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Tuesday, February 20, 2024

February 20, 2024: Prejudicial Non-Favorites: Lincoln’s Mass Execution

[For this year’s annual non-favorites series, I wanted to highlight moments when important and in many ways impressive Americans gave in to white supremacist prejudices, modeling the worst of our national community in the process. Got grievances of your own to air, about anything and everything? Share ‘em for a therapeutic crowd-sourced post, please!]

I said much of what I’d want to say about this non-favorite moment in Chapter 3 of my book Of Thee I Sing, so will quote that section here:

Such mythic patriotisms did not only target African Americans, and indeed the Early Republic myths of expansion and Manifest Destiny remained in force during the Civil War, as illustrated by another horrific historical event: the December 26th, 1862 execution of 38 Dakota Sioux Native Americans in Mankota, Minnesota, the largest mass execution in American history. Throughout 1862 white settlers continued to pour into Minnesota (which had become a state in May 1858) and onto native lands, while the U.S. govern­ment violated treaties with multiple tribes and left many such communities starving after failing to deliver food in “payment” for that stolen land. In August, Dakota Sioux Chief Little Crow led a six-week uprising against these invaders, a revolt framed throughout the U.S. not as an echo of the American Revolution nor as an oppressed people’s quest for liberty and justice, but as an illegal war against the expanding nation. When the uprising was put down more than 300 Dakota men were sentenced to death by Governor Henry Hast­ings Sibley; while President Lincoln commuted a number of the sentences, many of those men nonetheless remained imprisoned for life, and 38 others were executed on Lincoln’s orders. The Sioux and Winnebago nations were subsequently removed from the state to distant reservations, once again on Lincoln’s authority. The era’s mythic patriotisms did not just divide North from South, but continued to divide the expanding United States into those communities perceived as part of that idealized nation and those overtly and violently excluded from it.

Lincoln’s prominent role in both that horrific mass execution and the subsequent extension of the Jacksonian Indian Removal policy reminds us that even Civil War era celebratory patriotisms which embraced the United States in opposition to the Confederacy could too easily be wedded to their own mythic patriotisms, with the same potential to discriminate and exclude. That’s an important rejoinder to any attempt to entirely distinguish the pe­riod’s Union and Confederate celebratory patriotisms.”

Obviously this horrific moment connects to deeper and broader (and far more longstanding and ongoing) American issues and histories than just President Lincoln, and Lincoln did commute a number of the death sentences. But to my mind neither of those things absolves Lincoln of his role in America’s largest mass execution, and one entirely linked to white supremacy (as it was to the subsequent removal policy for which Lincoln likewise bears responsibility). Ain’t none of us clean, to quote one of my favorite lines from one of my favorite cultural works about American history and white supremacy, and this non-favorite moment is a frustrating but important reminder that that maxim applies to even our most best president.

Next non-favorite tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Other non-favorites (of any and all types) you’d share?

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