Frank Meyer on Lincoln

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UPDATE 6/19: Writes JL:

Mr. Lowry does mention Mr. Meyer in his article. If you can suffer through it to the end, his brief shot at Meyer comes on page five of the online version. Of course, Lowry crudely paraphrases Meyer’s opinions, and treats him like a strawman—like his puerile treatment of Calhoun. But rest easy, Mr. McMaken, Lowry dispatches Meyer and vindicates his own stance on Lincoln with the incontrovertible words of W. Buckley, who said to Meyer’s charge, and to those who would agree with Meyer, that Lincoln was anti-humanitarian, “It seems to me that this is worse than mere tendentious ideological revisionism. It comes close to blasphemy.” ["Blasphemy." That's creepy. But remember: it's libertarians who are the "cultists," according to Lowry, et al.]

Original Post:

Neocon Rich Lowry is raging over the Lincoln issue these days. He’s shocked and appalled that anyone could ever not agree with him that Lincoln, a corporate lobbyist turned tax-and-spend big government inflationist, was the greatest thing to ever happen to America. Lowry even makes the ludicrously hyperbolic claim that Lincoln “was perhaps the foremost proponent of opportunity in all of American history.”

As is the case with most conservatives these days, Lowry simply ignores the history of his own movement and ignores the fact that Frank Meyer, the most mainstream of mainstream conservatives, and one of the founders of Lowry’s National Review, thought that Lincoln’s legacy “was essentially negative to the genius and freedom of our country.”

Meyer of course was probably the leading intellectual of the National Review crowd of the 1950s and 1960s (rivaled only by James Burnham), but Lowry pretends Meyer never existed.

Meyer made such an excellent and measured case against Lincoln, in fact, that I have nothing to add to the two columns I have printed below in their entirety. These columns, written for National Review in 1965 and 1966, are collected in the Frank Meyer collection titled appropriately enough, The Conservative Mainstream.

To wit:

“Lincoln Without Rhetoric”

By Frank Meyer
National Review, August 24, 1965

Sometimes there are judgments at which one arrives that one hesitates to state publicly, out of respect for deeply held beliefs and prejudices. I have over a number of years come to think that the general admiration for Abraham Lincoln is ill founded. Particularly recently, in the course of work I have been doing on a book on American history, it has been borne in upon me more and more that his pivotal role in our history was essentially negative to the genius and freedom of our country.

It would undoubtedly have been wisest all around had I delayed any public expression of this judgment until I could fully state the reasons for it in my forthcoming book; but an excellent study of Lincoln’s repressive measures during the Civil War, Freedom Under Lincoln, by Dean Sprague, crossed my desk and I gave it a brief review (National Review, June 15, 1965), in which I expressed skepticism of the accepted attitude toward Lincoln. A few weeks later, in the issue of July 27, a letter to the Editor took me severely to task. Further, the letter was sharply seconded by my colleague and friend, Mr. William F. Buckley Jr. Under these circumstances I cannot in candor do less than set down here some of the considerations on which I base my judgment.

The issue is not really the one my critics raise: whether Lincoln was or was not a humanitarian. So far as this is concerned, suffice it to say that against Lincoln’s magnificent language and his personal acts of individual kindness there must be placed in the balance the harshness of his repressive policies and his responsibility for methods of waging war approaching the horror of total war.

Granted that Lincoln was a complex person, that his well- known spells of depression and his self-searching, combined with his undoubted personal charity, display a man complex in the extreme. I do not pretend to judge Lincoln as a person; to so judge any man borders on impiety. But men who live by politics in the forefront of history can and will be judged politically and historically.

Such a judgment of Lincoln requires an evaluation of the role he played in our history. That history is the history of the exalted attempt, through the Constitution in its original form, to establish for the first time in human experience political mechanisms to guarantee the liberty of the individual person by limiting the power of government. Essential to this constitutional concept was the establishment of what has usually been called “checks and balances,” but is more accurately designated as the setting up of a state of tension between all the political centers of power so that effective final power rests in none of them. Confounding almost every school of political theory, the American Constitution rested sovereignty nowhere (unless it were in every individual citizen), by establishing such a state of tension that no political body in the constitutional structure could accerete to itself sovereign power.

At the very center of this structure of tension was the tension between the several states and the national government. Until the Civil War no one knew whether a state could secede as its last sanction, and this was of the utmost necessity if the federal government were not to grow so strong as to destroy the tension that guaranteed liberty.

In 1860 the question was truly raised whether a “nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure.” It remained to Lincoln vigorously to attack that conception and that dedication. It is true that others, in the South as in the North, were as determined as he to shatter the subtle tension of state and national powers. But he alone had the power to reaffirm the constitutional balance. Instead, under the spurious slogan of Union, he moved at every point (no matter that he would have preferred to achieve his ends without war; so would every ideologue) to consolidate central power and render nugatory the autonomy of the states.

It is on his shoulders that the responsibility for war must be placed. Had he been less the ideologue, he could have let the seven states which seceded before Sumter go, and thus hold Virginia (the key to future unity) and the others in the Union, relying upon the passage of time, the congruity of natural interest, and the exercise of statesmanship to reunite the federal structure.

Nor, once battle was engaged, did Lincoln wage the war in a manner calculated to bring about the conditions of reconciliation. He waged it to win at any cost-and by winning he meant the permanent destruction of the autonomy of the states. We all know his gentle words, “with malice toward none, with charity for all,” but his actions belie this rhetoric.

