On May 5, 2001, The Washington Times excerpted a speech Joe Sobran had then-recently given at Christendom College on Abraham Lincoln. The Times reported
[T]here are some facts about him [Lincoln] and his presidency that are oftentimes overlooked by historians, particularly historians north of the Mason-Dixon line….But the most significant achievement attributed to Lincoln, that of abolishing slavery, may not according to Mr. Sobran, actually have been Lincoln's intent. Contrary to popular opinion, Lincoln was not opposed to slavery itself, rather, "he opposed the spread of slavery."
The Times continued to quote Sobran as saying "Lincoln's opposition to the spread of slavery resulted in his belief in colonization," and that Lincoln was opposed to allowing blacks to vote, hold public office, serve on juries, and intermarry with whites.
In Jack Kemp's syndicated column, he responded to these allegations against Lincoln those from Sobran and other, typical such allegations, made by some on the left. Kemp claimed that Sobran's criticism, the common criticisms, of Lincoln amounted to a "character assassination" of Lincoln and went on in his limited column space to defend the President known as "The Great Emancipator." Kemp quoted Lincoln directly responding to some of the exact attacks Sobran made and Kemp also quoted John Stuart Mill watching the Civil War unfold from England who brilliantly defended the idea that the arrest of the spread of slavery (Lincoln's position) was the best way to abolish slavery, especially since true abolitionists could never be elected in the United States.
A column of Sobran's, posted on Lewrockwell.com, took Kemp to task for his defense. Sobran reaffirmed his criticisms of Lincoln and further stated that "Lincoln launched a bloody war against the South, violating the Constitution he'd sworn to uphold."
The debate, has since been joined by one of Lincoln's greatest philosophical defenders, Harry V. Jaffa. This is not an insignificant debate the issues that Lincoln spoke of and that the Civil War were fought over go to the very heart of our regime.
Lincoln deserves defense in this century not only because his cause was just two centuries ago but because it breaks my heart when pro-life wordsmiths criticize the man who gives so many of us pro-lifers the best template for how to oppose our culture of death (As Pope John Paul calls it) and the Roe regime we now live under. We should make no mistake about Joe Sobran's credentials here, he has been (and is) one of the best writers in the defense of the unborn. We have all found great support for our cause in Sobran's writings and his defense of the weakest members of our society, the silenced, the unborn. When committed pro-lifers attack Lincoln, though, I'm reminded of Lincoln's very own words describing the extension of slavery: "Our republican robe is soiled, and trailed in the dust." I am an admirer of Lincoln not only because he saved the Union, not only because he was our nation's first Republican President, not only because he articulately opposed slavery and dedicated his political life to its extinction, but because I think we can learn from him how to handle issues we confront today. When Sobran and others in our movement criticize Lincoln, I worry less about our "Republican robe" than I do about our "republican robe."
Looking at the notorious Dred Scott decision, claiming the black man "had no rights which the white man was bound to respect," many of us in the pro-life movement see analogies to Roe v. Wade, which overturned every abortion law in the country and claimed the unborn had no rights the born were bound to respect that an unborn child's life could be snuffed out for any reason at all. As the years moved on, through cases such as Casey and, more recently, Carhart, which affirmed the gruesome partial-birth abortion procedure, many of us looked more and more to Lincoln who, after Scott, said of the blacks in this country:
All the powers of earth seem rapidly combining against him. Mammon is after him; ambition follows, and philosophy follows, and the Theology of the day is fast joining the cry. They have him in his prison house; they have searched his person, and left no prying instrument with him. One after another they have closed the heavy iron doors upon him, and now they have him, as it were, bolted in with a lock of a hundred keys, which can never be unlocked without the concurrence of every key; the keys in the hands of a hundred different men, and they scattered to a hundred different and distant places; and they stand musing as to what invention, in all the dominions of mind and matter, can be produced to make the impossibility of his escape more complete than it is.
Watching, as we have, the progression against the unborn that started with Roe, moved to Casey, and culminated in Carhart, many of us thought the same way about Roe as Lincoln did about Scott. In fact, in the 1970s, Jesse Jackson used to base his case for the unborn on the very same analogies against slavery. I would have hoped Sobran's abandonment of Lincoln along with a small segment of others in our camp would not follow Jesse Jackson's trajectory and example.
As for the merits of Sobran's speech and column, one simply cannot be familiar with Lincoln's writings or speeches and think he was anything but opposed to slavery. At various times in his political career he called slavery "wrong," "immoral," and "evil." He would say, again and again, that if "slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong." He believed the founders made certain compromises with slavery so as to have the slave states ratify the Constitution but that those compromises were not the principles of the Constitution which, itself, was intended to keep slavery on the road to ultimate extinction. Lincoln saw the Kansas-Nebraska Act and other attempts, such as Dred Scott, and Stephen Douglas' notion of "popular sovereignty" (which allowed people to vote slavery up or down in the territories) as a betrayal of the founders' scheme to ultimately eliminate slavery. Douglas' policy was one of "don't care" whether slavery was voted up or down. Lincoln believed that one could not vote to commit a moral wrong. Sounds familiar to the pro-life debate, doesn't it?
