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A Bicentennial Defense of Abraham Lincoln - February 4, 2009


A Bicentennial Defense of Abraham Lincoln



            When it comes to observing holidays (particularly those that are anniversaries of great events in history), I’m a traditionalist.  In the month of February, I observe – on their actual days – the anniversaries of the births of two of America’s greatest presidents, George Washington (on February 22) and Abraham Lincoln (on February 12).  And except for the excuse it gives me to post my annual essay “Rating the U.S. Presidents,” I have no use for the Congressionally-mandated, pseudo-holiday of “Presidents Day” (also because the only other truly great U.S. president whom I care to celebrate is Thomas Jefferson, on his birthday, April 13).   

            This year, Lincoln’s birthday on February 12 is particularly special, for it marks the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth, on February 12, 1809.  As an admirer of Lincoln, I’d like to add my voice to the chorus of those celebrating his life and achievements on this very special day.  I do so especially because many of my libertarian friends – whom I otherwise generally agree with, on fundamental principles of political philosophy – have been so harsh, and in my view, grossly unfair, to Lincoln.  

            So, to observe Lincoln’s bicentennial this year, I’d like to write a short defense of Lincoln, and particularly of his record as U.S. president.   What follows is a slightly revised version of the essay I posted on February 15, 2006, as part of my “Rating the U.S. Presidents III,” discussing “Abraham Lincoln: Why He’s Great.”  To that I’ve appended the first essay I wrote about Abraham Lincoln, “The Lesson of Lincoln,” which I wrote when I was a high school student.



Abraham Lincoln:  Why He Was a Great President


Abraham Lincoln, who traditionally has been revered as not only one of America’s greatest presidents but also as a kind of second “father” of the country – the man who, as president during the crisis of the Civil War, presided over the rebirth of the United States – in recent years has been attacked by some writers, including some libertarian scholars, for being a “dictator” or a “tyrant.”  For example, Jeffrey Hummel, in his provocative libertarian history of the Civil War, Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men (1996), has argued that the war destroyed two of the principles of the American Revolution, the “revolutionary right of self-determination” and “decentralized government,” and thus that Lincoln, in effect, help originate the modern American nation-state (what some call “Big Government”).  And economics professor Thomas DiLorenzo, in his ironically titled book The Real Lincoln (2002), has presented an extreme (and ahistorical) iconoclastic view of Lincoln as both a “dictator” and father of the 20th-century regulatory/welfare state. 

In the recently-published book, Recarving Rushmore: Ranking the Presidents on Peace, Prosperity, and Liberty (2009), Ivan Eland (senior fellow at the libertarian think tank, the Independent Institute) echoes DiLorenzo – whose book he frequently cites in his chapter on Lincoln – categorizing the 16th president as “bad” and calling Lincoln “one of the worst chief executives.”  Remarkably, although Eland concedes that the South “probably didn’t have the right to secede from the union” and that Lincoln “probably did have the right to put down the violent insurrection,” he maintains that Lincoln “managed the Civil Ware in an incompetent, brutal, and dictatorial way” and joins other libertarian scholars in calling Lincoln “the father of big government in the United States.”

These criticisms are not justified.  They are based on shoddy history – what some historians call “lawyers’ history,” which picks and chooses from the historical evidence only those pieces that support the author’s thesis – and they overlook the essential truth about Lincoln’s presidency:  that he faced a crisis unlike any other faced by any president in U.S. history, a formidable internal rebellion or insurrection that not only threatened the legitimate authority of the U.S. government but also threatened the very existence of the republican system of government. 

To understand why Lincoln had to fully utilize the powers of the presidency and of the federal government generally – and, yes, to bend some of the rules of the Constitution even to the point of almost breaking them – one must begin with the premise that underlay all of Lincoln’s actions.  This is the premise ignored by Professor Hummel’s book but which nevertheless is one of the foundational principles of American government:  that in a republican government, the reasonable will of the majority must prevail and, thus, the minority must acquiesce in the legitimate decisions of the majority.  Thomas Jefferson, in his First Inaugural Address, called this a “sacred principle,” because he recognized it was essential to the preservation of republican government (and indeed a corollary of the foundational principle he stated explicitly in the Declaration of Independence, that government derives its legitimate powers from the consent of the governed).  Lincoln, who frequently stated that his political principles flowed from those of Jefferson (which is why Lincoln’s political party used the same name, “Republican,” that Jefferson had used for his party in the 1790s), also understood this principle well and explained, in both his First Inaugural Address (March 4, 1861) and his special July 4, 1861 address to Congress, why the secession of Southern states jeopardized this principle and, with it, all republican government. 

