I’ve been more than disappointed over the years by the attitude taken by too many libertarians to Abraham Lincoln. Too ready, especially, to accept shoddy revisionist scholarship peddled by neo-confederate cranks – leading to the tragic spectacle of so-called lovers of liberty denigrating a president who defended rights, while they themselves defend the alleged “rights” of a slave state.
In the face of widespread popular support for Lincoln (note, for example, the success of the 2012 Steven Spielberg film about him) and his perennially high reputation among academics, certain libertarians and conservatives have promoted the view that Lincoln was a totalitarian who paved the way for out-of-control government in the 20th century.Those critics are wrong. Contrary to their volumes of misinformation and smears—criticisms that are historically inaccurate and morally unjust—Lincoln, despite his flaws, was a heroic defender of liberty and of the essential principles of America’s founding.
Getting Lincoln right matters. It matters that we know what motivated Lincoln—and what motivated his Confederate enemies. It matters that we [even in New Zealand] understand the core principles on which America was founded—and the ways in which Lincoln expanded the application of those principles. It matters that modern advocates of liberty properly understand and articulate Lincoln’s legacy—rather than leave his legacy to be distorted by anti-government libertarians (and their allies among conservatives), leviathan-supporting “progressives,” and racist neo-Confederates.
Given the shocking state of libertarian Lincoln scholarship then, I was very happy on receiving my latest copy of The Objective Standard to see the cover story is a thorough debunking of their claims against the president forced to confront head on the toxic mixture of freedom and slavery which the founders unfortunately bequeathed America. It is the best debunking of the claims against him I’ve read.
The author, Alexander Marriot, addresses and dismisses each of the major claims made by the likes of Thomas DiLorenzo, Ron Paul, Murray Rothbard, Walter Williams, and sundry other folk who should know better, including claims…
- That the slave states had the “right to secession” – and, worse, that the American Revolution itself was fundamentally about the secession and self-determination of “sovereign states.”
But this is just flat wrong.
“To characterize the essence of the Revolution as ‘the right of secession’ is ludicrous… The doctrine of states’ rights to secession is built on a faulty premise that is antithetical to American political theory. The premise is that the states created the federal government and can withdraw at will; that state governments are the constituents in the American polity that are sovereign; that states, as such, have rights. But in American political theory—at least since the constitutional reformation of 1787—not the states but the people are sovereign; only individuals have rights.”
“Beyond looking to the text of the Declaration, we can examine how the founders addressed the issue of secession when it actually arose.” Through discussions of Jefferson, Franklin, etc., Marriot demonstrates this assertion to be a complete lie. “DiLorenzo’s pretense that the founders or their intellectual heirs would have supported secession—especially secession for the primary purpose of constructing a government devoted to institutionalizing human bondage—is both absurd and shameful.”
- That Lincoln never truly cared about ending slavery, the war for which was only a pretext to enlarge the leviathan state. Anyone who’s ever read the Lincoln-Douglas debates would understand how fatuous is this assertion. One supposedly compelling piece of evidence adduced by DiLorenzo is that “Lincoln barely mentioned slavery before 1854.” But as Marriot points out, no-one did either, other than abolitionists. But in 1854 the “Missouri Compromise” was overturned, allowing slavery to break out of its southern ghetto and begin spreading its virus across new territories.
“To the degree that Lincoln was silent about slavery prior to 1854, it was because he (too complacently) thought slavery had been contained and might be on a path to extinction. As Lincoln properly recognized, the notion that majority will could alienate an individual’s rights—could turn men into the property of other men—was antithetical to the essential principles of the founding. What spurred him into eloquence and action was the horrifying realization that many of his fellow Americans might no longer believe that to be true.”
The Kansas-Nebraska Act ending the Compromise led as inevitably to the legal expansion of slavery across the US as it did to the war against slavery and the Emancipation Proclamation that crowned it.
- That Lincoln prosecuted war “mainly to institute his expansionist vision of the federal government,” and that Lincoln’s big government was the precursor the leviathan state. Yet as Marriot points out, this fantasy simply ignores the real founders of big American government, who were the “progressive” leaders of the early twentieth century like Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson.
Lincoln’s economic policies not only had more in common with the founders than the “progressives” and their progeny, “in important ways, Lincoln was a better spokesman for an open marketplace than was Jefferson, who elevated the agrarian life above all others.”
- That Lincoln’s actions in war – conscription; brutality; income taxes; a resurrection of centralized government finance and banking; the emission of paper money; the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus; military arrests, trials, and imprisonments; temporary nationalizations; mass wealth confiscations; government closing of newspapers; and declarations of martial law – made him a warmonger and virtual dictator.
“Yet in these matters, too,” says Marriot, “Lincoln deserves to be judged in the light of historical context. Few presidents have been confronted with disasters and emergencies during their times in office as monumental as those Lincoln faced. Fewer still have reacted to such crises as conscientiously as Lincoln did when the Confederates fired on Fort Sumter in April 1861.”
Too many forget who it was who fired the first shots in the war, and even that they came before Lincoln’s inauguration – suggesting that if there was any warmongering, it can hardly have been the fellow who wasn’t even holding the office of commander-in-chief at the time.
“Lincoln reasonably thought of his wartime actions as consonant with those of previous leaders.” And so they were. Perfectly consonant with what Andrew Jackson, Madison,Zachary Taylor, and George Washington himself had done in times of war and rebellion.
Marriot argues that, “faced with a rebellion fought to preserve slavery—the repugnant institution fundamentally at odds with the ideals of America’s founding—Lincoln sought to preserve the republic and its essential ideals.” He concludes:
Lincoln pointed out the relationship of his two great achievements—freeing the slaves and maintaining the freedom of the republic more broadly—in observing:
We know how to save the Union. The world knows we do know how to save it. We—even we here—hold the power, and bear the responsibility. In givingfreedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free—honorable alike in what we give, and what we preserve. We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best, hope of earth.75
Lincoln finally laid to rest the greatest contradiction of the republic’s founding as well as the great fear that republics were incapable of overcoming intestinal strife without ultimately sacrificing the liberties of the people. That legacy deserves posterity’s praise and admiration…
Those who tarnish the legacy of Lincoln—whether libertarian anarchists, Confederate apologists, or simply confused historians—do more than a grave injustice to this great man. They also, and consequently, aid and abet modern advocates of statism by enabling them to invoke Lincoln’s name in their efforts to promote political programs fundamentally at odds with the principles for which Lincoln fought.
If we care about historical truth and the “eternal struggle” for liberty, we must get Lincoln right—and we must speak up when others get him wrong.
I urge anyone interested in Lincoln, American history, or the history of slavery to read and reflect on Mr Marriot’s thorough debunking of the phony arguments against this great American.
- READ: Getting Lincoln Right – Alexander Marriot, OBJECTIVE STANDARD
(NB: If you’re not already a subscriber, a PDF of the article will cost you US$3.95: peanuts if you wish to have in informed opinion on Lincoln’s legacy, and on his detractors.