Was Abraham Lincoln, as most Americans believe, a defender of individual rights, a foe of slavery, and a savior of the American republic—one of history’s great heroes of liberty? Or was he a tyrant who turned his back on essential founding principles of America, cynically instigated the bloody Civil War to expand federal power, and paved the way for the modern regulatory-entitlement state?
In the face of widespread popular support for Lincoln (note, for example, the success of the 2012 Steven Spielberg film about him) and his perennially high reputation among academics, certain libertarians and conservatives have promoted the view that Lincoln was a totalitarian who paved the way for out-of-control government in the 20th century.1 Those critics are wrong. Contrary to their volumes of misinformation and smears—criticisms that are historically inaccurate and morally unjust—Lincoln, despite his flaws, was a heroic defender of liberty and of the essential principles of America’s founding.
Getting Lincoln right matters. It matters that we know what motivated Lincoln—and what motivated his Confederate enemies. It matters that we understand the core principles on which America was founded—and the ways in which Lincoln expanded the application of those principles. It matters that modern advocates of liberty properly understand and articulate Lincoln’s legacy—rather than leave his legacy to be distorted by antigovernment libertarians (and their allies among conservatives), leviathan-supporting “progressives,” and racist neo-Confederates.
My purpose here is not to present a full biographical sketch of Lincoln, nor to detail all types of criticisms made against him. Rather, my goal is to present sufficient information about Lincoln and his historical context to answer a certain brand of his critics, typified by Ron Paul, formerly a congressman from Texas and a contender for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination in 2008 and 2012. Paul and his ilk characterize Lincoln’s engagement of the Civil War as a “senseless” and cynical power grab designed to wipe out the “original intent of the republic.”2 Such claims are untrue and unjust, as we will see by weighing them in relation to historical facts. Toward that end, let us begin with a brief survey of claims by Lincoln’s detractors.
The revision of Lincoln and his legacy began in earnest soon after the Civil War, but, at the time, it was relegated to the intellectual swamp of Confederate memoirs and polemics. What was once the purview of a defeated and demoralized rump and of early anarchists such as Lysander Spooner has picked up steam within the modern libertarian movement.
In the early 20th century, the acerbic newspaperman and social critic H. L. Mencken seriously suggested that the Confederates fought for “self-determination” and “the right of their people to govern themselves.” He claimed that a Confederate victory would have meant refuge from a northern enclave of “Babbitts,” the attainment of a place “to drink the sound red wine . . . and breathe the free air.”3 Mencken’s musings were but a symptom of a broader change in how many Americans came to view the Civil War. The conflict was no longer “the War of the Rebellion,” but “the War between the States.” The Confederate cause was no longer an essentially vile attempt to preserve slavery, but an honorable attempt to preserve autonomous government. Not coincidentally, during this period, Confederate sympathizers built monuments to the Confederacy throughout the South, and D. W. Griffith’s openly racist silent film The Birth of a Nation presented revisionist Civil War history and contributed to the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan.4 Sometimes Confederate sympathizers claimed that the Civil War was not really about slavery; other times they claimed that slavery was a glorious institution the South sought to preserve.
More recently, Murray N. Rothbard—widely regarded as the godfather of the modern libertarian movement (and someone who saw Mencken as an early libertarian)5—characterized the Civil War as the fountainhead of the modern regulatory state:
The Civil War, in addition to its unprecedented bloodshed and devastation, was used by the triumphal and virtually one-party Republican regime to drive through its statist, formerly Whig, program: national governmental power, protective tariff, subsidies to big business, inflationary paper money, resumed control of the federal government over banking, large-scale internal improvements, high excise taxes, and, during the war, conscription and an income tax. Furthermore, the states came to lose their previous right of secession and other states’ powers as opposed to federal governmental powers. The Democratic party resumed its libertarian ways after the war, but it now had to face a far longer and more difficult road to arrive at liberty than it had before.6
Thomas DiLorenzo, a colleague of Rothbard’s until Rothbard’s death in 1995, penned two books responsible for much of today’s libertarian and conservative antagonism toward Lincoln: The Real Lincoln: A New Look at Abraham Lincoln, His Agenda, and an Unnecessary War (2002) and Lincoln Unmasked: What You’re Not Supposed to Know About Dishonest Abe (2006). (Both DiLorenzo and Ron Paul are senior fellows of the Ludwig von Mises Institute, an organization that, while bearing the name of the great Austrian economist von Mises, is more closely aligned with Rothbard’s anarchist views.)
