Lincoln's Greatest Failure (Or, How a Real Statesman Would Have Ended Slavery)

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by Thomas J. DiLorenzo

Recently by Thomas DiLorenzo: Lincoln the Racist

"Every other country in the world got rid of slavery without a civil war . . . . How much would that cost compared to killing 600,000 Americans when the hatred lingered for 100 years."

~ Ron Paul to Tim Russert on "Meet the Press" in 2007

The new Steven Spielberg movie about Lincoln is entirely based on a fiction, to use a mild term. As longtime Ebony magazine executive editor Lerone Bennett, Jr. explained in his book, Forced into Glory: Abraham Lincoln's White Dream: "There is a pleasant fiction that Lincoln . . . became a flaming advocate of the [Thirteenth] amendment and used the power of his office to buy votes to ensure its passage. There is no evidence, as David H. Donald has noted, to support that fiction". (Emphasis added).

In fact, as Bennett shows, it was the genuine abolitionists in Congress who forced Lincoln to support the Thirteenth Amendment that ended slavery, something he refused to do for fifty-four of his fifty-six years. The truth, in other words, is precisely the opposite of the story told in Spielberg's Lincoln movie, which is based on the book Team of Rivals by the confessed plagiarist/court historian Doris Kearns-Goodwin. (My LRC review of her book was entitled "A Plagiarist's Contribution to Lincoln Idolatry").

And who is David H. Donald, cited by Bennett as his authority? He is a longtime Harvard University historian, Pulitzer prize-winning Lincoln biographer, and the preeminent mainstream Lincoln scholar of our time. One would think that Goodwin would have considered his work, being a Harvard graduate (in political science) herself.

The theme of the Spielberg movie is the subtitle of Goodwin's book: "The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln." Nothing gets a leftist's legs tingling more than someone who is very, very good at the methods of political theft, plunder, subterfuge, and bullying. Goodwin the court historian has devoted her life to writing hagiographies of the worst of the worst political bullies — FDR, Lyndon Johnson, the Kennedys, and Lincoln. (It was her book on the Kennedys that got her in trouble and forced her to admit plagiarizing dozens of paragraphs, and paying a six-figure sum to the victim of her plagiarism. That got her kicked off the Pulitzer prize committee and PBS, but only for a very short while).

Lincoln's "political genius" is grossly overblown in Goodwin's book. In addition the book, like virtually all other books on the subject, completely misses the point. If Lincoln was such a political genius, he should have used his "genius" to end slavery in the way the British, French, Spaniards, Dutch, Danes, Swedes, and all the Northern states in the U.S. did in the nineteenth century, namely, peacefully. Instead, the slaves were used as political pawns in a war that resulted in the death of some 800,000 Americans according to the latest, revised estimates of Civil War deaths that has come to be accepted by the history profession. To this number should be added tens of thousands of Southern civilians. Standardizing for today's population, that would be the equivalent of more than 8 million dead Americans, with more than double that number maimed for life.

Lincoln the "political genius" thanked his naval commander Gustavus Fox for helping him maneuver/trick the Confederates into firing on Fort Sumter, where no one was hurt let alone killed. This, Lincoln believed, gave him the "right" to ignore the constitutional definition of treason (Article 3, Section 3) as levying war upon the states, and levy war upon the (Southern) states in order to "prove," once and for all, that the American union was NOT voluntary, and NOT based on the principle of consent of the governed, as Jefferson declared in the Declaration of Independence. The main purpose of the war was to destroy the Jeffersonian states' rights vision of government and replace it with the Hamiltonian vision of a highly centralized, dictatorial executive state that would pursue a domestic policy of mercantilism (the Federalist/Whig/Republican Party platform of protectionist tariffs, corporate welfare, and a national bank to finance it all) and a foreign policy of empire and imperialism. The purpose — and result – of the war was to consolidate all political power in Washington, D.C. and to render all states, North and South, as mere appendages of their masters and overseers in Washington. This of course is exactly what happened after the war and it happened by design, not coincidence.

