Overall, according to Neely, arrests “were of less significance in the history of civil liberties than anyone ever imagined.” He points out that even Lincoln-administration officials often used the term “political prisoner” for any civilian held by the military, a highly misleading label. “A majority of the arrests,” he writes, “would have occurred whether the writ was suspended or not. They were caused by the mere incidents or friction of war, which produced refugees, informers, guides, Confederate defectors, carriers of contraband goods, and other such persons as came between or in the wake of large armies. They may have been civilians, but their political views were irrelevant.”
Lincoln wasn’t a dictator; he was a wartime president operating at the outer limits of his power in dire circumstances when the existence of the country was at risk, and — inevitably — he made mistakes. Lincoln didn’t try to put off elections, including his own in 1864, which he was convinced for a long stretch of time that he would lose.
Yet another favorite count against Lincoln on the Right is that he was the midwife for the birth of the modern welfare state — a false claim also made by progressives bent on appropriating him for their own purposes. The war necessarily entailed the growth and centralization of the state, but this hardly makes Lincoln a forerunner to FDR or LBJ. The income tax required to fund the war, instituted in 1861 and soon made into a progressive tax with higher rates for the wealthy, was a temporary measure eliminated in 1872. Wars are expensive. In 1860, the federal budget was well under $100 million. By the end of the war, it was more than $1 billion. But the budget dropped back down to $300 million, excluding payments on the debt, within five years of the end of the war.
To see in any of this the makings of the modern welfare state requires a leap of imagination. In the midst of the war, the State Department had all of 33 employees. The famous instances of government activism not directly related to the war — the subsidies to railroads, the Homestead Act — were a far cry from the massive transfer programs instituted in the 20th century. The railroads got land and loan guarantees but were a genuinely transformational technology often, though not always, providing an economic benefit. The Homestead Act, as Lincoln historian Allen Guelzo argues, can be viewed as a gigantic privatization of public lands, which were sold off at a cut rate to people willing to improve their plots.
In the North during the war, historian Richard Franklin Bensel points out, the industrial and agricultural sectors ran free of government controls. The labor force, although tapped for manpower for the war, was relatively unmolested. The government became entangled with the financial system, but that system was also becoming more modern, sophisticated, and free of European influence. Given its vitality and wealth, the North could wage the war without subjecting itself to heavy-handed command-and-control policies. Compared with the overmatched Confederacy, it was a laissez-faire haven.
It was, rather, the southern political economy that came to depend most heavily on bureaucratic control and government expropriation, as Bensel notes. An extensive conscription law effectively subjected the entire labor force to centralized direction. The government had the discretionary power to exempt certain occupations and to detail men to civic duties deemed necessary; private concerns, therefore, depended on the government for workers. Despite a constitutional prohibition, the government subsidized the construction of railroads and by the end of the war assumed control of them and, by extension, the supply of raw materials.
The Confederacy “impressed” property from manufacturers, farmers, and railroads to supply the military. The system led to wide-ranging price controls. One Confederate congressman complained of the government agents who were “as thick as locusts in Egypt.” Under pressure from the Union blockade, the government eventually prohibited the importation of luxuries and took control of a vast array of exports. It imposed a more progressive income tax than the North did. In short, the Confederates pioneered a program of war socialism back when Woodrow Wilson — the progressive president who would run the country’s economy on a similar basis during World War I — was still in knee-pants.