My friend Tibor Machan has courageously entered the fray over the issue of Lincoln and secession with a typically eloquent essay, "Lincoln, Secession and Slavery," on the Cato Institute’s website (June 1). I say "courageous" because his essay is not entirely a hymn of praise to Father Abraham, the standard prerequisite for "Lincoln scholarship" in America. Anyone who offers even the slightest criticism of Lincoln risks being smeared, lied about, and accused of the vilest intentions by the cult of "Lincoln scholars."
Machan does (rather timidly) admit to Lincoln’s "blemished record of following the ideal of free government in his political life" by suspending the writ of habeas corpus and ordering mass arrests of tens of thousands of Northern civilian opponents of his regime including dozens, if not hundreds, of newspaper editors and owners. And he correctly points out that when it suited his political purposes Lincoln clearly advocated secession, as he did in an 1848 speech about the Mexican War and with his unconstitutional orchestration of the secession of western Virginia during the war.
I use the word "timid" because generations of historians have agreed with Clinton Rossiter, author of Constitutional Dictatorship, when he called Lincoln a "dictator" and said that Lincoln’s "amazing disregard" for the Constitution was "considered by nobody as legal." In his 1998 book, Abraham Lincoln, Constitutionalism, and Equal Rights in the Civil War Era, Herman Belz expresses an odd puzzlement over "the persistence of the dictatorship convention" in descriptions of Lincoln by the scholarly community. There’s nothing puzzling about it, however; the "dictatorship convention" persists because it is true.
Machan’s analysis suffers from the exclusion of some very important facts. For example, he correctly states that many Southerners "endorsed out-and-out racist ideas" but this was true of the entire western world — including the Northern United States — during the Victorian era. To his credit, he points out that Lincoln also held such ideas by repeatedly stating his opposition to "bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races" (Aug. 21, 1858, debate with Stephen Douglas in Ottawa, Illinois).
In assessing the reasons for the war it is important to recognize that, as Tocqueville wrote in Democracy in America (1945 Macmillan edition, p. 359): "[T]he prejudice of race appears to be stronger in the states that have abolished slavery than in those where it still exists; and nowhere is it so intolerant as in those states where servitude has never been known." As Eugene Berwanger wrote in The Frontier Against Slavery (p. 97), "In virtually every phase of existence [in the North], Negroes found themselves systematically separated from whites." They were excluded or assigned to "Jim Crow" sections of all means of transportation; could not enter most hotels, restaurants, and other public buildings; had to sit in "Negro pews" in church; and were almost completely segregated from the white population.
Many Northern states adopted laws like Indiana’s which prohibited Negroes and mulattos from entering the state; did not recognize contracts with them; fined employers who encouraged black employees to enter the state; prohibited blacks from voting, marrying white persons (punishable by imprisonment), or testifying in court against white persons. Illinois — the "Land of Lincoln" — prohibited the immigration of black people into the state. Lincoln never expressed opposition to this, and even supported a state program to "colonize," i.e., deport, free blacks out of Illinois.
Lincoln and most Northerners did more than make racist statements; they discriminated against and legally abused the small number of free blacks among them. In states such as Indiana, the inability of blacks to testify in court against whites invited criminal abuse. This pervasive and institutionalized Northern racism is one reason why the standard story that hundreds of thousand of Northerners gave their lives during the war for the benefit of black strangers in the South is bizarre.
Machan’s abstract statements that a group that secedes from a political union should have no right to "take along hostages" and that the slaves would probably have preferred to keep the Union intact are complicated by actual American history. Both Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens and the preeminent abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison believed that slavery was "more secure in the Union than out of it," as Stephens stated. This is because of the Fugitive Slave Act, which Lincoln wholeheartedly supported. The Act compelled the Northern states to capture runaway slaves. They were provided due process, but local magistrates were paid $10 for returning a slave to his owner, and only $5 for granting him freedom. It was a gigantic federal subsidy to prop up the institution of slavery, and would have become defunct with secession, making the enforcement of slavery much more costly. This is why Garrison and other Northern abolitionists advocated the secession of the Northern states. ("No Covenant with Death" was the secessionist banner across Garrison’s newspaper, The Liberator).
