A Guide for the Perplexed: What's the Matter With Abe Lincoln
I borrow my title from Moses Maimonides because William McGurn appears to be greatly confused.
Although McGurn's piece is titled "de gustibus," he very much behaves as if taste is subject to dispute. Although de gustibus non disputandum, it is useful to note that the category of McGurn's article tips his hand: he likes Lincoln. For the sake of argument, and for the sake of clarity, I will engage Mr. McGurn in a dispute over the life of Saint Abraham.
McGurn writes in the Feb. 9, 2001 edition of the Wall Street Journal that:
It's important...to distinguish between those, like the denizens of LewRockwell.com, who believe with all their hearts that the last, best hope for earth was in fact the Stars and Bars — and those, like Trent Lott or John Ashcroft, who belong to that larger category of Southerners who can't help themselves when they hear the strains of "Dixie" and do silly things like granting interviews to the journal Southern Partisan that inevitably come back to haunt them.
For starters, the Confederate States of America was not "the last, best hope for earth." The CSA, in its return to the principles of limited government and federalism, was a superior system of government than the runaway constitution of the USA. Despite that fact, the CSA suffered from many of the same flaws as the USA, in particular state intervention in the economy.
More importantly, it is vapid to contend that the CSA was the "last, best hope for earth" because if it was the "last" hope, then the game is up and we are all wasting our time.
The Confederate States of America was an attempt by the South to preserve the liberty of the people against the tyrannical centralization of power which was taking place in America. This centralization of power did not originate with Mr. Lincoln; men such as Alexander Hamilton, for instance, were also in favor of a strong central government. There was, then, a drift to centralized power from 1783 until 1861.
Lincoln merely cemented this centralization.
The CSA was destroyed by the USA. But was the CSA our "last, best hope?" Of course not. So long as there are men alive on the earth, there will be those who desire freedom. Last, best hope my eye.
That being said, McGurn is correct to criticize empty-headed politicians who will pander to anyone if they think it will earn them votes. I do not know enough about Trent Lott or John Ashcroft to say whether they are panderers. It should be noted, however, that if a politician cannot give a reasoned defense of the South, such that he does not look like a total idiot in the press, then he should avoid giving interviews to Southern Partisan. Anyone who actually favors the South does not help the southern cause by appearing to be an unthinking fool.
Mark Twain wrote, "Suppose I am an idiot. And suppose I am a member of Congress. But I repeat myself." Politicians are generally fools (generally; by and large; there are exceptions that prove the rule). It should not be surprising, then, if Lott and Ashcroft have done foolish things.
Mr. McGurn, however, attacks those who attack Lincoln, arguing that "the intemperance that seems endemic to Lincoln revisionism tends to harm rather than further its cause." McGurn should follow his own advice: what is temperate about making fun of Southerners for enjoying listening to Dixie?
Also, attacks on Lincoln hurt the cause of conservatism in the eyes of whom? Lincoln-loving conservatives? To what intemperance is he referring?
There are those who refer to Lincoln as a racist, a war criminal, and an advocate of ethnic cleansing. Apparently this represents "intemperance" to Mr. McGurn.
Whether this is "intemperate," however, depends upon the facts of what Abe Lincoln actually did and thought.
Either it is true that northern newspapers ran editorials calling for the death of every man, woman, and child in the South, and the colonization of the then-empty Southern states by northerners, or it is not. Either it is true or it is false that Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus, shut down newspapers, executed critics of the regime, and packed voting booths with soldiers, or it is false. Either it is true that Lincoln wanted to deport freed blacks to Africa, and thought that the white race must be superior, and that blacks and whites could not peacefully live together, or he did not.
The facts, which are ably reported in Charles Adams' book When in the Course of Human Events, are that Lincoln did and thought all those things mentioned in the preceding paragraph. Northern newspapers explicitly called for the Southern people to be wiped from the earth. For this reason, as Adams also describes, European newspapers viewed the war as a power-grab by Lincoln. One British newspaper ran a cartoon showing the Czar of Russia sympathizing with Lincoln, since the Czar was also fighting to smash a rebellion.
Are Lincoln's deeds good or bad things to think or do, Mr. McGurn?
I do not identify myself as a conservative. I am a classical liberal, or a libertarian. Rather than merely seeking to "conserve" the present order, I work for human liberty. Nonetheless, I must say that I find those things which Lincoln did and said to be morally blameworthy, i.e. wrong.
McGurn writes that "the greatest weakness in this revisionism is the most obvious, the idea that slavery would somehow have solved itself. That's a pretty big "if.""
No, it isn't. Slavery was dying of its own inefficiencies — as it had to do.
McGurn references the work of "Robert Fogel, a Nobel Prize-winning economist," whose works make "plain that slavery was in fact economically viable."
Whatever Fogel has to say, it is against any coherent theory of free market economics. The great truth which capitalism recognizes, and which McGurn and Fogel ignore, is that a man works hardest and most efficiently when he is motivated by the desire to make a profit. Slaves, however, are not motivated by profits; they are motivated by the threat of punishment. Slavery, then, as a matter of logic, cannot ever be as economically efficient as free labor. Persons who worked efficiently out of a desire to earn their freedom were indentured servants, not slaves.
