Lincoln

Will, at Dispatches, has a post-Presidents Day post in which, amongst other things, he links, critically, to my Terrapin Times piece on Roger B. Taney. He packs quite a pit into a brief paragraph, so I’ll post it in its entirety and respond as appropriate.

I’m baffled by the rise of anti-Lincoln sentiment on some quarters of the Right. Freeing the slaves ought to count for something. Moreover, letting the South go and hoping for the best (voluntary manumission, perhaps?) seems like wishful thinking. I’d also argue that Jim Crow would have been a lot more durable had the South gained independence. Patrick Deneen’s assessment is a bit more balanced.

First, I’m not sure why this baffles Will. Criticism of Lincoln from the Right is nothing new; granted, unfortunately, a fair amount of it comes from certain neo-Confederate paleoconservative/paleolibertarian corners where racism, I suspect, seethes just below the surface, awaiting the day when Jim Crow laws can be revived, perhaps “for the good of” Blacks. However, such denouncements come from conservatives unpossessed of such virulent tendencies. (I like to think that I belong to this latter category.) For instance, long ago (by blogosphere standards), Larison offered this:

Serious conservatives of old (and some still around today) frequently disparaged Father Abraham and rejected the politics that he represented; to the extent that the GOP really was always the Party of Lincoln, conservatives are hard-pressed to ever find a real place in it, since our tradition via the Agrarians and Bradford ties us to the Antifederalists, Jeffersonian Republicans, Southern Democrats and Populists.  At each stage of our history, the revolutionary forces of consolidation wanted to transform and do violence to the settled order of American life and sought to damage the constitutional order as well.  At each stage serious conservatives opposed them and their works . . . .

. . .  if “Lincoln Republican” means anything it refers to the post-1865 Republican stranglehold imposed on the country by the post-War arrangements of power . . . .

It was only ten years ago that Bob Dole lectured us about how the GOP was the Party of Lincoln and anybody who didn’t like it could get out right now.  I got the hint when I was still just 17 and never joined the Party of Corporations, Corruption and Consolidation.  Weaver’s argument from definition notwithstanding, Lincoln was certainly no conservative or, if he was a conservative, I would not want to have anything to do with such a conservatism. [Emphasis in the original. – NPO]

Moreover, of course this antipathy toward Lincoln is emerging perhaps more openly now, as we’ve marked his bicentennial. Such anniversaries are frequently the points at which we curmudgeons escape from our cellars long enough to inject politically incorrect vitriol into staid discussion. Pro-Lincoln agitprop (along with pro-Darwin commentary and anti-Darwin screeds) have dominated the media of late; that dissidents would keep opinions to themselves is neither to be expected nor desired.

Of course freeing the slaves ought to count for something; as far as I know, none of us expressing our disapproval of the Great Emancipator have denied that this was a good thing. I fully challenge the notion that ending slavery was Lincoln’s principal intention — if, initially, an intention at all (I’ll not pretend to know what motives drove him from deepest within.) —; preserving the Union, for better or for worse, I think, is what he sought to do. That the Emancipation Proclamation immediately freed slaves only in states over which Washington had no de facto authority — and in those parts of the Confederacy over which the Union had regained control (a fact seemingly lost to too many critics of Lincoln) — suggests an unwillingness, or ambivalence, at least at first, respecting the issue.

I certainly agree that expecting to see the end of slavery, at least any time soon, by way of “letting the South go and hoping for the best (voluntary manumission, perhaps?)” is wishful thinking. I certainly had no intention of making such a suggestion when I noted that Taney manumitted his own slaves. I make mention of that only to suggest (specifically to my primary audience; more on that below) that, dreadful and mistaken as his Dred Scott opinion was, Taney was not a complete beast.

Slavery is unequivocally immoral, a particularly sad stain on this nation’s sad history. However, I’m not at all convinced that the liberation of Black slaves into a Southern society in which de jure discrimination and, notwithstanding the Fourteenth Amendment, de facto inequality reigned and into Northern cities where the absence of slavery and the chimera of tolerance did little to meliorate the fact that Blacks often remained second- (perhaps third-)class citizens justifies the deaths of more than six hundred thousand Americans, more deaths than every other war, Revolution through Vietnam, combined.

How could we have ended slavery otherwise? I don’t pretend to know. Perhaps, as Will suggests, had the South been left to its own devices, Jim Crow would have been a lot more durable. On the other hand, that a South not embittered by bloodshed, conquest and Reconstruction, Sherman’s rape of Georgia, and the quashing of the important Constitutional question of secession (More below.) and states’ rights, could have gradually ended slavery and slowly developed, more organically, healthier race relations is not, I submit, impossible. I may reveal naïvety by expressing such an opinion, but, left with few options, I’m willing to entertain it.

Ultimately, for me, the question of slavery is almost irrelevant to my personal assessment of the sixteenth president. Rather, his willful violation of the Constitution (the fundamental point of my Taney piece), nationalism/centralism, refusal to negotiate with the secessionists over the legal transfer of Fort Sumter (and other forts) to the Confederacy (which could have precluded the attack that incited the War Between the States), and being beholden to corporate interests inform my judgment. That emancipation resulted from his war wins him a few points, but that it was such a bloody, dubious war that brought forth this result suffices to negate much of the gain here.

The Taney piece to which Will responded will be on the front page of the forthcoming issue of The Terrapin Times. The fact is that I’m running a beleaguered-from-the-get-go right-of-centre paper on a heavily liberal/apathetic campus; running a piece like this is something I’m doing because a) Provocation draws attention and b) Notwithstanding the great flaw of Taney’s, I believe that people ought to realize the important of Taney qua judge in Ex parte Merryman whose opinion was most recently reaffirmed in Hamdi v. Rumsfeld. Had I written a piece about Lincoln, I, doubtless, should have dedicated more of the piece to criticizing him, but I also should have offered at least a small bone to the vastly more numerous pro-Lincoln crowd.

On the question of secession, I hold firmly no opinion. Unwilling to say that the States definitely possess the right to secede, I’m even more loath to submit that they lack such a right. Doubtless, whatever the Constitution says, I suspect that many States’ leaders failed to realize the Hamiltonian machinations at work to guarantee that, regardless of what they all believed, whatever right to re-establish autonomy would slip into the mists of history courtesy of the centralizing tendencies of Madison’s document.

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2 Responses

  1. My, my…quite a lot to say in this piece, but I think you bring up a number of interesting points. I agree that when it comes to an assessment of President Lincoln, the subject of slavery is not of paramount importance. Sure we are far better for ending that institution, but the end of slavery was more a means to achieve an end for the president rather than a primary goal. As I’ve said myself, it is certainly unfortunate that in today’s day and age that those who speak against the unconstitutional encroachment of federal power are, so many times, lumped in with the supporters of Jim Crow and second class citizenship. I just wish that more people could engage in a rational dialogue, without the blind hero worship. Is that too much to ask?

    Thanks!

  2. Interesting post. One of my subsequent entries addresses a few of these criticisms:

    http://bestelectionever.wordpress.com/2009/02/17/on-lincoln/

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