Machan is not entirely correct in stating that "the citizens of the union who intended to go their own way" were "kidnapping" slaves. Only a small percentage of Southerners owned slaves, who were mostly on the large plantations. The average Confederate soldier was a yeoman farmer, laborer, or merchant who did not own slaves and had no interest in maintaining the institution. As James McPherson wrote in What They Fought For: 1861-1865, most Confederate soldiers believed they were fighting against a tyrannical federal government that was invading their country and threatening their homes and families.
Another relevant fact is that the upper South — Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Arkansas — initially voted to remain in the Union after the lower South had seceded. Virginia voted two-to-one to remain in the Union and Lincoln was pleased to have her, slaves and all. It was only after Lincoln launched an invasion of Virginia’s sister states that she reversed herself and seceded after taking a popular vote; the other three states of the upper South then followed suit. Lincoln’s unconstitutional invasion was the main reason for Virginia’s secession. Machan’s condemnation of all Southerners as "kidnappers" is patently unfair and inaccurate.
Machan expresses concern for "unwilling third parties" during an act of secession but he ignores the fact that Lincoln conscripted tens of thousands of unwilling third parties, many of whom who were sent to grisly deaths in the war. Thousands of other conscripts were maimed for life. The fate of some of these men was truly horrific. In the May 1864 "Battle of the Wilderness" Ulysses S. Grant’s army suffered 2,246 soldiers killed and 12,037 wounded in just 48 hours. The battle was fought in a dense Virginia forest that caught on fire, trapping hundreds of wounded men who perished in the fire. Gordon Rhea cites a first-hand account of the scene in The Battle of the Wilderness: May 5-6, 1864 (p. 451): "Forest fires raged, ammunition trains exploded; the dead were roasted . . . ; the wounded, roused by its hot breath, dragged themselves along, with their torn and mangled limbs, in the mad energy of despair . . . ; and every bush seemed hung with shreds of blood-stained clothing . . . hell itself had usurped the place of earth."
There were draft riots in New York City and elsewhere after the conscription law was put into place (see Iver Bernstein, The New York City Draft Riots). Federal troops shot and killed hundreds of New York City antiwar protesters. Tens of thousands of Northern men either deserted or evaded the draft by hiding out in the mountains of Pennsylvania and elsewhere. In short, Machan’s "unwilling third parties" defense of Lincoln is not much of a defense if it does not incorporate a concern for all unwilling third parties.
Moreover, the purpose of the war was "to save the Union," as Lincoln said over and over again, not to free the slaves. (Actually, the war destroyed the Union as a voluntary association of states). As Machan notes, in his August 22, 1862 letter to New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley, Lincoln very clearly stated his position that if he could "save the Union" without freeing a single slave, he would do so. The issue of slavery was an ex post facto rationale for the war, at best.
The US Congress supported Lincoln’s position in mid-1861 when it issued a resolution on the purpose of the war. The war was not being waged, Congress declared,
“. . . in any spirit of oppression, or for any purpose of conquest or subjugation, or purpose of overthrowing or interfering with the rights or established institutions of those [Southern] states, but to defend and maintain the supremacy of the constitution, and to preserve the Union with all the dignity, equality and rights of the several states unimpaired." (W.A. Dunning, Essays on the Civil War and Reconstruction, p. 13)
As I argue in The Real Lincoln, the Constitution that was established by the founders was largely overthrown by the war and replaced with what Columbia University law professor George P. Fletcher calls "our secret Constitution," one that promotes "egalitarianism, nationalism, and democracy" rather than liberty. The Southern states were in fact made into conquered provinces run by puppet governments set up by the Republican Party. The Tenth Amendment was effectively abolished, making a mockery out of the Congress’s "dignity, equality, and rights of the several states" pronouncement. The main purpose (and effect) of the war was to consolidate governmental power in Washington by military dictatorship. That is what 320,000 Northern men died for.
Lincoln and the Republican Party didn’t advocate consolidation for its own sake. Republican Senator John Sherman explained why Lincoln was elected in 1861 when he said: "Those who elected Mr. Lincoln expect him to secure to free labor its just right to the territories . . . to protect by wise revenue laws, the labor of our people; to secure the public lands to actual settlers . . . to develop the internal resources of the country by opening new means of communications between the Atlantic and Pacific."
