This post is a bit of a departure from the usual. It’s a rebuttal to an article that was introduced to me some time ago which I found to be historically flawed, overflowing with innuendo and quite frankly does a disservice to a great American President.
“At the age of 16, I already killed someone. A real person, a rumble, a stabbing. I was just 16 years old. It was just over a look. How much more now that I am president?” Rodrigo Duterte, November 9th, 2017.
It’s been a couple months now, I was mindlessly scanning Facebook and ran across a post that stopped me in my scrolling tracks. Well there it was, right in front of Mark Zuckerberg and God (some might say they’re one and the same) and everyone; a picture of Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte side by side with Abraham Lincoln and a link to an article entitled A Vulgar President. “Well, well, what have we here?”
I knew right off which president in the picture carries a reputation for vulgarity but what in the wide, wide world was Lincoln doing there? The poster had entered a short two words, “Please read.”
“Okay you got me.”
The article is an opinion piece written by one Sass Rogando Sasot and appears on a site called For The Motherland Blog. It’s an eye popping conflation of Abraham Lincoln and Rodrigo Duterte that’s meant to bait the reader into buying the notion that Lincoln was a potty mouthed fellow who, over time, was judged by his deeds rather than his words and if that’s good enough for Abe then why not Duterte?
Now far be it from me to meddle in the politics of the Philippines because Duterte’s their problem and as everyone except those vacationing on Mars would know, we here in the U.S. have our own can of worms, so I’m compelled to be ambivalent about the guy. Now I have no problem with the author making a comparison between Duterte and other world leaders past and present. History has given us a glut of leaders to choose from; you can select from Ferdinand Marcos to Idi Amin to Robert Mugabe to Hitler. You want to compare a knave to a knave then knock yourself out. The problem comes into play when you try to draw a comparison between Duterte and Abraham Lincoln. With the addition of Lincoln, well, now you’re getting into MY kitchen and you’ve left dirty dishes in the sink and you’ve dumped all over my floor. So here I am trying to clean up the mess.
There are two main flaws in Sasot’s argument. The first is in her incorrect usage of the word “vulgar” as it pertains to Lincoln which she did either mistakenly or on purpose with the intent of supporting her argument. The second flaw is a mixture of historical cherry picking, plain old bullshittery and lack of understanding of 19th century America. After reading the article once, twice, thrice (because the first time was just too much of a head shaker) I was, to use a bit of vulgarity myself, pissed off. Well I’ve been stewing over this thing ever since and so I’ve got to get it off my chest.
Before addressing A Vulgar President in detail it might be helpful to get a measure of Duterte with a couple of his public remarks; one expresses frustration that he missed out on being part of a gang rape and another is where he compares himself to a universally reviled monster.
In 1989, 36 year old Jacqueline Hamill an Australian missionary was raped and murdered during a hostage situation in Davao City where Duterte was mayor at the time. Speaking at a rally during his presidential campaign in 2016 Duterte recalled the incident, “When the body was taken out, it was already wrapped. I looked at her face. I said, ‘F**k, she looks like an – like an American actress, a beautiful one … I said: ‘F**k, what a waste’. What went through my head was that they raped her. That everyone had lined up to rape her. I got angry. That she was raped? Yes, that too. But it was that she was so beautiful – the mayor should have been first. What a waste.”
In the fall of 2016, Duterte touting his war on drugs likened himself to Hitler, “If Germany had Hitler, the Philippines would have…,” Duterte said in a press conference, then pausing and pointing to himself. “Hitler massacred 3 million Jews … there’s 3 million drug addicts. There are. I’d be happy to slaughter them,”
Now that we’ve set the stage vis a vis Duterte let’s get back to A Vulgar President. Sasot writes, If there’s anything I would hope the future generation would become, it’s that they would have a more enlightened view of the world. (sic) “Enlightenment,” political realist philosopher Raymond Geuss once said, “is category that has a yes-or-no structure. It’s a question of degrees.” The enlightened future generation would judge Duterte not according to how clean his mouth but how he used power to shape events to prevent greater tragedies from happening to our country. (sic).
Lincoln is a clear example of the discrepancy between today’s headlines and history’s judgment.
