Rewriting History, American Style

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In his book, Lincoln Reconsidered, Pulitzer prize-winning Lincoln biographer David Donald remarked that, after Lincoln’s death and "reincarnation" as a secular political saint, politicians of all stripes began attaching themselves to his legacy. Men who were his bitterest political enemies during his lifetime all of a sudden claimed to have been his closest friends and associates. The Communist Party U.S.A. adorned its New York City headquarters, writes Donald, with huge portraits of Lincoln and held annual Lincoln-Lenin Day parades.

No one, of course, has taken the worshipping of Abraham Lincoln to greater extremes than the Republican Party and some of its affiliated foundations and think tanks. The Republican Party has long sought to give its political agenda moral authority by reminding us all that it is, after all, "The Party of Lincoln." That is certainly true but, unfortunately, the Republican Party and some of its associated think tanks have apparently found it necessary to do what they once accused the Soviet Union of doing: rewriting history in order to enhance its prestige and power.

Take, for instance, a Washington, DC, outfit known as the "Declaration Foundation" that is purportedly devoted to the principles embodied in the Declaration of Independence. It does so by lionizing Lincoln (as though he still needs more lionizing) and constantly reminding Republican politicians to do this or that because "Lincoln would have done it." One of its slogans is the Lincolnian phrase, "Liberty and Union Forever" (emphasis added).

The Declaration Foundation does some good work, judging by its Web site, but its very name is somewhat Orwellian. Consider the one principle of the Declaration of Independence that Thomas Jefferson is most noted for, the idea that governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, and that whenever governments become destructive of liberty it is the duty of citizens to abolish that government and replace it with a new one.

The Declaration, after all, was a Declaration of Secession from England. The American Revolution was a war of secession, just as the War for Southern Independence was. Massachusetts Senator Timothy Pickering, who served as George Washington’s adjutant general, Secretary of War, and Secretary of State, once said that secession was "the" principle of the American Revolution — the very right that the revolutionaries fought for. The Declaration Foundation, on the other hand, preaches exactly the opposite with its "Union Forever" philosophy.

Lincoln’s political triumph was, if anything, a repudiation of the Jeffersonian philosophy of government and a victory for his political adversaries, the Hamiltonians, who by 1861 had morphed into the Republican Party. Like all the founding fathers Jefferson wanted the Union to thrive, but he also agreed with his colleague Timothy Pickering that secession was a fundamental right. In his First Inaugural Address he declared, "If there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this union . . . let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it." He was championing the right of free speech here, but also the right of secession.

In a letter to James Madison in 1816 Jefferson reiterated his support of the right of secession by saying, "If any state in the Union will declare that it prefers separation . . . to a continuance in union . . . I have no hesitation in saying, let us separate."

Alexis de Tocqueville, whom everyone regards as a brilliant observer and chronicler of the American system of government, wrote in Democracy in America that "The Union was formed by the voluntary agreement of the States; and in uniting together they have not forfeited their nationality . . . . If one of the states chooses to withdraw from the compact . . . the Federal Government would have no means of maintaining its claims directly either by force or right." (Tocqueville could never have imagined that barely thirty years later an American president would commit the barbaric act of having his armies murder 300,000 fellow citizens and destroy their economy to deny them the right of secession).

Even Abraham Lincoln voiced support for the right of secession when it served his political purposes. He enthusiastically embraced (and orchestrated) the secession of western Virginia (a slave state) when it joined the Union. And on January 12, 1848, he announced that "any people anywhere, being inclined and having the power, have the right to rise up and shake off the existing government, and form a new one that suits them better. . . . Nor is this right confined to cases in which the whole people of an existing government may choose to exercise it. Any portion of such people, that can, may revolutionize, and make their own of so much of the territory as they inhabit." Don’t look for this quote, though, in any of the materials produced by the Declaration Foundation.

As of 1860 most Northerners and Southerners believed in the Jeffersonian right of secession as enshrined in the Declaration of Independence. In Northern Editorials on Secession Howard Cecil Perkins surveyed about 1,000 Northern newspapers and found that the majority of them agreed basically with what the Bangor Daily Union wrote on November 13, 1860: "The Union depends for its continuance on the free consent and will of the sovereign people of each state, and when that consent and will is withdrawn on either part, their Union is gone." A state that is coerced to remain in the Union becomes a "subject province" and can never be "a co-equal member of the American Union."