David Donald "reinterprets" this in Lincoln Reconsidered to say that "Lincoln and the Republicans intended to enact a high protective tariff that mothered monopoly, to pass a homestead law that invited speculators to loot the public domain, and to subsidize a transcontinental railroad that afforded infinite opportunities for jobbery."
Donald left one thing out, however: The Republican Party’s opposition to the extension of slavery (but not Southern slavery) in its 1860 Platform was based on its desire to win votes from white laborers by promising to protect them from the labor market competition that slavery — or even the existence of freed blacks — would bring. None of this could have been achieved if the Southern states were allowed to secede and to quit paying federal taxes, especially the tariff on imported goods.
The Northern states ended slavery peacefully, as did dozens of other countries during the first half of the nineteenth century. This includes the British and Spanish empires and the French and Danish colonies. Only in the US was war and massive death associated with emancipation. Yet, Machan argues that for the US to have chosen the peaceful path to emancipation that the entire rest of the world had taken would be "obscene." But this must be weighed against the actual costs of the war, which included 620,000 deaths. Standardizing for today’s population, this would be the equivalent of more than 5 million deaths, or over 100 times the number of Americans who died in Vietnam. Not to mention the destruction of the Southern economy, the death of federalism and states’ rights, and the evisceration of the Constitution.
In Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men Jeffrey Hummel estimates that some 50,000 Southern civilians perished during the war, as Lincoln’s army waged war on civilians as well as combatants with its indiscriminate bombardment of Southern cities, even after Confederate troops had evacuated. This number of deaths has to include thousands of slaves. Machan’s analysis illegitimately ignores all of these obscene costs imposed on the nation by Lincoln’s war.
If Lincoln deserves the designation "Honest Abe," he should be taken at his word that he never intended to disturb Southern slavery and that the Emancipation Proclamation (which freed no one) was only a war measure intended to discourage European support for the Confederacy. Of all the countries on earth, the United States dealt with the issue of slavery in the worst possible way because of Lincoln’s obscene ambition (a "little engine that knew no rest," as William Herndon quaintly described it) to consolidate state power for the benefit of the Northern plutocracy that got him elected. It is doubtful that one in a million Northerners voted for Lincoln because they thought he would wage the bloodiest war in history up to that point to free the slaves, a power that no president possessed at the time.
A genuine statesman — as opposed to a cynical, manipulating, power-mad politician — would have done what England did and vigorously pursued a policy of compensated emancipation over five years. By the 1880s slavery was nonexistent throughout the world, and there is no reason to believe that America would have remained the lone exception on earth.
Two of the most prominent libertarians of Lincoln’s time — the British historian of liberty, Lord Acton, and the Massachusetts abolitionist Lysander Spooner — opposed Lincoln’s war. Lord Acton, who closely followed all the events of the war, concluded that slavery was not Lincoln’s main concern , but destroying the system of federalism and states rights (which Lincoln called "saving the Union") was. He took Lincoln at his word. In a November 4, 1866, letter to General Robert E. Lee Lord Acton wrote that "I saw in States’ rights the only availing check upon the absolutism of the sovereign will, and secession filled me with hope, not as the destruction but as the redemption of Democracy . . . . you were fighting the battles of our liberty, our progress, and our civilization; and I mourn for the stake which was lost at Richmond more deeply than I rejoice over that which was saved at Waterloo."
Spooner, the author of the 1845 book, The Unconstitutionality of Slavery and a celebrated abolitionist, wrote in his 1870 essay, "No Treason," that "all these cries of having u2018abolished slavery,’ of having u2018preserved the union,’ of establishing a u2018government by consent,’ and of u2018maintaining the national honor’ are all gross, shameless, transparent cheats — so transparent that they ought to deceive no one." Thanks to 140 years of propaganda in the government schools, these "cheats" now appear to deceive nearly everyone.
These two nineteenth-century libertarian giants had a much clearer picture of Abraham Lincoln and his real agenda than does my friend Tibor Machan.
Thomas J. DiLorenzo [send him mail] is the author of the LRC #1 bestseller, 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.