Prince LaQroix was rather surprised by the not-very-nice things I had to say about President Abraham Lincoln in yesterday’s post about the IQs of the occupants of the Oval Office:
Abraham Lincoln as the worst president? That’s a new one to me. It’s kinda funny because most conservatives I know tend to praise Lincoln. Then occasionally I’ll hear a someone talk about how horrible Lincoln was and they also tend to be really conservative. In school you learn he was an awesome president, so I’m curious what made him so bad? Really, I’m genuinely curious, not being sarcastic. Any books out there you can recommend about this?
This is an excellent set of questions. While I unfortunately lack the time, expertise, or resources to do them all justice, I can perhaps provide a starting point from which the intellectually curious and reasonably open-minded reader can proceed.
Conservatives and Lincoln
Prince LaQroix correctly notes that most “mainstream” conservatives are fulsome in their praise of President Lincoln. In my experience, this is due to three major reasons.
First, they are simply flat-out ignorant of the history behind the War Between the States. In fact, they have never even heard of the “Civil War” being called anything other than that. This ignorance is due to the well-understood fact that history is inevitably written by the victors. The fact is that the Union won that war, and ever since then, the history of what really happened in the War Between the States has been suppressed and lost. For this reason, most mainstream conservatives and Republicans have never been told that much of the South calls that same conflict “the War of Northern Aggression”. And because the South’s side has never really been told in school, they do not know why the South is perfectly justified in calling it that.
Second, President Lincoln was the first Republican President, and presided over the greatest Constitutional crisis this country has yet seen. He emerged victorious from it and in the process cemented Republican dominance over the politics of the nation for very nearly all of the next 50 years. His accomplishments as President were hugely controversial, but there is no getting around the fact that during his time as Chief Executive, the abominable institution of slavery was ended and the Union was preserved.
This leads nicely to the third reason why mainstream conservatives love Lincoln. Such conservatives tend to be law-and-order types (as am I, for the most part). Real conservatives hate war, and no war has left a greater scar upon the American psyche than the War Between the States. When you combine their ignorance of history with the fact that it took the bloodiest and most costly war the country has ever seen to preserve the Union, you can begin to understand why it is that such folk will naturally look to Lincoln as the saviour of the nation.
Libertarians and Lincoln
As Prince LaQroix also notes, there are those who truly despise Lincoln’s legacy, and they seem to be, if anything, even more conservative- like me- than their counterparts on the right.
How is it possible that one conservative can revere Lincoln, and another despise him?
The answer to this question comes back to the issue of ignorance that I noted above.
Those who revere Lincoln do so because they believe he prevented the destruction of the nation and upheld his sworn oath to protect, preserve and defend the Constitution of the United States. Above all, they revere him because they believe that he ended the unquestionably abominable and evil institution of slavery. They believe these things because they have never been taught or told anything different.
(Public school FTW, eh? Though for the sake of fairness I should point out, I was privately educated all my life, and I never knew any of this until my mid-twenties when I started thinking for myself.)
Those who despise him do so based not on belief, but knowledge. We do so because we know that his actions amounted to severe abuses of the very Constitution that he was sworn to protect. We know that he assumed dictatorial powers during his Presidency, violated repeatedly the sacred strictures upon executive power, and flagrantly abused the powers of his office to carry out a bloody and terrible war that was as unnecessary as it was tragic. And we know that what followed after Lincoln was in many ways even worse; we know that the damage suffered by the South during the Reconstruction era was so great that to this day the American South still has not recovered economically.
There is a (probably apocryphal) quote attributed to General Robert E. Lee along the lines that, if he had known what would happen to his beloved South after the War, he would have ordered his Army to fight and die to the last man rather than surrender at Appomattox. While the attribution of the quote is very poor, once one knows anything about what the post-war Republican Congress tried to push President Andrew Johnson to do, it’s not hard to see why the Deep South still holds such anger about the post-bellum period; talk to any real Southerner about the War, and you’re sure to get several earfuls about how unjust and unnecessary the whole thing was.
How do we know these things? Because those are the facts.
The Real Lincoln
I invite the serious and open-minded reader who is not convinced of President Lincoln’s abuses and usurpations to go look up the following facts. Every one of them is true and is a matter of public record.
- As President, Lincoln signed executive orders authorising the suspension of habeas corpus, the right to seek relief from unlawful and unjust imprisonment, repeatedly and despite lacking any Constitutional authority to do so, in direct contravention of Article One, Section 9 of the Constitution;
- Under Lincoln’s aegis, a military draft was instituted, in direct contradiction of both the spirit of the Declaration of Independence’s complaints about standing armies;
- President Lincoln was a disciple of the Kentucky politician Henry Clay, who believed strongly in a powerful central government that provided subsidies directly handed to big businesses for the purpose of developing and modernising the American economy, along with punitive tariffs leveled on foreign trade for the purposes of gaining revenues;
- He authorised the imprisonment, without due process, of thousands of suspected Confederate sympathisers;
- His generals, especially William Tecumseh Sherman, were perfectly willing to violate the norms and rules of war by inflicting catastrophic damage upon civilian areas in order to bring the South to its knees- see especially Sherman’s March to the Sea;
- The Emancipation Proclamation, since considered Lincoln’s political masterstroke, did not free a single slave that was in the South at the time;
President Lincoln’s staunchly pro-business attitudes, incidentally, are another major reason why mainstream Republicans respect him so much. They choose to conveniently ignore the fact that the Republican Party was formed out of the political wreckage of the Whigs, and was the party of big government, big business, and protectionism.
