Lincolnian Totalitarians

In his book Patriotic Gore: Studies in the Literature of the Civil War the literary critic Edmund Wilson explained the most important consequence of that war in a single profound paragraph:

The impulse to unification was strong in the nineteenth century . . . and if we would grasp the significance of the Civil War in relation to the history of our time, we should consider Abraham Lincoln in connection with the other leaders who have engaged in similar tasks.

The chief of these leaders have been Bismarck and Lenin. They with Lincoln have presided over the unifications of the three great new modern powers . . . . Each established a strong central government over hitherto loosely coordinated peoples. Lincoln kept the Union together by subordinating the South to the North; Bismarck imposed on the German states the cohesive hegemony of Prussia; Lenin . . . began the work of binding Russia . . . in a tight bureaucratic net.

Each of these men, wrote Wilson, "became an uncompromising dictator" and was succeeded by newly formed bureaucracies that continued to expand the power of the state and diminish freedom so that "all the bad potentialities of the policies he had initiated were realized, after his removal, in the most undesirable ways."

Defenders of the free society have long recognized this truth. In the August 24, 1965 issue of National Review, for example, the magazine’s editor, Frank Meyer, wrote that Lincoln’s "pivotal role in our history was essentially negative to the genius and freedom of our country." This was so because of the "harshness of his repressive policies and his responsibility for methods of waging war approaching the horror of total war," among other things.

"Under the spurious slogan of Union," wrote Meyer, Lincoln "moved at every point . . . to consolidate central power and render nugatory the autonomy of the states. . . . It is on his shoulders that the responsibility for the war must be placed." "We all know his gentle words, u2018with malice toward none, with charity toward all," Meyer said, "but his actions belie this rhetoric." Here Meyer referred to Lincoln’s win-at-any-cost strategy, his refusal to consider a negotiated peace, his imposition of a "repressive dictatorship" in the North and the "brigand campaigns waged against civilians by Sherman" in the South.

"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 [and] for the coercive welfare state to come into being . . . . Lincoln, I would maintain, undermined the constitutional safeguards of freedom as he opened the way to centralized government with all its attendant political evils."

This of course is precisely why totalitarians of all stripes have always lionized Lincoln. In Mein Kampf (1996 Houghton-Mifflin edition, p. 566) Adolf Hitler paraphrased the (false) theory that Lincoln introduced in his first inaugural address that no such thing as states’ rights ever existed in America to make his case for the abolition of states’ rights in Germany.

When some 3,000 Americans, most of whom were members of the Communist Party U.S.A., went to Spain to fight in the Spanish Civil War on the side of communists, they thought it quite natural to call themselves the "Abraham Lincoln Brigade." Indeed, in his book Lincoln Reconsidered, Pulitzer prize-winning Lincoln biographer David Donald wrote that the Communist Party U.S.A. adorned its office walls with huge portraits of Abe, and held annual "Lincoln-Lenin Day" parades in New York City.

Karl Marx himself wrote Lincoln on January 28, 1865 to say, "Sir: We congratulate the American people upon your re-election by a large majority." In the same letter Marx assured Lincoln that the European communist movement was with him: "From the commencement of the titanic American strife the workingmen of Europe felt instinctively that the star-spangled banner carried the destiny of their class," the father of totalitarian communism wrote. (This and other of Marx’s writings can be found at

Many of the dubious theories of the causes of the War to Prevent Southern Independence that have become accepted dogma among modern "Lincoln scholars" were dreamed up by Karl Marx. For example, despite the fact that in his first inaugural address Lincoln promised to invade any state that refused to collect the newly-doubled Morrill Tariff, and kept his promise, Lincoln scholars adamantly — and sometimes violently — deny that tariffs had anything at all to do with the war. In a recent issue of North and South magazine, historian William C. Davis threw a fit over my suggestion that the tariff was important and smugly denounced the idea as an "old chestnut." This was Karl Marx’s position as well.

In an October 20, 1861 article entitled "On the North American Civil War," Marx wrote, "Naturally in America everyone knew that from 1846 to 1861 a free trade system prevailed, and that Representative Morrill carried his protectionist tariff through Congress only in 1861, after the rebellion had already broken out. Secession, therefore, did not take place because the Morrill tariff had gone through Congress, but, at most, the Morrill tariff went through Congress because secession had taken place."

As is true of almost everything Marx ever wrote about economics, this statement is patently false. The Morrill Tariff passed the U.S. House of Representatives on May 10, 1860, before Lincoln’s election and before any state had seceded. It passed the U.S. Senate on March 2, 1861, two days before Lincoln’s inauguration. (Abe vigorously lobbied for the bill, telling a Pittsburgh, Pa. audience two weeks before his inauguration that no other issue — none — was more important.)

Whenever the Lincoln cult admits that Lincoln and the Republicans did not oppose Southern slavery in 1861, but only the extension of slavery into the new territories, they usually ignore the actual reasons that were given for this position by the Republican Party (the desire to keep the territories all white and to limit congressional representation of the Democratic Party) and repeat another one of Marx’s dubious theories. As Gerald Gunderson duly repeated in a review of The Real Lincoln on an economic history web site (see my LRC article, "The Economics of Slavery"), the Republican position was supposedly to "pick the low-hanging fruit," i.e., oppose the introduction of slavery into the territories, so that the institution would eventually die off.