Sasot then proceeds to quote various newspaper articles from Lincoln’s time that lambaste the 16th President.
“A vulgar politician” — that was how Abraham Lincoln was called by The New York Herald in one of their articles that lampooned him.
The Atlas and Argus was equally disgusted by Lincoln. On May 21, 1860, they described him as a “slang-whanging stump speaker, of a class with which every party teems (sic), and of which all parties are ashamed.”
On May 24, 1860 The Philadelphia Evening Journal asked why should Lincoln become President? His language was “coarse,” they said. His style, “illiterate.” And Lincoln’s “vulgar and vituperative” character couldn’t hold a candle to the refine and eminent personality of his opponent.
When Lincoln became president, a newspaper in Illinois said this about him:
“His weak, wishy-washy, namby-pamby efforts, imbecile in matter, disgusting in manner, have made us the laughing stock of the whole world. The European powers will despise us because we have no better material out of which to make a President.” Sasot fails to reference the Illinois newspaper. For the record, and this matters, the newspaper was The Salem Advocate.
Sasot’s offense is that it ignores the partisan nature of the nineteenth century American press. In 21st century America its become something of a national sport to criticize the media for being a biased “enemy of the people” and for spreading “fake news” and “alternative facts.” That said in most cases our current legitimate media strives to be unbiased despite the hue and cry to the contrary. Today’s news media strives for accuracy and in most cases will issue retractions and corrections of errors. Not so in the 19th century when partisanship was blatant and unrepentant. Newspapers were identified as Republican or Democrat, or in the case of Lincoln and Stephen Douglas (Lincoln’s opponent in 1860) a paper was either a Lincoln paper or a Douglas paper.
Given that, it isn’t at all surprising that The Albany Atlas and Argus would lambaste Lincoln since it was a partisan Stephen Douglas paper and pillorying Lincoln was its stock in trade. The referenced Argus quote of May 21, 1860 was part of an editorial comment on the Chicago convention in that same month, when Lincoln was nominated to be the Democratic Party nominee for President.
The Enquirer and the Herald both of which also trolled Lincoln were hardly paragons of American Democratic virtue. The Philadelphia Enquirer was a partisan mouthpiece for John Bell, a United States Senator from Tennessee (which would eventually join the Confederacy). A slaveholder himself, Bell supported the continuation of slavery in the slave states.
The New York Herald, supported John C. Breckinridge who was at the time, the sitting Vice-President and a pro-slavery Democrat who became the presidential nominee of the Southern Democrats, a wing of the party that split from the main over the issues of slavery and free soil. Breckinridge would later serve as an officer in the Confederacy and as the Civil War wound down became the Confederate Secretary of War.
Not only was The Salem Advocate a Democratic Newspaper it published, in 1863, open letters that quoted Biblical scripture in defense of slavery.
Just as Sasot mined for opinion pieces critical of the 16th president one can just as easily find Republican papers that equally praised him.
Joseph Medill of The Chicago Tribune described Lincoln as “a model statesman.”
Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune described Lincoln as a man of “genius and force of character.”
The Boston Daily Advertiser suggested that Lincoln had “an intellectual face, showing a searching mind and a cool judgement.”
In addition to cherry picking descriptions of Lincoln what she provides in her article are just that, descriptions. Sasot doesn’t provide a single syllable that can be attributed to Lincoln himself to support the argument of Lincoln the vulgarian. The reader is only offered partisan hearsay.
In her article, Sasot is happy to have the reader go down the path that perceives vulgarity to mean “offensive in language.” While that is A definition of vulgar, in the case of the criticisms of Lincoln during his own time the CORRECT definition is (from Merriam Webster) of or relating to the common people : PLEBEIAN.
It’s important to understand that Lincoln’s past was a simple one. As a child, he was reared in a one room cabin with a dirt floor in Kentucky. His father Thomas could neither read or write with the exception of barely being able to write his own name. The aggregate of Lincoln’s formal education came out to about one year. The youth who would become the 16th president was mostly self educated. His first job was on a ferry boat. Later he would make a temporary living hauling freight on a flatboat that he’d built.
