Getting Lincoln Half Right and Half Wrong
Thomas J. DiLorenzo
by Thomas J. DiLorenzo
In his new book, What Lincoln Believed: The Values and Convictions of America's Greatest President, Michael Lind gets it about half right and half wrong. Lind correctly portrays Lincoln as "the wealthy railroad lawyer" who was a political water carrier for the Whigs, the "party of the educated and economic elites." He lived in a "disturbingly big house in which he and his family were waited on by a series of white and black maids." His legal clients were "giant corporations, millionaires, real estate speculators, and corporate executives."
He was "a faithful adherent to [Henry] Clay's American system" of protectionist tariffs, corporate welfare, and a nationalization of the money supply. Lind incorrectly labels this system as "industrial capitalism," however, when in fact it was old-fashioned mercantilism, the corrupt system of special favors granted by the state to selected political supporters in the business world. As with all forms of mercantilism, it was essentially a combination of government policies that benefited politically-active producers at the expense of consumers and the rest of society. It is this system that Lind, a worshipper of Hamilton, Clay's predecessor in this mercantilist tradition, champions in his book.
Following my lead in The Real Lincoln (which Lind does not cite), the author notes that Lincoln was essentially the political disciple of Hamilton in that he spent his entire political career promoting the Hamilton/Clay/Lincoln mercantilist system primarily for the benefit of "the educated and economic elites." Clay's "disciple Abraham Lincoln adopted Clay's entire nation-building program as his own." This of course is another inaccurate and silly description of Lincolnian mercantilism: protectionism, corporate welfare, and nationalized money "build" on government interventionism and enhance the power and scope of the state, which Lind incorrectly equates with "the nation."
Lind gets many facts about Lincoln right, but is almost universally wrong every time he comments on economic issues. He claims that Britain owed its "lead in manufacturing" not to entrepreneurship but "by skillful use of protectionism." Indeed, at least half of Lind's book is one big post hoc, ergo propter hoc ("after this, therefore because of this") fallacy: "Britain successfully developed manufacturing; some protectionism existed; therefore, the protectionism caused the development of manufacturing!" He makes no effort to prove such "causation"; he simply asserts it.
The world is not that simplistic. As economists Nathan Rosenberg and L.E. Birdzell write in their outstanding history of world commerce, How the West Grew Rich: The Economic Transformation of the Industrial World, among the ingredients for the success of capitalism first in England and then elsewhere were the development of moral and religious beliefs "compatible with the needs and values of capitalism"; competition among governments for the patronage of merchants; the development of commercial law and commercial courts; the advent of insurance to reduce the risks of international commerce; deposit banking; the ideology of freedom, beginning with the Magna Carta, that gave businessmen the confidence that states would not simply confiscate their property; the factory system; the increased sophistication of capital markets; the corporate form of business organization and corporate law; and double-entry bookkeeping that made economic calculation possible, among other things. Not to mention the importance of technology.
England led the way with many of these developments. "English courts and law" were "a factor contributing positively to the development of English commerce" and enabled London to become "a world financial center, and of British trade generally. . . ." Moreover, "Other Western countries sought to emulate these advantages . . . ."
In fact, protectionism was a disaster for the British Empire — perhaps its biggest disaster. It was various forms of protectionism, such as the Navigation Acts, that so angered the American colonists that they revolted and seceded from the British Empire. To a large extent, the American Revolution was a revolt against the attempt by King George, III of England to plunder the Americans through the vehicle of British mercantilism, a system that the likes of Hamilton, Clay and Lincoln would later crusade for in America in the post-revolutionary era. In this sense, these men were all traitors to the ideals of the American Revolution.
Lind displays no knowledge of the history of commerce, yet he poses as a Johnny-one-note "expert" on the topic. All capitalist success, says Lind, is owed to protectionism and other mercantilist policies. "If America had paid attention to Adam Smith," he ludicrously declares, "the United States never would have become the world's greatest industrial economy."
As a devoted neo-mercantilist, Lind does a good job of describing the mercantilist cabal that, from the time of Hamilton, wanted to import British mercantilism to America. He begins with Hamilton and Clay, and then the Pennsylvania steel industry publicist Henry C. Carey ("who became one of Lincoln's advisors"), who was so influential with Lincoln and his fellow Republicans, along with the German theorist Frederick List. Karl Marx, writes Lind, "considered Carey the most important economist the United States had produced."
