative Henry Sibley, Territorial Governor Alexander Ramsey, and U.S. Indian Affairs Commissioner Luke Lea, and involved different Santee bands and leaders. The U.S. Senate later amended the treaties and removed two reservations on the upper Minnesota river entirely, thereby reducing the lands granted to the Eastern Dakota. After all that, much of the money owed to the tribe by the terms of the agreements was relinquished under the guise of “Trader’s Papers” to fur traders, to supposedly cover debts the Indians owed, but with little verification from the government, amounting to a massive corruption scheme.
Little Crow, Chief of the Mdewakantan, a band of Santee Dakota, had negotiated the original treaties with great skepticism. On the cusp of Minnesota statehood, he traveled (with other Sioux chiefs) to Washington in 1858 in an attempt to renegotiate them with President James Buchanan, but was unsuccessful. By 1862, rampant corruption in the Bureau of Indian Affairs (created in 1824 under the Department of War as an agency to specialize in U.S. Government-Native American relations) had led to the Dakota people being defrauded of hundreds of thousands of dollars. According to a letter that the Special Commissioner on Dakota Affairs George Day wrote to President Lincoln on January 1st, 1862, delayed payments, food shortages, increased frontier settlement, dwindling game, dishonored treaties, and a devastating corn famine had created an unstable situation, not to mention a disillusioned, starving tribe on the American frontier.
Though a long-delayed government payment owed to the Dakota did eventually arrive in the form of $71,000 in gold coins on August 16th 1862, the moment was overshadowed by events of the next day: the infamous Acton Incident. Four Dakota hunters killed five white settlers after an unsuccessful attempt at stealing eggs from a white settlement. Fearing reprisal from white farmers, Little Crow was reluctantly talked into leading two Dakota bands on the offensive against the American settlers. The other bands decided against war.
[T]hese attacks would have included brutal acts against women (who were often kidnapped as wives or slaves, or raped and killed) and children.
The fighting mostly took place east of the Dakota reservation, along a hundred-mile southern portion of the Minnesota River, and east toward the Mississippi river. Dakota warriors attacked Fort Ridgely, several Indian agencies, river crossings, stagecoach stops, and, most infamously, led an attack on the town of New Ulm, burning much of it to the ground. Anyone familiar with the history of the raid-style warfare of the tribes throughout the great plains and upper midwest would know these attacks would have included brutal acts against women (who were often kidnapped as wives or slaves, or raped and killed) and children. One firsthand account from one of the Minnesota attacks details a brutal incident in which a child in utero was ripped from a mother’s womb and nailed to a tree. On August 18th, 1862 a Dakota massacre was perpetrated on the farmhouses of Milford. Dakota warriors gained entry to each home by asking for water. At one house, they killed an entire family, including four children. One girl was beheaded. 53 settlers were killed in these attacks and not one Dakota.
After these attacks, and several battles between Minnesota militia and Dakota warriors, President Lincoln (who was fully occupied by the Civil War) was finally convinced to create the Department of the Northwest, a U.S. Army Department headed by General John Pope, to fight the Dakota. By this time, over 500 white settlers had been killed, along with approximately 150 Dakota. Twenty days later, on September 26th, many of the Dakota warriors surrendered and were taken captive. Under the direction of now-Colonel Sibley, they were tried quickly, in order to avoid the looming threat of vigilante justice, in a military court administered by Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Officers. In November 1862, 300 were sentenced to death. No one pretends the trials were not deficient in many ways.
Abraham Lincoln, while running the country and conducting the Civil War, took an entire month to diligently review each and every one of these cases. He read all 303 trial transcripts carefully with his lawyers Francis Ruggles and George Whiting, after which he decided to commute the sentences of all but 39 of the offending warriors—those who were found guilty of rapes and massacring civilians. In essence, Lincoln did the military court’s job for them by making clear the distinction between those who had killed in battle and those who had perpetrated atrocities.
Lincoln’s clemencies provoked fury in Minnesota, where protests erupted. Lincoln’s Republican Party faced losses in the Minnesota voting booths two years later, in 1864. Still, the President remained steadfast: “I could not afford to hang men for votes,” Lincoln said.
The remaining 38 Dakota warriors were hanged on December 26th, 1862 in Mankato, Minnesota—the largest mass execution in American history.