The Southern states that claimed to secede from the Union in 1860-61, following Lincoln’s election as president, had no “right” to do so.  The notion that any state might secede from the Union whenever it was sufficiently unhappy with the policies of the national government – a notion advanced first by Northerners (by the Federalist delegates from New England states at the Hartford Convention in 1815) and then threatened by South Carolinians in the 1832-33 Tariff Crisis, a famous prelude to the Civil War – was a controversial view in early American political and constitutional thought.  Always a minority view, it was amply rebutted by evidence from early American political and constitutional history showing that the United States of America was founded as a “perpetual” and “indivisible” union of the people of the several states – the view Lincoln expounded in his 1861 addresses and subsequently confirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court in its decision in Texas v. White (1869).  As Lincoln explained in 1861, secession leads inevitably to either anarchy or despotism:  “If a minority . . . will secede rather than acquiesce, the majority must, or the Government must cease. . . . If a minority in such case will secede rather than acquiesce, they make a precedent which in turn will divide and ruin them; for a minority of their own will secede from them whenever a majority refuses to be controlled by such minority.”  (That indeed was how the state of West Virginia came into being:  the pro-Union majority of the western counties of Virginia seceded from the secessionists who controlled state politics.) 

Nor could the Southern secessionists justify their action as an exercise of the legitimate right of revolution, under the principles of the Declaration of Independence.  Among the key principles of the Declaration is the important corollary to the right of revolution:  that it is justified only when “a long train of abuses and usurpations” show a clear design to impose tyranny upon a people.  Southerners had no legitimate grievances about the policies of the U.S. government, either its past policies (which were perceived by most people in the Northern states as largely favorable to the interests of Southerners and particularly Southern slaveholders) or the policies expected under Lincoln’s administration or the new Republican majorities in Congress.  Nor did Southerners have any valid complaints about the legitimacy of Lincoln’s election.  (Indeed, as scholar Harry Jaffa has noted, if there were any serious improprieties in the 1860 elections, they were more likely to be in the South, where Southern Democratic candidates ran effectively unopposed.)   Those Southern states that attempted to secede from the Union in 1860-61 did so because they believed Lincoln’s election (and the election of Republican members of Congress) threatened to thwart their scheme to use the power of the national government to impose slavery on all parts of the U.S., including not only the western territories but even those states that had abolished it – exactly what Lincoln had warned about in his famous “House-Divided Speech” of 1858.  Southern secessionists not only sought to preserve slavery, but to expand it.  They were upset with the results of the 1860 elections because they thwarted their nefarious designs.  

The real motive behind Southern secessionism can be seen if one carefully studies the Confederate Constitution, adopted in Montgomery, Alabama in March 1861.  The Confederate Constitution explicitly protected slavery, prohibited Congress from passing any law denying or impairing slaveholders’ “property” rights (and required Congress to protect slavery in the territories), and effectively precluded any state from abolishing slavery by requiring each state to recognize slaveholders’ rights of “transit and sojourn” with their slaves.  To be sure, the Confederate Constitution also had some laudable features, including a single six-year term for the president, a presidential line-item veto, prohibitions on the use of tariff laws for protectionism, and limits on porkbarrel spending (particularly, for “internal improvements,” or roads and canals subsidies, so popular in the North).  But most of these laudable features were reforms suggested by four decades’ experience with government under the Constitution (many, like the line-item veto, are reforms still thought good ideas today) and not reflective of any peculiarly Southern constitutional views; moreover, with regard to those that were peculiarly Southern (such as opposition to protective tariffs or internal improvements), the hypocrisy of the Confederates was evident, for example, in the provision allowing internal improvements for river and harbor projects (which were popular in the South, given the extensive river system that marks the geography of that region of the country). 

Lincoln, who as president took the oath to support and defend the Constitution and the laws of the United States, was duty-bound to regard Southern secession as an unlawful rebellion or insurrection – a vast criminal conspiracy against the Constitution and the laws, seeking to overthrow them – that must be suppressed with all the powers the U.S. government had at its disposal.  What was at stake was not only the Constitution and the laws of the United States, but also that great experiment in the republican form of government that the U.S. represented to the world in the 19th century.  As Lincoln so eloquently put it in his July 4, 1861 address (anticipating what he would later say at Gettysburg),  

“Our popular government has often been called an experiment.  Two points in it our people have already settled – the successful establishing and the successful administration of it.  One still remains – its successful maintenance against a formidable internal attempt to overthrow it.  It is now for them to demonstrate to the world that those who can fairly carry an election can also suppress a rebellion; that ballots are the rightful and peaceful successors of bullets; and that when ballots have fairly and constitutionally decided, there can be no successful appeal back to bullets; that there can be no successful appeal, except to ballots themselves, at succeeding elections.  Such will be a great lesson of peace:  teaching men that what they cannot take by an election, neither can they take it by war; teaching all the folly of being the beginners of a war.”


