Skip to comments.The Litmus Test for American Conservatism (The paloeconservative view of Abe Lincoln.)
Posted on 09/06/2003 9:14:08 AM PDT by quidnunc
Abraham Lincoln is thought of by many as not only the greatest American statesman but as a great conservative. He was neither. Understanding this is a necessary condition for any genuinely American conservatism. When Lincoln took office, the American polity was regarded as a compact between sovereign states which had created a central government as their agent, hedging it in by a doctrine of enumerated powers. Since the compact between the states was voluntary, secession was considered an option by public leaders in every section of the Union during the antebellum period. Given this tradition deeply rooted in the Declaration of Independence a great statesman in 1860 would have negotiated a settlement with the disaffected states, even if it meant the withdrawal of some from the Union. But Lincoln refused even to accept Confederate commissioners, much less negotiate with them. Most of the Union could have been kept together. Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas voted to remain in the Union even after the Confederacy was formed; they reversed themselves only when Lincoln decided on a war of coercion. A great statesman does not seduce his people into a needless war; he keeps them out of it.
When the Soviet Union dissolved by peaceful secession, it was only 70 years old the same age as the United States when it dissolved in 1860. Did Gorbachev fail as a statesman because he negotiated a peaceful dissolution of the U.S.S.R.? Likewise, if all states west of the Mississippi were to secede tomorrow, would we praise, as a great statesman, a president who refused to negotiate and launched total war against the civilian population merely to preserve the Union? The number of Southerners who died as a result of Lincolns invasion was greater than the total of all Americans killed by Hitler and Tojo. By the end of the war, nearly one half of the white male population of military age was either dead or mutilated. No country in World War II suffered casualties of that magnitude.
Not only would Lincoln not receive Confederate commissioners, he refused, for three crucial months, to call Congress. Alone, he illegally raised money, illegally raised troops, and started the war. To crush Northern opposition, he suspended the writ of habeas corpus for the duration of the war and rounded up some 20,000 political prisoners. (Mussolini arrested some 12,000 but convicted only 1,624.) When the chief justice of the Supreme Court declared the suspension blatantly unconstitutional and ordered the prisoners released, Lincoln ordered his arrest. This American Caesar shut down over 300 newspapers, arrested editors, and smashed presses. He broke up state legislatures; arrested Democratic candidates who urged an armistice; and used the military to elect Republicans (including himself, in 1864, by a margin of around 38,000 popular votes). He illegally created a state in West Virginia and imported a large army of foreign mercenaries. B.H. Liddell Hart traces the origin of modern total war to Lincolns decision to direct war against the civilian population. Sherman acknowledged that, by the rules of war taught at West Point, he was guilty of war crimes punishable by death. But who was to enforce those rules?
These actions are justified by nationalist historians as the energetic and extraordinary efforts of a great helmsman rising to the painful duty of preserving an indivisible Union. But Lincoln had inherited no such Union from the Framers. Rather, like Bismarck, he created one with a policy of blood and iron. What we call the Civil War was in fact Americas French Revolution, and Lincoln was the first Jacobin president. He claimed legitimacy for his actions with a conservative rhetoric, rooted in an historically false theory of the Constitution which held that the states had never been sovereign. The Union created the states, he said, not the states the Union. In time, this corrupt and corrupting doctrine would suck nearly every reserved power of the states into the central government. Lincoln seared into the American mind an ideological style of politics which, through a sort of alchemy, transmuted a federative union of states into a French revolutionary nation launched on an unending global mission of achieving equality. Lincolns corrupt constitutionalism and his ideological style of politics have, over time, led to the hollowing out of traditional American society and the obscene concentration of power in the central government that the Constitution was explicitly designed to prevent.
A genuinely American conservatism, then, must adopt the project of preserving and restoring the decentralized federative polity of the Framers rooted in state and local sovereignty. The central government has no constitutional authority to do most of what it does today. The first question posed by an authentic American conservative politics is not whether a policy is good or bad, but what agency (the states or the central government if either) has the authority to enact it. This is the principle of subsidiarity: that as much as possible should be done by the smallest political unit.
The Democratic and Republican parties are Lincolnian parties. Neither honestly questions the limits of federal authority to do this or that. In 1861, the central government broke free from what Jefferson called the chains of the Constitution, and we have, consequently, inherited a fractured historical memory. There are now two Americanisms: pre-Lincolnian and post-Lincolnian. The latter is Jacobinism by other means. Only the former can lay claim to being the primordial American conservatism.
