Yes, I'm back to poor old 'Abe' once again because his detractors and defenders are still locked in battle nearly 150 years after his death. I would urge you all to read two recent articles. The first by Christopher Orlet in The American Spectator, and the second by Rich Lowry in the National Review. There is some irony to be enjoyed in the fact that today it is the political Right which is divided over Lincoln's reputation. A slightly odd combination of old world, 'Tory' agrarians mainly from the South and modern free market libertarians from the North have joined hands in damning Lincoln and all his works. But other, more main line Right-wingers, defend him vigorously. As Orlet summarises it:
THE GREAT EMPANCIPATOR will never be short of defenders, like Lincoln apologist Rich Lowry, editor of National Review, whose recent cover story, “Lincoln Defended,” calls Lincoln’s critics a fringe of left-over agrarians, southern romantics, and people-owning libertarians “who apparently hate federal power more than they abhor slavery.” A cheap shot, certainly, but judging from the growth of the anti-Lincoln press, those left-over agrarians and libertarians are as fanatical in their abhorrence of Abe as Lowry is in his admiration.
Orlet lays out the case for the prosecution. First:
Then as now critics objected to Lincoln’s unnecessary war of coercion in
which 650,000 soldiers and countless civilians died. In this time of preventable
conflicts, Lincoln’s war against the CSA was the bloodiest and arguably most
needless military adventure in American history, one fought — not to free
slaves, but to crush an independence movement.
Second, he reminds us that the idea of secession is gaining ground in several states, after all, as secessionists would remind you, the entire concept of America resulted from a revolution so what was good for your forebears is still good for you! Thirdly, they list the inumurable illegal acts perpetrated by Lincoln's regime in its total war against the South including the arrest of politicians, the suspension of habeas corpus, raising funds without Congressional approval and so on. Fourth and fifth, Lincoln shifted power irrevocably towards centralised Northern government - and Wall Street! - and then set about eradicating ruthlessly all vestiges of the old South. Finally, Orlet quotes the historian, Robert Kagan who draws some contemporary parallels:
The North’s efforts to reshape the South after the Civil War set a standard
for future American occupations and attempted transformations… Then as later,
the United States Army took effective control of a conquered land, eradicated
its leadership — the slaveholders — and attempted to empower others to take
their place, including the formerly oppressed slaves. Then as later, this
enormous undertaking was made almost impossible by inadequate resources and
inadequate and faltering commitment. Then as later, the results were mixed.
Rich Lowry, an editor of the Right-wing National Review will have none of it. He accuses those of his fellow Right-wingers who curse Lincoln and his heritage of being a fringe and of a failure to see the wood for the trees - the ones Lincoln never cut down!
A portion of the Right has always hated Old Abe. It blames him for wielding dictatorial powers in an unnecessary war against the Confederacy and creating the predicate for the modern welfare state, among sundry other offenses against the constitutional order and liberty.
The anti-Lincoln critique is mostly, but not entirely, limited to a fringe. Yet it speaks to a longstanding ambivalence among conservatives about Lincoln. A few founding figures of this magazine were firmly in the anti-Lincoln camp. Libertarianism is rife with critics of Lincoln, among them Ron Paul and the denizens of the fever-swamp at LewRockwell.com. The Loyola University Maryland professor Thomas DiLorenzo has made a cottage industry of publishing unhinged Lincoln-hating polemics. The list of detractors includes left-over agrarians, southern romantics, and a species of libertarians — “people-owning libertarians,” as one of my colleagues archly calls them — who apparently hate federal power more than they abhor slavery. They are all united in their conviction that both in resisting secession and in the way he did it, Lincoln took American history on one of its great Wrong Turns.
As always with historical controversies it is almost impossible to keep current politics out of the argument, nearly everyone approaches it through the gunsmoke of today's political warfare. Also, of course, this being an American controversy, lawyers figure mightily in the arguments! Lowry reminds us:
It hasn’t been entirely put down yet. In his anti-Lincoln tract The Real Lincoln, Thomas DiLorenzo argues that secession is as American as apple pie. “The United States were founded by secessionists,” he insists, “and began with a document, the Declaration, that justified the secession of the American states.” No. The country was founded by revolutionaries and the Declaration justified an act of revolution. No one denies the right of revolution. Madison said that revolution was an “extra & ultra constitutional right.” Even Lincoln, in his First Inaugural Address, concedes the point: “If, by the mere force of numbers, a majority should deprive a minority of any clearly written constitutional right, it might, in a moral point of view, justify revolution — certainly would, if such right were a vital one.”
The friends of secession aren’t eager to invoke the right to revolution, though. For one thing, when a revolution fails, you hang. [My emphasis] For another, the Declaration says a revolution shouldn’t be undertaken “for light and transient causes,” but only when a people have suffered “a long train of abuses and usurpations.” What was the train in 1860 and 1861? Seven southern states left the Union before Lincoln was inaugurated. The South had dominated the federal government for decades. Abuses and usurpations? It’s more like lose an election and go home.
Lowry ends his defence of Lincoln thus:
There is one final indictment against Lincoln. It is said that he elevated the Declaration and the principle of equality that it enshrines over the Constitution. NR’s venerable senior editor Frank Meyer worried that he had loosed a free-floating, abstract commitment to equality throughout the land that supported the leveling tendencies of modern liberalism. But Lincoln’s equality was the equality of natural rights, not results. “I take it,” he said in 1860, “that it is best for all to leave each man free to acquire property as fast as he can. Some will get wealthy. I don’t believe in a law to prevent a man from getting rich; it would do more harm than good.” He warned a delegation of workingmen during the war of the peril of a “war on property, or the owners of property”: “Let not him who is houseless pull down the house of another; but let him labor diligently and build one for himself.”
God knows when I'll have the time but I really must try and get to know the ins and outs of Abraham Lincoln. Certainly, following Washington's original drive for independence, Lincoln's great impetus set the giant American train trundling down the tracks. It all seems inevitable now as we look back on it but of course that is a false view because the ifs, buts and maybes of history are legion. Anyway, do read those two essays, they are excellent.