A real statesman, as opposed to a monstrous, egomaniacal patronage politician like Abe Lincoln, would have made use of the decades-long world history of peaceful emancipation if his main purpose was to end slavery. Of course, Lincoln always insisted that that was in no way his purpose. He stated this very clearly in his first inaugural address, in which he even supported the proposed Corwin Amendment to the Constitution, which would have prohibited the federal government from EVER interfering with Southern slavery. He — and the U.S. Congress — declared repeatedly that the purpose of the war was to "save the union," but of course the war destroyed the voluntary union of the founding fathers.

Jim Powell's book, Greatest Emancipations: How the West Ended Slavery, provides chapter and verse of how real statesmen of the world, in sharp contrast to Lincoln, ended slavery without resorting to waging total war on their own citizens. Among the tactics employed by the British, French, Spanish, Dutch, Danes, and others were slave rebellions, abolitionist campaigns to gain public support for emancipation, election of anti-slavery politicians, encouragement and assistance of runaway slaves, raising private funds to purchase the freedom of slaves, and the use of tax dollars to buy the freedom of slaves. There were some incidents of violence, but nothing remotely approaching the violence of a war that ended up killing 800,000 Americans.

The story of how Great Britain ended slavery peacefully is the highlight of Powell's book. There were once as many as 15,000 slaves in England herself, along with hundreds of thousands throughout the British empire. The British abolitionists combined religion, politics, publicity campaigns, legislation, and the legal system to end slavery there just two decades prior to the American "Civil War."

Great credit is given to the British statesman and member of the House of Commons, William Wilberforce. After organizing an educational campaign to convince British society that slavery was immoral and barbaric, Wilberforce succeeded in getting a Slavery Abolition Act passed in 1833, and within seven years some 800,000 slaves were freed. Tax dollars were used to purchase the freedom of the slaves, which eliminated the only source of opposition to emancipation, wealthy slave owners. It was expensive, but as Powell notes, nothing in the world is more expensive than war.

Powell also writes of how there was tremendous opposition to ending slavery in the Northern states in the U.S, especially Connecticut, Maine, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island, where violent mobs wrecked abolitionist printing presses; a New Hampshire school that educated black children was dragged into a swamp by oxen; free blacks were prohibited from residing in Illinois, Iowa, Indiana, and Oregon; abolitionist "agitators" in Northern states were whipped; and orphanages for black children were burned to the ground in Pennsylvania. Nevertheless, Northern state abolitionists persevered and ended slavery there peacefully. There were no violent and enormously destructive "wars of emancipation" in New York or New England.

Cuba, Brazil, and the Congo also ended slavery peacefully in the nineteenth century by real statesmen in those countries. But not in the United States. "Some people have objected that the United States couldn't have bought the freedom of all the slaves, because that would have cost too much," Powell writes. "But buying the freedom of the slaves was not more expensive than war. Nothing is more costly than war!" In fact, the North's financial costs of war alone would have been enough to purchase the freedom of all the slaves, and then ended slavery legally and constitutionally.

It is a myth that Lincoln toiled mightily in his last days to get a reluctant Congress to pass the Thirteenth Amendment, as portrayed in the Spielberg movie. What he did spend his time on was micromanaging the waging of total war on Southern civilians, who he always considered to be American citizens, since he denied the legitimacy of secession. More importantly, as documented by historians Phillip Magness and Sebastion Page in their book, Colonization After Emancipation, Lincoln spent many long days at the end of his life communicating with foreign governments and plotting with William Seward, among others, to "colonize" all of "the Africans," as he called them, out of the United States once the war was over.

Thomas J. DiLorenzo [send him mail] is professor of economics at Loyola College in Maryland and the author of The Real Lincoln; Lincoln Unmasked: What You're Not Supposed To Know about Dishonest Abe, How Capitalism Saved America, and Hamilton's Curse: How Jefferson's Archenemy Betrayed the American Revolution — And What It Means for America Today. His latest book is Organized Crime: The Unvarnished Truth About Government.

The Best of Thomas DiLorenzo at LRC

Thomas DiLorenzo Archives at Mises.org

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