Thursday, February 12, 2009

A Libertarian Defense of Lincoln

In libertarian circles, Abraham Lincoln isn't a president that gets a whole lot of respect. There are a few reasons for this, including:

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.

Georgia:
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.
South Carolina:
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.
...

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:
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.

12 comments:

Tim Andrews said...

I'll freely admit that my knowledge of this period of US history is very limited, so a question.

While you partially address this in point 4, and conceding the evidence the south seceded on the basis of slavery,whats your response to the contention that Lincoln effectively engineered the situation over protectionist issues, as argued by Mises type people [ie http://mises.org/article.aspx?Id=952&FS=Lincoln%27s+Tariff+War]?

JPB said...

Tim,

as tempting as it is to air my feelings about Mises/LRC et al., I'll put up this review of DiLorenzo's book instead. http://www.claremont.org/publications/crb/id.736/article_detail.asp

As for the argument itself, again I'd look to the documents--the word "tariff" doesn't come up once in their stated reasons for secession. Check out the docs themselves and CTRL F.

Mississippi, and other Deep South states to a lesser degree, directly benefited from the sugar tariff, so it isn't as if the North/Republicans were alone in this.

And how many people do you know would accept a war based on import duties?

Tim Andrews said...

Thanks for the link - I tend to place very little stock in what LRC/Mises type people say, but that one was always niggling at the back of my mind, and never really looked into it.
Thanks

Pat said...

According to your logic Bush should be celebrated for liberating the Kurds in Iraq because they were held as a sub-ethnicity in Iraq. There are many other parallels but I think the case makes itself fairly obviously.

JPB said...

internal wars of secession are considerably different than invading another country and throwing off some oppressive political yoke.

Can you explain yourself more because I don't see how throwing off a dictator in another country is equal to quelling a rebellion within your own. Other than "war" and "oppression", of an entirely different sort might I add, I don't see how they are similar. Whether the Kurds were right to secede or not is really not our business.

Morgan said...

Great post.

From what I know of the period (mostly from Shelby Foote's Civil War), preserving the union was the primary motivation for the north in the Civil War. It couldn't have been the abolition of slavery because Lincoln was offering to permanently protect slavery in the southern states via the original 13th amendment if the southern states came back into the union. I think this takes abolition off the table as a primary motivation.

Anonymous said...

Lincoln believed his duty as president was to preserve the Union. The problem is that as the chief executive, his foremost duty was also to "preserve, protect, and defend" the Constitution. In many ways, he made a mockery of it.

The South certainly went to war to preserve slavery. You show that very clearly and I don't see how anyone purporting to be a historian or a scholar of that era can honestly argue otherwise. It is embarrassing to watch DiLorenzo and his ilk attempt to argue the opposite. But Lincoln went to war to preserve the Union, not to end slavery. He even said so in an 1862 letter to Horace Greeley:

"My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it..."

Lincoln's objective was not freedom but to keep all of the states under the control of the federal government. Put this way, I find Lincoln's goal objectionable.

Southern secession is a difficult topic because I certainly do not support the South's reasons for seceding, but neither do I support Lincoln's attempt to keep the Union together.

-Billy (Down the street from LvMI. I with they would secede from Auburn)

trilli@n said...

Very good original post! Thank you very much.

I would like to respond to "Anonymous", and his/her assertion that Lincoln didn’t fight the war to abolish slavery but to preserve the Union. To stress the point he/she cites Lincoln’s famous letter to Horace Greeley of 1862, but leaves out the last sentences of the letter, which are interesting. Also the historic context should be stressed, and how the objectives of the war were extended while it was fought.

Let’s first give the quote including the last sentences:

“My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. […] I have here stated my purpose according to my view of official duty; and I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men everywhere could be free.”

As a matter of fact, at the time Lincoln wrote the letter to Greeley, the Emancipation proclamation was already drafted, but not yet published. Lincoln worried how it would be received by the Northern people and feared that Northern people would reject the proclamation and the extension of the purpose of the war (from only saving the union to saving the union plus ending slavery) and refuse to fight to free slaves. Therefore, the public had to be prepared for the proclamation, and the famous letter to Greeley has to be seen as an attempt to prepare the Northern people that, in order to save the union, it may be necessary to free some or even all slaves. Lincoln also didn’t conceal that personally he is and always was against slavery.

