1. Lincoln illegally suspended habeas corpus, barricaded cities and stretched the limits of executive power well-beyond any measure, even with generous interpretation, that could be granted by the Constitution
2. The Union that emerged from the Civil War was one of much more centralized power and, in many respects, anathema to the vision of the Founders
3. The South had a right to secession and thus it was wrong for Lincoln to attempt to keep them in the Union
4. A hefty Southern strand of libertarian thought that either mythologizes the Old South or, at least, tends to apologize for it by insisting that the "War of Northern Aggression" was not in fact fought over slavery. Not surprisingly, this is bolstered by a number of Southern adherents to libertarianism who refuse to face the awful history that was the antebellum American South
This first point is, by far, the strongest critique of Lincoln. In the most extraordinary time in U.S. history, and with Congress out of session, Lincoln suspended habeas corpus and in doing so effectively ordered martial law wherever the U.S. military happened to be. Several of his subsequent actions, including incarceration of seditious journalists, were thrown out by the U.S. Supreme Court after the war. As a strict adherent to the Constitution, I feel more than a little compunction saying "The Constitution is not a suicide pact" and letting it go at that, but if the country was falling apart all around me, with spies all over the capital city and the rest of the North, I'd have a hard time condemning him for most of what he did.
The second point is quite true, but fails to grip the severity with which the individual states abused their relative freedom from central control. This severity was played out again after Reconstruction, as they crippled the black communities with economic, educational, social and legal segregation up to and including intimidation, fraud, beatings and murder. It is no exaggeration that the Rule of Law--that is, the protection of (and consequently FROM) the law--simply did not apply to blacks in the South. There was--and human nature as it is, remains--a valid reason the central government was a necessary trump over the "States Rights." Inalienable human rights are not dependent on jurisdiction. Without a uniting and overseeing eye, those rights outlined in our Founding documents, would stand for nothing. The rights of the states to govern themselves should be respected only up to the point they abuse the fundamental rights of their citizens. If those so foolish as to proclaim States' Rights as absolute--when the right to free speech is clearly not (e.g., assault, fraud, etc.)--wish to place blame on the growth of the federal government, they need look no further than the abuses of the antebellum and Jim Crow Souths.
Thirdly, to hold up the Declaration of Independence as a document of liberty, one must recognize it is, indeed, a declaration of secession. Thus, if the Declaration is legitimate, then secession must be legitimate under some circumstances. What many libertarians fail to grasp is the "under some circumstances" part. Seceeding from a nation in order to keep other members of that nation in chains does NOT rise above the level of "light and transient" cause, to use Jefferson's words--not to mention being wholly unjust.
The purpose of the Declaration was to explain to the world the rightness of the Founders' actions and to list the reasons why prudence dictated they sever their ties to Great Britain. Four southern states--South Carolina, Georgia, Texas, and Mississippi--did the same when they decided they were to secede. Simply glancing over these four documents, unquestionably modeled on the 1776 Declaration, gives the reader a rather clear sense of the cause for separation: chattel slavery. The following are excerpted from the four declarations of secession.
The people of Georgia having dissolved their political connection with the Government of the United States of America, present to their confederates and the world the causes which have led to the separation. For the last ten years we have had numerous and serious causes of complaint against our non-slave-holding confederate States with reference to the subject of African slavery.Mississippi:
In the momentous step which our State has taken of dissolving its connection with the government of which we so long formed a part, it is but just that we should declare the prominent reasons which have induced our course.Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery-- the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth.
The people of the State of South Carolina, in Convention assembled, on the 26th day of April, A.D., 1852, declared that the frequent violations of the Constitution of the United States, by the Federal Government, and its encroachments upon the reserved rights of the States, fully justified this State in then withdrawing from the Federal Union; but in deference to the opinions and wishes of the other slaveholding States, she forbore at that time to exercise this right. Since that time, these encroachments have continued to increase, and further forbearance ceases to be a virtue.Texas:
The ends for which the Constitution was framed are declared by itself to be "to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity."
These ends it endeavored to accomplish by a Federal Government, in which each State was recognized as an equal, and had separate control over its own institutions. The right of property in slaves was recognized by giving to free persons distinct political rights, by giving them the right to represent, and burthening them with direct taxes for three-fifths of their slaves; by authorizing the importation of slaves for twenty years; and by stipulating for the rendition of fugitives from labor.We affirm that these ends for which this Government was instituted have been defeated, and the Government itself has been made destructive of them by the action of the non-slaveholding States.
Texas abandoned her separate national existence and consented to become one of the Confederated Union to promote her welfare, insure domestic tranquility and secure more substantially the blessings of peace and liberty to her people. She was received into the confederacy with her own constitution, under the guarantee of the federal constitution and the compact of annexation, that she should enjoy these blessings. She was received as a commonwealth holding, maintaining and protecting the institution known as negro slavery-- the servitude of the African to the white race within her limits-- a relation that had existed from the first settlement of her wilderness by the white race, and which her people intended should exist in all future time. Her institutions and geographical position established the strongest ties between her and other slave-holding States of the confederacy. Those ties have been strengthened by association. But what has been the course of the government of the United States, and of the people and authorities of the non-slave-holding States, since our connection with them?For all the world to see, to justify their actions, and with no less than 82 direct references to slavery or servitude contained in just those four documents, the seceding states proudly asserted that slavery--and its perceived abolition--was the primary and compelling motive for their secession and, consequently, the singular cause for the war. While it would be disingenuous to say that the North began the war with the intent to end slavery, it would be nothing short of delusion to say the South did not fight to preserve it. After all, giving deference to their legendary honor, one would think we could take them at their word...
For all his faults, missteps, and, on several occasions, blatant abuses of his power, Lincoln is a president to be respected, and whom I personally revere. While he was no libertarian himself, in toto, he did more for American freedom as president than any man before or since. He fought against an illegitimate government bent on and created for the perpetuation of human bondage--and he won. It is an accomplishment, I think, too often lost on contemporary Americans.
Today is the 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's birth, and it should be celebrated. Happy birthday, Mr. Lincoln.