As a young man Lincoln was known for his skill in tree felling and rail splitting, a reputation that followed him into his later political life when he would often be referred to by the nickname, “rail splitter.”
Lincoln used his reputation as a commoner to his political advantage, casting himself as a man of the people. His opponents, such as those mentioned in Sasot’s article used Lincoln’s common background to paint a picture of a simple minded, backwoods oaf unsuited to the high office of the presidency. Lincoln often turned that criticism to his own advantage in political debate using self deprecation as bait, portraying the simple rube, leading his opponent down the path and then springing the trap by suddenly brandishing his intellect and quick wit.
They say that “talk is cheap,’ yet words indeed matter, especially the words of those in power who should take care to speak judiciously. Here in America we’re learning the repercussions of a president who fails to understand the weight that words carry. His words have emboldened racists and America’s enemies in the Middle East, praised authoritarian adversaries and confounded America’s allies.
Lincoln understood that words matter. On September 22, 1862 Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation which declared slaves in the rebellious Southern States to be free. Before issuing his proclamation he gave it careful consideration, weighing its consequences. In the end after consulting with his cabinet he issued the proclamation for reasons both strategic and humanitarian.
Either Duturte doesn’t recognize the weight of his words or simply doesn’t care but clearly he has no regrets over any consequences arising from his words. While Lincoln considered his words carefully Duterte has no apparent problem with spewing unfiltered bile and billingsgate.
In contrast to Lincoln’s human rights driven Emancipation Proclamation Duterte’s 2016 proclamation, in support of his brutal war on drugs stated “If it involves human rights, I don’t give a shit.”
In December of last year a Duterte rant criticized Filipino Catholic bishops as “useless fools” and went on to say, “These bishops that you guys have, kill them. They are useless fools. All they do is criticize.” In a similar rant, Duterte threatened a bishop with beheading.
And while words matter, deeds are what history remembers best. This article would be incomplete if, contrary to Sasot, we left out the deeds of Lincoln and Duterte.
Upon Lincoln’s inauguration he entered the presidency of a union being sundered. By June of 1861, 11 states left the union to join the Confederacy. One couldn’t blame Lincoln if, when choosing members of his cabinet, he’d appointed men allied to him. In times of stress we like to surround ourselves with the like minded. Lincoln did just the opposite in appointing his political rivals.
He appointed men who represented a full spectrum of political beliefs but possessed the skills, temperament and intelligence who he considered would best serve the nation and not his own ego or legacy; Republicans, Whigs, Free Soil men, Democrats, conservatives, liberals, and moderates. Men who he considered to possess the mettle to rise above politics in order to face full on the national crisis.
Lincoln was certainly not immune from criticism. He simply treated it with aplomb. His friend Leonard Swett said of Lincoln, “If a man had maligned him or been guilty of personal ill-treatment and abuse and was the fittest man for the place, he would put him in his cabinet just as he would his friend.”
Lincoln’s sense of decency was evident in his sentiment that anyone who had wronged would be forgiven; “it is enough if the man does no wrong hereafter.”
When a letter written years before by Montgomery Blair that was critical of Lincoln suddenly surfaced Lincoln said to an embarrassed Blair, “Forget it and never mention it or think of it again.”
In Duterte we don’t find a man to be compared to Lincoln, we find the anti-Lincoln an ill tempered tyrant who reacts to criticism in the manner common to dictators; paranoia, threats and reprisal.
Just last October, Duterte accused soldiers of being “in cahoots” with the opposition liberal party which he characterized as “the enemy.” “If you are true to your country, do not bed with the enemy,” In what democracy is the opposition deemed to be “the enemy” by the sitting president? In September of last year, Duterte ordered the detention of two opposition senators.
During Lincoln’s time in office as Commander in Chief, the Union suffered over 360,000 casualties. The casualties of war weighed heavily on Lincoln. A letter written by Lincoln in 1862 attempts to console her after the death of her father in combat.
