Charles Kesler's Lincolnitis

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by Myles Kantor

Charles R. Kesler's "The Republican Challenge" (National Review, September 11, 2000) is a fantastic illustration of how Republican intellectuals are hell-bent on severing what ties they retain with republican principles. Kesler, a government professor at Claremont McKenna College and senior fellow at the Claremont Institute, also finds major fault in the GOP, arguing "The Republican party still lacks a confident, well-grounded sense of itself and its moral purpose." What is the solution to this identity crisis? George W.

Bush must "reclaim the moral high ground for his party, with a new politics in the Lincoln tradition."

Now National Review is supposedly a conservative publication, so it's odd to find Kesler's prescription in its pages. (I'm being only somewhat sarcastic.) But let's delve into Kesler's exposition of his thesis:

"The original Lincoln Republicans stood for liberty and Union, in the form of popular, constitutional government. Liberty meant that all human beings were created free and equal; slavery was therefore wrong. Union meant that out of many individuals, an indivisible people had been formed; secession was therefore wrong. Popular, constitutional government meant that government had to be limited, and to operate with the consent of the governed; tyranny, whether of a majority or a minority, was therefore wrong."

As befits a neoconservative analysis, Kesler mixes validity with distortion. He's right that slavery violated the inalienable rights Jefferson affirmed in the Declaration of Independence. (I part company with some 19th century Southern conservatives, many of them perspicacious, who considered Jefferson in error.) He's also correct to underscore the consensual, enumerated nature of American government and its provisions against numerical tyranny of either stripe. (States' rights are a salient provision; consider the Senate.) Given these good points, it's incongruent (to understate matters) that Kesler attributes their fulfillment to the foremost revolutionary in American political history: Abraham Lincoln.

Lincoln was a revolutionary because he mangled American philosophical and constitutional moorings. (The latter builds on the former, so they're somewhat synonymous.) Whether in suspending habeas corpus, imposing military tribunals, or assuming fiscal power – but a partial listing – Lincoln again and again showed contempt for separation of powers, enumerated government – that whole rule of law thing. (Biographer David Donald captures a representative moment when he notes that Lincoln "threatened to jail and exile judges who used the writ of habeas corpus to interfere with the draft.") Kesler doesn't address Lincoln's executive totalism, which isn't surprising; the Lincoln ilk tends toward rhapsodic generalities – "He saved the Union," "He protected government of by and for the people," etc. (Clinton Rossiter – whose edition of The Federalist Papers features a new introduction and notes from Kesler – gives a specific analysis in Constitutional Dictatorship: Crisis Government in the Modern Democracies. In a curious pattern among many Lincoln apologists, Rossiter describes his "unabashed presidential encroachment upon the power of Congress" and goes on to write of "Lincoln's noble actions.")

As for Kesler's generalities, they manifest the primary symptom of neoconservative constitutionalism: the conflation of federalism and nationalism. He rejects secession as antithetical to the "indivisible people" formed by the Union, which follows from his premise but is substantively absurd. It's a line right out of the Joseph Story-Lincoln "The United States as Unitary State" textbook. (Abel P. Upshur authored a book-length refutation of Story's nationalist theory that's lamentably unknown for the most part. Upshur served as a high judge in Virginia and was Secretary of the Navy and then Secretary of State in the Tyler administration.) We need look only to the manner in which the Constitution was ratified to ascertain its inaccuracy. Article VII indicates its establishment derived from the approval of nine state conventions that would be binding "between the States so ratifying the Same." This is not how a nation-state is formed; this is how a federal union, i.e., an association of discrete political societies, is formed. Kesler's proposition would have more merit if ratification had hinged on a referendum-model binding on every state. But this wasn't the case, and James Madison (Virginia Plan consolidationist, bear in mind) accordingly noted in Federalist #39, "In its foundation it [the Constitution] is federal, not national."

Secession is thus constitutionally compatible and an example of political reflexivity: States that voluntarily join a union may withdraw on the same basis. (Would anyone deny the right of the United States to withdraw from the United Nations? Ok, bad question.) Specifically, secession is among "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States," and consequently a reserved power under the Tenth Amendment. Without that crucial, constitutionally protected exit option, encomiums to federalism are lip service.

Kesler's most troubling proposition, implicitly made, is that secession undermines the consent of the governed. It's quite Lincolnian and, when instantiated, calamitous (over 620,000 dead, countless more maimed, infrastructural devastation, etc.). The grisly falsity of this belief was most cogently pointed out by Lysander Spooner, whose abolitionist credentials preclude ad hominems often deployed by Lincoln apologists. (Spooner was a supporter of John Brown and wanted to kidnap Virginia Governor Henry Wise to obtain his release after Harpers Ferry.) Spooner had this to say in his magnificent No Treason: The Constitution of No Authority:

"Still another of the frauds of these men is, that they are now establishing, and that the war was destined to establish, u2018a government of consent.' The only idea they have ever manifested as to what is a government of consent, is this – that it is one to which everybody must consent, or be shot. This idea was the dominant one on which the war was carried on; and it is the dominant one, now that we have got what is called u2018peace.'"

The circumstances that impelled Spooner's comments warrant this vehemence. Kesler's contention that "The original Republicans defended constitutional or limited government" rings hollow in comparison.

As a Lincolnian, Kesler also celebrates related statism introduced during the administration: "Original Republicans enacted laws stimulating railroad construction and manufacturers." They embraced a modest federal role in education – directing resources to the states through the land-grant colleges – and supported increased local funding for primary and secondary schools." Thomas DiLorenzo, Murray Rothbard, and Sheldon Richman have respectively addressed the corporate welfare, pedagogical nationalization, and general coercion promoted by these measures. (See Thomas DiLorenzo, "The Feds versus the Indians," The Free Market, January 1998, Murray Rothbard, Education: Free and Compulsory, and Sheldon Richman, Separating School and State: How to Liberate America's Families.) No bona fide conservatism can countenance such radical policy.

As previously mentioned, Kesler is a senior fellow at the Claremont Institute, an entity afflicted with acute Lincolnitis. Its guru, Harry Jaffa, confers a secular deification upon Lincoln and has written, "The Confederate States of America was a genteel anticipation, but an anticipation nonetheless, of the Third Reich." (Claremont senior fellow Thomas G. West echoes the Nazi comparison in his otherwise fine study, Vindicating the Founders: Race, Sex, Class, and Justice in the Origins of America. I don't know if Kesler shares their parochial hyperbole.)

Kesler unwittingly indicates the course for Republicans to follow when he writes, "The Republicans, of course, made mistakes. In Gov. Bush's words, "the party of Lincoln has not always carried the mantle of Lincoln." If the GOP is to be a viable party and not just a meager alternative to the (Social) Democrats, it needs to toss that mantle into the dustbin of history. I doubt it will, and just as the Republican Party arose as a challenger to the mainstream, we need to exercise political consumerism go shopping elsewhere.

Myles Kantor is a law student at Stetson University.

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