(This article was first published on 3/6/09. I have revised it, updated the links, and changed the title. There is an audio portion on the original post concerning my background and views on the South, old and new. For technical reasons, I am unable to transfer that portion to this post. If you wish to listen to it, here is a link to the original posted article.)
As this year (2009) marks the bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln's birth, I would have liked to have memorialized the occasion with lofty prose. Yet others are better equipped for such a purpose. Instead, I thought I would illustrate Lincoln's greatness through the testimony of ex-slaves as to the evil of slavery, which Lincoln and the North overthrew. Having done that, I would like to address why some fellow conservatives and fellow Christian conservatives view Lincoln negatively, and then challenge these views by citing the historical record.
One reason for negative views of Lincoln among conservatives concerns the present-day designation of the South as the Bible belt. This has led some conservatives to view the Old South as this nation's bastion of true Christianity fighting to protect its heritage against the "Godless" North, which was seeking to overthrow Southern Christianity. This issue has been dealt with at length in the first four articles in this series.
Other criticisms of Lincoln concern the rise of an ever-expanding Federal government. These Conservatives blame the Northern victory for this current unwelcome development. For the most part, this linkage is a wrong view of history. The victory of the North may have played a part in the chain of events that led to today's expansive government, but it is not the primary reason. The roots of big government lie in the unprecedented immigration to America that took place after the Civil War. These immigrants congregated in big cities such as Chicago and New York City. The country was not prepared for so many coming to its shores. Taking advantage of the situation, political machines came into being to organize the new arrivals into powerful voting blocks. Politicians promised services for political loyalty. It was mainly the Democrat Party that practiced this kind of politics which resulted in the rise of powerful big city political bosses that ruled their cities and delivered votes to the candidate that promised rewards for them and their cities. The immigrants came from lands that discouraged individual effort and encouraged relying on the state for assistance.
Added to this influence is the rise of progressiveism, a radical, socialistic political movement that demanded the government side with the poor against the rich. This movement was especially strong in the West among farmers. The chaos we see in California politics today stems from the progressive state constitution enacted one hundred years ago. One of our most economically progressive Presidents, Woodrow Wilson, who created the Federal Reserve Board and helped enact the nation's first income tax in 1913, was Southern by birth, a Virginian.
Preference for expansive government received further aid from philosophical trends in Europe which found adherents in American Universities. The movement to co-opt charitable activities in the U.S. is chronicled most ably in conservative MarvinOlasky's "The Tragedy of American Compassion." In this book, Olasky documents the capacity for private charities and individuals to deal with society's down and out. The takeover of this function by the government was a subtle process. The forces that brought this about WERE PRESENT BEFORE THE CIVIL WAR BEGAN AND OPERATED INDEPENDENTLY OF WHOEVER PREVAILED IN THAT CONFLICT. (When I first posted this, I probably did not know that capital letters signified that the writer is yelling at his readers in print. That was not my intent. The capital letters were merely for emphasis.)
In most Civil Wars, the losing general is either shot, hanged, burned, beheaded, or maybe even eaten. The Confederate Commander expected to at least be imprisoned. Instead, he became the President of what is now Washington and Lee. The Confederate President spent two years in prison, was released, and held several jobs, including selling insurance. He was even able to publish a multi-volume memoir justifying both his actions and those of the South. Many Southern generals and politicians were elected to Congress one year after the war, including the Confederate Vice-President. After a twelve year military occupation by the North, the South was allowed to govern itself as it pleased. Some conservatives believe the slaves were better off under slavery. They certainly suffered inequality in various forms for over the next century, after the North withdrew. Yet at the same time, no black man ever had to fear again that his master would sell his wife or children. Nor did they have to stand idly by while their masters violated their wives and daughters. They also had the freedom to move where they pleased. Before the advent of big government, black families stayed intact and advanced economically every generation. This is documented in "Black Rednecks and White Liberals" by Conservative African American Scholar Thomas Sowell. There is a hundred year gap between the end of slavery and the effects of the welfare state on the black family. You cannot blame these effects on Lincoln or the Northern victory.
I subscribe to The Patriot Post: The Journal of Conservative Record. While I generally agree with the editorial viewpoint, I was disappointed that it ran an editorial debunking Lincoln (2/13/09). Like many who do so, the editor cited no independent historical sources when making his case.
