Posted: February 10, 2001
he ideological hangover after Presidents' Day weekend is wicked, especially for conservatives, who in the cold light of the workweek have to make peace with all the intemperate things they said, and read, over the holiday. On a weekend that equally honors George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Bill Clinton, several contributors to an NRO symposium chose to complain about — Abe Lincoln. I know it seemed like fun at the time…but may I offer some sober second thoughts, along with the aspirin and ice water?
Conservatives have been ambivalent about Lincoln for a long time, in fact, for as long as there have been self-described conservatives in America. Southern neo-Confederates condemn him for the obvious reasons. Libertarians think him right about slavery but wrong about secession and war policy. Religious conservatives, impressed by the analogy between slavery and abortion, regard him as a prophetic moralist. Neoconservatives (if I may use the hoary term) admire him but would rather not say why.
His critics on the Right are legion, but they agree on the main count of their indictment. Lincoln, they claim, destroyed the old Union and the old Constitution and so ushered in the America of big government and total war. Whether he did this deliberately or inadvertently is a matter of some dispute. But that the effect of his policies was to doom the old republic and found on its ruins the evil empire of modern American liberalism — this is almost an article of faith among many conservatives.
To illustrate what I mean, let me quote a few lines from NRO's symposium. Here is the libertarian James Bovard: "Lincoln was blinded by his belief in the righteousness of federal supremacy. The abuses and tyranny that he authorized set legions of precedents that subverted the vision of government the Founding Fathers bequeathed to America." And here is Bill Kauffman, associate editor of the American Enterprise Institute's magazine: "Lincoln's presidency was a disaster for the republic, as he carried out the domestic program favored by northern capital and fathered a nationalism conceived in blood. His contempt for constitutional limitations on presidential power can only be called Rooseveltian."
No wonder so few Republicans brag about Abraham Lincoln any more. Here are a few correctives, however, that I hope will show why his critics are wrong and why Lincoln deserves to be celebrated as a great conservative and a great American. I'll respond, briefly, to the usual right-wing criticisms of him.
The tariff. Yes, Lincoln and the Republicans did stand for a high tariff in order to protect American workingmen and foster American manufacturing. This sounds today like bad economic policy, but Alexander Hamilton, who originally recommended it in the 1780s, knew his Adam Smith quite well and realized that all economics is political economy. In a world dominated by powerful monarchies, the success of America's republican experiment depended on achieving a certain measure of national power, including manufacturing capacity, quickly. In a republic threatened domestically by slavery and by the Union's own far-flung dimensions, the tariff policy operated to reduce the comparative advantages of slave labor and to encourage the diversification and expansion of our internal market. Under these circumstances, the principle of free trade made no sense as a comprehensive policy, any more than free trade in all goods and technologies would have made sense with the Soviet Union during the Cold War, or makes sense with Communist China today. Free trade, in the first place, must serve freedom.
Besides, the Civil War was not fought over tariff policy, though many conservatives would like to think so, because it lets them avoid thinking about the actual political and moral issues at stake.
Total war. Bovard goes so far as to compare the Union army's tactics with those of the Bosnian Serbs in their "ethnic cleansing" campaigns. Come now. When thinking about Sherman's march to the sea, or the firebombing of Dresden, or the vaporization of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it is customary to take account of the stakes of the war, the justice of the cause, the casualties saved by foreshortening the conflict, the atrocities committed by the other side, and similar factors that must be weighed in the statesman's balance. We hear no such complications in the special pleading by Lincoln's critics. Nor do we hear how the goal of unconditional surrender permitted, paradoxically, a far more generous policy afterwards to the defeated states, whether of the Confederacy or, in this century, of Germany and Japan. A civil war is not the same as a world war, of course, but because civil wars invoke a sense of (brotherly) betrayal, they are among the nastiest.