Is McGurn defending slavery as a good thing from the perspective of economics?
Pace McGurn and Fogel, slavery was not efficient. This is a factual dispute, in which Jeffrey Rogers Hummel has the better argument. Hummel's book Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men (taken from a speech given by Lincoln) makes this case quite thoroughly. Slavery was economically inefficient, and made the average non-slaveholding southerner worse off.
McGurn writes that "To Lincoln, an expanding slave-based South was fine for the elites, but it threatened the free-wage system that to his mind represented American opportunity and upward mobility."
Thus, by McGurn's own admission, Lincoln did not oppose slavery in principle. Let it not be forgotten that as an attorney, Lincoln represented two masters in seeking the return of their runaway slaves. Lincoln actually sent runaway slaves back to their masters. Is this the story of Abe Lincoln taught in American schools?
I am opposed to slavery. As a classical liberal, I place a premium upon human freedom. Slavery is the polar opposite of freedom. I scorn Lincoln not only because he was a fraud, but because the long-term result of his war is that Americans today live under a powerful central government, and are largely unfree. What sort of freedom do we enjoy when, in order to add on to our house, drive a car, or engage in certain activities, we must first get government "permission"? The need to get permission is the opposite of liberty.
As for McGurn's contention that Lincoln sought to eliminate slavery to preserve "upward mobility" for the average, non-slaveholding southerner, this is a factual dispute. This assertion of Lincoln's views shows a contradiction with McGurn's earlier claim that slavery was "economically viable." If it was "viable," why did it hinder the "upward mobility" of the average southerner?
Perhaps McGurn contends that slavery was so viable, it was a serious alternative to "the free-wage system." If that is McGurn's point, it is not clearly made. Also, why speak of a "free-wage system"? Just call it freedom. Is McGurn saying, then, that slavery was so viable, that freedom was at risk? To make such a claim would be the height of illogic: are we supposed to believe that free people were willingly going to become slaves because slavery was more efficient? McGurn's discussion of the economics of slavery is confusing at best.
Was Lincoln a free-trader? Hardly. His career in the Illinois legislature, and his career in the presidency, showed him to be enamored of pork-barrel spending and massive tax burdens. While the Union Army struggled in the first years of the war, the Lincoln administration doled out millions of dollars to railroads to run rails to the West.
Even if Lincoln opposed slavery in the name of helping the average southerner to improve his material lot in life, then a war was the wrong way to go about getting rid of slavery. How many of those poor southerners, whose mobility Lincoln was so concerned about, were sent to their graves by Mr. Lincoln?
As the economist Tom DiLorenzo has contended, Lincoln's goal in waging the war was to benefit Northern manufacturing interests and protect his own political career by preserving the union. It would have been cheaper and less destructive for Lincoln to simply buy the slaves and free them. Of all the nations which abolished slavery in the 1800s, only Abe Lincoln and the USA were stupid enough to fight a war over it.
But of course, it must be remembered that Lincoln did not free any slaves. The Emancipation Proclamation did not apply to the border states that Lincoln needed to keep in the Union: Maryland and Kentucky, for example. Slave labor was used to build the US Capitol building while the war went on. Again, these are matters of fact. McGurn and the admirers of Lincoln may not like these facts, but it is better to craft a theory to fit the facts than craft the facts to fit a theory.
Best of all is McGurn's final paragraph, where he writes that:
In Lincoln's view this new Southern consensus was aggressive, changing everything and testing whether America as conceived could long endure. And as long as we are all being strict constructionists here, is it not asking a great deal to bless a secession that came not because Southern voters didn't like the Union but because they didn't like the results of an election in which they had participated? If our conservative Lincoln revisionists are right, Al Gore had a better case in Florida than we thought.
First, like so many pro-federal authors, McGurn ignores the history of secession movements in America in claiming that there was something "new" about the South wanting to secede. At the Hartford Convention in 1814, several northern states — among them Massachusetts — vowed to secede because of their opposition to the War of 1812. Forty-eight years later, the hypocritical Bay State would not allow the South to leave. "Do as I say, not as I do" should be the Yankee motto.
Second, who cares whether "America as conceived could long endure"? Why the love affair with a particular historical (and therefore ephemeral) constitutional arrangement? McGurn assumes that change is not to be allowed in the political realm, but provides no arguments to support this hidden assumption. He is also inconsistent in not opposing changes in other political arrangements, like the transformation of European nations into a European super-state. Does the European Union, which indubitably represents a change of "Europe as conceived," or rather Germany, France, Spain, etc. "as conceived," also disturb McGurn?
For that matter, the American revolution — another secession — was a change of "America as conceived." Certainly, an independent nation on the north American continent was not what Mother England had conceived in sponsoring the colonies. Should we then return to England, Mr. McGurn?
