Most Americans believe the Civil War is long over, and happily so. But for some it never ended. This is evident in the recently formed and sometimes strikingly odd alliance between old-line confederates and some libertarians, the core of which is a hatred for Abraham Lincoln. He is accused of being a liar, a "statist," and an enemy of free constitutional government. Thomas DiLorenzo is the latest libertarian to enter the fray, desperately trying to resuscitate the failed cause of Jefferson Davis and Alexander Stephens, and stamp out Lincoln's good reputation.
Mr. DiLorenzo has recently written a book attacking Lincoln, The Real Lincoln. This past week at the Independent Institute in Oakland, California, DiLorenzo debated the Claremont Institute's own Harry V. Jaffa, author of A New Birth of Freedom: Abraham Lincoln and the Coming of the Civil War. In both his book and the debate DiLorenzo displayed new heights of ignorance about the most basic problems of constitutional government, as well as the basic history of America. It is telling about our current political crisis that someone dedicated to freedom and free trade, as DiLorenzo surely is, could be so alienated from the American political tradition.
Mr. DiLorenzo rightly laments the rise of the administrative-welfare state that has increasingly displaced free government in America. But he wrongly asserts that Lincoln is the cause. American government today, which largely operates outside the scope of and with little regard for the Constitution, rests not upon the principles of Lincoln, but a rejection of those principles.
Limited constitutional government results from an understanding that the ends of government are limited, and so must be the power and scope of government. The ends of government must be rooted in something fixed outside human will and desire. For Lincoln no less than the Founders, the purposes of government are derived from unchanging human nature, namely the
protection of individual natural rights. Unlimited government, on the other hand, results when the infinite number of human desires — from jobs with vacations, to free medicine, to abortions-on-demand, to after school programs for kids — are treated as the ends of government. The only kind of government that can deliver an infinite number of things is a government of unlimited power and scope. This has been the goal of modern liberalism and socialism in America for the past century.
Lincoln never for a moment thought the legitimate end of government is anything but the protection of individual natural rights. In defending the idea that all men are created equal — in the true sense that all men possess equal rights by nature, and that the purpose of government is to protect those natural rights — Lincoln secured the only firm foundation for limited constitutional government. And he did so in the face of the greatest problem of republican government: Lincoln was presented with the challenge of combining government by consent of the governed with the equal protection of rights, when increasing numbers of the governed consented to violate the rights of others and hold them in slavery, supposedly for their own good. Lincoln's challenge was nothing less than preserving the constitutional system of free elections and the union, while placing slavery in the course of ultimate extinction. Lincoln's genius was in directing the discordant moral, political, and economic interests of the antebellum period toward the preservation and expansion of free society.
All of this is lost on DiLorenzo. In his debate with Professor Jaffa, for example, DiLorenzo asserted more than once that Lincoln cared little about the Constitution, and believed "slavery in the South was OK." According to DiLorenzo, Lincoln had explicitly said so in his First Inaugural. Professor Jaffa, in his teacherly way, pointed out that Lincoln never said any such thing. Lincoln repeatedly and publicly expressed disgust at the idea of chattel slavery; but he also explained that the president of the United States lacked any constitutional power, at least in ordinary times of peace, to interfere with slavery where it then existed in the Southern states. (War or rebellion, of course, might change things, as wars and rebellions tend to do.)
This was the plain message of Lincoln's First Inaugural and the purpose of Lincoln's statesmanship: to defend the Constitution, while working to discredit slavery and shape public opinion in favor freedom. But DiLorenzo shows no sign of understanding any of this. The problems with DiLorenzo's analysis are discussed at greater length in my review of The Real Lincoln, which will appear in the forthcoming issue of the Claremont Review of Books. Read the article here.
In furthering free government, no one has done more in American history, and no one faced greater challenges, than Abraham Lincoln. We owe it him to ensure that his example is remembered. We owe it to our selves and our children to learn from it.