Political Birds of a Feather: Hillary and Neocons Celebrate a Lincoln Speech

A news item in the May 25, 2004 edition of washingtonpost.com noted that Hillary Clinton joined with dozens of Washington, D.C. neocons at the home of the Heritage Foundation’s James Swanson to "celebrate" a new book by "her friend" Harold Holzer entitled "Lincoln at Cooper Union: The Speech that Made Abraham Lincoln President." Holzer was appointed in 2000 by President Bill Clinton (i.e., by Hillary) to head the U.S. Lincoln Bicentennial Commission. When Hillary rose to praise him she was applauded by the neocons in attendance, according to the Washington Post.

This book is bound to be celebrated ad nauseum by the neocon establishment, as are all books of this sort that tend to put the most angelic spin possible on every word of Lincoln’s political speeches while generally ignoring his actions. Lincoln was a master politician, and the Cooper Union speech was indeed a masterpiece of political doubletalk combined with a touch of political hysteria.

In the speech Lincoln made a long-winded defense of the proposition that the federal government had the right to regulate slavery in the new territories while at the same time firmly supporting the governmental enforcement of southern slavery. Referring to the founding fathers and their positions on slavery he said:

As those fathers marked it, so let it be again marked, as an evil not to be extended, but to be tolerated and protected only because of and so far as its actual presence among us makes that toleration and protection a necessity. Let all the guarantees those fathers gave it, be, not grudgingly, but fully and fairly, maintained. For this Republicans contend, and with this, so far as I know or believe, they will be content (emphasis in original).

Lincoln advocated that southern slavery be protected by the federal government "fully and fairly" in the Cooper Union speech. And this is what Hillary and the neocons are celebrating? Moreover, he gave a morally bankrupt reason for this position: The government should maintain southern slavery, he said, because, well, because it exists. Its "presence" supposedly makes such enforcement "a necessity." "Wrong as we think slavery is," Lincoln stated, "we can yet afford to let it alone where it is, because that much is due to the necessity arising from its actual presence in the nation . . ."

Lincoln repeated this position in his first inaugural address, where he declared that "I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so."

Republican Party opposition to the extension of slavery into the new territories was not based on moral grounds as much as patronage politics. They wanted to win the votes of white laborers by promising them they would never have to compete with slave labor — or with free blacks for that matter. Lincoln spoke very clearly on this topic in a speech in Peoria, Illinois on October 16, 1854. "Whether slavery shall go into Nebraska, or other new territories, is not a matter of exclusive concern to the people who may go there," said Lincoln. "The whole nation is interested that the best use shall be made of these territories. We want them for the homes of free white people."

Thus, Lincoln’s position was that the citizens of the states should not be allowed to decide, but the federal government should step in to guarantee that the territories would be the exclusive domain of the white race.

Lincoln’s secretary of state, William Seward of New York, explained that "the motive of those who protested against the extension of slavery had always really been concern for the welfare of the white man, and not an unnatural sympathy for the Negro." (See James McPherson, The Struggle for Equality (Princeton University Press, 1966, p. 24). Illinois Senator and Lincoln confidant Lyman Trumbull also declared that "we, the Republican Party, are the white man’s party. We are for the free white man, and for making white labor acceptable and honorable, which it can never be when Negro slave labor is brought into competition with it." (Eugene Berwanger, The Frontier Against Slavery (University of Illinois Press, 1967, p. 133).

Historian Eugene Berwanger remarked that throughout the 1860 presidential campaign, "Republicans made no pretense of being concerned with the fate of the Negro and insisted that theirs was a party of white labor." "By introducing a note of white supremacy, they hoped to win the votes of the Negro-phobes and the anti-abolitionists who were opposed to the extension of slavery" (p. 154).

Lincoln openly expressed the kind of white supremacist statements that Berwanger refers to. In an 1858 debate with Stephen Douglas in Ottawa, Illinois, he said "I, as well as Judge Douglas, am in favor of the race to which I belong having the superior position." He made many similar statements throughout his life.

Opposition to the extension of slavery into the territories made perfect political sense, for the vast majority of northerners were such white supremacists that a number of states, such as Illinois, had made it illegal for free blacks to even migrate across their borders. As Professor Joanna Pope Melish explains in her book, Disowning Slavery: Gradual Emancipation and Race in New England, 1780—1860, slavery itself still existed in such places as New Hampshire as late as 1857; it had existed in New England since 1638 and was every bit as degrading and dehumanizing as southern slavery was; and once New England slavery became uneconomical and was (very) gradually ended, New Englanders did all they could to eliminate the small number of free blacks from their presence.

