We all knew it would happen eventually. The social justice warriors, having spent their fury on monuments to the Confederacy, have gone in search of other targets. At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, they have set their sights on America’s sixteenth president, Abraham Lincoln.
The Associated Students of Madison has called for a plaque to be placed on the statue, acknowledging what ASM’s Katrina Morrison called Lincoln’s “brutality toward indigenous peoples.” The alleged “brutality” involves Lincoln’s role in the suppression of an uprising by Sioux Indians in Minnesota in the summer and fall of 1862. In the aftermath of the uprising, a military tribunal issued 303 death sentences to Sioux men.
In the aftermath, Lincoln ordered a careful investigation of the tribunals, and found massive irregularities. He also carefully distinguished between those Sioux who had engaged in battles against soldiers and militia, and those who had perpetrated massacres against unarmed civilians or had committed rape. Despite enormous public pressure, Lincoln commuted 264 of the sentences, and then pardoned one of the others at the last minute. It was the largest mass execution in American history, but it was also one of the nation’s greatest acts of clemency.
These facts were acknowledged by UW Chancellor Rebecca Blank in her statement refusing to acquiesce in ASM’s demands, but they are unlikely to satisfy the SJWs. Thus, one is presented with the spectacle of activists against the Confederacy turning on the man who did more to fight that regime and erase the injustice upon which it was founded than any other man in American history. He paid for it with his life.
This progression is entirely logical: They started by attacking Confederate statutes, because they were soft targets. Even if one (rightfully) admires the bravery, tenacity, and skill of Confederate soldiers, it is indisputable that the cause they served was a monstrous injustice. This is the decent man’s dilemma and why the SJWs’ tactics were so inspired: If decent people defend the statues, they side with an evil regime. If they do not, then they grant moral authority to the social justice warriors. The Confederate monuments were simply the entering wedge in a campaign to purify American society.
Twenty years before the Sioux uprising, Lincoln had warned of the dangers of this kind of reformism. In February of 1842, he delivered an address to a temperance society in Springfield, Illinois, contrasting two different kinds of reformers: the prudent, compassionate, reasonable reformer on the one hand, and the crusading radical on the other. Lincoln saw the crusading radical as someone who is convinced of his own moral purity and superiority, and consumed with hatred for anything that did not meet his standards. This radical is without sympathy for the normal human failings of other people, believing them utterly incorrigible and worthy only of purgation from the society, for the benefit of the morally pure. Rather than labor earnestly to bring about meaningful improvement, he prefers simply to denounce everything and everyone that fails to measure up in his own eyes.
In Lincoln’s time, these were the radical abolitionists. They condemned slaveholders in the vilest language. They burned copies of the Constitution. They publicly declared their desire to rend the Union to escape the taint of association with slavery and slaveholders. (How this would improve the lot of slaves or reform slaveholders is unclear). They refused to participate in politics, denying to themselves the very weapon that could effect meaningful change, because they did not want to take part in a system they believed to be hopelessly corrupt, lest it corrupt them.
In our own time, these are the leftist social justice warriors. They are supremely confident in their own moral superiority, and denounce everything and everyone around them with a now-familiar litany of sins: racism, sexism, heterosexism, cisgenderism, patriarchy, white supremacy, colonialism, and more. They declare that, by definition, all Americans of European ancestry are guilty of all these sins. They demand a total purification of society from all these sins, and to this end are willing to harass, intimidate, threaten, or physically harm anyone who resists them.
With this kind of radicalism there is no discussion and no reasoning. Unconditional submission of the “impure” to the rule of the “pure” is the only acceptable outcome. There is a massive danger in this kind of reformism, because a tyrannical impulse lurks beneath it. The great monsters of modern history — Robespierre, Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot, Kim, and Khomeini — have all possessed the kind of reforming spirit Lincoln describes. Each sought to remake man and the world in his own image, free from what each perceived as the impurities around him. Each was utterly ruthless and relentless, indifferent to the suffering of others in pursuit of his goal.
The attack on Abraham Lincoln reveals the mortal danger to justice and civilization posed by the modern radical left. The radicalism of the social justice warriors is inherently tyrannical, and it is encapsulated in the name of one of their most famous groups: “By Any Means Necessary.”
Kevin Portteus is Lawrence Fertig chair and associate professor of politics and director of American studies at Hillsdale College.