Decades ago, the distinguished Lincoln biographer David Herbert Donald coined the phrase “getting right with Lincoln” to describe the impulse people feel to appropriate Lincoln for their own political agendas. Anyone who has watched Barack Obama, who as a senator wrote an essay for Time magazine entitled “What I See in Lincoln’s Eyes” and swore the oath of office as president on Lincoln’s Bible, will be familiar with the phenomenon. Democrats like to claim Lincoln as, in effect, the first Big Government liberal, while Republicans tout him as the founder of their party.
But the reflex identified by Donald isn’t universally felt. A portion of the Right has always hated Old Abe. It blames him for wielding dictatorial powers in an unnecessary war against the Confederacy and creating the predicate for the modern welfare state, among sundry other offenses against the constitutional order and liberty.
The anti-Lincoln critique is mostly, but not entirely, limited to a fringe. Yet it speaks to a longstanding ambivalence among conservatives about Lincoln. A few founding figures of this magazine were firmly in the anti-Lincoln camp. Libertarianism is rife with critics of Lincoln, among them Ron Paul and the denizens of the fever-swamp at LewRockwell.com. The Loyola University Maryland professor Thomas DiLorenzo has made a cottage industry of publishing unhinged Lincoln-hating polemics. The list of detractors includes left-over agrarians, southern romantics, and a species of libertarians — “people-owning libertarians,” as one of my colleagues archly calls them — who apparently hate federal power more than they abhor slavery. They are all united in their conviction that both in resisting secession and in the way he did it, Lincoln took American history on one of its great Wrong Turns.
The conservative case against Lincoln is not only tendentious and wrong, it puts the Right crosswise with a friend. As I argue in my new book, Lincoln Unbound
, Abraham Lincoln was perhaps the foremost proponent of opportunity in all of American history. His economics of dynamism and change and his gospel of discipline and self-improvement are particularly important to a country that has been stagnating economically and suffering from a social breakdown that is limiting economic mobility. No 19th-century figure can be an exact match for either of our contemporary competing political ideologies, but Lincoln the paladin of individual initiative, the worshiper of the Founding Fathers, and the advocate of self-control is more naturally a fellow traveler with today’s conservatives than with progressives.
In Lincoln Unbound, I make the positive case for Lincoln, but here I want to act as a counsel for the defense. The debate over Lincoln on the Right is so important because it can be seen, in part, as a proxy for the larger argument over whether conservatism should read itself out of the American mainstream or — in this hour of its discontent — dedicate itself to a Lincolnian program of opportunity and uplift consistent with its limited-government principles. A conservatism that rejects Lincoln is a conservatism that wants to confine itself to an irritable irrelevance to 21st-century America and neglect what should be the great project of reviving it as a country of aspiration.
The fundamental critique of Lincoln is that he was “the Great Centralizer,” as columnist and George Mason economist Walter Williams puts it. He earned this pejorative sobriquet, first and foremost, by resisting secession, which “remained a reserved right of the states,” in the words of Thomas Woods in his Politically Incorrect Guide to American History. In defending secession, Lincoln-haters often revert to the brilliant 19th-century South Carolina politician and thinker John C. Calhoun, although he’s a dubious source of wisdom about the Constitution. (I draw particularly on the excellent work of Thomas Krannawitter in his Vindicating Lincoln and Daniel Farber in his Lincoln’s Constitution in what follows.)
Calhoun didn’t want to preserve the constitutional order, but to change it to afford even more protections for the slave states. Historian Richard Hofstadter called him “The Marx of the Master Class.” He disdained the Federalist Papers. Believing that the Constitution represented only a loose “compact” between the states, he thought the country had gone wrong from the very first Congress, which had set the country on a nationalist path “from which it has never yet recovered.” He wanted to substitute his own constitutional scheme — involving nullification by the states under his doctrine of “concurrent majority” — for that of the Founders.
Calhoun’s theories got a test run in the Nullification Crisis of the early 1830s, when South Carolina “nullified” the so-called 1828 Tariff of Abominations before backing down in the face of President Andrew Jackson’s fierce reaction (a compromise was forged over tariff policy). Then came the South’s secession after Lincoln’s election in 1860, which was defended in Calhounite terms by Jefferson Davis himself. He said “that each State was, in the last resort, the sole judge as well of its wrongs as of the mode and measure of redress. Indeed, it is obvious that under the law of nations this principle is an axiom as applied to the relations of independent sovereign States, such as those which had united themselves under the constitutional compact.”