Third, if we are to be "strict constructionists" like McGurn, we must ask whether it is true that Lincoln's tenure represents the continuation of "America as conceived," and whether "America as conceived" had even survived up to the time Lincoln took office. The reason that "the denizens of LewRockwell.com" abhor Mr. Lincoln is precisely that the American Caesar does not represent "America as conceived." Rather than uphold the constitution, as he swore to do in his oath of office, Lincoln shredded the constitution in the name of pursuing his own agenda. (As I have written previously, Charles Adams' magnificent book When in the Course of Human Events has all the dirt on Lincoln that anyone needs to lose their lunch. Adams also has a large bibliography for those who wish to pursue the truth about Saint Abe in great depth. See also Tom DiLorenzo's article linked above).
Although habeas corpus may be suspended in times of emergency, the constitution is silent on who may suspend the writ. Lincoln simply took that power on himself, without constitutional authority. Lincoln imprisoned members of the Maryland legislature who opposed his war on the South. Lincoln also used military tribunals to try civilians for "disloyalty," even in the North, where the civil courts were open and functioning. The reason, of course, was that a guilty verdict was assured, and the enemies of the war were effectively silenced. The Supreme Court, in Ex Parte Milligan, ultimately ruled that this use of military tribunals was unconstitutional. And yet Lincoln did it. Just as Lincoln threatened to imprison the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court for disagreeing with Lincoln on the legality of secession.
Are you in favor of those actions, Mr. McGurn? Would you similarly applaud if George W. Bush were to imprison the California legislature until they ceased their opposition to a free market in electricity? Would it be fine with you if George W. Bush were to shut down the Wall Street Journal and lock up its editors because the Journal has at times been critical of Bush?
Lincoln did all those things, and for that he deserves our scorn.
Finally, McGurn blithely assumes that "America as conceived" was the America over which Lincoln presided in 1861. False.
"America as conceived," if such a vague expression is to have any meaning, must refer to the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the state governments established after the colonies seceded from Great Britain.
McGurn gives undue preference to the federal constitution of 1789, assuming, like a logical positivist, that whatever law is on the books, must be good because it is the law on the books.
In reality, the Articles of Confederation gave greater protection to individual liberty and established a federal government with much less power to destroy individual lives.
McGurn, like so many in the mainstream, appears to be in love with power: the power to do things, to get things done, to get your way. Abe Lincoln is therefore to be worshiped like a real-life Superman, but instead of cape and tights, wearing black suit, stove-pipe hat, and string tie.
McGurn is not liberal in his outlook. He desires a powerful central state and a powerful executive with the power to get things done. In contrast, "the denizens of LewRockwell.com" prefer to live as free men.
If I mischaracterize McGurn's views, it is unintentional: the piece from Feb. 9, 2001, does not provide support for many other interpretations of the political philosophy advocated by McGurn.
Allow me to add that I am descended from a member of the 83rd Regiment of Pennsylvania volunteers, which held Little Round Top at Gettysburg. I have every reason to celebrate the Union Army, but I do not.
I am proud of my ancestor, for he had the courage to go to war and face hardship, suffering, and death. I am not proud of the Union war on the South, because the North was wrong. The South paid the bulk of taxes, while the North enjoyed the benefits of pork-barrel spending. The North outnumbered the South in the Congress, and could pass whatever measures it desired without a single southern vote. Lincoln himself was elected without a single southern vote. What political philosophy can justify forcing the southern states to remain in such an arrangement so that they could be fleeced like sheep?
If my contempt for Lincoln's bad deeds hurts the cause of liberty, in whose eyes is the cause of liberty harmed? Surely an honest assessment of Abe Lincoln as a man and a president cannot harm the cause of liberty in the minds of those with open eyes, who are willing to consider the truth.
Face facts: Lincoln was a bad president. He cannot be described more accurately than with the term "caesar."
Those of us who celebrate the South do so because we are nauseated by the arrogance of the power elite of Washington, DC. They are not the only game in town, nor will they ever be.
As for McGurn's closing thoughts about Al Gore: yes. You are right. As I wrote at the time, the Gore-Bush election contest is the best case for secession since 1861. The country is polarized between urban and rural, dependent and independent. There is no moral justification for a union which exists solely to fleece some citizens at the expense of others.
That being said, the election of 1860 is distinguishable from the election of 2000. In 1860, Lincoln did not receive a single southern vote. That was not the case in 2000, where George W. Bush carried the majority of the South, and the majority of the fifty states. Also, as mentioned above, the South did not secede solely because of the election. The South seceded because the federal government expressly threw out any regard for the sovereignty of the states; Lincoln intended to soak the southern states with taxation to benefit Northern manufacturing interests. There were no such disputes in the election of 2000.
Finally, McGurn — who regards Lincoln as a hero subject to unfair attack — attempts to blind conservatives to the sins of Lincoln by arguing that Reagan was not any better.
Mr. McGurn, you are right. Reagan was not any better. Citizenship is not hero worship. Reagan must be scrutinized as well. On the other hand, Reagan did not kill 600,000 Americans.
February 13, 2001
Mr. Dieteman is an attorney in Erie, Pennsylvania, and a PhD candidate in philosophy at The Catholic University of America.
© 2001 David Dieteman