13 August 2008

Lincoln Vindicated? Part 3: Was the South Right?

While Thomas L. Krannawitter considers Abraham Lincoln to be a model statesman, Thomas DiLorenzo rates the 16th President as one of the worst statesmen in history. DiLorenzo explains his judgment by noting that, while every other civilized nation abolished slavery peacefully, Lincoln could only do it by waging a murderous war. The critic believes that Southern slaveholders would have freed all their slaves voluntarily if offered the right economic incentive or, if left to their own devices after secession, would have freed them out of economic necessity, having learned that free labor is more efficient and productive.

It's fair to ask whether any other civilized nation had a slaveholding class that was as geographically concentrated, culturally self-conscious, intellectually committed to slavery and aggressive as the American South. Had there been similar slaveocracies elsewhere, emancipation might not have been so peaceful. But it's DiLorenzo's practice throughout Lincoln Unmasked to place all blame for sectional conflict on the North and all blame for the Civil War on Lincoln's head. Ultimately, he argues, all the deaths are Lincoln's fault because he wouldn't let the Southern states secede in peace.

DiLorenzo asserts that the states retained an innate right to secede from the Union. This right follows logically from America's foundation in a secession from the British Empire. "The Declaration [of Independence] was, first and foremost, a Declaration of Secession from the British Empire," he writes, "American was founded by a War of Secession....The founders could hardly have thought that secession was an illegitimate act when it was what defined them politically" (88). The right is located, so to speak, in the Ninth Amendment to the Constitution: "The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people." Since several states had asserted what DiLorenzo describes as a right to secession during the Constitutional ratification process, he concludes that the Ninth Amendment confirms the same right.

Krannawitter argues that what DiLorenzo describes as a right to secession was actually a right to revolution. What's the difference? It seems to be that a right of secession would seem to oblige the federal government to stand down and acquiesce peacefully whenever a state secedes, while a right to revolution self-evidently can't compel the standing government from defending itself. Krannawitter suggests that there's no difference between secession and revolution. This is an important point, since DiLorenzo's implication is that the Union is legally constrained from fighting secessionists, while Krannawitter's position is that the legitimacy of revolutions can be judged according to reason and "natural right" standards, and that the Union can act on that judgment.

DiLorenzo's position seems hard to prove if he actually intends to prove not only a reserved right to secede but a constitutional constraint on the Union. He can infer secession from the Ninth Amendment if he wants, but there's no explicit language in the Constitution forbidding the government from using force against secessionists. There's no "Congress shall pass no law" or "shall not be infringed" in the context of secession. DiLorenzo can claim that the Ninth Amendment makes such language unnecessary, but its absence gives Lincoln room to take action and for objective observers to judge the validity of secession.

According to Krannawitter, the secession movement of 1860-1 asserted the same right of revolution that the Founders did in 1776. The Founders justified their claim in the Declaration of Independence. Krannawitter believes that the secessionists were obliged to justify their revolution in the same fashion. Held to the same test, the author argues, the secessionists fail. The Founders based their revolution on the proposition that "all men are created equal." As far as Krannawitter is concerned, that justifies the Revolution and confers legitimacy upon it. Since leading Confederates explicitly affirmed that their new society was founded on African slavery, thus denying that all men are created equal, Krannawitter concludes that secession was an illegitimate revolution, and that Lincoln was in no way constrained from stopping it. He argues that Confederates preferred to speak of secession rather than revolution precisely because they couldn't justify their actions by Revolutionary standards: "Southern disunionists openly avowed secession rather than revolution precisely because they rejected the ideal of a natural right to revolution" (198).

With no offense intended to Krannawitter or the Declaration of Independence, I think he takes the document too seriously. I'm not saying that "all men are create equal" isn't to be taken seriously, but it goes too far to suggest, as Krannawitter seems to do, that the American Revolution's legitimacy depends on the validity of the Declaration. The document was both declaratory and propagandistic in nature, aimed both at Americans and the "candid world" from which the Founders hoped to gain moral and material support. But what would have happened if the candid world reported back its consensus that, "no, we're not convinced by this rhetoric of equality and inalienable rights?" Does anyone expect that the Revolutionaries would lower their flags and beg for London's mercy? It should be obvious that they would fight even if no one agreed with their principles, and that they'd take aid from anyone regardless of whether they agreed with those principles or not, since the King of France certainly could not agree.

Since I must pause shortly, let's review where we stand. DiLorenzo's assertion of a constitutional right does not prove that Lincoln was constrained from preventing secession. Krannawitter's appeal to natural-rights principles does not automatically invalidate Confederate secession. If one wants to argue that Lincoln was wrong, and the other than Lincoln was right, each must ultimately refer to costs and benefits, and that's where I'll follow them in Part 3A. The next installment will also consider how accurately each author portrays the secession crisis and the stakes involved, and it's fair to warn readers that DiLorenzo is going to get clobbered here. Stay tuned.

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