THE EVER-SHIFTING PRESENTIST MORAL PRISM OF HIGH CHURCH LEFTISTS
What Abraham Lincoln did was entirely consistent with his character throughout his life. As he did time and time again as president, Lincoln marshaled his intellect, humanity, sense of proportional justice, and political acumen during this episode to make an extraordinarily difficult call, one that would affect thousands of lives. This decision, rendered less prudently, might have greatly increased regional hostilities: anti-Indian vigilante violence, as well as Indian violence against settlers, creating the conditions of open warfare that would certainly have required the diversion of more troops from the Union army.
Very few people who ever live will have to make judgments of that gravity and scale.
Under immense pressure, and wielding great power, he made life and death decisions. He burdened himself with extra work during his country’s biggest crisis and made a politically dangerous decision involving mercy for a group that, in the aftermath of the raids by the Dakota warriors, was largely despised—all in the name of justice and duty. This isn’t a blot on his legacy, but a little-known profile in presidential courage. By the moral standards of both his day and ours, he made a just determination under tremendous circumstances. Very few people who ever live will have to make judgments of that gravity and scale. Even commuting the sentences of some of the convicted—not to mention almost all of them—could very well have caused mass vigilante violence against innocent Dakota. Had Lincoln rendered a different judgment, the increasingly unstable situation in Minnesota might have impacted the government’s ability to prosecute the war with the rebel states, end slavery, and restore the union. The tactical dilemmas and ethical immensities of Lincoln’s precarious situation in December 1862 should strike fear and awe into the heart of anyone who seriously contemplates them.
What in this story justifies defacing public art? How is Lincoln’s decision to commute hundreds of death sentences, while going forward with executions for only those who committed the most well-documented barbarities, a legacy-altering mortal sin for high church leftists? After all, this is the President that prosecuted a war to free millions of slaves and pushed forward the 13th amendment, the two most powerfully, obviously pro-black actions undertaken by any single person in US history. It’s little wonder he was memorialized by the former slave and orator Frederick Douglass as “one of the noblest, wisest, and best men,” one who was “Tender of heart, strong of nerve, of boundless patience and broadest sympathies, with no motive apart from his country.”
If this Dakota Uprising episode is Lincoln’s colossal failing, then surely, there must have been something he should have done instead. As far as I can tell, in this social justice fantasy, the correct moral call would have involved freeing men found guilty of murder and rape, as a gesture of apology for the sin of Americans of European descent living on land that the Dakota Sioux had occupied previously. Or maybe they’d have preferred Lincoln asked the Confederacy to politely stop fighting so he could personally sort out the entire American Indian situation according to the principles of uplifting marginalized voices.
When social justice leftists judge historical figures through their ever-shifting presentist moral prism, what they are communicating is less a set of coherent ideas, and more a demonstration of narrative power. They alone will be the arbiters of what or who is good or bad because their grievance-based ideology gives them alone that sovereign right. Lincoln’s decisions in 1862 make him a white supremacist villain—context, circumstances, and the rest of his legacy be damned. Disagree? You’re defending white supremacy by disagreeing. Paul Revere’s name is removed from a school because he did something that sounded like it had something to do with American Indians. (It actually didn’t.) In 2021, Words that merely sound like other words—regardless of intent or context—might get you suspended from your job if it invokes racial offense.
[N]o historians were consulted, as they might have brought up the actual truth of the story…
In that New Yorker interview, San Francisco School Board President Gabriela Lopez remarked that the renaming committee did not want historians to testify. Instead, the only voices they wanted to hear were “a diverse set of community members, people with a set of experiences that contribute to these discussions.” It’s right there—identity, personal experience, and feelings are more valuable than the historical record. Again, no historians were consulted, as they might have brought up the actual truth of the story, truth which does not comport with the outright lie that Abraham Lincoln executed some innocent freedom fighters because of his devotion to white supremacy.
Do not misunderstand what the radical leftists on the San Francisco Board of Education and the activist-vandals are doing. They are not recontextualizing or reinterpreting history through a clearer moral lens. They are simply embarking upon the old leftist project of erasing real history—nuanced, complicated, captivating, tragic, and triumphant American history—to make room for their simple, childish narrative of white supremacy-explains-it-all, no matter what.
Deep, shared connection with revered historical figures of great national importance is a huge part of what makes culture and tradition. Leftists cannot build their new America without destroying our existing culture and tradition. Erasing Lincoln, probably our nation’s most popular and well-regarded President, from places of honor in the public square—for whatever reason, no matter how happily ignorant—is a show of brute force and power. It demonstrates how firm a grip the radical left has on our cultural life, our educational institutions, and our children’s future. The President most closely associated with equal rights for all, the President who destroyed chattel slavery—Abraham Lincoln—is on the cancellation chopping block. Anyone and anything might be next.