Author Interview--Michael S. Green (Lincoln and Native Americans) Part 1

Niels Eichhorn's picture

Hello H-CivWar Readers:

Today we feature Michael S. Green to talk about his new book, Lincoln and Native Americans, published by the University of Southern Illinois Press in September 2021.

Michael S. Green is an associate professor of history at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He holds a Ph.D. from Columbia University. He is the author of Lincoln and the Election of 1860 and Politics and America in Crisis: The Coming of the Civil War, among others.

To start the interview, Mike, how did it come about that you wrote this brief volume for the Concise Lincoln Library?

MSG: I have long wanted to do a book on Lincoln and the West, and still plan to do so. This volumes is a bit of a flag planted in the sand. I actually brought it up as a possible dissertation topic thirty years ago, and the field was not yet ready for that subject. Now, of course, the Civil War and the West has become a much more important subject.

As for this particular volume, it is my second for this series. The first, Lincoln and the Election of 1860, came out in 2011 and was a thoroughly pleasant experience—the research, the writing, and the editorial process. So I was glad to work again with the series editors, Richard W. Etulain and Sylvia Frank Rodrigue. We have known one another for a while.

How this all came about—my previous contribution to the series, contributing to a volume that Dick edited, and refereeing manuscripts for Sylvia—happened in what may seem like an odd way.

In Dick’s case, my mother-in-law had moved to a retirement community near Portland, Oregon, where our family lives. She went to a lecture at a local community college on “Lincoln and the West.” At first that worried me—someone else was interested in this subject! It turned out the speaker was Etulain, to whom she introduced herself. We became friends, and Dick became a co-editor of “The Concise Lincoln Library.”

One of his co-editors (the other was Sara Gabbard) was Sylvia, who is the acquiring editor at SIU Press. Another distinguished senior scholar connected us. After my first book (Freedom, Union, and Power: Lincoln and His Party during the Civil War) came out, I got a voicemail on my office phone from John Y. Simon, asking me to call him. I figured I had screwed up something on Ulysses Grant and he was going to chew me out for it. It turned out that he was working on a speaking engagement in Las Vegas. I helped him with it, and we became friends. He recommended me, and my work, to Sylvia. We collaborated on the 1860 book, and then to this one.

What do you argue in Lincoln and Native Americans?

MSG: You write about Lincoln at your own risk, since he is so beloved (and, in some quarters, so reviled). I argue that we need to understand better where he stood in relation to Indigenous People, and that he deserves both condemnation and praise for his policies.

As for the first part, I am indebted to a fine book, Lincoln and the Indians, by David Nichols. It first came out more than 40 years ago and focuses, understandably, mainly on the Civil War. It is properly critical. But what were Lincoln’s origins? As I discuss in the book, he had every reason to be what would be described in that era as a typical hater, mainly because of encounters involving his family. I could find no evidence that he turned out that way. Yes, he was in the Black Hawk War, and was proud of it, even as he made light of his service, but he was far from the bloodthirsty frontiersman looking to draw blood.

Nonetheless, that does not make him a heroic figure by any means. Sad to say, he does not appear to have thought much about Native Americans, for the most part, before the war, and they were not a priority during the war. We can criticize that, but it also is understandable. Winning the war and dealing with slavery mattered more to him—and, importantly, to the overwhelming majority of his constituents.
As for the second part, the condemnation is understandable: He ordered the largest mass execution in American history, the 38 Dakota Sioux. Under his administration, the Diné made The Long Walk. Chivington led the Sand Creek Massacre. The encroachments, taking of land, corruption, and genocide associated with the history of Native-white relations continued. I do not think I minimize that.

But just as he is the answer to the question of which president ordered the largest mass execution in American history, he is the answer to another question: which president ordered the largest mass commutation of death sentences in American history—and it was for the same event. Later—and this is not original to me; Nichols talks about it, and I want to give him proper credit—Lincoln told a congressman from Minnesota that he had received a smaller electoral majority in his state in 1864 than he had in 1860. The congressman replied that he would have done better if he had executed all of the Dakota. Lincoln replied, “I could not afford to hang men for votes.” We do not see a lot of nineteenth-century politicians, in a position to save Native lives, actually taking that position.

Lincoln talked about the need for reform, but he lacked the overwhelming desire to do anything about it. Crucially, the Indian reform movement had yet to coalesce—he encountered a couple of reformers, and they disagreed, and generally proposed improving the reservation system. Abolitionists were well ahead of them, and I think their influence is evident. Indian reformers, unfortunately, were less influential at that time. His response to Indian reformers also may have reflected his doubts about reform movements generally; abolitionists clearly influenced him, but in his writings he takes issue with their approach and that of the temperance movement.

