24 August 2008

Lincoln Vindicated? Conclusions

Once upon a time after the Civil War, sympathizers with the Confederacy had a more sympathetic viewpoint toward Abraham Lincoln than libertarians and certain conservatives hold today. You can see what I mean in D. W. Griffith's Birth of A Nation, as pro-Confederate a film as has ever been made. This racist epic includes a suspenseful re-enactment of Lincoln's assassination, Griffith's point being that the death was a tragedy for the South as much as for the North. In 1915, when Griffith released the film, Southerners were still licking wounds from the Reconstruction era, which saw freed slaves and white Republicans temporarily take power in the ex-secessionist states before a concerted terror campaign broke down the national will to punish the South. Reconstruction policies were blamed on a clique of "radical" Republicans who came to dominate the government after Lincoln's death. Opponents of Reconstruction could play patriotic by showing reverence to Lincoln and asserting that, had he lived, he would have been more moderate and forgiving toward the South than the radicals were. Lincoln could be an off-stage hero and "better angel" of the nation's nature when reactionaries were refighting the battles of Reconstruction, as Griffith and his source author Thomas Dixon were. Since Griffith's time, we seem to have backslid, and in some circles we're back to refighting the Civil War itself, or the political disputes that led up to it. In that climate, some authors have turned Lincoln into a villain.

For the new generation of reactionaries, Lincoln has replaced the mostly forgotten radical Republicans as the face of a character type that Thomas DiLorenzo calls the "Yankee." DiLorenzo is quick to remind readers of Lincoln Unmasked that he's a Northerner himself, but just as quick to disavow any identification with the Yankee ideology.

The word Yankee was attached to those New Englanders who were seen as arrogant, unfriendly, condescending, intolerant, extremely self-righteous and believing that they were God's chosen people," DiLorenzo explains (p.37). He endorses a colleagues judgment that "Hillary Clinton, born in Illinois and educated in Massachusetts and Connecticutt, is a 'museum-quality specimen' of a Yankee."

The "Yankee" is a close relative of the "Puritan," the character type H. L. Mencken described as suffering distress at the thought that somewhere, someone was happy. Both types can be called "busybodies," their sin being a compulsion to stick their nose in other people's business. DiLorenzo blames Yankees for offenses against America ranging from Prohibition to "compulsory government schooling." Reactionaries like DiLorenzo have a rather broad notion of what isn't other people's business. That's what makes the stakes so high in the modern debate over Lincoln's legacy.

Over the last 200 years, "Western culture" has seen a sweeping wave of democratization, followed by the growth in most places of "big government." The democratization process itself was fueled to a great extent by evolving notions of what politics is actually about. Whatever their commitment to human equality, the Founders had a limited view of what politics was about. That was why they could justify limiting voting rights. They could keep the vote from women because they thought politics had nothing to do with women. Women began to demand a voice in politics when they decided that political action was needed to solve moral problems that affected them as wives and mothers, e.g. the alleged role of alcohol in ruining men and their households. But every time people tried to broaden the scope of politics, conservatives would complain that politics was getting into areas that were none of anyone's business. Against suffragists and feminists, reactionaries would say that home life, the relation of man to wife, was none of the state's business, just as they say today that the relations of parents to children are none of the state's business.

Conservatives of all kinds can probably be united in a belief that there are some things in social life that are pre-political in nature and thus none of any politician's business. Maybe everyone can agree on that, though some would say it's true regarding sexual relations among consulting adults, and conservatives might disagree. In any event, the scandal of antebellum America was the Southerners' claim that slavery was nobody's business but the slaveholders', or at most the business of the slaveholding states exclusively. Slavery was part of the organic social heritage that defined each state as a sovereign entity before the Revolutionary War and before any ratification of the Constitution. By definition, for secessionists, the states could never cease to be essentially sovereign entities on the level of social relations like slavery; those relationships exactly defined the scope of state sovereignty as opposed to any political sovereignty that the Constitution called into being.

One big reason that the Southern states were so defensive toward the right of secession was because they felt their peculiar societies needed extraordinary protections from alien influences, including the votes of their fellow states in the Union. If you formed a union with slaveholding states, they had to be recognized as such and their slaveholding privileges embedded in the Constitution, including the right to get back fugitive slaves who crossed lines. That's why secessionists insisted that, whatever Jefferson wrote in the Declaration, the Constitution enshrined the specific rights claimed by the societies that formed the Union. That's also why they couldn't accept Lincoln's view that the Founders tolerated slavery out of necessity only, but meant for it to be put "in the course of ultimate extinction." For slaveholders, that would mean the Union was founded on a lie.

