14 August 2008

Lincoln Vindicated? Part 3a: War, What was it Good For?

When we last left our authors, Thomas DiLorenzo had failed to prove that Abraham Lincoln was legally obliged to let seceding states leave the Union in peace, and Thomas L. Krannawitter had failed to prove that slaveholding automatically disqualified the South from the right to secede. That leaves each to justify or condemn Lincoln's prosecution of the war in terms of the costs and benefits to posterity.

Both authors agree that the end of slavery was a benefit. Both agree that lives lost were a heavy cost. DiLorenzo adds costs to the balance to discredit the war, while Krannawitter defends the war by detailing the costs of a successful secession. The main cost, apart from the perpetuation of slavery, would be the discrediting of constitutional government. In Krannawitter's view, the Southern states seceded because they were unwilling to abide by the results of a lawful election. Their success would have demonstrated that any group that ends up a minority on any political question should not have to submit to majority rule. That example would discourage democracy while encouraging anarchy.

Typically, Krannawitter overstates his case. "If a nation of people agrees to settle their political disputes through free elections and ballots, and then some who cannot win that way decided to resort instead to bullets in order to achieve the results they desire, may a president use bullets to vindicate free elections and ballots?" (320). Secession in itself was not a resort to bullets. The Confederacy did fire the first shots of the war, but would have preferred a peaceful separation, and modern apologists will argue that Lincoln provoked the attack on Fort Sumter to justify what they characterize as aggressive war.

For DiLorenzo, the costs are the whole point of Lincoln Unmasked. They are twofold. First, the war allegedly established a more centralized government, effectively eliminating the states as bulwarks against unconstitutional power grabs by Congress or the President. With this came the permanent establishment of an unfair economic regime of protective tariffs and "pork barrel" spending on special-interest internal improvement projects. Second, Lincoln's conduct of the war, verging on dictatorship, set an evil precedent that has been picked up in our time by George W. Bush.

In Vindicating Lincoln, Krannawitter nearly convinces you that DiLorenzo is right. Rather than acquit Lincoln of overstepping constitutional bonds, he defends policies such as the executive suspension of habeus corpus and the arrest of Confederate sympathizers by appealing to the principle of prudential statesmanship.He cites John Locke to assert that any executive in any regime has the prerogative to go outside the law in order to preserve the state, and cites John Yoo, one of Bush's pet theorists and advocate of torture, in favor of presidential "discretion" in time of war.

But don't constitutional strictures represent unchanging natural law principles? Krannawitter has an answer for doubters: "As Aristotle explained long ago, natural right is everywhere and always changeable. Though no moral relativist, Aristotle understood that what is right depends upon the particulars of a situation; therefore, right changes as situations change. Stated differently, the question of natural right is always the question of the right thing to do, according to nature, here and now" (324). In practice, the rule seems to be that, as long as you say the right things about natural rights or "freedom," the end justifies the means.

If people like Krannawitter, who represents a school of thought with influence on modern Republicans, claim this as a benefit of Lincoln's legacy, that's reason enough, whatever Lincoln himself might say, for DiLorenzo to count it as a cost. The question remains, however, whether that cost outweighs the costs of letting the Confederacy go. DiLorenzo does everything in his power to minimize that cost by misrepresenting the motives of the secessionists.

The most outlandish part of DiLorenzo's book is his claim that secession was really motivated by economic policies. It's true that Southerners resented tariffs because they paid the price on imported finished goods, and they disliked spending on roads, canals, etc., when most of those were being built in the North. But to write that they chose the moment of Abraham Lincoln's election to quit the Union because of tariffs borders on lying.

Anyone who wants to know what influential Southerners thought should look at Secession Debated: Georgia's Showdown in 1860, a collection of speeches and public letters from the "Milledgeville debates," in which that state deliberated whether or not to secede. The closest one comes to DiLorenzo's economic arguments is Henry L. Benning's speech, in which he discusses the benefits likely to come from secession. But Benning doesn't claim that those benefits are reason enough to leave the Union. As for what made secession necessary, Benning agreed with Thomas R. R. Cobb, who said:

As much as I would dislike the triumph of a purely sectional candidate upon a purely sectional platform, I am free to say I should hesitate even then to risk the consequences of a dissolution, provided that sectional platform was upon issues not vital in themselves, or were temporary in their nature. Such, would I conceive to be protective tariffs and homestead bills and the acquisition of territory -- peace or war with foreign powers. (emphasis added)

Economic policy was not a vital issue for Cobb or any of the participants included in Secession Debated. What was vital, and made the Milledgeville debate possible (or necessary, depending on your point of view), was the Republican party's determination to prevent slavery from spreading to new territories, and Northerners' refusal to cooperate in enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law. Economic policies may have harmed Southern interests, but defying slavery violated Southern rights. The secessionists wanted more land for slavery, and they wanted Northerners to suppress their consciences and do their duty to slaveholders before any imagined duty to other fellow humans. They would only have stayed in the Union had it become a more perfectly pro-slavery nation. Their commitment to the spread of slavery, and their limitless demand for respect for their rights as slaveholders, give us an idea of the future had Lincoln let them go in peace. I'll develop those ideas further when I make my own conclusions in Part 5. Before that, I'll deal in Part 4 with DiLorenzo's charge that Lincoln was the father of "big government," and Krannawitter's defense. Stay tuned.

1 comment:

crhyemthinc said...

If an executive needs to step outside the law to protect the state, is the state worth protecting? It would seem obvious that there must be a real problem to begin with for a situation to reach that point where the law must be broken to be protected.