Largely through his influence on popular economist Walter E. Williams, who wrote the foreword to DiLorenzo’s 2002 book, DiLorenzo has reached a relatively wide audience of libertarians and conservatives. Williams is known to many as a genial guest host for The Rush Limbaugh Show, a fellow of the Hoover Institute, and a distinguished professor of economics at George Mason University. He gave his imprimatur to DiLorenzo’s work, thereby elevating what might otherwise have been a peculiar book from the depths of Rothbard’s libertarian, paleoconservative, neo-Confederate intellectual backwater to a nationally known and provocative piece of severe Lincoln revisionism.
What are the essential criticisms leveled against Lincoln by such writers as Mencken and DiLorenzo? The most important of these criticisms can be grouped into four categories. First, these critics claim, Lincoln eviscerated the right of secession supposedly at the heart of the American Revolution. Second, say the critics, Lincoln did not truly care about slavery; he invoked it only to mask his real reasons for pursuing war—to expand the power of the federal government. Anyway, the critics add, slavery would have ended without a Civil War. Third, argue the critics, Lincoln subverted the free market with his mercantilist policies, thereby laying the groundwork for the big-government Progressives to follow. Fourth, Lincoln supposedly prosecuted the war tyrannically; in DiLorenzo’s absurd hyperbole, Lincoln was a “totalitarian” who constructed an “omnipotent” state.7 Let us look at each of these criticisms in greater detail—and put them to rest—starting with the claim that Lincoln spurned the fundamental principles of the founding by opposing secession.
The “Right” of Secession
To determine whether Lincoln advanced or undermined the basic principles of America’s founding, we must first understand what those principles are. . . .
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1. “List of Presidential Rankings: Historians Rank the 42 Men Who Have Held the Office,” Associated Press, February 16, 2009, http://www.nbcnews.com/id/29216774/.
2. Tim Russert, Meet the Press, NBC, December 23, 2007, http://www.nbcnews.com/id/22342301/ns/meet_the_press/t/meet-press-transcript-dec/.
3. H. L. Mencken, “Abraham Lincoln” (1922) and “The Calamity of Appomattox” (September 1930), A Mencken Chrestomathy: His Own Selection of His Choicest Writings (New York: Vintage, 1982), pp. 197–98, 223.
4. David M. Kennedy, Over Here: The First World War and American Society (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), pp. 241–42, 280–83; David M. Kennedy, Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929–1945 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), pp. 15–16.
5. See, for example, Murray N. Rothbard, “H. L. Mencken: The Joyous Libertarian,” New Individualist Review, vol. 2, no. 2 (Summer 1962), pp. 15–27, reproduced at http://www.lewrockwell.com/1970/01/murray-n-rothbard/the-joyous-libertarian/.
6. Murray N. Rothbard, For a New Liberty: The Libertarian Manifesto, rev. ed. (San Francisco: Fox & Wilkes, 1978), p. 8.
7. Thomas J. DiLorenzo, Lincoln Unmasked: What You’re Not Supposed to Know About Dishonest Abe (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2006), pp. 149–60.
8. Thomas J. DiLorenzo, The Real Lincoln: A New Look at Abraham Lincoln, His Agenda, and an Unnecessary War (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2002), 85.
9. DiLorenzo, Real Lincoln, pp. 90–91.
10. DiLorenzo, Real Lincoln, pp. xii–xiii.
11. Abraham Lincoln, “First Inaugural Address,” in Speeches and Writings, 1859–1865, ed. Don E. Fehrenbacher (New York: Library of America, 1989), p. 220.
12. James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay, The Federalist Papers, ed. Isaac Kramnick (New York: Penguin, 1987), p. 297.
