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Thursday, January 17, 2008

Second Guessing History: This Lincoln Garbage, Part 1

Note: Well, it's happened again. Some libertarians are again wailing on the most terrible president in American history - Abraham Lincoln.

The last time this argument raged I wrote the following for Liberty magazine. However, by the time I submitted it everyone was heartily sick of it, so it went into cold storage for the next time. So-o-o-o-o, here we go again.

“The difference between ignorant and educated people is that the latter know more facts. But this has nothing to do with whether they are stupid or intelligent. The difference between stupid and intelligent people – and this is true whether or not they are well-educated – is that intelligent people can handle subtlety. They are not baffled by ambiguous or even contradictory situations – in fact, they expect them and are apt to become suspicious when things seem overly straightforward.”
Neal Stephenson “The Diamond Age”

Every time I think this current Civil War revisionism has about run its course, it seems to crop up again, much to my amusement, embarrassment and discomfort.

Amusing because I’m old enough to remember when in Libertarian circles, the historically minded would point to the prewar South as the closest thing to a functioning police state the US has ever had (so far), complete with networks of paid informers, interception of mail and internal passports for certain classes of people. And I remember when Ayn Rand pointed out that it was the Capitalist North that destroyed the slave-holding South.

Embarrassing because on this issue I’m not skewering strangers whose opinions I don’t care for, but some of my closest friends and most respected colleagues whose opinions matter to me, who have somehow bought into this bullshit.

And troubling because this intellectual fad is not just weirdly wrong-headed and eccentric, but seems to say some disturbing things about Libertarianism and libertarians at the core. I was going to write a whole different article about this, but then Timothy Sandefeur went and did it much better than I could have.

See: http://libertyunbound.com/archive/2002_07/sandefur-union.html

and: http://www.geocities.com/sande106/LibertyandUnion2.pdf

Since then I’ve thought on what this whole argument says about us, what it shows through the arguments presented and what one might speculate about motive – and I stress that talk about motive is always speculative.

The claim that the Civil War was “not about slavery” is just too weird to be taken seriously.

And how do I know that it was? Because they said so God damn it!

Yes, States Rights blah blah blah, yes the nature of the Constitutional Union di-dah di-dah, tariffs etc. But none of those issues was sufficient to go to war over and arguments about the authority of the Federal government to interfere in the internal affairs of the states were almost always about interfering in the “peculiar institution”.

(Yes, you did have principled individuals such as Robert E Lee, who detested slavery but thought their first loyalty was to their state, rather than the Union.)

This contention has been supported by a weird collection of irrelevancies.

An old friend wrote me, “Steve, I really think you ought to consider an economic explanation for the Civil War?”

Really? Gosh, Lincoln wiped out billions of dollars worth of personal property in the South with a stroke of a pen and it never occurred to me that the South’s objection might be just a teensy bit financially motivated.

Another pointed out that Lincoln had once defended a slaveholder in a law case involving his slave.

Oh whatever will this poor old world be forced to endure next? A lawyer taking the case of a client he may detest for money. Surely that doesn’t happen anymore?

“Only one in fifteen whites in the South owned slaves anyway.”

This is perhaps the most startlingly irrelevant fact of all. Surely what matters, is not the percentage of slave owners, but the percentage of slaves? From one eighth to one sixth of the population approximately; not a trivial figure.

Lincoln made racist remarks.

So what? People talk about racism as if it were always and everywhere the same thing. Could it be that a man might sincerely believe in the natural inferiority of a people, inherited or inculcated by circumstances, and still not believe it constitutes a legitimate reason to oppress them?

“You mean that whites are intellectually superior to blacks, and, therefore you have the right to enslave them? Take care again. By this rule, you are to be slave to the first man you meet, with an intellect superior to your own.” (Lincoln: 1854 in Lincoln, Selected Speeches and Writings: Vintage: 1992)

Or, “Suppose it is true, that the negro is inferior to the white, in the gifts of nature; is it not the exact reverse of justice that the white should, for that reason, take from the negro, any part of the little which has been given him?” (op. cit. 175)

As the first quote shows, Lincoln’s hostility towards slavery was long-establish and well known. If he equivocated, and a biographer as admiring as Carl Sandberg says Lincoln was without doubt “a trimmer”, it would seem that he concealed the extent of his plans against slavery until quite late in his career by claiming only to want to restrict it to the states where it was already legal, when he perhaps had plans to attack it in the heartland when the time was right.

