President Lincoln reminds us to stand for principle and not for prejudice

President Lincoln reminds us to stand for principle and not for prejudice
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President Lincoln left a rich legacy of saving the Union and freeing the slaves. The spirit of his leadership lives on in our nation. As we celebrate his birthday next Wednesday, we should remember how he taught us to stand for principle and not for prejudice. 

In dealing with the aftermath of the Great Sioux Uprising in 1862, the largest massacre of Caucasians by Native Americans in American history, Lincoln’s moral rectitude was on full display. With the westward expansion of the United States and the establishment of the state of Minnesota in 1858, the native Sioux or Dakota tribe had been pushed off their native lands to a reservation along the banks of the Minnesota River. 

This situation continued to worsen year after year with the desperation of the Native Americans growing as well. In the summer of 1862, four Dakota men murdered five Caucasian settlers while robbing a farm. Sensing that they would be attacked, the Dakota preemptively declared war and killed four to 800 Caucasian settlers during the first days of the rampage, burning their farms and fields as well. 

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Lincoln sent General John Pope to quell the uprising. Eventually, 1,200 Native Americans were captured. Henry H. Sibley, appointed by Minnesota governor Alexander Ramsey as a colonel in this battle, established a military commission to try the prisoners and “pass judgment upon them, if found guilty of murders or other outrages upon the Whites, during the present State of hostilities of the Indians.” 

Just over a month later, the commission had conducted 392 trials, including a single day in which 40 trials were conducted. 

The trials resulted in death sentences for 303 Dakota men. Despite the haste in which the trials were conducted, and although the Native Americans were given no presumption of innocence or right to defense, public opinion in Minnesota overwhelmingly approved the verdicts and wanted to see them carried out without delay. 

Nevertheless, the executions could not proceed without the approval of President Lincoln. He was telegraphed a list of names, and in response asked for “the full and complete record of these convictions” and to identify “the more guilty and influential of the culprits.” Lincoln instructed Pope that he wasn’t allowed to perform any executions without Lincoln’s approval. 

Despite the pressures he was facing from all sides, Lincoln began reviewing the cases of the convicted Sioux, spending many hours upon hours reading transcripts of the trials and receiving visits from family members of convicted men. 

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As an accomplished trial lawyer himself, Lincoln could not help but notice that among other issues with the trials, had the accused been allowed defense representation, they would have been able to call attention to the problematic nature of the witnesses and the composition of the military commission.  

While Lincoln understood that the indiscriminate murder of settlers must be punished, he nevertheless did not allow a type of massacre in response. When Alexander Ramsey suggested to Lincoln that he would have won Minnesota by a wider margin in the 1864 election had he allowed the original orders to stand, Lincoln responded, “I could not afford to hang men for votes.” 

Yet to fully appreciate Lincoln’s greatness in this story, one must keep in mind Lincoln’s personal history. Abraham Lincoln’s grandfather as well as his namesake, Captain Abraham Lincoln (1744-1786), was a wealthy military captain during the American Revolution, and a pioneer settler of Kentucky. 

One day he was shot by a Native American while in his field with his sons. The eldest son, Mordecai, ran to the cabin where a loaded gun was kept. From the cabin, Mordecai observed the Native Americans come out of the forest and stop by his father's body. 

The Native American reached for Thomas, the future president’s father, either to kill him or to carry him off. Mordecai took aim and shot the Native American, killing him. Referring to his grandfather in a letter in 1854, Lincoln wrote that “the story of his death by the Indians, and of Uncle Mordecai, then fourteen years old, killing one of the Indians, is the legend more strongly than all others imprinted upon my mind and memory.”

Given this lamentable backstory, it would not have surprised us if Abraham Lincoln would have adopted a vengeful attitude toward American Native Americans. Union general and Civil War hero General Philip Henry Sheridan allegedly commented that “The only good Indian is a dead Indian,” and many others at the time shared this attitude. But this was not Lincoln’s way. Here too, Lincoln applied his faith in the creed that all men are created equal. 

There is an important lesson that we must take away from this story. Despite the fact that a Native American killed his father, President Lincoln bore no grudge when it came to the issue of justice. Not tainted by the past, he made sure to review each and every case file for those who would be potentially executed. He didn’t harbor resentment and in today’s world where there is much that divides us, this is an important message. 

Rabbi Genack is the CEO of OU Kosher, the world’s largest Kosher certification agency.