13. Akhil Reed Amar, America’s Constitution: A Biography (New York: Random House, 2005), pp. 29–39.
14. Thomas Jefferson, “Letter to John Taylor,” Philadelphia (June 4, 1798), in Writings, ed. Merrill D. Peterson (New York: Library of America, 1984), pp. 1049–50. Of course, Jefferson’s history on the topic of secession is complicated, to say the least. Later in the crisis over the Alien and Sedition Acts, he penned a draft of what became the Kentucky Resolutions that included phrasing eventually excised from the actual resolutions by the Kentucky legislature: “[E]very State has a natural right in cases not within the compact . . . to nullify of their own authority all assumptions of power by others within their limits: that without this right, they would be under the dominion, absolute and unlimited, of whosoever might exercise this right of judgment for them.” Jefferson spoke of the possibility of disunion during the Missouri Crisis, but he referred to that possibility as “deplorable” and a “prospect of evil.” Even in that situation, Jefferson hoped the whole affair might bring “the necessity of some plan of general emancipation & deportation [colonization] more home to the minds of our people than it has ever been before.” See Jefferson, “Draft of the Kentucky Resolutions,” (October 1798), and “Letter to Albert Gallatin,” Monticello (December 26, 1820), in Writings, pp. 453 and 1450; and Liberty and Order: The First American Party Struggle, ed. Lance Banning (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2004), pp. 233–43. Madison would later write that “allowances . . . ought to be made for a habit in Mr. Jefferson as in others of great genius of expressing in strong and round terms, impressions of the moment,” but, Madison added, Jefferson believed the general government had had the power to “coerce delinquent States” even under the old and much weaker Articles of Confederation. Madison further offered that it was “high time that the claim to secede at will should be put down by the public opinion.” See Madison, “Letter to Nicholas P. Trist,” Montpelier (May 1832), and “Letter to Nicholas P. Trist,” Montpelier (December 23, 1832), in Writings, ed. Jack N. Rakove (New York: Library of New York, 1999), pp. 860 and 862–63. As for how Jefferson dealt with the controversies over the Marshall Court’s nationalist opinions in the late 1810s and early 1820s, the Missouri Crisis, debates over “internal improvements” of the mid- and late-1820s, and the budding doctrine of “states rights,” see Dumas Malone, Jefferson and His Time, Volume Six: The Sage of Monticello (Norwalk: Easton Press, 1981), pp. 345–61 and 437–43; and William W. Freehling, The Road to Disunion: Secessionists at Bay, 1776–1854 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), pp. 154–57.
15. Thomas Jefferson, “Letter to James Madison,” Monticello (June 29, 1812), in The Republic of Letters: The Correspondence between Thomas Jefferson and James Madison 1776–1826, vol. 3, ed. James Morton Smith (New York: W. W. Norton, 1995), p. 1699.
16. Irving Brant, James Madison: Commander in Chief, 1812–1836 (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1961), pp. 24–25, 32.
17. Thomas L. Krannawitter, Vindicating Lincoln: Defending the Politics of Our Greatest President (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2008), pp. 208–13.
18. Drew R. McCoy, The Last of the Fathers: James Madison and the Republican Legacy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), pp. 119–170.
19. James Madison to Edward Coles (August 29, 1834), in The Writings of James Madison, vol. 9, ed. Gaillard Hunt (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1910), p. 540.
20. All of these quotes can be found in State Papers on Nullification (Boston: Dutton and Wentworth, 1834) and are taken from Alexander V. Marriott, “It Has Long Been a Grave Question: The Republican War Dilemma in American History, 1776–1861” (Ph.D. dissertation, Clark University, 2013), pp. 439–41.
21. James Buchanan, “Fourth Annual Address” (December 3, 1860), The Works of James Buchanan, vol. 11: 1860–1868, ed. John Bassett Moore (New York: Antiquarian Press, 1960), p. 13.
22. Andrew Jackson, “Nullification Proclamation” (December 10, 1832), in Andrew Jackson vs. Henry Clay: Democracy and Development in Antebellum America, ed. Harry L. Watson (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1998), pp. 206–8.
23. DiLorenzo, Real Lincoln, p. x.
24. Walter E. Williams, “Abraham Lincoln,” Townhall.com, February 20, 2013, http://townhall.com/columnists/walterewilliams/2013/02/20/abraham-lincoln-n1513751/page/full.
25. DiLorenzo, Real Lincoln, pp. 54–55.
26. David M. Potter, The Impending Crisis: 1848–1861, completed and ed. Don E. Fehrenbacher (New York: Harper & Row, 1976), p. 167.
27. Jean H. Baker, Affairs of Party: The Political Culture of Northern Democrats in the Mid-Nineteenth Century (New York: Fordham University Press, 1998), pp. 52–63.
28. Abraham Lincoln, “Speech on Kansas-Nebraska Act,” Peoria, Illinois (October 16, 1854), in Abraham Lincoln: Speeches and Writings, 1832–1858, ed. Don E. Fehrenbacher (New York: Library of America, 1989), p. 315.