“But Lincoln violated the Constitution!”

Perhaps he did, and it’s interesting that I’ve heard this from some of the same people that I’ve heard argue that the Constitution is a fraud because it was not ratified by the universal consent of the people. Or did Lincoln just settle a fatal ambiguity in the Constitution? At the point of a gun to be sure, but it damn sure had to be settled.

“Lincoln destroyed the principle of limited, local government.”

He certainly changed the idea forever, but though it might not seem so to you, America is still largely governed on a local level. Compare it to Europe where almost everything is decided on the national level. For example, we still don’t have a national uniformed police force.

And I have to ask, how “limited” is local government to a slave?

And by the way, how many of the admirers of local government have actually worked in one and seen how it operates close up? I spent twelve years of my working life in America as an employee of city government in the public utilities field (a nice term for garbage and sewage). Too often it answers the description of “grass roots tyranny” and is, unlike the Fed, near enough to take a personal interest in you.

Lincoln instituted a military draft, an income tax, suspended habeus corpus and a lot of things I don’t care for at all. In short, he wasn’t a strict Libertarian.

Thomas Jefferson advocated a vast public school network, a steeply graduated income tax and personally owned about 200 slaves. Do you want to kick him out of the pantheon of those who have contributed to liberty as well?

I don’t like the draft at all and some years back spent a lot of time and effort evading one. One could argue that a draft might not have been necessary if Lincoln had agreed to enlist and arm free blacks earlier. One thing private enterprise did to encourage enlistments was to offer free transport to impoverished young men in Europe to America, on condition that they join the Union army and pay for their transport with their enlistment bonus.

(That’s how a young man named Joseph Pulitzer came to America – except that he jumped ship in the harbor, enlisted and kept the bonus as the foundation of his fortune. Well, perhaps not every great fortune is founded on a crime...)

And at the end of the war when the situation was desperate enough in the South, it was suggested as a last-ditch strategy that they offer slaves their freedom in return for fighting for the Confederacy. It was rejected explicitly because it would have undermined the whole raison d’etre for the rebellion – in spite of being favored by Robert E. Lee. Instead they tried a draft.

“We understand that when Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, your victory was assured; for he then committed you to the cause of human liberty, against which the arms of man cannot prevail; while those of our statesmen who trusted to make slavery the corner-stone of the Confederacy doomed us to defeat as far as they could, committing us to a cause that reason could not defend or the sword maintain in the light of advancing civilization.” (The New South: Henry W Grady: 1886 in An American Primer; Daniel Boorstein ed., Meridian Classis: 1985)

"Lincoln had editors of copperhead newspapers arrested."

Yes, and I’m not comfortable with that either. But, is this really a free press issue? Or is this a category error of the “shouting fire in a crowded theater” kind? (i.e. Often cited as a free speech issue when it is really an implied contract issue.)

If you are in a fight for your life and someone stands up and yells, “I’m on THEIR side!” how do you treat them? I suspect that this issue is about to become relevant again.

And bottom line, when the South was on the ropes, they offered to rejoin the Union if it would drop the demand for emancipation.

Lincoln replied, “I should be damned in time, and for all eternity, were I to return to bondage the Black warriors who have so nobly served our cause.”

“Lincoln should have let the South secede and slavery would have died out anyway.”

And exactly how do you know this? If slavery was uneconomical, then why weren’t plantations going broke right and left? An institution may be harmful to the economy of a nation but damned good business for the few individuals who benefit from it – as we all know to our sorrow today from the politics of special interest groups.

Southerners in my own family have argued that Lincoln should have just let the South secede, and it’s tempting to think that we might have avoided that terrible war by doing so. And then what? Let Northern textile mills compete with Britain to buy Southern cotton and piously wash their hands of the issue that they were profiting from the labor of slaves?

And are you so sure there wouldn’t have been a war anyway, perhaps after the South had had enough time to build a munitions industry of their own? There were any number of reasons to expect a war, the issue of who was going to annex the western territories for example.

Do you think a Confederacy would have been content to let the Union absorb all of the western lands? A plantation/ latifundia economy always needs more land. Estates are passed down entire in line of primogeniture to maintain the family fortune intact, younger sons must get land of their own if they can. And estates had to move from time to time because of soil exhaustion due to cash monocropping.