David W. Livingston is a professor of philosophy at Emory University and the author of Philosophical Melancholy and Delirium (University of Chicago Press).
What is with the love-affair that some paleos have with Gorbo? I can understand the "no foreign entanglement" angle, but why do they cross the line into being outright apologists for the Soviet regime?
This was once a very libertarian nation consisting of loosely federated states able to act independently in most things and collectively for things like free trade and national defence. Now we are pawns of a bloated national state.
Linclon had his view of "nation." He felt the US was ultimately stronger as a nation rather than unaffiliated states. He also had a vision of the US as a nation that stretched from the Atlantic to the Pacific.
I believe he also saw the "freedom" of the nation as something to extend to all citizens, although that was not his mandate when he was elected. The fact is he had no mandate when he was elected.
It's so popular these days for some conservatives to hammer Lncoln at every opportunity. What makes me curious about that is if these hammerers feel we will be a better country when the next great schism comes to pass as is the trend.
Finally, given Lincoln's vision of "Country," What could he have done differently and still bring it about. He had a Congress that seemed quite pleased to be able to blame Lincoln for all the evils in the world yet was likley collectively relieved that anyone about was willing to make some decisions about issues at all.
He had a nation, not a loggerheads, but rather, quite literally, at each others throats.
I have always thought, not that he was a conservative, but that it took a fantastic amount of character to pull it off at all. Lincoln was in a truly winless situation, yet he knew that some men must do more than just talk. I find Lincoln as good as any President and better than most.
Ahh, another government "educated" person. If you were to read anything before the revisionists got around to changing it, you would note that the North imposed tariffs on imported factory goods, and our European trade partners responded by slapping massive tariffs on agricultural goods. This allowed the North to have high wages and even cheaper cotton and corn while the South had to pay maximum prices for machinery (which would have replaced slaves) and received minimum income for their products. Last time I checked, tariffs are anathema to Libertarianism (which is Libertarian consistancy since our country's forefathers believed that tariffs were the least immoral tax.)
Interestingly, the Libertarian ideal is sort of like the North's attitude towards the South. Impose virtual tariffs on the manufacturing and IT through massive domestic taxes, obscene regulation, and rabid tort lawyers - then eliminate tariffs on the foreigners through subsidies, tax grants, free insurance, and cheap and plentiful education to foreigners. This makes the "Takers" (Libs) the North, and the Producers the "South". The Libs laud about inexpensive goods and laugh at the "Southerners" income problems.
Given the increasing centralization of pwer in D.C., you think this is even possible?
There are large parts of Florida and the Southwest that have American as a second language, and so many of those homes don't understand the language at all. While that has always been the case in some of our urban areas such as New York, San Francisco, Honolulu and others, there were numerous pressures to amalgamate the people, at least by the next generation. Now we not only forgive this "balkanazation," we subsidize it i.e. we encourage it. We put no premium on at least the next generation getting with the program.
Our older institutions are getting routed and our rebuilt institutions don't force the next generation to have a clue as to what their true rights are or why. We also belittle any affection toward "our country" as archaic, xenophobic and not chic.
For those that consider Lincoln to be a marxist of his day, I give you Olympia Snow, Jim Jeffords, Ted Kennedy and Arlen Specter. By this I mean we are getting so horribly polarized as a political body that there can be no basis for communication. I don't want any part of their vision of what this country should be.
In California we can see the catastrophe that is wrought by so many ultra liberal policies that even today politicians are loathe to decry. It can't be long before the Northeast follows in those footsteps.
Today you have a supposed conservative administration that wants to spend money growing programs so fast it would embarrass Hubert Humphrey or Richard Nixon or Lyndon Johnson, the radical liberals of the last generation.
Yes, I would say this nation could split along numerous seems, mostly caused by plans to subsidize activities that can't be economically sustained. It won't happen in the next year, or the next five, but has to eventually given trends. When it does, the separate parts will be so regionalized, and the things that really made this country great will be so expunged from our memory that there won't be anyone left to suggest an alternative.
Today's Republicans are Reagan's Conservative Republicans, NOT Lincoln's Radical Republicans.
Many, if not most, of the paleocons are synpathetic to the Confederacy and believe the South's cause during the Civil War was just, so it's a given that Honest Abe occupies a place in their pantheon of horribles.
Yep, Ol'Abe and Billy Sherman really showed them rebs where the bear did his business in the buckwheat, didn't they?
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