One of the arguments the editor made is that Lincoln's Constitutional arguments are the root of the liberal Constitutional doctrine, "The Living Constitution." The doctrine of the "Living Constitution" states that the meaning of the Constitution changes over time as circumstances change. Lincoln stated that the Union was perpetual and was understood to be such at the country's founding. Lincoln stated that this principal was eternal, not a doctrine that was changeable with the changing of historical circumstances. In fact, Lincoln made his Constitutional case as to the perpetual nature of the Union in his First Inaugural Address, which should be on the list of American historical documents contained on the Patriot Post's website. Lincoln stated his case as follows:
"I hold that in contemplation of universal law and of the Constitution the Union of these States is perpetual. Perpetuity is implied, if not expressed, in the fundamental law of all national governments. It is safe to assert that no government proper ever had a provision in its organic law for its own termination...
"Again: If the United States be not a government proper, but an association of States in the nature of a contract merely, can it, as a contract, be peacefully unmade by less than all the parties who made it? One party to a contract may violate it--break it, so to speak--but does it not require all to lawfully rescind it?
"Descending from these principles, we find the proposition that in the legal contemplation the Union is perpetual confirmed by the history of the Union itself. The Union is much older than the Constitution. It was formed, in fact, by the Articles of Association in 1774. It was matured and continued by the Declaration of Independence in 1776. It was further matured, and the faith of all the then thirteen statesexpressingly plighted and engaged that it should be perpetual, by the articles of Confederation in 1778. And finally, in 1787, one of the declared objects for ordaining and establishing the Constitution was 'to form a more perfect Union.' "
No. One cannot find the roots for the "Living Constitution" in Lincoln's argument, even if he used the word "implied." Even the doctrine of Judicial Review ( in which the Supreme Court is empowered to rule on the Constitutionality of the acts of the Legislative and Executive Branches) is implied, not expressly stated, in the Constitution. Surely that doctrine cannot be the root of current liberal judicial theory, even though it is implied and not stated.
The South had no rational reason to fear a Lincoln Presidency. The previous three Presidents, Fillmore, Pierce and Buchanan, though Northerners, favored the South. Their cabinets were made up primarily of Southerners. Congress was dominated by Southern politicians. Ditto the Supreme Court. In 1850, the South forced the North to accept the Fugitive Slave Act, which subjected Northerners who gave aid to escaped slaves to fines and imprisonment. Lincoln was elected with less than 50% of the vote. While a resident of Illinois, Lincoln was by birth a Southerner and his wife's family was Southern. He made it clear he wished to be generous in dealing with the South. "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." (Lincoln's First Inaugural Address) But he was adamant that he would not allow slavery to spread to the western territories. It was the South that commenced hostilities by seizing Fort Sumter. If the North did not contest the seizure of forts by the South, European powers, still possessing designs on American territory and hoping to end America's experiment in Democracy, would have exploited the situation and seized territory the U.S. needed to possess to defend the territorial integrity of the North American Continent.
Some conservatives believe that the war was not fought over slavery at all. They believe that the only motivation of the Confederacy was to defend States Rights. Yes, Southern secession documents mention States Rights, but only in the context of upholding the institution of slavery. In speaking of the matter of fugitive slaves, the South Carolina Declaration of Secession complained that the North was not enforcing laws mandating their return. This was stated as the justification for South Carolina's secession:
"We affirm that these ends which this government was instituted have been defeated and the Government itself has been made destructive of them by the action of the non-slaveholding States. These states have assumed the right of deciding upon the propriety of our domestic institutions; and have denied the rights of property established in the fifteen states and recognized by the Constitution; they have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery; they have permitted open establishment among them societies whose avowed object is to disturb the peace...the property of citizens of the other States. They have encouraged and assisted thousands of our slaves to leave their homes; and those who remain, have been incited by emissaries, books and pictures to servile insurrection."