Some have suggested that a free Union would help slaves escape across the border after repealing the Fugitive Slave Act and overturning the Dred Scott Decision.

And you think the South would have stood still for that? The border between the slave and free states was already a hotbed of contention, with slave catchers raiding across the border to recover escaped slaves, kidnap free Blacks and even people who were not black but simply dark complected enough to be explained as mustees or mustifinos.

A close friend says, “Lincoln let 600,000 Americans die.”

Lincoln didn’t let 600,000 Americans die, they were at each other’s throats and it’s difficult to see how anybody could have keep them apart.

And bottom line - the South fired the first shot. It's amazing how often that goes unmentioned amid charges of "Northern aggression."

Another libertarian author taxes the Federal government with keeping an army of occupation in the South for twelve years after the war ended.

That it did – and after it removed that army of occupation (as a result of a political bargain when one side needed the Southern votes badly enough) the Ku Klux Klan owned the night.

The Klan then set about to totally reverse any strides towards full citizenship freedmen had made and prevent the rise of a Black middle and professional class by murder and intimidation.

Next: Part 2: Don't Call Me No Goddam Yankee!


  • At 7:36 AM, Blogger Richard said…


    There are some reasons to believe slavery would have died out if there was not so strong an abolitionist movement in the North. The clamoring abolitionists sought action against the South and created a much higher level of conflict and threat. However, this was not Lincoln's fault.

    Without the civil war it would have taken much longer for slavery to be eliminated, but it would have been less destructive of lives and property. The Civil War produced tremendous Southern resentment and, as you mentioned, the Ku Klux Klan. This may be a legacy left by the Lincoln era, but there is no way it was specifically his fault. As you said, he did not fire the first shot.

    By systematically working with the principles of the Constitution and the Declaration, it is likely that one state after another would have implemented processes by which slaves would be freed. This was the approach Jefferson sought on almost all matters (including getting women suffrage), and in his lifetime some of it worked. That is how great and unique the, now so widely maligned, vision of the Founders actually was.

    Every American, and anyone interested in American slavery should read the first draft of the Declaration. In it, Jefferson doesn't just describe slavery has a rather unfair violation of the rights of Blacks. He describes it as "execrable"... that is "shitty"!

    Those who try to condemn Jefferson for owning slaves should know that he largely inherited them. Furthermore, setting a Mount Vernon slave free meant that he would almost certainly be much worse off --no land, little or no money and at risk of being re-enslaved by a much more harsh master.

    I'm a British born Canadian, and I have to ask, "what the Hell is wrong with so many Americans (right up to Presidents) who know so little about the moral principles of their own country!!!" Above all, I indict the intellectually bankrupt academics of the last century, and the power hungry educators running the public school system. Americans need to re-educate themselves about their own nation's moral and politico-economic principles. Every American should read "Pursuit of Reason: The life of Thomas Jefferson" and "Vindicating the Founders". There are many other good books to choose from if Americans would only look!

    Individual Rights, as conceived by the Founders are the true moral high ground. Ayn Rand offered a superior defense of them, and she was right!

  • At 12:02 PM, Blogger germ said…

    Just wanted to say I think this is a very insightful post. You have seem to have a good perspective on this complex issue.

  • At 8:04 PM, Blogger Saint in Exile said…

    I am a northerner who went to college for two years in the buckle of the Bible belt. I was caught off guard by how long the selective memory of many southerners is. At first, I took offense to being called a Yankee, until I realized that they were not referring to the disgraceful NY Yankees. I also saw more than one black man sporting a rebel flag on his car. What is that all about? Lastly have you ever witnessed the reenactment of the battle of Selma? What a cultural experience. This is a weekend-long event. On Saturday, the battle is reenacted as historians understood it to have occurred, with the north winning. Some drunks will actually get beligerent and throw beer bottles at the northern reenacters, shouting "you cheated" and so forth. On Sunday, it is reenacted again, but altered so that the south wins (I'm dead serious). At least as recently as 1999, that is how it worked.

  • At 9:54 AM, Blogger Ted said…

    This post is sheer, unadulterated brilliance; a defence of genuine libertarian thought that is long overdue.
    Like yourself, I believe everyone is entitled to their opinion, no matter how ignorant, ill-informed and emotionalism-based it may be and have endured with much longsuffering the ASS-ertions of the redneck cotingent.
    Your response has been an education, as well as enjoyable reading!


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