R. Keslerís "The Republican Challenge" (National Review,
September 11, 2000) is a fantastic illustration of how Republican
intellectuals are hell-bent on severing what ties they retain with
republican principles. Kesler, a government professor at Claremont
McKenna College and senior fellow at the Claremont Institute, also
finds major fault in the GOP, arguing "The Republican party
still lacks a confident, well-grounded sense of itself and its moral
purpose." What is the solution to this identity crisis? George
must "reclaim the moral high ground for his party, with a new
politics in the Lincoln tradition."
National Review is supposedly a conservative publication,
so itís odd to find Keslerís prescription in its pages. (Iím being
only somewhat sarcastic.) But letís delve into Keslerís exposition
of his thesis:
original Lincoln Republicans stood for liberty and Union, in the
form of popular, constitutional government. Liberty meant that all
human beings were created free and equal; slavery was therefore
wrong. Union meant that out of many individuals, an indivisible
people had been formed; secession was therefore wrong. Popular,
constitutional government meant that government had to be limited,
and to operate with the consent of the governed; tyranny, whether
of a majority or a minority, was therefore wrong."
befits a neoconservative analysis, Kesler mixes validity with distortion.
Heís right that slavery violated the inalienable rights Jefferson
affirmed in the Declaration of Independence. (I part company with
some 19th century Southern conservatives, many of them
perspicacious, who considered Jefferson in error.) Heís also correct
to underscore the consensual, enumerated nature of American government
and its provisions against numerical tyranny of either stripe. (Statesí
rights are a salient provision; consider the Senate.) Given these
good points, itís incongruent (to understate matters) that Kesler
attributes their fulfillment to the foremost revolutionary in American
political history: Abraham Lincoln.
was a revolutionary because he mangled American philosophical and
constitutional moorings. (The latter builds on the former, so theyíre
somewhat synonymous.) Whether in suspending habeas corpus, imposing
military tribunals, or assuming fiscal power but a partial listing Lincoln
again and again showed contempt for separation of powers, enumerated
government that whole rule of law thing. (Biographer David Donald
captures a representative moment when he notes that Lincoln "threatened
to jail and exile judges who used the writ of habeas corpus to interfere
with the draft.") Kesler doesnít address Lincolnís executive
totalism, which isnít surprising; the Lincoln ilk tends toward rhapsodic
generalities "He saved the Union," "He protected
government of by and for the people," etc. (Clinton Rossiter whose
edition of The Federalist Papers features a new introduction and
notes from Kesler gives a specific analysis in Constitutional Dictatorship:
Crisis Government in the Modern Democracies. In a curious pattern
among many Lincoln apologists, Rossiter describes his "unabashed
presidential encroachment upon the power of Congress" and goes
on to write of "Lincolnís noble actions.")
for Keslerís generalities, they manifest the primary symptom of
neoconservative constitutionalism: the conflation of federalism
and nationalism. He rejects secession as antithetical to the "indivisible
people" formed by the Union, which follows from his premise
but is substantively absurd. Itís a line right out of the Joseph
Story-Lincoln "The United States as Unitary State" textbook.
(Abel P. Upshur authored a book-length refutation of Storyís nationalist
theory thatís lamentably unknown for the most part. Upshur served
as a high judge in Virginia and was Secretary of the Navy and then
Secretary of State in the Tyler administration.) We need look only
to the manner in which the Constitution was ratified to ascertain
its inaccuracy. Article VII indicates its establishment derived
from the approval of nine state conventions that would be binding
"between the States so ratifying the Same." This is not
how a nation-state is formed; this is how a federal union, i.e.,
an association of discrete political societies, is formed. Keslerís
proposition would have more merit if ratification had hinged on
a referendum-model binding on every state. But this wasnít the case,
and James Madison (Virginia Plan consolidationist, bear in mind)
accordingly noted in Federalist #39, "In its foundation it
[the Constitution] is federal, not national."
is thus constitutionally compatible and an example of political
reflexivity: States that voluntarily join a union may withdraw on
the same basis. (Would anyone deny the right of the United States
to withdraw from the United Nations? Ok, bad question.) Specifically,
secession is among "The powers not delegated to the United
States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States,"
and consequently a reserved power under the Tenth Amendment. Without
that crucial, constitutionally protected exit option, encomiums
to federalism are lip service.
most troubling proposition, implicitly made, is that secession undermines
the consent of the governed. Itís quite Lincolnian and, when instantiated,
calamitous (over 620,000 dead, countless more maimed, infrastructural
devastation, etc.). The grisly falsity of this belief was most cogently
pointed out by Lysander Spooner, whose abolitionist credentials
preclude ad hominems often deployed by Lincoln apologists. (Spooner
was a supporter of John Brown and wanted to kidnap Virginia Governor
Henry Wise to obtain his release after Harpers Ferry.) Spooner had
this to say in his magnificent No
Treason: The Constitution of No Authority:
another of the frauds of these men is, that they are now establishing,
and that the war was destined to establish, Ďa government of consent.í
The only idea they have ever manifested as to what is a government
of consent, is this that it is one to which everybody must
consent, or be shot. This idea was the dominant one on which the
war was carried on; and it is the dominant one, now that we have
got what is called Ďpeace.í"
circumstances that impelled Spoonerís comments warrant this vehemence.
Keslerís contention that "The original Republicans defended
constitutional or limited government" rings hollow in comparison.
a Lincolnian, Kesler also celebrates related statism introduced
during the administration: "Original Republicans enacted laws
stimulating railroad construction and manufacturers." They
embraced a modest federal role in education directing resources
to the states through the land-grant colleges and supported
increased local funding for primary and secondary schools."
Thomas DiLorenzo, Murray Rothbard, and Sheldon Richman have respectively
addressed the corporate welfare, pedagogical nationalization, and
general coercion promoted by these measures. (See Thomas DiLorenzo,
"The Feds versus the Indians," The Free Market,
January 1998, Murray Rothbard, Education:
Free and Compulsory, and Sheldon Richman, Separating
School and State: How to Liberate Americaís Families.) No
bona fide conservatism can countenance such radical policy.
previously mentioned, Kesler is a senior fellow at the Claremont
Institute, an entity afflicted with acute Lincolnitis. Its guru,
Harry Jaffa, confers a secular deification upon Lincoln and has
written, "The Confederate States of America was a genteel anticipation,
but an anticipation nonetheless, of the Third Reich." (Claremont
senior fellow Thomas G. West echoes the Nazi comparison in his otherwise
fine study, Vindicating
the Founders: Race, Sex, Class, and Justice in the Origins of America.
I donít know if Kesler shares their parochial hyperbole.)
unwittingly indicates the course for Republicans to follow when
he writes, "The Republicans, of course, made mistakes. In Gov.
Bushís words, "the party of Lincoln has not always carried
the mantle of Lincoln." If the GOP is to be a viable party
and not just a meager alternative to the (Social) Democrats,
it needs to toss that mantle into the dustbin of history. I doubt
it will, and just as the Republican Party arose as a challenger
to the mainstream, we need to exercise political consumerism go
Kantor is a law student at Stetson University.