It is with deep grief that I learn of the death of your kind and brave Father; and, especially, that it is affecting your young heart beyond what is common in such cases. In this sad world of ours, sorrow comes to all; and, to the young, it comes with bitterest agony, because it takes them unawares. The older have learned to ever expect it. I am anxious to afford some alleviation of your present distress. Perfect relief is not possible, except with time. You can not now realize that you will ever feel better. Is not this so? And yet it is a mistake. You are sure to be happy again. To know this, which is certainly true, will make you some less miserable now. I have had experience enough to know what I say; and you need only to believe it, to feel better at once. The memory of your dear Father, instead of an agony, will yet be a sad sweet feeling in your heart, of a purer, and holier sort than you have known before.
Please present my kind regards to your afflicted mother.
Lincoln had an unwavering sense of compassion and it was apparent in the many pardons that he issued for soldiers condemned to death for desertion or sleeping on sentry duty. Much to the dismay of his generals he used this power quite liberally.
“If a man had more than one life, I think a little hanging would not hurt this one; but after he is once dead we cannot bring him back, no matter how sorry we may be; so the boy shall be pardoned,” wrote Lincoln in one of his many letters of pardon.
As 1864 drew to a close it became more and more apparent that the end of the war was in sight. The war would end the following spring and as that spring approached, Lincoln’s concerns turned to reunification of the Union without reprisal.
In 1893 in an article published in Century Magazine, Marquis de Chambrun wrote in his “Personal Recollections of Mr. Lincoln,”
“And when success had at last crowned so many bloody efforts, it was impossible to discover in Mr. Lincoln a single sentiment, I shall not say of revenge, but even of bitterness, in regard to the vanquished. Recall, as soon as possible, the Southern States into the Union, such was his chief preoccupation. When he encountered contrary opinion on that subject, when several of those who surrounded him insisted upon the necessity of exacting strong guarantees, at once on hearing them he would exhibit impatience. Although it was rare that such thoughts influenced his own, he nevertheless would evince, on healing them expressed, a sort of fatigue and weariness, which he controlled, but was unable to dissimulate entirely.
But the one point on which his mind seemed most irrevocably made up was his action in regard to the men who had taken part in the rebellion. Clemency never suggested itself more naturally to a victorious chieftain. The policy of pardon and forgiveness appeared to his mind and soul an absolute necessity.
In the years between 1861 and 1865, America was stricken with the nearly fatal disease of Civil War. Lincoln’s solution was to cure the ill and not kill the patient. We find not a shred of that in Rodrigo Duterte.
Pull up just about any article on addiction and you’ll find that addiction is described as either a disorder or a disease. The notion of addiction as a moral failing is now only harbored by the self-righteous, the right and the cruel. Which brings us right back to Duterte and his proud promise to “kill 3 million drug addicts.”
Fr Jerome Secillano, a spokesman of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) said in an interview with Al Jazeera, “We want to treat drug addiction as a health issue. Our government is treating drug addicts as criminals. One by one, these addicts are being killed. They are out in the streets being shot to death.”
If you accept the notion that addiction is a disease or a disorder then Duterte’s own proclamation to kill drug addicts is no different than Hitler’s own T-4 program which called for the elimination of those who Hitler characterized as the “incurably ill.” Far from being ashamed of that comparison Duterte basks in it.
In his book, Lincoln: The War President, Civil War historian Gabor S. Boritt describes Lincoln as “not a pacifist, but a pacific man….who abhorred violence.” This was apparent in Lincoln’s words and deeds.
As I wrote in the beginning of this article, Duterte is the Philippines’ problem – they can either love him or leave him or boot him from office but when it comes the 16th president just leave him alone.
Sasot’s entire argument teeters on the weak foundation of denigrating a great man in order to legitimize a tyrant. It’s a foundation that is further weakened by using innuendo, omission, revisionist history and a misunderstanding or purposeful misuse of the etymology of the word vulgar. It just can’t stand up.
Boritt, Gabor S, Lincoln, the War President: The Gettysburg Lectures, Oxford University Press, May 19, 1994.
Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Leadership: In Turbulent Times, Simon & Schuster; September 18, 2018.
Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. Simon & Schuster, October 25, 2005.
Marquis De Chambrun, Personal Recollections of Mr. Lincoln, Forgotten Books, December 2nd 2018.
Sheppard, Si, The Partisan Press: A History of Media Bias in the United States, McFarland, Oct 29, 2007.