Total war is war conducted to achieve victory neglecting every other moral end. It is least excusable, moreover, in a war between brothers. Nevertheless this was Lincoln’s pattern of war leadership: in the North, a repressive dictatorship; against the South, the brutal meat-grinder tactics of “Unconditional Surrender” Grant and the brigand campaigns waged against civilians by Sherman; in war aims, no effort at reconciliation, only the complete triumph of central government.

Were it not for the wounds that Lincoln inflicted upon the Constitution, it would have been infinitely more difficult for Franklin Roosevelt to carry through his revolution, for the coercive welfare state to come into being and bring about the conditions against which we are fighting today. Lincoln, I would maintain, undermined the constitutional safeguards of freedom as he opened the way to centralized goverrunent with all its attendant political evils.

“Again on Lincoln”

By Frank Meyer
National Review, January 25, 1966

In his critique (National Review, September 21, 1965) of my discussion of Abraham Lincoln (National Review, August 24, 1965), Professor Harry Jaffa makes two major points. The first is that I am wrong in my interpretation of the American Constitution as establishing a government of sharply limited and radically divided powers with sovereignty settled in no single center. The second is that I have failed to understand that the concept of equality is central in the American tradition, and with this, that I have ignored Lincoln’s role in the eradication of slavery. To this second indictment I plead guilty, and I shall return to a defense of my position after first considering Professor Jaffa’s other major point.

What is at stake between us here is the 175-year-old dispute between the “loose constructionist’ and the “strict construc tionist” interpretations of the Constitution. Professor Jaffa is, of course, entitled to his loose-constructionist position; he has distinguished company, men so different in other respects as Alexander Hamilton, John Marshall, Andrew Jackson, Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson. It does seem rather odd to me, however, that, considering the honored antiquity of both positions, Professor Jaffa should imply that all constitutional tradition is on his side of the argument. Perhaps because (before a rather checkered political career) I was raised by an old-time strict-constructionist, tariff-for-revenue-only Democratic father, I had rather supposed that until the days of Franklin Roosevelt the strict-constructionist theory predominated in the tradition–although battered from time to time by the power grabs of an Andrew Jackson or an Abraham Lincoln.

The issue between the two interpretations of the Constitution is brought to a head by Professor Jaffa himself when he writes: “The principle of a free constitution rests not in any particular distribution of the powers of government, but in the recognition that all men have rights which no government should infringe.” A happy thought–the only problem is what to do about government when a “particular distribution” of power lands all the power in the hands of a government that does “infringe.” It is the genius of the American Constitution, understood as a constitution of radically divided powers (the strict-constructionist view) that it provides, for the first time in history, guarantees that no one shall have sufficient power to infringe upon the freedom of the individual person. Professor Jaffa’s airy and cavalier lack of concern with how power is distributed leaves him with no defenses, except hope, against the innate tendency of government to concentrate power and to ride roughshod over the individual. It fully explains his admiration of Jackson, Lincoln, et al.

The essential guarantee that power will remain divided is that sovereignty is divided; this was the tacit agreement on which the federal compact was achieved. And sovereignty in turn implies the right to secede. Only the concentration of all sovereignty in the national government could negate that right. On the other hand, an easy certainty of the exercise of that right could have led to an early loss of all the goods of federal union. The Constitution was silent on this issue precisely in order to maintain the tension between federal and state power–a tension which could be broken only by shattering the federal union or by so concentrating power at the center that separation of powers was fundamentally undermined–and with it the genius of the Constitution in its defense of liberty. This is what I meant when I wrote “until the Civil War no one knew whether a state could secede as its last sanction. . . .” Lincoln, in words and deeds, before and after his election, provoked and intensified a challenge to the tacit acceptance of tension, and thereby struck at the heart of the Constitution.

Professor Jaffa, since he regards the division of power as irrelevant to the “principle of a free constitution,” does not begin to grasp the incalculable damage for which Lincoln is responsible. He brushes aside the gravamen of my contention and raises as the center of his defense of Lincoln the question of slavery, regarding it as astonishing that I did not deal with it in my treatment of Lincoln. I did not deal with it because both Lincoln himself and most of his defenders (including Professor Jaffa in this essay) deny that the abolition of slavery was ever Lincoln’s intent. To this degree even they respect the settled doctrine of the Constitution that slavery was understood by all parties to be the province solely of the several sovereign states.

The moral objections to slavery are manifold and I fully share Professor Jaffa’s sorrow at its historical existence in the United States. But Professor Jaffa, ignoring all the unexceptional moral grounds for the hatred of slavery, chooses to base his critique of American slavery on the proposition that the American polity is in its essence dedicated to equality–and to center his vindication of Lincoln on Lincoln’s role as the champion of equality. Nothing in my opinion could be further from the truth than this view of the American polity. The freedom of the individual person from government, not the equality of individual persons, is the central theme of our constitutional arrangements. Nor is this merely a matter of two different emphases. Freedom and equality are opposites; the freer men are the freer they are to demonstrate their inequality, and any political or social attempt–like those so frequent in the twentieth century–to enforce equality leads inevitably to the restriction and the eventual destruction of freedom.

When I write of equality, I am not, of course, speaking metaphysically or theologically of the innate worth of every human being in the eyes of God; and I would always affirm the principle of equality before the law and before government. The equality which I regard as the opposite of freedom is the abstract, overarching, unmodified concept Professor Jaffa employs. The ideological drive to enforce such equality upon men, always unequally endowed, is the primrose path to tyranny.

Professor Jaffa’s Lincoln is the champion of equality. The Lincoln of whom I originally wrote is the creator of concentrated power, the President who shattered the constitutional tension. They are one and the same man.

9:23 pm on June 18, 2013
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