The evidence exists to show that many of the Founders, including the slaveholders, abhorred slavery and regretted its existence. They may indeed have envisioned a time when it would disappear, but that doesn't mean they set up a mechanism in the Constitution to guarantee that outcome. While the 1787 Northwest Ordinance barred slavery from the territory in question, there was no similar provision for future territory in the Constitution itself, which led to crises later. I'm not sure if Lincoln had a right to argue that the governing document of the country enacted the subjective preferences of some of its authors. That leaves his argument that the act of ratification changed the nature of the states as well as the Union, changing them from distinctly sovereign entities to governments that derived their just powers from the consent of the governed through the medium of democratic republicanism.

One recent author, Daniel Farber, thinks that the founding record supports both sides of the argument, but ultimately comes down against secessionism because it's philosophically inconsistent. As Farber sees it, secessionism was presented as a defense of minority rights, but secessionists didn't recognize the rights of anti-secessionist groups within the Confederacy to secede in turn. That argument wouldn't faze the real secessionists, since they'd claim that electoral minorities within the sovereign states didn't have and weren't entitled to the same protections that the states themselves demanded from the Union. The status of minorities was part of the pre-political social regime in the seceding states. It doesn't look fair or consistent to us, but the secessionists, and by extension their modern defenders, have never cared what other people think.

In a sense, one of the best arguments for secession was that it beat the alternative of giving in to the slaveholders again. Contrary to the implicit portrait from modern apologists who say they were simply trying to protect their property, the "slave power" was aggressive and expansive. It demanded stronger federal protection for slavery. It demanded that Northern states repeal "personal liberty laws" that impeded the capture of fugitive slaves. It demanded free and equal access to all territories acquired or to be acquired by the Union. It wouldn't be a big leap to envision them demanding the suppression of anti-slavery literature and anti-slavery speakers throughout the Union. If Lincoln had somehow convinced the slave states to stay on the compromise terms he offered, that would probably have been the beginning of the country becoming less rather than more democratic. The tendency of any privileged class fearful for its special rights within a democratic polity is toward dictatorship. Once you're convinced that you have a special right to what you have that transcends politics, you've effectively declared war on politics.

A slaveholder-dominated U.S. would not have been the libertarian paradise that wackos like DiLorenzo imagine, but more like South Africa in the worst days of apartheid, ultimately a police state. And whatever the Union would have looked like with slaveholders in control, the Confederacy would probably have been far worse, and a menace not only to the remnant Union but to the rest of the Western Hemisphere. If they seceded from the Union in the first place because they thought they were being shut out of the west, do you think they'd just give up on the west after seceding? Even if they did, there were other directions to strike in for new territory, following the example of William Walker and other "filibusters." The existence of a Confederacy would have made war in this part of the world more rather than less likely -- maybe not as bloody all at once as the war that was fought, but quite likely drawing in people who were spared our conflict, not to mention the European powers who would most likely entangle the Union and Confederacy in competing alliances. If I'm right about all these things, then secessionism is something that deserved to be strangled in its cradle, regardless of its theoretical rights.

As long as you don't think the co-existence of a Union and a Confederacy that perpetuated the existence of slavery beyond the year 1865 would have been a good thing, you have to conclude that Abraham Lincoln did the right thing. I felt this way before I read the books by DiLorenzo and Krannawitter, so perhaps I've wasted my time. But reading them convinced me that neither side can convince the other, and neither has irrefutable reason on its side. The Lincoln debate is ultimately a conflict of interests rather than ideas. The reactionaries and libertarians who condemn Lincoln hope to preserve the remaining pre-political zones of patriarchal power over other people from democratic political regulation. The neocons and Straussians want to use Lincoln to support their idea of energetic executive power, not to mention extraordinary emergency power, and they want to extend his "House Divided" principle to global level, claiming that the world cannot exist half-"slave," half-free. One side wants Lincoln to fight their modern-day political battles, while the other wants to use him as a straw man in training for the permanent war against "big government." Because their ideological biases are so obvious, neither author can be considered a true historian. Historians have a mandate to report what actually happened, and Lincoln did not preside over a civil war between neocons and paleocons. They ought to let the dead rest.

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