Other declarations of succession, such as from Texas and Georgia, which are in the Patriot Post's list of historic documents (which exclude both of Lincoln's inaugural addresses!) make similar declarations. It sure sounds to me that the South was motivated by preserving States Rights only in the context of preserving slavery. Alexander Stevens, the Confederate Vice-President, describes the basis of the Confederate Government as follows "Our new government is founded on the opposite idea of the equality of the races...Its cornerstone rests upon the great truth that the Negro is not the equal to the white man. This government is the first in the history of the world based upon this great physical and moral truth." (The Civil War: An Illustrated History by Geoffrey Ward, Ric Burns, Ken Burns, P. 30) The Patriot Post states that some historians claim that the South would have ended slavery and rejoined the Union if allowed to leave the Union. Who are these historians? In fact, many in the South wanted to extend their borders into Mexico and Central America for the purpose of forming a vast empire based on slavery. Article 4, section 3 (3), of the Confederate Constitution had this provision concerning newly acquired territory: "In all such territory the institution of negro slavery, as it now exists in the Confederate States, shall be recognized and protected by Congress and by the Territorial government."
It is true that Lincoln shared some of the prejudices his fellow citizens felt toward blacks. The Patriot Post cites his comments from the Lincoln/Douglass debates stating that he did not seek political equality for the black race, that he opposed intermarriage and that the white race should maintain its "superiority." He made this statement because his opponent in a race for the Senate, Stephan Douglass, charged Lincoln with holding views of black equality. The Illinois electorate, as racist as any Southern state, would have forever rejected Lincoln politically if Lincoln allowed Douglass's to define him. But it is also true that Lincoln said this in his debates with Douglass:
"All the powers of earth rapidly are combining against [the slave.] Mammon is after him, ambition follows, philosophy follows, and the theology of the day is fast joining the cry. They have him in his prison house; they have searched his person, and left no prying instrument with him. One after another they have closed the heavy door upon him; and now they have him...bolted in with a lock of a hundred keys, which can never be unlocked without the concurrence of every key, the keys in the hands of a hundred different men, and they scattered to a hundred different places." (Ward, p.24)
Lincoln publicly condemned slavery on the following dates: 3/3/1837, 10/4/1854, 10/16/1854, 3/1/1859, 9/17/1859, 9/11/1858, 7/10/1858, 12/1857, 8/27/1856, 10/15/1858, 5/18/1858, 10/16/1854, 3/5/1860, 3/6/1860. One of Lincolns greatest statements on slavery: if slavery is not wrong, then nothing is wrong. (Lincoln's Virtues: An Ethical Biography by William Lee Miller, p. 285)
In going to war, Lincoln's stated war aim was to preserve the Union, not to end slavery. It was two years into the war that he issued the Emancipation Proclamation. The Patriot Post claims Lincoln issued the Proclamation to prevent the migration of blacks northward to compete for jobs with whites. Again, it cites no historical evidence of this extraordinary claim. And it never will. Because the Proclamation freed only those slaves in states in rebellion against the Union, it is claimed that Lincoln failed to free a single slave. Again, the logic of Lincoln's critics does not line up with the facts. The Emancipation Proclamation changed the war aims of the North, thereby altering the basis of the North's actions from preserving the Union to freeing the slaves. This placed the Union on the moral high ground in world opinion, preventing hostile powers from intervening on the behalf of the South. Everywhere the North captured Southern territory, slaves obtained their freedom, never to be enslaved again. Lincoln and his allies knew that if the South had its slaves freed, the border states, such as Tennessee and Maryland, would not be able to maintain slavery within its borders. The Patriot Post quotes Lincoln's famous reply to abolitionists who wanted slaves freed immediately:
"My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and it is not either to save or destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that..."
The problem with citing this quote to prove that Lincoln did not care about slavery and therefore the war did not concern itself with it, is the context in which he said it. When Lincoln made this statement, the Emancipation proclamation was already drafted. (Lincoln, by David Donald, p 368, 417-418)) Lincoln had wanted to make it public sooner, but William Seward, his Secretary of State, convinced him to wait until the North had won a major victory on the battlefield. Seward convinced Lincoln that to issue the Proclamation earlier would appear to be a desperate attempt by the North to forestall European intervention.