The destruction of federalism. Lincoln shattered the old Union, the indictment runs, because he denied the constitutional right of the Southern states to secede. But there never was such a right. When Jefferson got the ball rolling with some loose language about "nullification" in the Kentucky Resolutions he penned in 1798, he was talking about a natural right of each state to judge the terms of the social compact for itself, and then by rallying its fellow states, by revolutionary means (if necessary) to recover the American people's freedom from tyrannical government, even as the revolutionaries of 1776 had done. James Madison made a similar point more clearly and carefully in the Virginia Resolutions. The goal was to save the Union, not dismember it.
Madison spent much of his life pressing precisely this case. In the Federalist Papers, he had argued that federalism created a double security for American liberty because it divided power between state and national governments. The Constitution was "partly federal, partly national," but it was the supreme law of the land, and national laws had the power to reach individuals in every state. Taken together, the states were a kind of bulwark against encroachments by the national government, but the state governments' power, under the Constitution, consisted largely in the exercise of their right to select Senators, to cast electoral votes for the president, and in their (informal) ability to influence public opinion. That an individual state could have a constitutional right to leave the Union was the farthest thing from his mind. Indeed, he agreed with Hamilton, his co-author, that such "anarchy in the members" was the fatal disease from which most republican confederations had hitherto perished.
In his last years, in the late 1820s and early 1830s, Madison returned again and again to this argument, denying any legitimacy whatsoever to John C. Calhoun's theories of nullification and secession. Lincoln mostly followed Madison on these matters. There was no constitutional right to leave the Union when an election didn't go your way. There was a revolutionary right to rebel against a tyrannical government, of course. But this right rested ultimately on individual natural rights, first among them the right to life and liberty. But the slave states did not, because they could not, secede in the name of human liberty.
Big government. In a civil war, in any war, government has a tendency to grow. Just ask the Confederates. In the course of the Civil War, the Confederacy enacted draft laws, boosted taxes to confiscatory levels, suspended the writ of habeas corpus, and in extremis, even tried to enlist slaves as soldiers. Lincoln resorted to many of the same expedients, but he did so to preserve the Union and to defend human freedom. Yet it's not Jefferson Davis but Abraham Lincoln who gets the blame for departing from limited, constitutional government.
What's remarkable about Lincoln, however, is how carefully he sought constitutional grounds for all his actions. Even in his most expansive decisions, e.g., the Emancipation Proclamation, he insisted on citing the constitutional source of his authority, in this case the commander-in-chief clause, inasmuch as he justified freeing slaves behind the Confederate lines only as a matter of military necessity. To end slavery in the whole Union would have required a constitutional amendment, which he later duly proposed. Franklin Roosevelt, by contrast, felt no particular need to cite constitutional text, because his purpose was to transform the Constitution into a living, evolving document that would be unnecessary to amend formally. For F.D.R., the Constitution could and would be changed by supermajorities in the voting booth, not by methods prescribed by and pursuant to the Constitution itself.
A generation after the Civil War, it would have been hard to see how American government had been distorted or permamently enlarged by Lincoln's administration. The widows and orphans of army veterans were being paid pensions; the 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution had been added and so the national government had a new authority over civil and voting rights; but nothing essential to American republicanism had changed.
In those days, the Republican party stood for energetic but limited national government, for the equal rights of man and for the privileges and immunities of American citizenship. Calvin Coolidge's party, two or three generations later, was still very much the party of Lincoln.
Modern American liberalism began not with Lincoln or Coolidge but with the conscious break with the principles of the American founding made by the so-called Progressives. Big Government began when Woodrow Wilson and Herbert Croly rejected Lincoln's (and Taft's, and Coolidge's) Republicanism because they discerned at its heart the founders' republicanism.
Too often conservatives seem oblivious of all this. They think that Lincoln's defense of the Union led straight to the modern administrative state. They claim that his argument for human equality and freedom — based on the principles of the Declaration of Independence — inspired today's moral lassitude and degraded egalitarianism.
They couldn't be more wrong. But they'll need something more than a hair of the dog that bit them in order to recover from their stupor.