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Thursday, March 25, 2010

Reading List: Lincoln über Alles

Emison, John Avery. Lincoln über Alles. Gretna, LA: Pelican Publishing, 2009. ISBN 978-1-58980-692-4.
Recent books, such as Liberal Fascism (January 2008), have explored the roots and deep interconnections between the Progressive movement in the United States and the philosophy and policies of its leaders such as Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, and collectivist movements in twentieth century Europe, including Soviet communism, Italian fascism, and Nazism in Germany. The resurgence of collectivism in the United States, often now once again calling itself “progressive”, has made this examination not just a historical footnote but rather an important clue in understanding the intellectual foundations of the current governing philosophy in Washington.

A candid look at progressivism and its consequences for liberty and prosperity has led, among those willing to set aside accounts of history written by collectivists, whether they style themselves progressives or “liberals”, and look instead at contemporary sources and analyses by genuine classical liberals, to a dramatic reassessment of the place in history of Wilson and the two Roosevelts. While, in an academy and educational establishment still overwhelmingly dominated by collectivists, this is still a minority view, at least serious research into this dissenting view of history is available to anybody interested in searching it out.

Far more difficult to find is a critical examination of the U.S. president who was, according to this account, the first and most consequential of all American progressives, Abraham Lincoln. Some years ago, L. Neil Smith, in his essay “The American Lenin”, said that if you wanted to distinguish a libertarian from a conservative, just ask them about Abraham Lincoln. This observation has been amply demonstrated by the recent critics of progressivism, almost all conservatives of one stripe or another, who have either remained silent on the topic of Lincoln or jumped on the bandwagon and praised him.

This book is a frontal assault on the hagiography of Sainted Abe. Present day accounts of Lincoln's career and the Civil War contain so many omissions and gross misrepresentations of what actually happened that it takes a book of 300 pages like this one, based in large part on contemporary sources, to provide the context for a contrary argument. Topics many readers well-versed in the conventional wisdom view of American history may encounter for the first time here include:

  • No constitutional provision prohibited states from seceding, and the common law doctrine prohibiting legislative entrenchment (one legislature binding the freedom of a successor to act) granted sovereignty conventions the same authority to secede as to join the union in the first place.
  • None of the five living former presidents at the time Lincoln took office (only one a Southerner) supported military action against the South.
  • Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation freed only slaves in states of the Confederacy; slaves in slave states which did not secede, including Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri remained in bondage. In fact, in 1861, Lincoln had written to the governors of all the states urging them to ratify the Corwin Amendment, already passed by the House and Senate, which would have written protection for slavery and indentured servitude into the Constitution. Further, Lincoln supported the secession of West Virginia from Virgina, and its admittance to the Union as a slave state. Slavery was not abolished throughout the United States until the adoption of the Thirteenth Amendment in December 1865, after Lincoln's death.
  • Despite subsequent arguments that secession was illegal, Lincoln mounted no legal challenge to the declarations of secession prior to calling for troops and initiating hostilities. Congress voted no declaration of war authorising Lincoln to employ federal troops.
  • The prosecution of total war against noncombatants in the South by Sherman and others, with the approval of Grant and Lincoln, not only constituted war crimes by modern standards, but were prohibited by the Lieber Code governing the conduct of the Union armies, signed by President Lincoln in April 1863.
  • Like the progressives of the early 20th century who looked to Bismarck's Germany as the model, and present-day U.S. progressives who want to remodel their country along the lines of the European social democracies, the philosophical underpinnings of Lincoln's Republicans and a number of its political and military figures as well as the voters who put it over the top in the states of the “old northwest” were Made in Germany. The “Forty-Eighters”, supporters of the failed 1848 revolutions in Europe, emigrated in subsequent years to the U.S. and, members of the European élite, established themselves as leaders in their new communities. They were supporters of a strong national government, progressive income taxation, direct election of Senators, nationalisation of railroads and other national infrastructure, an imperialistic foreign policy, and secularisation of the society—all part of the subsequent progressive agenda, and all achieved or almost so today. An estimation of the impact of Forty-Eighters on the 1860 election (at the time, in many states immigrants who were not yet citizens could vote if they simply declared their intention to become naturalised) shows that they provided Lincoln's margin of victory in Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, and Wisconsin (although some of these were close and may have gone the other way.)

Many of these points will be fiercely disputed by Lincoln scholars and defenders; see the arguments here, follow up their source citations, and make up your own mind. What is not in dispute is that the Civil War and the policies advocated by Lincoln and implemented in his administration and its Republican successors, fundamentally changed the relationship between the Federal government and the states. While before the Federal government was the creation of the states, to which they voluntarily delegated limited and enumerated powers, which they retained the right to reclaim by leaving the union, afterward Washington became not a federal government but a national government in the 19th century European sense, with the states increasingly becoming administrative districts charged with carrying out its policies and with no recourse when their original sovereignty was violated. A “national greatness” policy was aggressively pursued by the central government, including subsidies and land grants for building infrastructure, expansion into the Western territories (with repeatedly broken treaties and genocidal wars against their native populations), and high tariffs to protect industrial supporters in the North. It was Lincoln who first brought European-style governance to America, and in so doing became the first progressive president.

Now, anybody who says anything against Lincoln will immediately be accused of being a racist who wishes to perpetuate slavery. Chapter 2, a full 40 pages of this book, is devoted to race in America, before, during, and after the Civil War. Once again, you will learn that the situation is far more complicated than you believed it to be. There is plenty of blame to go around on all sides; after reviewing the four page list of Jim Crow laws passed by Northern states between 1777 and 1868, it is hard to regard them as champions of racial tolerance on a crusade to liberate blacks in the South.

The greatest issue regarding the Civil War, discussed only rarely now, is why it happened at all. If the war was about slavery (as most people believe today), then why, among all the many countries and colonies around the world which abolished slavery in the nineteenth century, was it only in the United States that abolition required a war? If, however, the war is regarded not as a civil war (which it wasn't, since the southern states did not wish to conquer Washington and impose their will upon the union), nor as a “war between the states” (because it wasn't the states of the North fighting against the states of the South, but rather the federal government seeking to impose its will upon states which no longer wished to belong to the union), but rather an imperial conquest waged as a war of annihilation if necessary, by a central government over a recalcitrant territory which refused to cede its sovereignty, then the war makes perfect sense, and is entirely consistent with the subsequent wars waged by Republican administrations to assert sovereignty over Indian nations.

Powerful central government, elimination of state and limitation of individual autonomy, imposition of uniform policies at a national level, endowing the state with a monopoly on the use of force and the tools to impose its will, grandiose public works projects funded by taxation of the productive sector, and sanguinary conflicts embarked upon in the interest of moralistic purity or national glory: these are all hallmarks of progressives, and this book makes a persuasive case that Lincoln was the first of their kind to gain power in the United States. Should liberty blossom again there, and the consequences of progressivism be candidly reassessed, there will be two faces to come down from Mount Rushmore, not just one.

Posted at March 25, 2010 21:20