and His Critics
Thomas DiLorenzoís The
Real Lincoln has provoked the utterly predictable torrent
of abuse from state worshippers and self-appointed prophets of The
True American Way. All DiLorenzo has done (and this does not in
the least detract from his courage, eloquence, and insight) is to
analyze Honest Abe as a historical figure just like any other, rather
than treat him as a saint.
DiLorenzo does not need any defense. He, along with Professor Joseph
Stromberg and others, has exposed the ignorance and fanaticism of
the critics to the satisfaction of any reasoning human. However,
something more can be said about the Lincolnites, especially their
egregious abuse and distortion of the nature and purposes of historical
devotee of Lincoln hagiography, Professor Mackubin Thomas Owens,
dismisses The Real Lincoln with the announcement that we
need pay it no mind its ideas were refuted fifty years ago
by Professor Harry Jaffa. How comforting to know that the proper
interpretation of the largest and most portentous event in American
history, the War between the States, has already been settled! We
donít have to tire ourselves out any more examining evidence and
thinking about the meaning of events!
I must demur at giving Jaffa the honors of discovering this forever
valid truth. This wisdom was first given to us 125 years ago (1876)
by Hermann E. von Holst in his eight volume history of the United
was an imported Prussian, ensconced, appropriately enough, in Rockefellerís
University of Chicago. His view of the American founding and its
alleged salvation by Lincoln anticipated Jaffa on almost every point.
course, like the Jaffaites, Holst knew absolutely nothing about
American history before Lincoln, to which he devoted only a small
portion of one volume. He knew nothing about English and American
constitutional evolution, about the historical experience and ideas
of the American people. What he did know was that the unitary state
was righteous and inevitable. It was easy for him to proclaim that
the great war of 18611865, the most violent and complex experience
of the United States, was the necessary cleansing from the Americcan
state of slavery and its defenders. Not because slavery violated
equality but because it was a contradiction in the way of the perfection
of the central state. Any resistance to the state could only be
motivated by an evil like slavery, which he treated not as an analyzable
human institution or a political issue but as a reified Hegelian
antithesis. And his convenient ignorance of actual American history
allowed him to dismiss states rights as a fiction, a made-up rationalization
in defense of evil.
Jaffa has been free in throwing out hints that opponents of his
view are tainted with Nazism. In fact, it is more reasonable to
argue that his views have their remote origins in the same state
worship as Nazism. Except that the Straussians, who pose as defenders
of democracy while appointing themselves as the "wise men"
who are empowered to tell the rest of us rubes what everything really
means, are guilty of an elitism that is more cynical than that of
20th century totalitarian movements, which at least claimed
to believe in the people.
is revealed by DiLorenzoís attackers is their pathetically impoverished
idea of the nature and uses of historical knowledge. It is, in fact,
a rejection of the historical consciousness that John Lukacs has
defined, rightly, as the hallmark of Western civilization.
Professor Owens calls for is the end of the search for historical
understanding. The eternal true understanding has already been achieved
by his saint! It is fixed forever.
one does not have to search among the records of human acts and
experience to find understanding. Professor Jaffaís mystical contemplation
of a few of Lincolnís prettier speeches establishes all we need
to know! We are to terminate our search for understanding of the
immense and complex past of our species on this planet and defer
to our betters. This is not only anti-intellectual. It is also a
rejection of democracy, which is supposed to be exercised by free
thought and deliberation. It is also, of course, atheist since it
rejects the essential mystery of human existence and limitations
of human knowledge.
any serious historian of any breed, Professor Owensís position is
laughable. Historians are by definition aware that historical knowledge
is never complete and conclusive, that there is always more to be
found out and always more than one way to look at things. I have
always thought that the most important aspect of history was that
it can teach us to see that there is usually more than one side
of a question, that sweeping claims to final truth are deceptive,
that moral judgments should be made after, not before, examining
the evidence. Thus we are made better, more savvy and less credulous
serious historian of the War between the States pays much attention
to Jaffa or his works. The prevailing interpretation now, which
has changed before and will change again (unless the neocons are
able to suppress all unofficial thought) is that Lincoln carried
out a revolution not a salvation, a refounding not a preservation.
One may like or dislike the revolution (most historians today like
it), but there it is.