Ralph Waldo Emerson hoped that the black race "would follow the Dodo into extinction" (Melish, p. 285). Free blacks were denied citizenship, and a system of seizures, fines, whippings, and other punishment was enacted for "illegal activities" supposedly committed by free blacks (but not by whites). Free blacks in New England were denied titles to property, vagrancy laws were used as an excuse to deport them from various communities, and roving gangs of white terrorists raided free black communities, burning some of them to the ground (Melish, p. 165).

Black graves were even dug up so as not to "taint" the white ones in New England, writes Professor Melish, and there was a "crescendo of mob violence" against free blacks for years on end (p. 199). By 1853 Frederick Douglas would look at the situation in New England and comment, "What stone has been left unturned to degrade us?"

These are the kind of people who were populating the new territories, and to whom Lincoln and his party were pandering for votes. They had all but eliminated the Negro race from their old communities, and wanted the territories to look like New England. "In virtually every phase of existence [in the North], wrote Eugene Berwanger, "Negroes found themselves systematically separated from whites" (p. 97).

A second reason that Lincoln gave for his opposition to the extension of slavery into the territories was equally amoral. At the time, the three-fifths clause of the U.S. Constitution allowed every five slaves to count as three persons for purposes of determining the number of congressional representatives in each state. Lincoln denounced this as "manifestly unfair" since it artificially inflated the congressional representation of the Democratic Party. He complained in the Peoria speech that this arrangement gave South Carolinians two votes in Congress for every one vote a man from Maine had. He clearly preferred that slaves count as zero rather than as three persons for purposes of determining congressional representation. This had long been the position of the New England states, and had been adopted by the New Englanders who had recently migrated to the Midwest.

In the Lincoln-Douglas debates Douglas championed the position of "popular sovereignty" — the notion that the citizens of the states should decide whether or not they wanted to allow slavery in the territories. In his Cooper Union address Lincoln mocked this idea as a "gur-reat pur-rinciple" that if one man would enslave another, then no third man should object.

Harry Jaffa and his fellow Straussians have twisted these words around to say that Lincoln’s position was that one man should not be able to vote another man into slavery. That’s not exactly what Lincoln said. But in fact Lincoln supported the principle that one man could indeed vote another man into slavery by pledging his undying support to southern slavery and all the federal enforcement mechanisms for it, such as the Fugitive Slave Act. Slavery was constitutional, and in supporting the constitutional protection of slavery, Lincoln was supporting the idea that slavery held together by democracy was legitimate. He supported one man voting another man into slavery, in other words, despite his occasional rhetoric to the contrary.

Moreover, when Lincoln and his party orchestrated the secession of western Virginia to create the state of West Virginia (unconstitutionally, according to Lincoln’s own attorney general Robert Bates), Stephen Douglas’s position of popular sovereignty became the official policy in that state! It was the official Republican Party policy. The party’s position — and Lincoln’s — was that one man could indeed vote another man into slavery as long as all involved remained part of the union and continued to pay federal taxes.

The Cooper Union speech ended on a note of political hysteria. Namely, Lincoln argued that southerners would demand "the overthrow of our Free-State constitutions" and re-establish slavery in such states as Maine and Massachusetts. But states’ rights was still alive and well at the time of the Cooper Union speech. Northern states had frequently invoked the principle of nullification, authored by Jefferson in the Kentucky Resolve of 1798, to effectively nullify such things as Madison’s trade embargo, the spread of the Bank of the United States, and the Fugitive Slave Act. It is simply ridiculous to believe that the southern states would have somehow been able to "force" slavery — which had long been uneconomical in the North — on any Northern state.

Lincoln was obviously trying to invoke hysteria among the more ignorant and gullible, lower-class white supremacists in the North — the type that discriminated against free blacks in the North in such as vulgar and violent fashion, as explained by Professor Melish in Disowning Slavery.

Much is made of the fact that Lincoln called slavery "wrong" in the Cooper Union speech, as though he was the only person in America — or the world — to do so at the time. (General Robert E. Lee not only condemned slavery on moral grounds but personally liberated the slaves his wife had inherited). But compare Lincoln to British, Spanish, Dutch and French statesmen of the era. All of these countries not only declared slavery to be morally wrong, but set it on a rapid course of peaceful extinction. Lincoln called it "wrong" but spoke out of both sides of his mouth by going so far, in his first inaugural address, to pledge his support of a proposed constitutional amendment, that had just passed both the House and Senate, that would have forever forbidden the federal government from interfering in southern slavery. On the day he was inaugurated he was perfectly willing to see southern slavery exist long past his own lifetime, for all he knew.

The Cooper Union speech is as good an example as any of why Murray Rothbard described Lincoln as a master politician and, as such, as a masterful "liar, conniver and manipulator" (Murray Rothbard, "America’s Two Just Wars: 1776 and 1861, in The Costs of War, ed. John Denson (Transaction Publishers, 1997, p. 131). No wonder Hillary Clinton and her new neocon buddies adore him so much.