29. Lincoln, Address at Cooper Institute, New York City (February 27, 1860), in Abraham Lincoln: Speeches and Writings, 1859–1865, p. 130.
30. Lincoln, “Letter to Alexander H. Stephens,” Springfield (December 22, 1860), in Speeches and Writings, 1859–1865, p. 194.
31. George Washington, “Letter to Lawrence Lewis” (Mount Vernon, August 4, 1797), in Writings, ed. John H. Rhodehamel (New York: Library of America, 1997), p. 1002.
32. Benjamin Franklin, “An Address to the Public from the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery, and the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage,” Philadelphia (November 9, 1789), in Benjamin Franklin: Writings, ed. J. A. Leo Lemay (New York: Library of America, 1987), p. 1154.
33. Thomas Jefferson, “Notes on the State of Virginia,” in Writings, p. 289. For the best discussion of Jefferson’s “central dilemma” of hating slavery while believing in black inferiority, see Winthrop D. Jordan’s magisterial White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550–1812 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1968), pp. 429–81. There is no doubt that Jefferson’s “suspicion only” that blacks were naturally inferior to whites went much deeper than his pseudoscientific musings in the Notes. Regardless of the amount of ink Jefferson spilled calumniating Alexander Hamilton’s character and commitment to republican principles—and that has been spilled in the same cause by modern-day “neo-Jeffersonians” such as DiLorenzo—Hamilton had no such “dilemma,” and he was a central figure in the successful campaign to gradually abolish slavery in the state of New York. See Ron Chernow, Alexander Hamilton (New York: Penguin, 2004), pp. 210–18, 580–81.
34. Daniel Farber, Lincoln’s Constitution (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), pp. 152–57.
35. Phillip Shaw Paludan, The Presidency of Abraham Lincoln (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1994), pp. 130–35.
36. Krannawitter, Vindicating Lincoln, pp. 277–78.
37. Joseph C. G. Kennedy, Population of the United States in 1860; Compiled from the Original Returns of the Eighth Census, under the direction of the Secretary of the Interior (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1864), pp. iv–xvii.
38. Jefferson, “Notes,” in Writings, p. 288.
39. John C. Calhoun, “Speech in the U.S. Senate, 1837,” in Defending Slavery: Proslavery Thought in the Old South, A Brief History with Documents, ed. Paul Finkelman (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2003), p. 59.
40. See David Robertson, Denmark Vesey: The Buried Story of America’s Largest Slave Rebellion and the Man Who Led It (New York: Vintage, 1999), pp. 111–23; “Letter from Virginia Governor John Floyd to South Carolina Governor James Hamilton, Jr.” (November 19, 1831), in The Confessions of Nat Turner and Related Documents, ed. Kenneth S. Greenberg (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1996), pp. 109–11; William Lee Miller, Arguing About Slavery: John Quincy Adams and the Great Battle in the United States Congress (New York: Vintage, 1995), pp. 115–49; James H. Dorman, “The Persistent Specter: Slave Rebellion in Territorial Louisiana,” Louisiana History: The Journal of the Louisiana Historical Association, vol. 18, no. 4 (Fall 1977), pp. 389–404; Edwin A. Miles, “The Mississippi Slave Insurrection Scare of 1835,” Journal of Negro History, vol. 42, no. 1 (January 1957), pp. 48–60; Harvey Wish, “The Slave Insurrection Panic of 1856,” The Journal of Southern History, vol. 5, no. 2 (May 1939), pp. 206–22; and William W. White, “The Texas Slave Insurrection of 1860,” The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, vol. 52, no. 3 (January 1949), pp. 259–85.
41. See Michael F. Holt, The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party: Jacksonian Politics and the Onset of the Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), pp. 598–605; Paul Finkelman, Millard Fillmore (New York: Times Books, 2011), pp. 107–25; and Jean H. Baker, James Buchanan (New York: Times Books, 2004), pp. 83–94.
42. Lincoln, “First Inaugural Address,” Speeches and Writings, 1859–1865, p. 216.
43. Mencken, “Calamity of Appomattox,” in Chrestomathy, p. 199.
44. “Address of William L. Harris to the Georgia General Assembly” (December 17, 1860), in Charles B. Dew, Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2001), p. 85.