Lind does not cite me, or any other contemporary Lincoln critic with the lone exception of Lerone Bennett, Jr., the managing editor of Ebony magazine and author of Forced into Glory: Abraham Lincoln's White Dream, despite the fact that he constantly refers to all Lincoln critics as "Confederate apologists." In 632 footnotes and a "bibliographic note" there is not one reference to any of the "critics" he constantly alludes to in the text of the book. This is an odd, if not dishonest practice, as it makes it easy for an author to simply attack a non-existent straw man.
Furthermore, the labeling of Lincoln critics as "Confederate apologists" is not in the spirit of pursuing truth or accuracy but of character assassination and censorship ("they must secretly defend slavery"). It makes as much sense to label all Lincoln critics as "Confederate apologists" as it does to label all FDR critics as Nazis. Criticizing FDR does not make one a Nazi any more than criticizing Lincoln makes one a Confederate sympathizer. (This dishonest tactic was also employed by one John Majewski in a "review" of The Real Lincoln that appeared in Ideas on Liberty).
On the other hand, Lind does a fine job of portraying the real Lincoln as a cold-hearted, ego-maniacal politician. "Lincoln did not invite any members of his family to his marriage to Mary Todd in 1842" and "He refused his dying father's request for a final visit."
Lind also conducts a brief survey of books that Lincoln, who had no formal education to speak of, likely read. Interestingly, the books listed by Lind include almost nothing of substance with regard to history, philosophy, government, and economics, and are almost entirely on the subject of speech making and the use of rhetoric.
Lind also quotes Lincoln as admitting, "I am not a Christian," and quotes one of his law partners as describing him as "an avowed and open infidel" who "sometimes bordered on atheism" and who "went further against Christian beliefs and doctrines and principles than any man I ever heard." This is one quotation that your typical Lincoln cultist would never reveal, and Lind deserves credit for his pursuit of truthfulness on this subject.
Lind also writes of the book Lincoln wrote "in his youth" in which he questioned the divinity of Christ. When he entered politics his advisors made sure that the book was burned. "In private, however, Lincoln continued to scoff at Christian clerics." (He must have also spent a lot of time scoffing at the northern public, which fell for all the religious rhetoric in his political speeches).
Lind also points out that Lincoln was fascinated with military technology and "frequently and enthusiastically took part in tests of new weapons in the Washington Navy Yard or, sometimes, on the White House lawn." A less charitable way of saying this is that he fiendishly experimented with bigger and bigger weapons of mass destruction that he hoped would be used not on foreign invaders but on his fellow citizens, including the women and children of the South who were sitting ducks when their towns and cities were bombed and burned out by Lincoln's armies.
Lind is also forthright in his description of Lincoln as an extreme white supremacist. As early as 1840 he "denounced the Democratic presidential candidate Martin Van Buren for supporting black voting rights in New York." In a newspaper that he co-edited, Lincoln condemned Van Buren for supporting the right of "FREE NEGROES and SLAVES to swear in Courts against WHITE MEN!" "I will to the very last stand by the law of this State [Illinois], which forbids the marrying of white people with Negroes," Lincoln once declared, as cited by Lind.
Lind also notes Lincoln's leadership in the Illinois Colonization Society and his lifelong obsession with "colonization," or deportation of all black people from America. "He regarded a mixed race as eminently anti-republican," writes Lind, and so he favored the creation of an all-white America. That, of course, is one of the main reasons Lincoln gave for his opposition to the extension of slavery into the Territories — to keep them all white. It was his well-known white-supremacist views, says Lind, that "explains the meteoric rise of Lincoln in national politics . . . as a leader of the Free Soil movement whose goal was a white West."
Lincoln assured his northern audiences near the end of the war that, even if the slaves were freed they should fear not, for the northern states had the power to outlaw the immigration of black people into their regions, just as Illinois had done. Had he lived, Lind speculates that he would have devoted much of his time to carrying out his lifelong goal of deporting all the black people out of America to create and all-white republic.
Lind pinpoints what I believe to be a key to understanding Lincoln's rhetoric on race, although I don't think Lind himself understands the importance of the following passage in which Lincoln said: "Negroes have natural rights, however, as other men have, although they cannot enjoy them here . . ." This was always Lincoln's position: "Negroes" could have natural rights in theory, in the abstract; but he was opposed to actually giving them natural rights! Lincoln frequently quoted "Clay's distinction between abstract and actual rights," writes Lind. Generations of "Lincoln scholars" have either ignored this plain language, lied about it, or covered it up with myriad elaborate excuses and rationales.
