Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Abraham Lincoln and the Necessity of the Civil War
By Alexander Marriott

One of the more minor Presidential candidates, Ron Paul (Representative from Texas), appeared recently on Meet the Press with Tim Russert. Aside from enunciating a rather incoherent jumble of ideas about what he would do in the horribly unlikely calamity of his being elected President, Mr. Paul enunciated a political heresy (and a historical heresy), which I wish to address here.

Below is the transcribed exchange which I will be referring to throughout my comments:

MR. RUSSERT: I was intrigued by your comments about Abe Lincoln. "According to Paul, Abe Lincoln should never have gone to war; there were better ways of getting rid of slavery."

REP. PAUL: Absolutely. Six hundred thousand Americans died in a senseless civil war. No, he shouldn't have gone, gone to war. He did this just to enhance and get rid of the original intent of the republic. I mean, it was the--that iron, iron fist..

MR. RUSSERT: We'd still have slavery.

REP. PAUL: Oh, come on, Tim. Slavery was phased out in every other country of the world. And the way I'm advising that it should have been done is do like the British empire did. You, you buy the slaves and release them. How much would that cost compared to killing 600,000 Americans and where it lingered for 100 years? I mean, the hatred and all that existed. So every other major country in the world got rid of slavery without a civil war. I mean, that doesn't sound too radical to me. That sounds like a pretty reasonable approach.


After this exchange, Mr. Russert went on to make Mr. Paul look foolish on numerous other, more current, issues. First of all, Mr. Paul is not the originator of this idea, nor even it's most eloquent expositor. He is, however, the one with the most prominent perch upon which to shout such ideas to a public that (given the state of education and the general historical knowledge of most people) might not know any better. I am not opposed to Mr. Paul's candidacy as such, he would be no more harmful than any of the other incompetents (on both sides) currently running for office (nor am I pining for the entrance of any third party incompetents like Mr. Bloomberg or Mr. Nader). To confront inevitable claims of partisan bias against poor little Mr. Paul, I simply have no horse in the presidential race so far and cannot say I shall have one anytime soon. If and when I do, I shall let you know who and why.

But to the "point" Mr. Paul was so eager to make in his exchange with Mr. Russert, that the Civil War was unnecessary and that Lincoln "did this just to enhance and get rid of the original intent of the republic." Kudos to Mr. Paul for correctly identifying the form of government which we live under, I am almost certain that all other candidates would improperly identify the government type they are endeavoring to lead. However, this is where the kudos must stop. Mr. Paul's comments are uninformed historically, contradictory, and ultimately revealing of a greater weakness and danger which lies within the modern "Libertarian" movement.

Historically speaking, Mr. Paul is quite right in saying that the death of over 600,000 men in the Civil War was horrifically tragic. However, to say those deaths and the war in which they occurred were "unnecessary" is a quixotically ahistorical and perversely amoral observation. The parallel he attempts to make in response Mr. Russert's assertion that "We'd still have slavery," that the United States could have and should have followed the lead of Great Britain by pursuing a path of compensated emancipation (where the government pays slave owners the price of the slaves, essentially buying them, and then freeing them, though the British example was far more complex taking decades to actually eliminate slavery). The could and should aspects of this are different questions. Whether the country should have pursued such a policy is irrelevant if it could not actually pursue such a policy. So the question which needs to be answered is that of whether the United States, in March 1861 when Lincoln became president, could have pursued a policy of compensated and gradual emancipation. The answer historically speaking is not only an unequivocal "NO!!!" but a "HELL NO!!" And that answer comes not from Lincoln, who at his most radical before 1861 only ever suggested compensated gradual emancipation plus the subsidized emigration of the free blacks to colony somewhere, perhaps Africa, but from the people who attempted to destroy the government and inaugurated the war Mr. Paul excoriates as "unnecessary." In order for any emancipation scheme to peacefully have worked it would either have required the people and leadership of the Southern states to concede that slavery was wrong and needed to be done away with (which they most emphatically did not, quite the reverse, by 1861 it was not a radical opinion in the South to claim that slavery was a "positive good") or at least for them to accept the ability of the federal government to regulate the issue, even against their wishes (which they were even more emphatically against). And Lincoln and the Republicans did not even claim an ability to regulate slavery in the Southern states, merely an ability to prevent slavery from spreading into the territories. Lincoln was not even inaugurated into the presidency before the entire lower south "seceded" and Jefferson Davis was in "office" as President of the so-called "Confederate States of America." The spark with which the war began was not Lincoln marching an army into the South to restore order as certain of his predecessors would have most certainly done, but was the bombardment of a federal fort by the rebels. To have not responded at that moment with the use of force would have been to concede that the government did not have the right to govern and protect its own property, what sort of government would that have been? It would have been no government at all, and therein lies what Mr. Paul was most likely going for.

