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On Lincoln-Bashing

April 29, 2008

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On Lincoln-Bashing

As the Lincoln-basher in residence, I suppose I should say a few things about Grant Havers’ article on the subject.  Mr. Havers states at the beginning of his article:

In the conservative house divided, almost everyone agrees that the president was the prophet of democratic imperialism and that his war with the South was a mere dress rehearsal for global crusades for democracy which began half a century after his assassination.

That’s quite a claim, but it’s one that seems to be poorly supported.  Mr. Havers has since written another response to the critique of Thomas DiLorenzo, but besides DiLorenzo I don’t know of anyone who has made any argument even remotely similar to the one Mr. Havers imputes to paleoconservative critics of Lincoln.  As DiLorenzo points out, he does not refer to himself as a paleoconservative, so that is a problem all its own, but more basically he denies that he subscribes to the Jaffaite interpretation of Lincoln that Mr. Havers claims that he holds.  But leave DiLorenzo aside for a moment, and let us consider whether there are actually any paleos who accept the description of Lincolln as the “prophet of democratic imperialism.”  In only the most limited sense would I say that Lincoln was an imperialist, engaged in the project of building what some dissidents refer to as the “internal empire,” in other words the project of consolidation.  With respect to foreign policy (i.e., policy concerning lands outside the United States c., early 1860), Lincoln did not engage in anything like a policy of imperialism, democratic or otherwise.  The imperial phase of our foreign policy finds its real beginning in the 1890s, and the deployment of democracy as a cover story for intervening in foreign wars is a product of the Wilson years.  Indeed, this is stated quite plainly in A Republic, Not an Empire, Mr. Buchanan’s book on U.S. foreign policy and what one might reasonably take as one of the major paleoconservative works on U.S. foreign policy.

It is interesting that Wilsonians have sought to use Lincoln’s name and goals to support their own agenda, as their latter-day successors do even to this day, but that does not mean that people today who are critics of both Wilson and Lincoln have conflated the two or have confused Lincoln’s legacy with Wilson’s policy.  For supporting evidence, Mr. Havers has reached back many decades:

They obviously never shared Jaffa’s idolatrous view that Abe was a “€œgod-like”€ statesman who needed to crush the South in order to advance the cause of liberty, but they have never questioned his more serious view that Lincoln was a democratic imperialist. In the days when National Review still represented traditional American conservatism, two stalwart contributors to the magazine in the 1950s and 1960s, Willmoore Kendall and Frank Meyer, accepted the basic accuracy of Jaffa’s portrayal while they hotly disputed the benefits of this legacy. Although Kendall and Meyer blamed Lincoln for creating a “€œCaesarist”€ dictatorship over the republic, they did not challenge Jaffa’s view that the president had a global ambition to spread equality across all of creation. (Among the early contributors to National Review, only Richard Weaver praised Lincoln as a true statesman.) Mel Bradford, who often debated with Jaffa, agreed with his longtime opponent that Lincoln’s “€œgnostic”€ love of equality logically leads to endless revolutions at home and interventions abroad.

Of course, Bradford was right that a theoretical egalitarianism does logically lead to constant action by the state here and abroad, because equality is anything but natural and requires constant coercion.  That doesn’t mean that Bradford was actually claiming that Lincoln was the forefather of “democratic imperialism.”  As DiLorenzo makes plain, he doesn’t accept Jaffa’s claims that Lincoln was an egalitarian, but rather ridicules this notion.  Mr. Havers allows that both Sam Francis and Paul Gottfried have not accepted the Jaffaite myth, either, which makes me wonder where the positive proof for his claim is.  Who has made this argument?  The problem with Lincoln, of course, is that he was a nationalist and a centralist who trampled on the Constitution and waged a war of aggression against those whom he regarded as his fellow citizens.  Whether or not he may have contributed unwittingly to the self-justifications of later democratic imperialists is actually a distant secondary concern.  To critique Lincoln, or to “bash” him, one does not need to believe that his tyranny led to WWI or WWII or any later conflicts; it is sufficient to remember him as the unconstitutional despot that he was.     

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