Abraham Lincoln was President of the United States during the bloodiest war in its history – the Civil War. At least 600 000 Americans lost their lives and many more left disabled in an existential fight for the identity of the nation. The direct legacy of that war and his Presidency was emancipation of millions of African American slaves who had been being traded as property while providing the unpaid labour that fueled the southern economy.
During the Civil War, the Dakota Natives rose up against American settlement of their land in the frontier state of Minnesota. The U.S.-Dakota War was a short-lived insurgency that led to the death of hundreds of American settlers, and the near destruction of the Dakota by an American general sent to quell the uprising. In modern parlance they almost certainly would have been referred to as terrorists.
In spite of the larger and very violent war consuming his time, President Lincoln took time to review personally the death sentences imposed on each of the 303 Dakota men. He commuted 265 of the sentences, even though the move was politically unpopular. The hangings of the remaining 38 are a dark stain on American history and stand in stark contrast to the amnesty offered to Confederate rebels after the Civil War. However, it must be kept in mind that at the time Native life was given a very low valley, less than human, because their very existence was a problem for European settlers wanting their land. Regardless President Lincoln said: ‘I could not afford to hang men for votes’, in a sentiment rarely shared by leaders before or since that time.
It was President Lincoln’s very strong sense humanity that would allow President Barack Obama to become the first black President of the United States 150 years later.
As President, Obama has been engaged in his own war, projecting American power abroad and using drones to kill insurgents in their homelands who are opposed to the United States, its policies and its allies. The killing includes countless civilians, such as a 16 year old American citizen and scores of other non-Americans in locations Lincoln could never have imagined the United States attacking: such as northern Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Yemen. One report even suggests President Obama offered to assist the Turkish government with drone warfare against its long-running Kurdish insurgency.
Drone warfare is a cold, roboticised way of meting out death from above. It indiscriminately takes lives without compunction or emotion: many civilian, many innocent, and none through trial by jury. It is a form of warfare that a conscientious Lincoln would almost certainly refuse to engage in.
Abraham Lincoln’s legacy was freedom for millions of Americans. This legacy allowed Barack Obama to become President. Obama’s legacy might end up becoming health coverage for millions of uninsured Americans. However, it may just as easily become a legacy of death, normalising the use of drones and extra-judicial killings with robotic warfare.
It is within the power of President Obama to set the United States down a different course that respects its own constitution and the rights of individuals, just a Lincoln made the right choice 150 years ago. In this author’s opinion it seems unlikely that Lincoln would use Drones, and Obama, President Lincoln’s legacy, should not either.