Regardless of how historically inept Mr. Paul's claims are, they are in themselves contradictory. He says: "Absolutely. Six hundred thousand Americans died in a senseless civil war. No, he shouldn't have gone, gone to war. He did this just to enhance and get rid of the original intent of the republic." Moving on from the baseless assertion that the Civil War was "senseless," what does Mr. Paul mean when he says that Lincoln went to war to "enhance and get rid of the original intend of the republic"? Perhaps he misspoke. Otherwise, this statement is a blatant contradiction, how could Lincoln wage war to enhance and simultaneously get rid of the original intent of the republic? But, more importantly, how could putting down a rebellion waged explicitly for the idea that slavery was a positive good and essential to the survival of liberty (if you don't wish to take my word for this please read Alexander Stephens' "cornerstone" speech, he was the Vice-President of the so-called "Confederate States of America"), be against the original intent of the republic? Does Paul not believe the country was founded on the idea that all men were created equal? Does he not believe that all men have unalienable rights, among them to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? These are what generally passes as the original intent of the republic. How does crushing a rebellion dedicated to the exact opposite ideals and ending the great contradiction of the founding (slavery) constitute an assault on the republic? Lincoln exercised extraordinary powers as Commander-in-Chief during that rebellion, but he did not do anything which either had not been done in previous emergencies or threats of rebellion or which had not been suggested as possibilities by those who thought about what would happen in the case of rebellion in the years leading up to the Civil War. It must ultimately be remembered that he faced the greatest crisis the country has ever faced and that given what he might have done and what many people begged and demanded that he should do, Lincoln acted very moderately and was remarkably restrained particularly when one considers the history of republics and civil wars. Lincoln was no Cromwell, no Caesar, no Franco.

Mr. Paul has waged a campaign for the presidency (specifically the republican party nomination) based largely on his anomalous position among his competitors in fundamental opposition to the war in Iraq, the war on terrorism more broadly, and seemingly any and all wars or war-related enterprises. His latest comments on Lincoln and the Civil War merely underline his irrational assault on war and the use of force, even in self-defense or for the protection of liberty (American or any other apparently). War is horrible and as General Sherman said, it is "hell," but he knew and Lincoln knew an obvious fact of reality that apparently Mr. Paul, along with a dangerous amount of his fellow citizens, has forgotten. There are things even more horrible than war, like the loss of life and liberty, like slavery. If we are not to at least remember favorably the necessary, I would argue heroic, examples like those set down by our founding fathers and subsequent leaders who followed them into glory, then we truly are lost. With Mr. Paul at the helm it would be a classic case of the blind leading the blind. Then we shall truly know hell.

2 comments:

Ian said...

It seems pretty clear that Paul was stumbling over himself in that passage (if you are easily flustered by a milquetoast like Russert, how can you believe you're ready to be President?), and what he meant was something like "enhance the power of the federal/central government".

David Claassen-Wilson said...

Our Objectivist group debated and researched this issue a few years ago. I for one came to realize that Americans have been basically taught a bunch of myths about Lincoln and the Civil War. You are right to point out that Ron Paul is a philosphical mess on many issues (especially with war and foreign policy) but on this point he is right.