 (Emphasis added).  Southern secessionists, by firing on Fort Sumter and by declaring war on the United States in the Confederate Congress, were indeed the beginners of the Civil War. 

In waging the war – in putting down the insurrection – Lincoln indeed aggressively used the powers of his office, often pushing the envelope through unprecedented uses of presidential power that did, unfortunately, abridge Americans’ civil rights in many ways, as Mark E. Neely, Jr. documents in his book The Fate of Liberty: Abraham Lincoln and Civil Liberties (1991).  Some of these actions – such as his order suspending the writ of habeas corpus, or his support of the draft law passed by Congress in 1863 – Lincoln based on plausible, albeit broad, interpretations of presidential or Congressional power under the Constitution.  (Congress, which explicitly has the power to suspend habeas corpus during insurrections, retroactively sanctioned Lincoln’s orders through its Habeas Corpus Act of 1863.  And military conscription was based on a broad reading of Congress’s power to “raise and support armies”—the same rationale used by the Confederate Congress, when it imposed conscription on the South a year before the U.S. Congress did.  (Of course, the post-war Thirteenth Amendment, by abolishing “involuntary servitude” as well as slavery, arguably made military conscription no longer constitutional.)  Other actions – such as Lincoln’s order of a naval blockade of Southern ports (upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in the Prize Cases (1863)), as well as Lincoln’s most famous action as president, the Emancipation Proclamation – were based on Lincoln’s broad interpretation of his powers as commander-in-chief.  They, too, were arguably within legitimate constitutional bounds.  Less justifiable were the restrictions the Lincoln administration imposed on freedom of speech and the press (abridging the First Amendment rights of Confederate sympathizers in the North) and the trial of civilians in military courts (found unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, in its post-war decision Ex parte Milligan (1866)), which Lincoln justified as militarily necessary.  “Are all laws but one to go unexecuted, and the Government itself go to pieces lest that one be violated?”  Lincoln asked (in reference to habeas corpus) – practically an admission that some of his policies did violate the letter of the Constitution. 

If Lincoln did indeed bend the law, even to the pointing of breaking, he did so under a theory of extraordinary executive powers in times of emergency, in order to defend the very existence of the nation and its system of laws – a theory, sometimes called “executive prerogative,” that even Thomas Jefferson (despite his generally remarkable constitutional scruples) had believed in.  (Jefferson, after his retirement from the presidency, discussed the theory as a justification for the Louisiana Purchase, about which he remained uneasy long after his retirement – even though, as I have argued, the Purchase did not really compromise his constitutional principles.)  Unlike other chief executives who claimed to use extraordinary powers in response to various crises (other wartime presidents, chiefly Wilson, FDR, and President Bush the Younger come to mind), Lincoln faced a genuine crisis that has not been equaled in American history.  His greatness, as president, in large measure comes from the fact that he rose to that crisis and defended the Constitution while remaining as faithful to it – to its spirit, if not its letter – as much as possible.  His record during the extraordinary crisis of the Civil War stands in marked contrast to the record of most other presidents who, with far less at stake, have been all-too-willing to disregard their oath to support and defend the Constitution.

            Like other great figures in history, Lincoln should be understood as a human being, not as a kind of demigod, as depicted in the temple-like Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. or in the carving of his head as part of the monument at Mount Rushmore.  Like all other human beings, Lincoln should be understood within the context of his times and the full record of his life, including his flaws and limitations as well as his virtues and achievements.  With regard to his views on slavery, Lincoln cannot fairly be expected to “color-blind,” as an enlightened 21st-century American may be; he shared the racist prejudices against persons of color that virtually all 19th-century white Americans had, except for the most radical abolitionists.  Although he despised the institution of slavery and shared, with other members of the Republican Party, a sincere conviction to prevent its spread into the West, Lincoln understandably made the preservation of the Union his highest priority.  As he announced in a famous 1862 letter to newspaper editor Horace Greeley, “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and it is not either to save or to destroy slavery.  If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that.  What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union.”

