11 August 2008

Lincoln Vindicated? Part One

"I didn't know that Lincoln needed vindicating," a colleague told me on first sight of the book I was reading. Thomas L. Krannawitter thinks he does. His book, Vindicating Lincoln: Defending the Politics of Our Greatest President, defends the 16th President against attacks on several ideological fronts, but most of them come from the political right.

Krannawitter is a man of the right himself. To be specific, he's a follower of Leo Strauss, the German-American author who is widely regarded as a strong influence on the neocon movement. Strauss himself was a philosopher and apparently believed that life's highest occupation was contemplating the ideal forms. In politics, he was concerned with affirming the existence of "natural right." He believed that by reasoning from our understanding of human nature, we could determine what our "rights" are and how the "right" form of government should work. Convinced that human nature was immutable, Strauss insisted that "natural right" is right for all times and places, and that past political philosophers remain relevant and worthy of our attention today. Krannawitter contends that Lincoln espoused a natural rights doctrine inherited from the Founders and rooted in the Declaration of Independence as much as, if not more than, in the Constitution.

Abraham Lincoln is to Straussians as Winston Churchill is to neocons in general; he is the exemplary statesman. While these people admire Churchill for his reputedly relentless hostility to evil, they admire Lincoln for his unswerving commitment to natural rights, especially the Declaration's statement that "all men are created equal." Krannawitter wants to defend Lincoln against charges that he was a self-interested, power-made hypocritical racist, and a poor statesman.

Those charges come from three groups. One group, on the left, is dissatisfied with the prevailing image of Lincoln as the Great Emancipator, perhaps because they infer from Lincoln idolatry that people think that enough has been done for black rights. They emphasize statements in which Lincoln appears to endorse racial inequality or a peaceful ethnic cleansing of blacks (i.e. the American Colonization Society) while criticizing him for failing to be an Abolitionist (i.e. someone who would end slavery immediately and unconditionally). The other two groups are libertarians, who see Lincoln as a harbinger of "big government" and an abuser of executive power, and "paleoconservatives" of the Pat Buchanan stripe, who also abhor big government but seem vaguely nostalgic for an older order of society that was wrongly tossed out with the bath water of slavery.

I'll be mostly concerned, as Krannawitter is, with critics from the right, the best known of which is Thomas DiLorenzo, the author of The Real Lincoln and Lincoln Unmasked. I read Unmasked before preparing this article in order to read a Lincoln critic in his own words. The more recent book of the two, it appears to be a dumbed down, sound-bitey version of The Real Lincoln for talk-radio listeners. It's also noteworthy for the way the war on terror has exacerbated the conflict over Lincoln. The anti-Lincoln conservatives tend also to be anti-war, and now see Lincoln's alleged actions against civil liberties as precursors of the Patriot Act, his assertions of natural rights as akin to neocon propaganda about "freedom," and his accumulation of executive power as a precedent for Bush's excesses. Krannawitter responds in kind, as you'll see, with a defense of presidential prerogatives that applies to both Bush and Lincoln. But we should be careful about applying our opinions on Bush's war to Lincoln's.

Krannawitter attempts to vindicate Lincoln against three main charges: 1) he was a racist; 2)he was wrong to resist Confederate secessionism; and 3)he was the inventor of "big government" and really waged the Civil War to foist in on an unwilling nation. The author will contend that just about all of Lincoln's statements and actions are comprehensible and justifiable within the context of natural rights philosophy. At the same time, he presents Lincoln as a role model for statesmanlike prudence as opposed to the irresponsible radicalism of Abolitionists. His explicit intent is to restore Lincoln's status as an unambiguous American hero. He explains the stakes here (p.8):

When critics attempt to knock Lincoln out of the pantheon of American heroes, they add to the growing cynicism of American politics. After all, if Americans come to believe that the president reputed to be the greatest was in truth a scoundrel unworthy of respect, then surely they will view all lesser politicians as such, adding to the mistaken idea that there is nothing noble or beautiful about politics, that politics entails nothing more than base and greedy grabs for power. Such political cyncism, at best, breeds political apathy. The lower our view of politics becomes, the more we tune out of politics and tune in to our private pursuits and private interests. But if we do not pay attention to politics, then who will hold our government accountable to constitutional and moral standards?

I have a problem with this statement. My reading of the Founders tells me that it is precisely because they thought any politician capable of being a scoundrel that they considered it necessary for people to take an active part in political life. Politics required vigilance against the advent of scoundrels, but that didn't make the Founders cynical or apathetic. You could just as easily argue that teaching children to revere people like Lincoln as irreproachable heroes might inspire some to become politicians themselves, but could leave the rest inclined to abandon vigilance and trust their leaders, especially if the leaders parrot Lincoln's rhetoric. Krannawitter would have us contemplate Abraham Lincoln as something like an ideal form of a statesman. Before we can accept his invitation, his own account must stand up to critical scrutiny.

Rather than inflict one gigantic text on you, and to give myself time to do more candidate profiles, I'm going to deal with Krannawitter in parts. In three separate articles, I'll address the three major charges against Lincoln and how Krannawitter defends his hero. In a final article I'll address remaining issues and attempt a conclusion on the relevance of all this to contemporary politics. This project is an indulgence of my part and gives me a chance to flex some long lax historiographic muscles, but I hope to keep it interesting for more casual readers. And if we're "lucky," merely raising the topic will attract some interesting, albeit possibly nameless commentary. Stay tuned.

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