The neocons who have dominated U.S. foreign policy in recent years live in a contrived reality. The ideological cornerstone of this strange existence is the Lincoln myth, which has its roots in the ideology of New England Puritanism. The New England Puritans always believed they were "God’s chosen people" and their country was a "shining city on a hill." In their own eyes, they were morally superior to all other peoples and nationalities. This is what they believed would give Americans license to destroy all those who stood in the way of their "national greatness" and the spreading of their moral purity — southerners, American Indians, Mexicans, etc. This was "a conflation of Christianity and Americanism," writes Clyde Wilson. It was "America as the fulfillment of God’s plan for mankind, a seductive bit of blasphemy that has remained a strong motif in our national consciousness ever since" (Clyde Wilson, "The American President: From Cincinnatus to Caesar," in John Denson, ed. Reassessing the Presidency, Mises Institute, 2001, p. 707).
This arrogant and blasphemous belief system is why the push for consolidated, dictatorial government, headed by a strong executive who would enforce "national unity" (i.e., no freedom of choice for the citizens of the sovereign states), always came primarily from New England and, by the mid nineteenth century, from New England’s political brethren in the Midwest. A powerful central government was needed to raise the funds — and the military might — to spread this special American moral purity throughout North America and the world. It is the ideology of American imperialism, hidden behind the language of Christianity.
The deification of Lincoln after his assassination was the final, essential ingredient in this bizarre mix of strange beliefs. As Clyde Wilson further states:
Lincoln’s assassination provided the final missing ingredient in the drama of presidential salvation. The president had begun as the CEO of a federal republic, expected to have extraordinary republican virtue in the exercise of his powers. He was now the martyred savior in the world historical drama of American uniqueness. The Northern clergy and their business lobbyist allies were not slow to use the opportunity for all it was worth. A huge literature developed in which Lincoln was literally a Christ figure who died for our sins . . . . To read the Lincoln hagiography is to understand easily how the Romans came to grant divinity to their emperors, the difference being that those Romans did not claim to be Christians (p. 708).
Thus, the blasphemous deification of Lincoln redefined the American president as world savior. He is routinely referred to as "Father Abraham" in the literature, and is compared to Jesus and Moses (He supposedly died for our sins, and led his people to the "promised land"). His second inaugural address is frequently compared to the Sermon on the Mount since, although he was either an agnostic or an atheist, he was adept at inserting Scripture into his political speeches for good effect.
Shortly after his death the Lincoln myth began to build and build, with ahistorical nonsense stacked upon nonsense. It is this collection of myths and superstitions that is the ideological backbone of much of neoconservativism, and can be found in the writings of Harry Jaffa, among other places. Among the superstitions is the notion that economics and political power had nothing whatsoever to do with the causes of the War between the States, unlike virtually all wars in world history; no such thing as state sovereignty ever existed — the idea was made up by disgruntled Confederates after the war; no state has any right to secede or nullify federal laws for any reason, ever; the Constitution was adopted by "the whole people," not the citizens of the states in political conventions, as they in fact were; Lincoln was a racial saint (despite his white supremacist views, support for "colonization," and pledge to enforce southern slavery forever); he was a "great humanitarian" who nevertheless micromanaged the waging of war on innocent civilians for four years; he was a champion of the Constitution despite the fact that he illegally suspended habeas corpus and had the military arrest tens of thousands of Northern political dissenters and shut down hundreds of opposition newspapers; his armies killed one out of four white southern males because he loved them and wanted to "reconstruct" them; war was necessary to end slavery, despite the fact that the British and Spanish empires, and dozens of other countries, did so peacefully in the 19th century; and on and on.
Lincoln idolaters are so rabid in their support of these superstitions because they believe that by attaching themselves to the "sainted" Lincoln it makes them morally superior to all other people on earth. That is why they react so hysterically to any and all Lincoln critics; presentations of facts about the real Lincoln blows the phony moral cover upon which their careers (and for some, their lives) are based.
The Lincoln myth is the ideological cornerstone of the American welfare/warfare state because it deifies not only Lincoln but all of his successors. It provides the necessary moral cover for the crushing of states’ rights as limits on federal power at home and for military adventurism abroad. As Robert E. Lee warned in a letter to Lord Acton in 1866, the destruction of states’ rights and the transformation of the American government into one consolidated empire was sure to become despotic at home and aggressive abroad. A truer forecast was never made. The Lincoln myth has been the essential ingredient in the destruction of the Jeffersonian political tradition in America, in other words.
In his book, Making Patriots, Straussian neocon Walter Berns of the American Enterprise Institute provides a caricature of the "Lincoln as Savior" myth (see my LRC article, "Making Cannon Fodder"). He writes that "we" must be concerned about the welfare of all others in the world, and must be willing to wage war around the globe to fulfill our supposed role as world saviors. He does not include himself and his AEI colleagues in "we," of course. The Big Problem is that America’s youth are not inclined to become sacrificial lambs for American imperialism. What is necessary to persuade America’s youth to join the military in pursuit of world salvation, says Berns, is "a national poet" whose words can be used to preach "our civil religion," i.e., the America-as-Savior myth. Luckily, says Berns, we have just such a "poet" in Abraham Lincoln, who he describes as "statesman, poet, and . . . the martyred Christ of democracy’s passion play" (p. 100). "His greatness" consists not of his actions or behavior, says Berns, but in his political speeches.
The war in Iraq is just the latest example of the use of the "America-as-Savior" superstition. The war is implemented by a highly centralized state with a more-or-less dictatorial leader (Congress no longer takes its constitutional responsibility in declaring wars seriously) and is attempting to impose an equally centralized state on the people of Iraq. This will guarantee endless violence, bloodshed, and death and destruction as the numerous factions in Iraq battle endlessly over control of the central state — and its oil revenues.
The recent civil war in Sudan provides the world with an alternative example of how the prospects for peace can be greatly enhanced. The Muslims and Christians in Sudan have waged a civil war that resulted in some two million deaths over the past decade. They recently reached a peace agreement, however, that decentralizes political power by placing it in the hands of several states. The "rebels" get control of the southern part of the country, and the two major political factions will share in the oil revenues. Within six years, a referendum on secession will be held in the different states. (See Ivan Eland, "Courting Disaster: Bush’s Real Strategy in Iraq."
This kind of loose confederation, which gives sovereignty to the states, is similar to the original ideal of American federalism. But that ideal was overthrown in America in 1865. Today’s neocons are the political descendants of the Hamiltonians, Whigs, and nineteenth-century Republicans who worshipped the centralized state and sought to profit both politically and economically from it. Their whole being is wrapped up in the superstitions surrounding the America as Savior myth and its Lincolnian roots. That is why the Bush administration would never even remotely consider the possibility of allowing the kind of settlement in Iraq that has occurred in Sudan. If it worked, it would be a high profile, contemporary example of the utter bankruptcy of the Lincoln myth and its "God’s chosen people" corollary. It would be a body blow to the whole Straussian enterprise of "reinterpreting" American history to "justify" the most un-American policy of worldwide imperialism. Worse yet, it might even lead to a decentralization of power in America and a return to our Jeffersonian roots. If the American system of federalism can work in Sudan, Switzerland, and elsewhere, why not here, some would ask. This would be a disaster for the Claremont/AEI/Weekly Standard/National Review band of imperialists (or "national greatness conservatives," as they euphemistically call themselves) who dominate Republican Party politics.
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, (Three Rivers Press/Random House). His latest book is How Capitalism Saved America: The Untold Story of Our Country’s History, from the Pilgrims to the Present (Crown Forum/Random House, August 2004).