So my approach is to try to put myself, and the reader, in his shoes where applicable. At the same time, to be honest, he also disappears from the story at times. The Sand Creek Massacre, the Long Walk—these horrors happened during his administration. He certainly did not order them, and how much he even knew about them is unclear. It is interesting that those responsible paid some price in years to come, but by then, John Wilkes Booth had intervened, so part of the story is also wondering, in Lincoln’s case, what might have been. The answer is, I doubt that we would have seen great advances in Native-white relations during his second term, but I do not see Lincoln sitting idly by in response to the Sand Creek Massacre, for example.

It is interesting that you chronicle Lincoln’s entire life with an eye to his interactions with Native Americans. I had not expected that. How do you see the early interactions, like the Black Hawk War, influencing Lincoln’s later views?

MSG: To be fair, I tried to think along the lines of Eric Foner’s The Fiery Trial, or use that as something of a model. Not that my work is in that league! Foner provided a lot of biographical information about Lincoln but in relation to slavery and the issues surrounding it. As with his book, I tried not to stray too far afield from Lincoln and Native Americans.

The question is interesting to ponder, because we do not have evidence of Lincoln saying, because of the Black Hawk War, I concluded such-and-such or this-and-that—as compared with, say, his description of seeing enslaved people and that affecting him (and that in itself is a subject of debate). So this involves some guesswork, some of which I would not put in the book. Maybe the best way is to turn it around and ask, what if he had seen or been in actual combat during the Black Hawk War? Would that have made him more bloodthirsty? I have my doubts, but we do not and cannot know.

Instead, it seems that Lincoln’s general personality and inclinations shaped his response to Native Americans. He appears to have lacked the desire to hate or hold grudges (perhaps outside of Stephen Douglas—we could debate that one), though he certainly had a temper and could seek vengeance. In the case of the Black Hawk War, he was quite matter of fact: He needed some kind of job, and this would do. Other young men his age were involved, and Lincoln clearly had a desire to be part of the “group,” if you will—not necessarily being one of the rowdies with Jack Armstrong’s Clary’s Grove Boys, but getting along with them.

I find it interesting that the Black Hawk War meant something to him politically. He met people who would be involved in his political and legal career—for example, John Todd Stuart and Orville Browning. His militia company elected him captain, and he said when he was ramping up his presidential campaign that no victory had given him more pleasure—he did not say this, but it was a sign that after a difficult, often isolated youth, he now belonged and had the respect of his community, or at least popularity. Yet he stayed true to his views. I love the story of the elderly Indigenous person who came into camp, and his company wanted to kill him—they had seen no action, and wanted to do something. Lincoln saw the man had a letter giving him safe package and stood up to his own men, and was ready to fight them if necessary. Maybe he learned, or thought he learned, something about bullies and whether they back down.

You have a rather interesting section where you illustrate that while many people favored reform and abolition, that spirit for change stopped with Native Americans. Why?

MSG: I think sometimes historians—and I include myself in deserving blame—lose sight that the Republican Party originated out of a reform impulse (to stop the spread of slavery) in an era of great reforms. Abolitionists obviously did not dominate the party, but they had an influence. Republicans often had some connection to other reform movements as well.

This is where Lincoln diverged a bit. One of my favorite writings of his for dissection is his October 3, 1845 to Williamson Durley, in which he complains about anti-slavery reformers refusing to back Henry Clay because he seemed insufficiently true to their cause, and instead the country wound up with James Polk. Lincoln’s attitude appears to have been that he wanted changes, but as he might say of the present-day U.S. Senate, if he lacked 51 votes, his reform would not get very far. He was a practical politician in some ways, and impractical in others: It did him little good to be a Whig in Democratic Illinois, for example, but he stuck with his party. It fit with his beliefs. He also was a capitalist, trying to rise in society, and that plays a role in his thinking.

So, Lincoln believed in certain principles, but not in getting too far out ahead of the public unless he thought they were in a position to be brought along. A lot of people have been credited with saying, “I must catch up with my people, because I am their leader.” There was a bit of that to Lincoln.

If you look at Native American affairs and relations in that time, in 1851, the Indian Appropriations Act led to the reservation system. Hindsight tells us how disastrous that was in so many ways. But to a lot of people at the time, it seemed like a solution to a problem: How Euro-American society could expand physically and economically, and how Native Americans could survive. Nor is it a coincidence that this comes two years after the creation of the Department of the Interior; during Lincoln’s administration, a general or two liked the idea of returning control over Native affairs to the War Department, but that went nowhere.