Lincoln's Legacy: Omnipotent Government

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In the ongoing debate over the legacy of Abraham Lincoln, Glenn Ellmers, director of research at the Claremont Institute, contends that Joe Sobran misdiagnoses the problems of contemporary politics. As Ellmers writes,

Sobran’s anti-Lincolnism is wrong because it completely misidentifies the origins of our current occupying army: i.e., the legions of liberals who, like the apes in the movie, exercise an unnatural dominion over human society.

Where then, you might wonder, is the origin of the contemporary “unnatural dominion over human society” exercised by the Left? According to Ellmers,

Sobran cannot attribute to Lincoln the idea that the Constitution was merely an 18th century document, and therefore out of date; that natural rights were a “fantasy;” that modern life — because always changing — required a government that was always growing; and that “progress” meant there was nothing permanently true or right. But these were precisely the opinions voiced by the leading American philosophers, journalists, and politicians in the Progressive Movement. It was John Dewey, Herbert Croly, and Woodrow Wilson — not Abraham Lincoln — who gave us the principles and practice of the modern leviathan state.

Here, Ellmers mishandles the argument.

It is correct that Lincoln did not believe the Constitution to be “merely an 18th century document,” or that natural rights were a fantasy.

It is also wholly irrelevant.

Lincoln is not accused by Joe Sobran of having been intellectually identical in every way with Bill Clinton, FDR, or Woodrow Wilson. Instead, the charge is that Lincoln’s conduct — namely, Lincoln’s seizure of powers not delegated to him by the Constitution, in the name of “saving” the Constitution — destroyed constitutional government in America, and opened the door to the Progressives and the Democrats.

Lincoln’s usurpation, and his fundamental alteration of the American political system, destroyed the structural barricades which protected the United States from the horror of unlimited democracy, i.e., from a government which used success at the ballot box as a justification for reshaping society in its own image.

It is true that John Dewey and Woodrow Wilson had different ideas about what to do with the powers of the government, and different ideas about human nature and political philosophy. It is also true that Wilson, FDR, and Clinton would very likely never have been able to put their ideas into practice had Abraham Lincoln not turned the United States from a decentralized union of sovereign states into a centralized nation under Washington, DC.

By way of final proof, consider that Ellmers defines “the liberal project” as follows:

Americans would no longer be citizens exercising sovereign control over their government, but a mass of raw materials to be worked upon by the government.

This is precisely the precedent set by Lincoln. This is his legacy. Those Americans living south of the Mason-Dixon line sought to exercise sovereign control over their government by withdrawing from a government that was hostile to them. They were not allowed to go in peace, but were killed in battle and dragged back to the “union” as a conquered people.

The very definition of “Reconstruction” was the treatment of Southern men, women and children as “a mass of raw materials to be worked upon by the government.” The Southern people would be “allowed” back into the union it had allegedly never left only after they forcibly conformed themselves to Northern opinions.

Additionally, Ellmers recommends Charles Kesler’s essay “Getting Right with Lincoln.” As I have previously argued, the Kesler essay is deeply flawed. See my article “Three Views of the Constitution,” and scroll down to “Charles Kesler.” See also my article “Contra Claremont” for additional arguments about Lincoln and constitutional law.

In closing, a question for those who remain unsure about their own views of Abraham Lincoln. If one is in favor of the rule of law, of constitutional limits on the power of government, what in Lincoln’s record demonstrates that Lincoln believed his powers to be limited?


Those who revere Abraham Lincoln do not dispute this point. Instead, they contend that Lincoln had to play the part of a military dictator, precisely so that Americans could live in peace. He had to destroy the South in order to save it.

There is nothing “conservative” or praiseworthy about that.

Mr. Dieteman [send him mail] is an attorney in Erie, Pennsylvania, and a PhD candidate in philosophy at The Catholic University of America.

© 2001 David Dieteman

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