All of these things are facts. They are matters of public record and are readily accessible to anyone with the time and interest to go looking for them.
The real Lincoln was not a man reluctantly pushed to war by an aggressive South that rejected all means of rapprochement. The real Lincoln was a dictator, a war-monger, an imperialist, and a masterfully canny and hard-working politician who was willing to go to great lengths to preserve the Union even against the will of its several States, and who was in every way the antithesis of the spirit and legacy of the Founders themselves.
Even his most reverent biographers openly admit and concede that Lincoln was a dictator. They simply regard him as a “benign” one, who did what he did because he was desperate to save the Union, an end that they regard, to my considerable mystification, as being far more important than the lives of the 600,000 people who died- 10% of the American population at the time- in the name of a house undivided.
The Secession Question
There is not room enough here to go into all of the intricacies and details of the causes of the War Between the States. There are many, and the reading list I will provide below will provide far more information than I ever could.
I would, however, like to address one issue that is at the heart of the divide between conservative types of various stripes. That is the question of whether the South was right to secede.
The background to the secession question goes all the way back to before the Founding. The northern states, by virtue of being settled first and therefore having closer ties to England, were able to begin industrialising long before their more agricultural southern counterparts. The southern states knew full well that they could not compete economically with the more technologically advanced North, and relied heavily on slaves to keep their economies competitive.
The less populous, less wealthy Southern states were so reliant on slaves, in fact, that the issue came to a head during the Founding itself. The infamous “Three-Fifths Compromise” came about as a direct result of the fears that the South had with respect to their representation in the new Union; they knew that if the Northern states had gotten their way and allowed only free men to count as citizens, the South’s representation in the House would be reduced to near-uselessness.
Furthermore, the South abhorred the North’s industrial, big-government philosophy. Being far more agrarian, the South depended heavily on trade with Britain and Europe through exports of its cheap cotton and grain to keep its economy going. That dependence was brazenly exploited by the North through punitive tariffs designed specifically to punish the South in the years leading up to the war. This was, by the way, in direct violation of the Constitution’s strictures against tariffs and taxes imposed by one set of States upon any other set.
All of this begs the question: did the South have the right to secede?
Well, if you happen to think that a Union voluntarily formed by states- tribes, really, if you think about it- can be entered into and left at will, then the answer must be yes.
In order to disagree, you have to believe at least one and possibly all of the following things:
- A voluntary union that is explicitly agreed to be non-binding is, somehow, absolutely binding, in perpetua;
- The Union of States somehow precedes in time the actual states in its composition;
- The rights of the several member states are somehow less important and less worthy than the rights of the government created by their union, with their express consent
So, quite simply, did the South have the right to secede?
On logical, historical, and philosophical grounds, the only possible answer is “yes”. The Founders knew it, and both James Madison and Thomas Jefferson regarded secession as one of the most powerful safeguards against an overbearing and all-powerful Federal government.
There are a number of great books written about Lincoln’s legacy. Unfortunately, most of them are highly hagiographical in nature, praising Lincoln fulsomely and sticking to the party line that he was the greatest of all American Presidents since Jefferson.
The best of those books is probably James McPherson’s magisterial, monumental work, Battle Cry of Freedom. I would recommend reading it if only to get an idea of what the “mainstream” views on the War Between the States are. Only then will the other side’s views make any kind of sense.
The book that radically changed my thinking about Lincoln and the War was, of course, Thomas DiLorenzo’s The Real Lincoln. This is the book that you wish you had in high school. Vividly written, extraordinarily readable, it positively seethes with indignation about what Lincoln did, yet it never crosses the line into polemicism and sticks to the facts and analysis that have made its author one of the giants of modern libertarian thought.
Mark David Ledbetter’s America’s Forgotten History, Pt. 2: Rupture is an astonishingly well-written libertarian history of the United States. Picking up where Part 1 left off, shortly after the Founding and the first major Constitutional crises faced by the Founders, Part 2 is perhaps more even-handed in its treatment of Lincoln than DiLorenzo’s book, but still nails him for being the dictator that he was.
(He recently released Part 3: Progressive Empire, which is on my, unfortunately rather long, reading list.)
Finally, if you really want to get the South’s point of view- and why wouldn’t you- then I strongly recommend the Kennedy’s brothers’ The South Was Right!. I haven’t even read through more than 30% of this book- it is extremely detailed- but I can tell you now that if you aren’t angry about what the North did to the South after the first hundred pages, then you aren’t paying attention. It is this book that opened my eyes to what the South has suffered, and it is part of the reason why most people who know me well think that I would be better suited to living in Texas than the Northeast.
I hope that this is enough to get the curious novice started. There is far more to look into than I can possibly cover, but Prince LaQroix is to be commended for being willing to ask hard questions of one of history’s most misunderstood, and mistakenly praised, leaders.