Politics & Policy

The Abe Debate; Corrections & Clarifications Friday


Well, I’m getting back on the horse after yesterday’s fairly horrendous column, just in time for C&C Friday (Corrections and Clarifications for the newly initiated or the really high). Monday’s file was surprisingly controversial. The flash point: my suggestion that Lincoln was a hero, a conservative, a great president and a heroic great conservative president (there were other disagreements which will be addressed below).

I received scores of very thoughtful e-mails saying that in fact Lincoln was a tyrant, the Clinton of his day, a liberal, a statist, and so on. I must say that even though I disagree with many of these assertions, I was both impressed and, well, proud of them (my readers have more than a few neurons to rub together — which you wouldn’t guess from looking at me).

To back up these various charges, Lincoln critics assert that the 16th president didn’t broach the issue of slavery until 2 1/2 years into the war. They make powerful arguments that the Emancipation Proclamation was a strategic, rather than principled, bit of statesmanship. Indeed, Lincoln fired General Fremont for issuing his own Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln offered to support the Fugitive Slave Act in his First Inaugural Address, if it would prevent Southern secession. Lincoln had previously looked favorably on the idea of secession as a state’s right. Lincoln said preservation of the Union was not a specifically conservative aim. Or, they point to ephemera like the fact that Lincoln wasn’t exactly a free trader. Others seem to lay the excesses of radical Republicans at the feet of a dead president.

Lincolnography is not a word, but it is a huge field. And while I am no stranger to the topic, I’m certainly far from its master. So, forgive me if I tread perhaps a bit more cautiously than the usual “Clinton eats the brains of rhesus monkeys while sponsoring raspberry-syrup and inflatable-goat orgies for Asian spies ” style many of you have grown accustomed to.

Lincoln admirers could site much of the above to the rail-splitter’s credit. Indeed, no admirer of Lincoln, or Washington, or FDR, or Reagan, for that matter, would assert that their decisions were always and in every instance driven by pure unadulterated principle. Compromise while advancing the cause is the art of small and great politicians alike. Take the firing of General Fremont, for example. Fremont had ordered that any civilian found bearing arms in Missouri would be shot and any person found offering comfort to the rebellion would have his slaves freed. In Lincoln’s eyes this was a political disaster.

Fremont’s emancipation of slaves would have cost Lincoln the support of Kentucky. And without Kentucky, a domino effect of other border states would follow. He reportedly said something like, “I’d like to have God on my side, but I need Kentucky.” There was also the constitutional consideration. Such a proclamation by a General, Lincoln believed, would signify the transformation of the Union into a military dictatorship. Admittedly, at the time, he didn’t think he could make such a proclamation either.

So what is a principled president to do? Lincoln always contended that the war was about preserving the Union first. He said as much often: “My paramount objective in this struggle is to save the Union and is not either to save or destroy slavery.”

But is that a worthy goal? Well, with all due respect to my friendly critics, yes. Would it have been better to do it without firing a shot? Of course. It also would have been better if we never had slavery to begin with. Many have written to say that one should take slavery out of the equation altogether when thinking about the “War of Northern Aggression.” I’m sorry to say that Lincoln’s varied denials to the contrary, you cannot. The war was about a lot of things. Surely at the top of the list was the question of whether states should be able to conduct their own affairs — a cause I heartily endorse nine times out of ten. But the affairs that the states wanted to conduct kept vast numbers of human beings in literal bondage, not the dubious metaphorical bondage the Left talks about today. Critics and fans alike concede that Lincoln would have tolerated the continued existence of slavery in the established slave states. But slavery had to expand or it would have died. Many scholars believe that was Lincoln’s real hope. No war, just the slow, quiet death of a hateful institution. As Lincoln said when criticized about his emancipation policy, “I am a slow walker, but I never walk backward.”

To take slavery totally out of the equation is impossible. If there were no slavery, there would have been no precipitating cause for secession. If there were no slavery, a Civil War would not have broken out over states’ rights. If you think otherwise, I’d love to hear from you. Would brother have taken up arms against brother over, say, the construction of highways or the establishment of state churches? As I say, I am no master of the subject, so let me know if you think so. But it seems to me that the heart of protecting the Southern Way of Life in the 1860s — a way of life I admire today — was the protection of slavery. And to me, slavery is worth going to war over. States rights are not absolute, nor should they be. I do not want to dredge up every constitutional argument about the jurisdiction of federal rights enforcement. So let me just assert as a matter of my own faith that individual rights ward off unwarranted intrusions by the government of Vermont as much as they do intrusions by the ATF.

So is Lincoln a conservative? I think so. He thought so. Many of my readers think otherwise because of his conduct in the War Between the States. They say, in essence, that conservatives must protect the status quo. In my opinion, this is a terrible misreading of conservatism. If that were the case, Reagan should have preserved the Cold War. If that were the case, Chamberlain was right and Churchill was wrong; “peace in our time” should have been the only goal.

“When it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change,” declared Viscount Falkland on the floor of Parliament in his attempt to avoid the British Civil War. This simple truth is at the heart of the conservatism which I love. But no major conservative thinker in over two hundred years has argued as a matter of principle that change is never necessary. The last one to do that was the French Royalist Joseph de Maistre and modern conservatives have bequeathed his thinking to the Left.

In the end, it is said, every president gets one sentence. Reagan won the Cold War. Washington was our First President. Clinton disgraced his office. And Lincoln saved the Union. That’s good enough for me.

But now for some fun. Clearly some of you disagree. So, at no small expense of blood and treasure, National Review has set up an on-line poll. This will save me and my furniture a lot of work. It will also give you e-mail-readers a reason to come on down, as Bob Barker likes to say, when he isn’t whining about the fact that people eat animals. Hey, while you’re down here, join the chat room and yell at each other about Honest Abe.

We plan on getting ever more sophisticated with stuff. And I plan on reducing your previous votes on the sweatiest movie to a manageable number and letting you decide. But for today, the questions is: Abraham Lincoln: Hero or Tyrant?

The Jonah Poll In your view, was Abraham Lincoln a hero or a tyrant?




This Lincoln stuff took a lot of room so C&C Friday may have to spill over into C&C Monday.

But one last Lincoln-related clarification. Some of you Libertarians took a break from your free-love lifestyles to insist that Karl Hess wrote the Goldwater “Extremism” Speech instead of Harry Jaffa. I knew this would happen. In modern American politics, no speech has been more unpopular when delivered, yet had more people dying to take credit for it. This is a fight I do not want to get in the middle of. But my extensive research (what are you laughing at? I can do research) reveals that at least the credit for the extremism line goes to Jaffa. That is what Goldwater, Jaffa, John Judis, and quite a few others who’ve dug into this have deduced. Hess drafted the speech, but the line goes to Harry. I was right and you were wrong, which is why we cleverly put “clarification” next to “correction” in the title — so I can gloat sometimes.

As I say, this is too long to go on. More corrections and clarifications on Monday. (Some of you should go back to the Wednesday column — a lot of wild assertions went by without much objection. That is, unless you all agree that Fawn Leibowitz deserved to die, the holodeck sucks, and Return of the Jedi was a disgrace.) This concludes my last column as a twenty-something. I shall return a little older but no wiser.


The Latest