Deconstructing the War Street Journal

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The
Wall Street Journal recently criticized "the
denizens of LewRockwell.com" for some of their allegedly "intemperate"
criticisms of Lincoln (William McGurn, "House Divided: Did
Abe Have the Right Stuff?", Feb. 9, 2001). As one of those
"denizens" who has authored several such critiques I am
flattered by the attention to my work given by the Deep Thinkers
at the Journal, which used to be the premier literary defender
of free-market capitalism. I say "used to be" because
today its main priority seems to be promotion of the Republican
party, which is only occasionally the same as promoting the free
market.

McGurn
performs a series of literary backflips in his attempt to criticize
those of us who dare to criticize the sainted founder of Republican
party politics. Yes, he admits, Lincoln made crude jokes about blacks,
believed the white and black races could never live together, suspended
habeas corpus, was a protectionist, and greatly expanded the central
government. But in Mr. McGurn's view it is "intemperate"
to publicize such facts.

At
the risk of sounding extra-intemperate, I would point out a few
things missing from McGurn's list: Lincoln also conducted a war
without the consent of Congress; declared martial law; confiscated
private property; ordered the arrest of Chief Justice of the U.S.
Supreme Court Roger B. Taney after Taney ruled that only Congress
could suspend Habeas Corpus; conscripted railroads and censored
telegraph lines; threw some 30,000 Northern civilians into military
prison without trial for voicing opposition to his policies; deported
a member of Congress, Clement L. Vallandigham of Ohio, for voicing
opposition to Lincoln's income tax; shut down hundreds of newspapers
for questioning his judgment; intentionally waged war on innocent
civilians; and created three new states – Kansas, West Virginia,
and Nevada – to help rig the 1864 election.


In arguing that all this history should be ignored, the Journal
is implicitly arguing that the ends should justify the means,
even if the means are the abolition of constitutional liberties
and the ends are the construction of a mercantilist state (Henry
Clay's "American System"), which is what Lincoln spent
his 32-year political career promoting.

McGurn
approvingly recalls the story of how the late Mel Bradford was bumped
out of being appointed chairman of the National Endowment for the
Humanities in 1981 by neo-conservatives in the Reagan administration.
Bradford's death knell was apparently a statement he made to the
New York Times that if he were alive in 1860 he would have
been "a Stephen Douglas Democrat." This was too much for
the neo-cons, who got rid of Bradford and put William Bennett in
his place.

But
as Lincoln biographer Robert Johannsen has pointed out, the Lincoln-Douglas
debates were essentially a rehashing of the old debate between the
defenders of the decentralized, limited constitutional government
favored by the Jeffersonians (the Douglas forces) and the political
heirs of Alexander Hamilton (the Lincoln side of the debate) who
favored overthrowing that system in favor of a highly-centralized
and activist state. The neoconservatives, who all claim to be "former"
welfare state liberals who have no special aversion to big government,
knew what they were doing.

McGurn
speaks nonsense at points, but it is nonsense spoken with a fine
rhetorical flourish. The "denizens of LewRockwell.com,"
he says, "believe with all their hearts that the last, best
hope for earth was in fact the Stars and Bars." Well, not exactly.
Lincoln's statement that his administration was "the
last best hope on Earth" for republican government was pure
unmitigated nonsense. Democracy would have continued to flourish
around the world (including North America) had the south seceded
peacefully – as was the wish, by the way, of the overwhelming majority
of northern opinion makers in 1861. Neither the Lincoln government
nor the Confederacy were the "last best hope" for world
democracy.

For
years, Southern Partisan magazine has defended the Jeffersonian
principles of limited constitutional government, which is what most
confederate soldiers believed they were fighting for in the War
for Southern Independence. But to McGurn it is just plain "silly"
for a politician like John Ashcroft to grant the magazine an interview.
But Ashcroft presumably granted the interview because, unlike Wall
Street Journal writers, he actually knew what was in it. In
the Journal's view, conservatives should avoid granting interviews
to publications that promote conservative values in an unapologetic
way.

Ronald
Reagan mentioned Lincoln favorably in his First Inaugural Address
in a line that was likely inserted by one of the neo-conservative
clique members within his administration. This, according to McGurn,
should be all the more reason to never, ever, criticize Lincoln.
Huh?

McGurn
next constructs a straw-man argument by ascribing to us "denizens"
the view that slavery would have "solved itself." I, for
one, have never said this, but as a matter of fact, slavery was
on the wane in the upper South; the Virginia legislature originally
voted against secession but reversed itself only after Lincoln began
invading a sister state. Dozens of countries throughout the world
in the first 60 years of the nineteenth century ended slavery peacefully
through compensated emancipation. The United States was the only
country in the world during this period that waged war ostensibly
to end slavery. Lincoln could have ended slavery peacefully by using
the powers of the federal government to enforce a compensated emancipated
program.

McGurn
calls the Emancipation Proclamation a "measured response"
that showed great "prudence." But as soon as the Proclamation,
which never freed a single slave anyway, was issued, there were
draft riots in New York City. Fifteen thousand federal troops were
called in from the recently concluded Battle of Gettysburg and shot
and killed hundreds of civilians in the city. Some 200,000 federal
soldiers deserted and many thousand more fled to Canada or hid out
in the mountains of Pennsylvania to avoid conscription. The apparent
purpose for the Proclamation was to persuade England to quit trading
with the Confederacy, but it did not work. Some measurement.

McGurn's
final mistake is to assert that the cause of the secession was not
that southerners believed the federal government had become tyrannical,
but that they simply did not like Lincoln (who got 34 percent of
the popular vote in a four-man race). Wrong again. In his book,
What
They Fought For: 1861-1865
, historian James McPherson,
the "dean" of "Civil War" historians, concluded
that most Confederate soldiers, very few of whom owned slaves, believed
in their hearts that they "fought for liberty and independence
from what they regarded as a tyrannical government." They believed
that their cause was the same cause of the Revolution of 1776.

Since.McGurn
spends so much of his time giving others advice on how to best promote
the causes they wish to promote (liberty, in the case of we denizens
of LewRockwell.com), it is only fitting that he be offered some
advice back: Stick to defending free-market capitalism, avoid being
a Republican party propaganda organ, and the Wall Street Journal
will have much more credibility.

February
14, 2001

Thomas
J. DiLorenzo is Professor of Economics at Loyola College in Maryland.

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