For Lincoln, the purpose of the war was initially to preserve the Union as it existed before the war, with slavery. However, in the 1860 presidential campaign, he and the Republican platform fought hard against the extension of slavery to new territories (the Republicans started as an anti-Kansas-Nebraska act party). Lincoln thought slavery wrong, and by containing slavery to where it already existed (and where it was protected by the constitution) it would ultimately be put on the road to extinction. However, he saw that the constitution protected slavery where it existed and didn’t want to break the constitution. He was no radical. So, initially Lincoln fought for saving the union and for saving government for, by and of the people (Government for, by and of the people cannot exist if the losing side doesn’t accept the outcome of an election, but just secedes whenever it is not happy with the outcome. Such a country would be suicidal). But the war dragged on. Neither the North or the South expected the war to take as long as it did. During the war, many people came to realize that winning the war without removing the very institution that caused it, would do little good. As the case was new, Lincoln had to think anew, and so the purpose of the war shifted during the war waqs fought. Ending slavery became an objective of the war, but Lincoln had to be careful in the implementation of this objective. He managed to lead the country through this difficult process, and is (in my opinion) rightfully regarded by many as the finest president the county has ever seen.

trilli@n said...

Very good original post! Thank you very much.

I would like to respond to "Anonymous", and his/her assertion that Lincoln didn’t fight the war to abolish slavery but to preserve the Union. To stress the point he/she cites Lincoln’s famous letter to Horace Greeley of 1862, but leaves out the last sentences of the letter, which are interesting. Also the historic context should be stressed, and how the objectives of the war were extended while it was fought.

Let’s first give the quote including the last sentences:

“My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. […] I have here stated my purpose according to my view of official duty; and I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men everywhere could be free.”

As a matter of fact, at the time Lincoln wrote the letter to Greeley, the Emancipation proclamation was already drafted, but not yet published. Lincoln worried how it would be received by the Northern people and feared that Northern people would reject the proclamation and the extension of the purpose of the war (from only saving the union to saving the union plus ending slavery) and refuse to fight to free slaves. Therefore, the public had to be prepared for the proclamation, and the famous letter to Greeley has to be seen as an attempt to prepare the Northern people that, in order to save the union, it may be necessary to free some or even all slaves. Lincoln also didn’t conceal that personally he is and always was against slavery.

For Lincoln, the purpose of the war was initially to preserve the Union as it existed before the war, with slavery. However, in the 1860 presidential campaign, he and the Republican platform fought hard against the extension of slavery to new territories (the Republicans started as an anti-Kansas-Nebraska act party). Lincoln thought slavery wrong, and by containing slavery to where it already existed (and where it was protected by the constitution) it would ultimately be put on the road to extinction. However, he saw that the constitution protected slavery where it existed and didn’t want to break the constitution. He was no radical. So, initially Lincoln fought for saving the union and for saving government for, by and of the people (Government for, by and of the people cannot exist if the losing side doesn’t accept the outcome of an election, but just secedes whenever it is not happy with the outcome. Such a country would be suicidal). But the war dragged on. Neither the North nor the South expected the war to take as long as it did. During the war, many people came to realize that winning the war without removing the very institution that caused it, would do little good. As the case was new, Lincoln had to think anew, and so the purpose of the war shifted during the war was fought. Ending slavery became an objective of the war, but Lincoln had to be careful in the implementation of this objective. He managed to lead the country through this difficult process, and is (in my opinion) rightfully regarded by many as the finest president the county has ever seen.

Erik said...

I don't take the Krannawitter review of The Real Lincoln by Thomas DiLorenzo seriously. Here is the response of DiLorenzo and others to him -

http://tiny.cc/g4cjq

DiLorenzo acknowledged months before the review that the quote in his book about Lincoln saying that blacks could never be equal, only Siamese twins could ever be equal is out of context. He said that that was because he got it from a secondary source, and the secondary source got it wrong, so he will remove the quote if there is a future edition of the book. That should help show you how honest DiLorenzo is.

Anonymous said...

An excellent original post, JPB - and some good follow-up comments. You make crystal clear what the "libertarian neo-Confederates" of this world are actually defending.

The Claremont review of the "real" Lincoln book (what a laugh - and what a violation of truth-in-labeling) is just superb. The book is chock full of out-of-context quotes and tortured logic. The fact that the author now acknowledges just one of the more obvious falsehoods is no evidence of intellectual honesty; it's just an indication of how "careless" and "half-educated" he is - just as Krannawitter says.

Bull Moose said...

Very nicely done, I would like to add that anyone claiming a "war of northern aggression" or that Lincoln was at fault for secession is very wrong. The south started seceding before Lincoln was even president, he had only been elected at the time so it was more an issue of Southerners, having almost always gotten their way in Presidential elections, who were not willing to peacefully transition to a president they did not support.