I was walking by City Hall Sunday morning when I saw it — the statue of the 16th president, Abraham Lincoln had its face painted red. The letters of his last name were also painted red. As of yet, we don’t know who vandalized the statue, but history may give us a clue as to why.
In school we were taught that Honest Abe freed the slaves, signed the Emancipation Proclamation, and delivered the Gettysburg Address. Those, and other positive impacts of his presidency have been widely celebrated since Lincoln’s death by assassination in 1865. But time, it seems, tries to erase the negatives of past administrations, and Lincoln’s was no different.
Native Americans, for example, have a very different experience with Abraham Lincoln’s legacy.
For people in Native American tribes, he was not The Great Emancipator. Instead of joining in, the posthumous praise he receives serves as a painful reminder of Lincoln’s role in the genocide of Native American peoples.
Looking at Lincoln’s statue in San Francisco, with “blood” on his face I wondered, does the man himself have blood on his hands?
At the beginning of the 1860s, President Lincoln supported the Homestead Act and the transcontinental railroad, both of which cost Indigenous people their homes. The Dakota in Minnesota fought back in a bloody battle that would come to be known as the “Sioux Uprising,” where Natives clashed with white settlers over access to food and their own stolen ancestral lands.
The Dakota were captured, tried, convicted and sentenced to death in brief military trials, some lasting less than 5 minutes, with no translators or counsel. As a result, 303 members of the Dakota were scheduled to be put to death.
President Lincoln personally reviewed each case, ultimately providing a reprieve to all but 38 of the condemned, who Lincoln believed were guilty of murder or rape. Those 38 Dakota men were executed the day after Christmas 1862 in Mankato, Minnesota.
It was the largest mass hanging in United States history.
Abraham Lincoln saved the lives of 264 other Dakota Warriors, but with the death of those 38, the damage was done. And, like his more amplified positive traits, this moment continues to follow President Lincoln long after his death.
Is Abraham Lincoln responsible for a mass execution? Yes.
How much does it change his overall record? That is for history to decide.
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San Francisco leaders and citizens are weighing Abraham Lincoln’s complicated legacy, as well as a few dozen others like California Senator Dianne Feinstein, while considering renaming schools around the district. That battle is still ongoing.
The Lincoln Statue in front of city hall will likely be cleaned, and this bold-faced political vandalism will become a fleeting memory in an already tumultuous 2020. But we would be foolish to forget that each U.S. President has blood on their hands to one degree or another — maybe in the future we should aim even higher when choosing who to memorialize in stone, and in our halls of education?
Special Thanks to Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez.
See Also: DAKOTA 38 (A documentary)