This is a particularly bad analogy: Picking low-hanging fruit does not kill off a fruit tree. But besides that, it is not nearly as supportive of the "saint Abraham" image that Gunderson and others wish to portray. Even if the theory was correct, how long would it take for slavery to end in this way? Fifty years? A century? This is praiseworthy?

Moreover, if the South was so hell bent on extending slavery into the new territories, it would not have seceded. With secession, the South had no chance at all of ever introducing slavery into the territories if the U.S. government did not want it to. This fact belies the whole "low-hanging fruit" theory that has been repeated endlessly for over a century.

And the theory probably originated with Karl Marx. In his October 20, 1861 article on the "North American Civil War" Marx wrote that "the whole [secession] movement was and is based" on "whether the vast Territories of the republic should be nurseries for free states or for slavery . . ." He went on to offer the theory that is today faithfully repeated by James McPherson, Eric Foner, Harry Jaffa, and virtually all the more politically correct historians and scholars that slavery was the one and only cause of the war and that secession was illegal.

One of the best-known contemporary "Civil War" historians is Eric Foner of Columbia University, a past president of the American Historical Association and a self-described Marxist. Foner is such a devoted Marxist that he has criticized some of his own earlier publications for not being sufficiently Marxist in their methodology. For decades, he was an apologist for the Soviet Union. After the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union a Moscow display of the Soviet Gulag system drew a bitter denunciation by Foner, who complained of "the obsessive need to fill in the blank pages in the history of the Soviet era," an odd position indeed for an historian to take (See John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr, In Denial: Historians, Communism and Espionage, p. 40). In his 1988 book, The Story of American Freedom, he lavishly praises the Communist Party U.S.A. as a "cultural front that helped to redraw the boundaries of American freedom" (Haynes and Klehr, p. 40). In a review of Foner’s work John Patrick Diggins referred to Foner as "an unabashed apologist for the Soviet system" (The National Interest, Fall 2002, p. 85).

Indeed, Foner is such an apologist for Soviet communism that he opposed the breakup of the Soviet Union and, naturally, invoked Abraham Lincoln as his reason. He railed against the secession movements in Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and Georgia in the early 1990s and urged Gorbachev to deal with them in the same manner that Lincoln dealt with the Southern secessionists.

In an editorial in the February 11, 1991 issue of The Nation magazine entitled "Lincoln’s Lesson," Foner called the breakup of the Soviet Union, which at the time was being wildly cheered by freedom lovers everywhere, as "a crisis" that threatened the "laudable goal" of creating a system that demanded "overarching loyalty to the Soviet Union" while at the same time allowing separate republics to exist. No "leader of a powerful nation," Foner wrote, should allow such a thing as "the dismemberment of the Soviet Union."

He concluded that "The Civil War was a central step in the consolidation of national authority in the United States," which he of course views as a great event. One cannot adopt socialism — in the United States or anywhere else — without a highly centralized, monopolistic government. "The Union, Lincoln passionately believed, was a permanent government . . . and . . . Gorbachev would surely agree."

Harry Jaffa would also agree, although he is certainly no communist. During my May 2002 debate with him at the Independent Institute he answered repeated questions from the audience about whether or not a state ever had a right to secede from the Union and he consistently answered "no."

Jaffa and his fellow Straussians and neocons are no communists, but they do advocate and support the same kind of governmental system that the Eric Foners of the world do: a highly centralized, powerful, consolidated state.

Also during our debate, Jaffa said that 9/11 "proves" that we need a "strong federal government" now more than ever. My position is that the opposite is true: 9/11 proved that our "strong federal government" is incapable of protecting us and has failed miserably. Lincoln cultists always jump at the chance to advocate a more powerful central government.

Many people are fooled by the pretenses of Jaffa and his fellow Lincoln idolaters who call themselves "conservatives" by mistakenly believing that they therefore must favor limited government. But Jaffa has long been a part of the "conservative" establishment that was re-created by William F. Buckley, Jr. in the 1950s that essentially purged the genuine, limited government conservatives, and adopted Big Government Conservatism, known today as neoconservatism.

As Murray Rothbard pointed out in a January 25, 1952 article in The Commonweal magazine (reprinted as "Buckley Revealed" in the Rothbard archives in LRC), Buckley had long favored, in his own words, "the extensive and productive tax laws that are needed to support a vigorous anti-communist foreign policy"; and that "we have got to accept Big Government for the duration [of the Cold War] — for neither an offensive nor a defensive war can be waged . . . except through the instrumentality of a totalitarian bureaucracy within our shores" (emphasis added). We must all support, announced Buckley, "large armies and air forces, atomic energy, central intelligence, war production boards and the attendant centralization of power in Washington . . ."

This of course is why Buckley directly opposed Frank Meyer’s criticisms of Lincoln and embraced Jaffa’s literary superstitions in his magazine all during the Cold War years: they added "moral legitimacy" to his goal of establishing a "totalitarian bureaucracy within our shores." Buckley really is, as Rothbard concluded, "a totalitarian socialist, and what is more, admits it," despite the odd fact that many considered him to be some kind of individualist.

Thus, the Lincoln fable has been instrumental to the political aspirations of both left-wing and right-wing totalitarians, just as Edmund Wilson predicted back in 1962. They both advocate the consolidated, monopolistic, Lincolnian state despite their occasional lip service to states’ rights and limited government. Consolidated or monopolistic government is always and everywhere the enemy of freedom and the Lincoln myth, above all else, serves to prop it up, just as Frank Meyer wrote back in 1965.