Sobran's most outrageous claim is that "Lincoln launched a bloody war against the South, violating the Constitution he'd sworn to uphold." More errors in a single sentence could not be made. If Lincoln launched a war, he did so by merely being elected President (an election, by the way, in which he gave no campaign speeches). Not only did seven states secede before Lincoln was even sworn into office, Lincoln did all he could to ensure a unified nation. He even reached out to Alexander Stephens (who ultimately became the Vice President of the Confederacy), offering him a seat on his cabinet. Nonetheless, it was the secessionist South Carolina that first fired on Fort Sumter. The combination of secession and the taking over of and firing upon federal forts was the "launch" of the war. As for the illegality of waging that war to preserve the Union, I know of no legitimate scholar who believes Lincoln acted illegally in defending the Union. Even the lame-duck President James Buchanan, who wanted to admit Kansas as a slave state and who supported the Dred Scott decision, claimed secession to be illegal. How could it not be?
The idea that there was a right to secede contradicts both the Declaration of Independence (which both Jefferson and Madison claimed was our "fundamental act of union") and the Constitution (which was ratified by "We the people" the same "ne people"and "we" in the Declaration of Independence). There was no right to overturn an election of "ballots" by a use of "bullets" as Lincoln said. That would be the end of self-government, that would be the antithesis of representative government. Nowhere did our founders indicate that should an election be disfavored, one could secede from the Union and take federal property with them. That "all men are created equal" is the principle that allows everyone to have a turn at governing and those who lose an election to peaceably be governed. There was no sense to establishing a "more perfect union" or a federal government at all if it could not be defended from insurrection or secession. The signers of the Declaration, our nation's founders, spoke of "revolution" when natural rights were being plundered (rights which Lincoln was upholding), and revolution presupposes war as the natural consequence. They did not speak of "the right of secession." Cleverly, the Southern secessionists didn't speak of "revolution," for if they did, perhaps their slaves might take note, as Harry Jaffa well points out in his new book, A New Birth of Freedom.
Sobran also misrepresents Lincoln's position on colonization. It is true that Lincoln at one point supported colonization of blacks. So too did James Madison, James Monroe, and Henry Clay. Lincoln supported it, not because he wanted an all-white nation, but because he feared retribution against blacks by racist elements in this country. He thought a repatriation scheme would provide the best opportunity for freed blacks to have their own homeland, free of white prejudice, so they could establish for themselves "the sacred right of self-government." His purposes were beneficent, not racist. Still, Lincoln was wrong. And he admitted it, calling his erstwhile idea quickly abandoned "a hideous and barbaric humbug." Lincoln's heart was always in the right place which is why Frederick Douglass said Lincoln was "emphatically the black man's president." Sobran never writes of this.
It is easy to take history out of context, it is easy to be a revisionist, I just don't expect it from people on our side of the political spectrum. To read all of Lincoln is to know he was opposed to slavery. To take a handful of Lincoln's speeches on colonization and represent them as his central position is to look at Ronald Reagan's positions on the deficit in the 1970s and his signing off on the increase of capital gains in 1986 and argue that Reagan's positions on the economy were represented by a belief in increasing taxes. Such conclusions about Reagan and Lincoln miss entire forests for a few, unrepresentative trees.
As President, Lincoln sought to preserve the Union and he knew that the Union was the cause of manumission. He knew it because the founders knew it. He tried to keep the founders' faith, and his words and writings and actions should serve as an inspiration to all of us, be we conservatives or liberals, Republicans or Democrats. Misrepresenting Lincoln does history no favor and it does not advance our republican cause. It actually weakens our case for the protection of the weakest among us. Lincoln taught that "'Give to him that is needy' is the Christian rule of charity, but 'Take from him who is needy' is the rule of slavery." As someone who believes all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with unalienable rights, I believe the cause of the poor, the defenseless, the minority, is the cause of our republican form of government. As someone who believes the unborn are among the weakest, most defenseless, I further believe Abraham Lincoln provides great instruction and example in how to further their cause. I close with Lincoln's own words, and ask Sobran and his minions, to reconsider their service in debunking Abraham Lincoln:
In their [the founders'] enlightened belief, nothing stamped with the divine image and likeness was sent into the world to be trodden on and degraded and imbruted by its fellows. They grasped not only the whole race of men, then living, but they reached forward and seized upon the farthest posterity. They erected a beacon to guide their children and their children's children, and the countless myriads who should inhabit the earth in other ages. Wise statesmen as they were, they knew the tendency of prosperity to breed tyrants, and so they established these great self-evident truths, that when, in the distant future, some man, some faction, some interest, should set up the doctrine that none but rich men, not but white men, or none but Anglo-Saxon white men were entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, their posterity might look up again to the Declaration of Independence and take courage to renew the battle which their fathers began, so that truth and justice and mercy and all the humane and Christian Virtues might not be extinguished from the land; so that no man hereafter would dare to limit and circumscribe the great principles on which the Temple of Liberty was being built.