Americans have been taught for generations by the progressive educators that the Civil War was fought over the issue of slavery and that Lincoln was a great liberator of the slaves. In reality Lincoln was kind of a 19th century version of FDR who cared more about centralizing power, trampling individual rights, and growing a welfare state more than anything else. He did not care one way or the other about slavery and just used it as a justification for the war later on.

Here are a few of the main myths about Lincoln and the Civil War for those of you who, like me, were brainwashed by progressive education in regards to US history.

Myth #1: Abraham Lincoln was an abolitionist whose goal was to free the slaves. He wanted them to participate equally in American society which is why he was elected in 1860.

Reality: Lincoln hated the abolitionists and saw them as a threat to the Union. Abolition was never a part of Lincoln’s political goals or his 1860 presidential platform. (Actually none of the four parties fielding presidential candidates that year supported abolition.) Lincoln declared in his 1861 inaugural address: “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.” He believed that whites were the superior race, that the races should never mingle, that blacks should have no rights to vote, own land, citizenship, etc. and that all blacks should be either sent back to Africa or to the jungles of Central America.

Myth #2: The Civil War was fought over slavery.

Reality: Crippling northern tariffs against the south were the paramount issue that led the two sides into conflict. The south had been protesting the increasing tariffs, nullifying acts of Congress, and threatening secession for decades leading up the Civil War. The north imposed the tariffs and kept ratcheting them up in order to maintain power against the southern states and to pay for the growing corporate welfare state that benefited the northern industrial states alone. (The north was actually sliding rapidly into a mixed-economy approach at the time, while in many ways the south was heading toward free trade and laissez faire.)

Myth #3: Without the Civil War slavery would not have ended.

Reality: Between 1800 and 1850 dozens of countries throughout the Western world had gradually eliminated slavery through compensated emancipation and not a single one of them had resorted to warfare in the process. The south was rapidly enacting many of the same policies that were being adopted elsewhere (outlawing the importation of new slaves, freeing the children of current slaves at age 18 or 24, etc.) Slavery would have died out soon anyway without the needless deaths of 600,000 Americans and the devastation of the southern economy. Ron Paul is a quack but he is right about this point.

Myth #4: Only the south had slavery.

Reality: Slavery was legal and quite commonplace throughout the north. The north did not abolish slavery in its own territories until after the civil war. Most Union generals and staff for example were slave owners. William T. Sherman and Ulysses S. Grant had many slaves that served them until well after the war was over. They did not free them until late in 1865 when the 13th amendment was finally enacted. On the other hand, Confederate General Robert E. Lee freed his slaves (which he never purchased - they were inherited) in 1862. Lee freed his slaves several years before the war was over, and considerably earlier than his Northern counterparts.

Myth #5: The Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves.

Reality: It did not free a single slave. It only applied to those southern states that were not already controlled by the armies of the north. Meanwhile the northern states kept slavery. Congress enacted laws throughout the war allowing the Union army to keep slaves confiscated from the south. The Emancipation Proclamation was a meaningless publicity gimmick since Lincoln knew it would only apply to rebel areas where it was unenforceable. Slavery continued to be legal in the north and was not abolished there until after the Civil War.

Myth: Abraham Lincoln was a lover of freedom.

Reality: His agenda was to promote the ideas of Henry Clay’s “American System” (the program that tied economic development to strong centralized national authority, protectionist tariffs, corporate welfare, and the confiscation of private property.) Lincoln also suspended habeas corpus, shut down hundreds of newspapers, and imprisoned their editors and owners without trial for questioning his policies or the need for the war. He imprisoned thousands of northern citizens without due process for simply writing or speaking out against his policies.
Well that’s just a sampling to help everyone “check your premises” about Abe Lincoln and whether the Civil War was needed.

There is a lot of good scholarship out there to back up the point of view Ron Paul is bring up about the Civil War. The best writer I’ve found so far in exposing these myths about Lincoln and the Civil War is Thomas DiLorenzo. I would recommend you read his book entitled “The Real Lincoln: A New Look at Abraham Lincoln, His Agenda, and an Unnecessary War.”