45. “South Carolina Declaration of the Causes of Secession” (December 24, 1860), in The Civil War: The First Year Told by Those Who Lived It, ed. Brooks D. Simpson, Stephen W. Sears, and Aaron Sheehan-Dean (New York: Library of America, 2011), pp. 153–54.
46. Alexander H. Stephens, “Corner-Stone Speech” (March 21, 1861), in Civil War: The First Year, p. 226.
47. DiLorenzo, Real Lincoln, p. 234.
48. For more on this, see Karl-Friedrich Walling’s exceptional and brilliant study Republican Empire: Alexander Hamilton on War and Free Government (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1999).
49. Alexander Hamilton, “Report on a National Bank” (December 13, 1790); Alexander Hamilton: Writings, ed. Joanne B. Freeman (New York: Library of America, 2001), p. 576; and Hamilton, “Report on Manufactures” (December 5, 1791), in Writings, p. 692.
50. David C. Hendrickson, Union, Nation, or Empire: The American Debate over International Relations, 1789–1941 (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2009), pp. 132–39.
51. Henry Clay, “On Internal Improvement, in the House of Representatives” (March 13, 1818), in The Life and Speeches of the Hon. Henry Clay, vol. 1, ed. Daniel Mallory (New York: A. S. Barnes & Co., 1857), pp. 365–66.
52. Clay, “On American Industry, in the House of Representatives” (March 30 and 31, 1824), in Life and Speeches of Clay, p. 535.
53. Albert Gallatin, “Letter to Thomas Jefferson,” New York (July 29, 1808), in The Writings of Albert Gallatin, vol. 1, ed. Henry Adams (New York: Antiquarian Press, 1960), p. 398.
54. Forrest McDonald, The Presidency of Thomas Jefferson (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1976), pp. 139–59.
55. Abraham Lincoln, “First Lincoln-Douglas Debate,” Ottawa, Illinois (August 21, 1858), in Speeches and Writings, 1832–1858, p. 526.
56. Rich Lowry, Lincoln Unbound: How an Ambitious Young Railsplitter Saved the American Dream—and How We Can Do It Again (New York: Broadside Books, 2013), p. 64. See also Allen C. Guelzo, Abraham Lincoln as a Man of Ideas (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2009), p. 18.
57. Lowry, Lincoln Unbound, p. 116.
58. Ex parte Milligan, 71 U.S. 2 (1866).
59. Guelzo, Abraham Lincoln as a Man of Ideas, pp. 119–20.
60. Albert D. Kirwan, John J. Crittenden: The Struggle for the Union (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1962), pp. 470–80.
61. Lincoln, “Letter to Orville H. Browning,” Washington, D.C. (September 22, 1861), in Speeches and Writings, 1859–1865, p. 269.
62. J. C. A. Stagg, The War of 1812: Conflict for a Continent (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012), pp. 152–54.
63. Lincoln, “Letter to Erastus Corning and Others,” Washington, D.C. (June 12, 1863), in Speeches and Writings, 1859–1865, pp. 461–62.
64. Gerald J. Prokopowicz, “Military Fantasies,” in The Lincoln Enigma, ed. Gabor Boritt (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 64.
65. Mark E. Neely Jr., The Fate of Liberty: Abraham Lincoln and Civil Liberties (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), pp. 26–27, 233.
66. The Andersonville, Georgia, prisoner of war camp only was an atrocity because the Confederate government refused to treat captured Union soldiers who were black with the rights their uniforms demanded, subjecting them to beatings, summary executions, and reenslavement. See James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), pp. 791–802.
67. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom, pp. 428–37, 600–611.
68. Stagg, War of 1812, pp. 134–38.
69. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom, p. 443.
70. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom, p. 447.
71. Ulysses S. Grant, Memoirs and Selected Letters, ed. Mary Drake McFeely and William S. McFeely (New York: Library of America, 1990), p. 746.
72. Lincoln, “Address at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania” (November 19, 1863), in Speeches and Writings, 1859–1865, p. 536.
73. Lincoln, “Response to Serenade,” Washington, D.C. (November 10, 1864), in Speeches and Writings, 1859–1865, p. 641.
74. Paludan, Presidency of Abraham Lincoln, p. 319.
75. Lincoln, “Annual Message to Congress” (December 1, 1862), in Speeches and Writings, 1859–1865, p. 415.
76. Lincoln, “Seventh Lincoln-Douglas Debate,” Alton, Illinois (October 15, 1858), in Speeches and Writings, 1832–1858, pp. 810–11.