            In a sense, therefore, the argument that it’s a myth that Lincoln “freed the slaves” through his Emancipation Proclamation – an argument made by Lincoln’s critics and admirers alike, from his time to the present day – is correct.  Lincoln’s executive order declaring enslaved persons to be free applied only to those portions of the seceded Southern states still in rebellion at the time he issued his Proclamation.  It did not apply to slave-holding states that had not seceded (such as Delaware, Kentucky, Missouri, and Maryland), nor did it apply to areas of the rebellious South that were under the control of Union military forces (including New Orleans, Louisiana, and several counties in Virginia).  That was necessarily so because of constitutional considerations:  Lincoln’s order was based on his powers as Commander-in-Chief, “in time of actual armed rebellion against the authority and Government of the United States, and as a fit and necessary war measure for suppressing said rebellion.”  It was a military measure designed to demoralize and destabilize the rebellious South, in order to help save the Union – in accordance with Lincoln’s primary objective, as stated in his letter to Greeley.  Nevertheless, the argument that it’s a “myth” that Lincoln freed the slaves – and the correlative argument that the Emancipation Proclamation legally “did not free a single slave” – is more smart-ass than smart.  In fact, Lincoln’s Proclamation did free many slaves:  in the short run, its actual effect was to give those enslaved persons in the South who were close to Union lines to escape behind those lines to secure their freedom; and in the long run, it was part of a chain of events that led not only to the military defeat of the Confederate South but also the permanent abolition of slavery not only in the South but throughout the United States.

            As a good lawyer, Lincoln understood that as president, he could do nothing constitutionally to abolish slavery in those states where positive law allowed it to exist.  But, also because he was a good lawyer, he also understood that this “peculiar institution” of the Southern states was legally and constitutionally (as well as morally) incompatible with the free-labor, capitalist system of the Northern states, and that (as he said in his famous 1858 speech in Springfield, Illinois), “`A house divided against itself cannot stand,’” and that “this government cannot endure permanently half slave and have free.”   Lincoln did not set about, as president, to abolish slavery in the United States, but the Civil War made possible the Thirteenth Amendment, which constitutionally did so.  Perhaps Lincoln’s most revealing remarks about slavery can be found in a less-famous speech he gave in Peoria, Illinois on October 16, 1854, when he debated Senator Stephen A. Douglas on the merits of the Kansas-Nebraska Act.  Lincoln explained why he could not be indifferent to the spread of slavery into the western territories:  “I hate it because of the monstrous injustice of slavery itself.  I hate it because it deprives our republican example of its just influence in the world – enables the enemies of free institutions, with plausibility, to taunt us as hypocrites – causes the real friends of freedom to doubt our sincerity, and especially because it forces so many really good men amongst ourselves into an open war with the very fundamental principles of civil liberty” as expressed in the Declaration of Independence.

            One of the measures of a truly great man is his ability to transcend the particular circumstances of his time – his own prejudices, based on his own limited experiences and knowledge of the world – and to grasp some essential, universal truth about the human experience.  Thomas Jefferson did this when he transcended his own experience as a slave-owner in 18th-century Virginia and wrote in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal” and from that equal creation are entitled to equal rights – an achievement that Lincoln lauded.  (In Lincoln’s famous words, “All honor to Jefferson – to the man who, in the concrete pressure of a struggle for national independence by a single people, had the coolness, forecast and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times, and so to embalm it there, that to-day, and in all coming days, it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling-block to the very harbingers of re-appearing tyranny and oppression.”  [Lincoln to Henry L. Pierce and others, April 6, 1859])  Lincoln demonstrated his own true greatness not only in his dedication to preserve republican government in the United States, as an example to the world, but also in his realization that the institution of slavery was a moral blight on America and the American example. 



The Lesson of Lincoln


What follows is the first essay I ever wrote about Abraham Lincoln – the text of a speech I gave many years ago.  It was my award-winning entry in the Lincoln Oratory Contest at the American Legion Wolverine Boys State in 1972, which I attended during the summer between my junior and senior years of high school.  (I represented my high school at Boys State, which was a week-long conference sponsored by the Legion and designed to teach boys about American government and civics.  At the Wolverine Boys State (WBS), held on the campus of Michigan State University in East Lansing, Michigan, June 14-21, 1972, I was elected and served as a state senator, was a member of the Glee Club and a staff reporter for the Whirligig, the WBS newspaper, and entered – and won – the Lincoln Oratory Contest with this extemporaneous speech.  Please keep in mind that I composed it at a time when I was young (age 16), naïve and inexperienced in the “ways of the world,” and (most importantly) when I knew very little about the history of the United States, especially during the Civil War era – mostly, just what I had gleaned from textbooks and from a few Lincoln biographies I had read (including Dale Carnegie’s hagiographic biography, Lincoln the Unknown (1932)).  Perhaps the essay reveals more about me than it does about Lincoln.  Nevertheless, thirty-seven years later, I stand by my admittedly over-simplistic view of Lincoln and of the important lessons we can derive from his life and career.