Lind is at his worst when discussing constitutional issues surrounding the War to Prevent Southern Independence. The South was the only region of the U.S. to ever challenge the authority of the central state, and for that the central state killed some 300,000 southerners, one-fourth of the adult male population, and destroyed its economy. That, it seems to me, is a pretty big deterrent to future secessions. But to Lind, "proof" that the South's secession was illegal is the fact that no other region as ever attempted secession since then by means of introducing a constitutional amendment! He cites the "authority" of the Supreme Court of 1869 that declared secession to be illegal, as though it should be taken seriously by any one. The absence of secession movements since 1865, says Lind, "proves" that southern secession was motivated solely by the "protection of slavery." (Next to this discussion in the book I penciled in the margin, "pure B.S.").
Lind also hilariously makes the two-wrongs-make-a-right argument to defend Lincoln's suspension of habeas corpus, arrest of tens of thousands of political opponents, and the shutting down of hundreds of opposition newspapers by pointing out that the Confederate government also suspended habeas corpus. What makes this "reasoning" so absurd is that it is Lincoln who the court historians have made out as some kind of hero of the Constitution, not Jefferson Davis. It is important to point out such facts because they contradict the false history that Americans have been exposed to for generations. Americans have not been taught that Jefferson Davis was a constitutional hero. Two wrongs do not make a right, no matter how many times Michael Lind repeats it. (John Majewski made same lame argument in his Ideas on Liberty "review" of my book.)
The funniest line in the entire book is on page 183: "Denounced as a tyrant by critics, Lincoln did not think of himself as a dictator." Of course not! No politician ever does!
The most inaccurate statement in the book appears on page 233, where Lind writes that "the formal structure of the United States following the Civil War was the same as it had been before the Conflict. This would have pleased Lincoln . . ." But this statement is in sharp conflict with the opinions of generations of scholars, who have noted that the system of states' rights and federalism that was created by the founders was overthrown by the war. The rights of nullification and secession were integral parts of that system, but were destroyed by force of arms. It is hard to imagine a bigger change in "the formal structure of the United States." (See, for example, Forrest McDonald, States' Rights and the Union.)
Lind ends his book by declaring Lincoln to have been "a great democrat" despite all his faults. The ends justify the means, he says, if the ends are "democracy." But Lincoln's actions belie the fact that he believed in democracy as heartily as Lind claims. What kind of democracy can exist where tens of thousands of political opponents are jailed, opposition newspapers shut down by the hundreds, telegraph communication is censored, elections are rigged, and new states are created illegally to add to the incumbent government's electoral college vote count? And what kind of "democracy" is it where ten percent of the population is appointed by one man to rule over the other 90 percent, as was Lincoln's plan for "reconstruction"? It's "Lincolnian democracy," of course, but not the kind of democracy that most Americans would be familiar with.
H.L. Mencken was right when he wrote that Lincoln's war overthrew the most important feature of American democracy: the Jeffersonian dictum that government's just powers are derived from the consent of the governed. The South no longer consented to being governed by Washington, D.C., and so it seceded. Lincoln waged war against consent of the governed, not for it, despite his flowery rhetoric at Gettysburg.
Lind does not challenge Mencken's argument directly; rather, he wildly speculates that had peaceful secession been permitted, the entire country would have spun into "anarchy" with perhaps dozens of other secession movements. This was Lincoln's novel theory, too, but it is without any historical basis. Besides, Jefferson himself believed that America was too big to be governed by one single government and envisioned three of four confederacies — democratic confederacies — for the future. There would be nothing "undemocratic" about that. Indeed, democracy works better with smaller political units. But the Michael Linds of the world are "nationalists" who worship "national power," i.e., centralized governmental power, and are therefore opposed to the genuine federalism of the original founding fathers. They call Lincoln "America's greatest president" precisely because he destroyed that Jeffersonian system.
The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were a period of governmental consolidation that, in the worst cases, produced communism, fascism, and welfarism. The South's victory or peaceful secession could have provided a lesson for the world that such "nationalism" was not inevitable; that decentralized federalism could work, and work better than large, centralized, monopolistic government. This was the opinion of the great historian of liberty, Lord Acton.
Lind does not even address this argument, but revels in Lincoln's "Hamiltonian Revolution." He makes a case against his own thesis, however, when he writes approvingly of how the "empires' of Japan and Germany adopted their own versions of Lincolnite "economic nationalism" in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These corrupt mercantilist regimes easily evolved into fascism, one of he scourges of the twentieth century. Hitler himself invoked Lincoln's first inaugural address in Mein Kampf, when he made the case for destroying states' rights and federalism in Germany. He was also an ardent protectionist, advocate of a centralized banking monopoly, and of corporations that were closely associated with and subsequently controlled by the state. Mussolini adopted essentially the same policies, as did imperial Japan. This worldwide "Lincolnian revolution" is something for which the world should be grateful, says Michael Lind.
June 17, 2005
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).
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