New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley, a prominent Republican, editorialized on December 17, 1860, that if tyranny and despotism justified the Revolution of 1776, then "we do not see why it would not justify the secession of Five Millions of Southrons from the Federal Union in 1861." On February 5, 1861, Greeley continued on that "The Great Principle embodied by Jefferson in the Declaration is . . . that governments derive their just power from the consent of the governed." Therefore, if he Southern states want to secede, "they have a clear right to do so." At this time, Northerners knew that if there was to be a war it was not a war "to free the slaves," but to deny Southerners the right of secession. In an 1862 letter to Horace Greeley Lincoln himself declared that his "paramount objective" in the war was to destroy the right of secession or, as he rephrased it, to "save the Union," and that if he could do that without freeing a single slave he would gladly do so.

The Declaration Foundation, the Claremont Institute, and other self-proclaimed beacons of the Lincolnian philosophy, preach exactly the opposite. They perpetuate the preposterous myth that there was never any such thing as a right of secession — in a country that was formed by a war of secession. In doing so they rewrite history to legitimize the highly centralized welfare/warfare state that Lincoln, more than anyone else, helped bring about in America. The Declaration Foundation, in other words, repudiates the principles of the Declaration of Independence while trying to convince the public that it is actually championing them.

The second most notable principle of the Declaration is the notion that "all men are created equal." The Declaration Foundation and the Claremont Institute portray Lincoln as an almost Christ-like figure because of his supposed embrace of this principle, but this is hard to square with many of Lincoln’s own lifelong beliefs and clear, unambiguous statements. In his 1858 Ottawa, Illinois debate with Stephen Douglas, for example, he stated that "I have no purpose to introduce political and social equality between the white and black races . . . . I . . . am in favor of the race to which I belong having the superior position. I have never said anything to the contrary."

Lincoln went on to declare that he had never been in favor "of making voters or jurors of Negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people." He literally mocked the Jeffersonian dictum that "all men are created equal" by claiming that, with the possible exception of Siamese twins, "I am sorry to say that I have never seen two men of whom it is true."

On the topic of emancipation Lincoln said, "Free them, and make them politically and socially our equals? My own feelings will not admit of this . . . . We cannot, then make them equals."

It doesn’t get any clearer than that. Lincoln unequivocally denounced the principle of the Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal, especially when it comes to men of the white and black races. Ever the slick politician, he rhetorically defended the "natural rights" of all people, but blacks could never enjoy such rights if they were denied all the rights that Lincoln would deny them. In his 1852 eulogy to Henry Clay Lincoln stated that he agreed with Clay that slavery was regrettable, but ending it would produce "a greater evil, even to the cause of human liberty itself." Don’t look for this line, either, in any of the Declaration Foundation’s publications.

Lincoln’s career-long goal, which he clung to until the day he died, was colonization — to send every last black person in the U.S. to Africa, Central America, Haiti — anywhere but the U.S. This, said Lincoln, would be a "glorious consummation." They could be "equal" all right, but not here. This led America’s most prominent abolitionist, William Lloyd Garrison, to denounce Lincoln as "the President of African Colonization" and to declare that he "had not a drop of anti-slavery blood in his veins." Again, don’t look for this in any Declaration Foundation or Claremont Institute publications.

Although the Declaration Foundation and the Claremont Institute are "conservative" organizations, they join hands with prominent hard-core leftists in distorting the real meaning of the Declaration of Independence. In Lincoln at Gettysburg the far-left journalist Garry Wills celebrates this "open air sleight of hand" and Lincoln’s use of military force to "remake America" in a way that made egalitarianism, rather than liberty, the prevailing political philosophy.

Left-of-Center Columbia University law professor George P. Fletcher concurs with Wills in Our Secret Constitution, where he praises Lincoln for "reinventing the United States" government from one whose main goal was the defense of liberty to "nationalism, egalitarianism, and democracy."

Over the past century nationalism has been the chief source of the wars that have killed millions of civilians; egalitarianism has helped create socialist and welfare states that have destroyed economy after economy; and unbridled democracy has decimated liberty. The Republican and Democratic parties have championed all of these things over the past century, and they use what Joseph Sobran has called the "Fantasy Lincoln" to help prop up their corrupt regimes.

Thomas J. DiLorenzo [send him mail] is the author of The Real Lincoln: A New Look at Abraham Lincoln, His Agenda, and an Unnecessary War (Forum/Random House 2002) and professor of economics at Loyola College in Maryland.

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