            “Honest Abe,” “The Great Emancipator,” “The Rail Splitter.”  All of these well-known nicknames refer to one man – Abraham Lincoln.  As a President – and as a man – Lincoln has been one of the most respected in all of history.  What is it that made Lincoln great?  The answer isn’t easy.

            Looking at the phrase “Honest Abe,” we might say that it was his honesty.  There are numerous examples, but one striking one is that of Lincoln’s experience in owning a grocery store in Illinois.  His partner died, leaving Lincoln with a $1100 debt.  Instead of using his partner’s death as a legal loophole of divided responsibility, Lincoln chose to pay off the debt himself.  It took 14 years, but the debt was repaid.

            If we look at the second phrase, “The Great Emancipator,” we might say it was Lincoln’s compassion for the suffering that made him great.  Lincoln knew the meaning of word poor in his early years when, as a boy, he himself lived in extreme hardship on the prairie frontier.  Lincoln learned the meaning of oppression as a young man with a job on the Mississippi River.  At a New Orleans slave auction, Lincoln beheld the true horrors of human slavery.  He told his comrades, “By God, boys, let’s get away from this.  If I ever get a chance to hit that thing, I’ll hit it hard.”  Around 1863 he did hit slavery, with the Emancipation Proclamation.  This proclamation was important, not in itself, but in the precedent it set – continuing even into today’s civil rights acts.

            Finally we can look at the third nickname, “The Rail-Splitter.”  The meaning is that Lincoln was hard-working, and no better example can be found than that of his self-education.  Filling out a biography in Congress in 1847 which asked “What has been your education?,” Lincoln simplyu answered: “Defective.”  His formal education totaled no more than twelve months.  Yet Lincoln developed one of the most valuable assets any man can have:  a love of knowledge, a thirst for learning.  Lincoln learned public speaking from a book borrowed from a neighbor.  He became interested in law when he ran across a volume of Blackstone’s Commentaries in the bottom of a barrel he cleaned out while working at a general store.  Lincoln’s education was best summed up by Mentor Graham, a Springfield schoolmaster who said that he had taught more than 5000 students, but that Lincoln was the “most studious, diligent, straightforward young man in the pursuit of knowledge and literature” he had ever met.

            Honest.  Compassionate. Hard-working.  Lincoln was all of these, but he was much more.  We all tend to generalize when we talk about Lincoln – to put him into categories.  But we cannot use one of these commonly-used nicknames to represent Lincoln.  His complex character – a unique blend of several qualities – can best be described as “Lincoln the Moralist.”

            Lincoln expressed no less than any other man a sense of moral obligation and foresight.  He realized long before the Civil War that “a house divided against itself cannot stand” and that “this government cannot endure permanently half-slave and half-free.”  When his rival for the Illinois Senate seat, Stephen A. Douglas, argued that the states [territories] themselves should decide by way of popular sovereignty the question of slavery, Lincoln replied that the moral question cannot be ignored.  Lincoln felt that the United States, if it truly stands for freedom and equality, must not be indifferent to the unjust treatment of any person.  In Lincoln’s words:  “To ignore moral values deprives our republican example of its just influence in the world.  It enables the enemies of free institutions to taunt us as hypocrites.”

            “Lincoln the Moralist” can also be seen in his philosophy toward the struggle to save the Union.  At a time when Abe Lincoln was a young man of 20 traveling across the prairies of Illinois, Daniel Webster delivered a speech in the U.S. Senate.  Known as “Webster’s Reply to Hayne,” this speech was considered by Abraham Lincoln to be “the greatest specimen of American oratory.”  The memorable words which ended this speech were “Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable!”  This became Lincoln’s political religion, and it was this idea – the close connection between unity and liberty – that Lincoln profoundly believed in during the Civil War.  His determination to save the Union – and the fate of world democracy – never altered, even at a time when tens of thousands of lives were lost and Lincoln paced the floor, asking “My God, what will the country say?”

            And even after the war, Lincoln the Moralist pleaded for the people of the United States to bind up the nation’s wounds with “malice toward none, charity toward all.”

            The outstanding quality of Abraham Lincoln was not solely his honesty, his charity, nor his ambition.  His greatest asset was moral realization – convincing himself of the rightness and wrongness of actions and then following these beliefs.  It was best summed up by Lincoln: “Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith let us to the end dare to do our duty as we understand it.”  It was this faith that made Lincoln great – and which is the greatest lesson any American can learn.


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