In Defence of Abraham Lincoln
January 28, 2011
"The shepherd drives the wolf from the sheep's throat, for which the sheep thanks the shepherd as his liberator, while the wolf denounces him for the same act as the destroyer of liberty. Plainly, the sheep and the wolf are not agreed upon a definition of liberty." - Abraham Lincoln
No American, perhaps, has been so mythologized as Abraham Lincoln.
In part, the myths were of his own making. Lincoln often concealed an immense intellect and political fortitude behind language, imagery and ideas familiar to the common man. While some myths have elevated Lincoln to messianic heights, recently others have debased him with unfounded innuendo and accusation, both versions obscuring his true legacy.
Of particular interest is the Potemkin village of Lincoln advocacy among certain Republican circles today. There is Lewis Lehrman, a PNAC member and co-author of Ron Paul's "The Case for Gold," who attempts in "Lincoln at Peoria" to cement the image of The Great Emancipator without reference to the economic and Constitutional struggles of the Civil War.
Then there is a peculiar grouping around nonagenarian Harry Jaffa, speechwriter to Barry Goldwater and student of neocon guru Leo Strauss. Jaffa and his acolytes at the Claremont Institute see Lincoln, like Moses liberating the Israelites, as the fulfillment of the Declaration of Independence. In 1959's "Crisis of the House Divided," Jaffa casts Lincoln and Douglas in Plato's dialogue between Socrates, who advocates the objective reality of justice (natural law), and Thrasymachus, who argues that justice corresponds only with the interests of the powerful (positive law).
Strauss scholar Shadia Drury has shown that Jaffa's mentor believed Plato's real sympathies were with Thrasymachus, which suggests Jaffa's work is in effect an "exoteric" softball.
DILORENZO -- THE LIBERTARIAN VIEW
Poised to hit Harry Jaffa's softball is Thomas DiLorenzo, hailing from the Mises Institute and Jesuit Loyola University Maryland. DiLorenzo's only public debate seems to have been against Jaffa, at the Claremont Institute in 2002. In "Lincoln Unmasked" and "The Real Lincoln," DiLorenzo throws predictable mud at Lincoln, but with an interesting inaccuracy on all counts:
• Lincoln started the Civil War. In truth, the Southern states seceded, without any attempt at legal process, before Lincoln's inauguration.
• Lincoln was a dictator. In Constitutional terms, the Confederacy was an insurrection, not a secession. As such, Lincoln had the Constitutional rights to suspend habeas corpus (a privilege, not a right) and suppress the insurrection as commander-in-chief of the US military, which he did.
• Slavery would have died on its own. The oft-cited example of England's successful abolitionist movement is not relevant, as England, unlike the American Confederacy in 1861, was not a vast, untamed, free trade paradise thriving on cotton exports. The explicit reason for Southern secession was to protect and expand slavery, whatever the rationale.
Lincoln was clear on his willingness to permit slavery in existing slave states, leaving new territories like Kansas and Nebraska free. The slave trade was not withering but exploding in 1861, and Confederate leaders had their sights not only on the new territories, but Cuba, Mexico, Central America and beyond.
• Lincoln was a "Whig Mercantilist" and the political heir of Alexander Hamilton. DiLorenzo argues this point at length, and is absolutely correct. He is only one of the only popular Lincoln writers to discuss at length Lincoln's economic program of protective tariffs, national banking and internal improvements, though with he dismisses them as being ineffective and opposed to Constitutional principles.
THE US CONSTITUTION IS HAMILTON'S NOT JEFFERSON'S
Libertarians like DiLorenzo make an a priori association of the US Constitution with free trade, state's rights and small central government. While this was clearly the prescription of Thomas Jefferson, Adam Smith and Lord Shelburne, one must look to history and not the Mises Institute to find what "the founders" intended.
Why was the Constitutional Convention called in 1787? Precisely because lack of an assertive central government with authority over trade, taxation and credit had left the post-Revolutionary colonies a squabbling mess and laughing stock of the developed world. The distinctions between the US Constitution and the Articles of Confederation can be seen in Alexander Hamilton's contributions to the "Federalist Papers" and his reports on credit and manufacuture.
The new federal government assumed the debts of the states, and the congress was granted sole authority over tariffs, taxes and money. The First National Bank was established with the second law passed by the US Congress. Our nation is called the "United States," not the "Federation of Sovereign States," and our Constitution does not provide for secession or any states' rights in trade, currency or other matters pertaining to the "general welfare," as indicated in the Constitution's pointed preamble, and Article I: Section 8.
This is why Southern oligarchs, with sympathy from Jefferson, openly opposed the ratification of the Constitution. To read the "anti-federalist papers" is like reading today's Tea Party and right-wing conspiracy propaganda.
LINCOLN RESTORED THE CONSTITUTION
"We the people are the rightful masters of both Congress and the courts, not to overthrow the Constitution but to overthrow the men who pervert the Constitution." - Abraham Lincoln
To call public infrastructure, debt-free public currency, and an economic policy that advanced wages and industrialization - as opposed to a slave-based, de facto British colony - "anti- Constitutional" or "un-American" is just plain stupid.
We all want "liberty," but the world is, as Lincoln understood, full of wolves clamoring for the sheep to be let out of the pen. A Constitutional Republic, and the "American System" of political economy, commenced by Hamilton and codified by Lincoln, allows the individual the maximum freedom and opportunity possible without opening himself and his fellow man to exploitation and worse. Expecting freedom to reign without the regulating influence of government was a fantasy even in the time of the founders. We should be thankful that the wisest among them were also the most assertive.
William McKinley - like Hamilton, Lincoln and John F. Kennedy silenced by the British empire - expressed Lincoln's legacy well:
"[W]hether a thing is cheap or dear depends upon what we can earn by our daily labor. Free trade cheapens the product by cheapening the producer. Protection cheapens the product by elevating the producer. Under free trade the trader is the master and the producer the slave. Protection is but the law of nature, the law of self-preservation, of self-development, of securing the highest and best destiny of the race of man."