Straussians, for whom the Jaffaites are the commandos, are tireless
networkers and noisy disputants. They do most of their work on the
"conservative" side of American discourse, which itself
constitutes a tiny minority. They are loud frogs in a small pond,
and those of us on the "conservative" side tend to over-estimate
their importance. Most historians know Jaffa only from Crisis
Of The House Divided which they vaguely remember from a
graduate school reading list decades ago. Political philosophers
are perhaps more aware of them, but it is my impression that most
are either indifferent or hostile to the Straussian message and
resentful of their ruthless networking and authoritarian style of
such as speeches of leading men and constitutional documents, are
important but they donít constitute all of history. History consists
of all human actions, to which texts are only one guide. By reference
to a few lines of a select few of Lincolnís speeches, Professor
DiLorenzoís critics want to settle forever understanding of the
War between the States which is the largest event in American experience
in scale, casualties, and revolutionary impact.
convenient when one can select the few documents out of thousands
that contain the truth to be discerned by the elect! So Jaffa has
been fond of comparing Lincolnís paean to equality with a speech
of Alexander Stephens, who became Vice-President of the Confederacy,
as the defining text of the struggle of the Southern people for
independence. Stephens is said to have declared that inequality,
i.e., white supremacy, was the "cornerstone" of the Confederacy.
aside that this speech was an unofficial oration on the hustings
and that the accuracy of the text is disputed and that Stephens
was in several respects an eccentric figure. At face value this
tells us that Stephens was a white supremacist. So what. Though
Lincoln never made white supremacy a "cornerstone"; he,
like 98 per cent of his voters (including most of the sincere antislavery
people) and most Americans of several succeeding generations, was
also a white supremacist. In fact, in one of the two forthrightly
truthful statements in his public career, Lincoln remarked that
"the Southern people are exactly what we would be in their
why does this particular document sum up the whole of the case for
the Confederacy. Why canít I, who actually know a fair amount about
the context, make another selection. Something much more central
and comparable to Lincolnís speeches on critical occasions. How
about Jefferson Davisís first inaugural, in which he decalred to
present condition, acheived in a manner unprecedented in the history
of nations, illustrates the American idea that governments rest
upon the consent of the governed, and that it is the right of
the people to alter or abolish governments whenever they become
destructive of the ends for which they were established."
given my unfortunate limitations as a mere historian and not a seer,
I might point to a sermon preached by the Revered James Henley Thornwell
of South Carolina, one of the most respected churchmen in the South
and a strong secessionist, upon the founding of the Confederate
States. The Rev. Thornwell outlined and recommended as a necessary
task a course of action that would lead to the eventual peaceful
end of slavery.
is a lot easier to win an argument when you are able to state your
opponentís case for him, which is the stock-in-trade of Straussian
entirely different kind of criticism comes from Professor Tibor
Machan in his "Lincoln, Secession, and Slavery," a criticism
that deserves respectful consideration. As I understand it, Machan
is interested in laying down a rationale for the right of secession.
This is a worthy endeavor which needs much more work. I would recommend
to him the writings of Professor Donald Livingston on this subject
in various Mises Institute publications and elsewhere, and in a
position is that the right of secession is generally valid, but
does not hold when the secessionists take with them "hostages,"
in which category Professor Machan places the slaves of the Southern
states. Therefore the secession of the Southern states was not morally
valid, and Lincoln was justified in refusing to allow it.
the time when Lincoln inaugurated coercion against the seven seceding
Southern states, there were (rounding off 1860 census figures) 1,387,000
slaves in the seceded states and 1,817,000 (or over 56 per cent
of the total American slave population) still in the Union, including
nearly 3,700 in the District of Columbia and 18 in New Jersey. It
is hard to draw much of a moral to support military conquest of
seceding states from that, especially as Lincoln had already declared
that he had neither the right nor to desire to interfere with slavery
in the states.
what about the 488,000 free black people in the United States, more
than half of whom were in the slave states. How can they be "hostages"
when they discouraged and often forbidden from entering Northern
states where the black population was, according to much testimony,
extremely depressed and oppressed!
Machan is not alone in working to clarify the condition upon which
secession of a portion of a people from a larger state is justified.
The subject has received a good deal of attention in recent years.
Let me state what I perceive to be a fatal flaw in Professor Machanís
position and those of some other libertarian thinkers.
them secession must meet certain pre-established moral criteria
to be justified. But who, in fact, judges the criteria? If I have
a right to secede only when you have determined that my motives
are morally valid, Then I Have No Right At All. I must be
the judge of my claim to self-government. Otherwise, of course,
the central power will always conclude that my motives are not sufficiently
moral. And the fact that there are "hostages" in my territory,
if allowed to impede secession, would invalidate almost every independence
movement in history, including the American Revolution, since almost
every territory has antisecessionists or a minority ethnic group.
right of secession is a technical form of the right to self-government,
which is its own justification. Nobody put it better than Lincoln
in his other true statement (1848): "Any people anywhere, being
inclined and having the power, have the right to rise up and shake
off the existing government and form a new one that suits them better.
This is a most valuable, a most sacred right a right which
we hope and believe is to liberate the world."
Wilson [send him mail]
is professor of history at the University of South Carolina and
editor of The
Papers of John C. Calhoun.
© 2002 LewRockwell.com