It is true that Frederick Douglass was impatient with Lincoln and the North on the issue of Emancipation, and he made statements critical of Lincoln which are in the public record. But time caused him to view Lincoln's actions in a more positive light, as well as a consideration the pressures Lincoln operated under as well as a comparison between him and the rest of the whites of the North. He came to say that once blacks considered Lincoln to be tardy, cold, indifferent toward freeing the slaves. Later they had to admit that he was swift, zealous, radical and determined in their cause. (Douglass and Lincoln: How A Revolutionary Black Leader And A Reluctant Liberator Struggled To end Slavery And Save The Union by Paul Kendrick and Stephen Kendrick, p. 245)
Lincoln's Proclamation was not popular with many Northerners. There was political pressure on Lincoln to either rescind it or to declare that slaves would be returned to their masters after the war. The controversy caused many in the South to be certain they would win the war in the end. (For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought In The Civil War by James McPherson, p. 63-76) But Lincoln would not go back on his word, even if his reelection was imperiled. "How could anybody propose to return to slavery the black warriors of Port Hudson and Olustee to their masters to conciliate the South? I should be damned in time and eternity for so doing,...The world shall know that I keep my faith to friends and enemies, come what will." (Douglass and Lincoln, p. 527)
As for the reasons why the North fought, I refer the reader to "For Cause and Comrade: Why Men Fought In The Civil War" by James McPherson, p. 117-130. That a great number of Northerners fought out of Christian conviction is demonstrated by this book. True, many Northern soldiers fought only to preserve the Union without any reference in their mind to slavery. Yet even among these, as McPherson demonstrates, many came to see that the conflict between the two sections would never be resolved without settling the question of slavery. Even though many in the North were as prejudiced against blacks as Southerners, many of these were motivated by a desire to end slavery. Like Lincoln, they realized that the U.S. could not remain half slave and half free. These Northerners witnessed the South limit press freedoms to stifle criticism of slavery. Many Northerners feared that they would have their own rights of free speech infringed upon to placate the South. Note the earlier quote from the South Carolina Declaration of Succession, how it complained that anti-slavery groups were allowed to exist in the North. The South sought to have editors of anti-slavery publications arrested and brought trial in the South. Many Northerners objected to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 subjecting Northerners to imprisonment for aiding escaped slaves. Yes, there were other issues between North and South, but itwas the issue of slavery that prevented any settlement between them and what what motivated Southerners to seceed, as their secession declarations, available on the Patriot post website, demonstrate.
Just in passing, it is interesting to note that while Lincoln's critics condemn him for suspending the right of habeas corpus, the Confederate Constitution, available on the Patriot Post's website, contains this clause: "The priviledge of the writ of habeas corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in cases of rebellion or invasion the public safety may require it." (Article 2, Section 9, clause 3.) Apparently it was wrong for Lincoln to to suspend habeas corpus, but if the South thought it necessary if a state rebeled, it would be fine. By the way, states in the Confederacy had no right to secceed.
All conservatives highly value the 10th Amendment to the Constitution, which states that all powers not exclusively granted to the Federal Government are reserved to the States. Yet this amendment must be seen not as the most valuable of our principles, but as a means to an end to defend what is our greatest principle, expressed in the Declaration of Independence, that all men were created equal and endowed by our Creator with the inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. In fact, the denial of this highest of principles was a cornerstone in the thought of the Old South. This denial was a justification for slavery and seccession. Even the historical documents available on the Patriot Post's website make this clear. Read how Jefferson Davis interpreted these rights in his farewell to Congress:
"It has been a conviction of pressing necessity--it has been a belief that we are to be deprived in the Union of the rights which our fathers bequeathed to us--which has brought Mississippi to her present decision. She has heard proclaimed the theory that all men were created free and equal, and this made the basis of an attack upon her social instritutions (in other words, slavery);and the sacred Declaration of Independence has been invoked to maintain the position of the equality of the races. The Declaration is to be construed by the circumstances and purposes for which it is made. The communities were declaring their independence, the people of those communities were asserting that no man was born --to use the language of Mr. Jefferson--booted and spurred, to ride over the rest of mankind; that men were created equal meaning of the men of the political community; that there was no divine right to rule; that stations were equally in the grasp of each member of the body politic...They had no reference to the slave."
Again, it sounds to me that the preservation of the institution of slavery was the major factor in causing the South to seceed. And also the South rejected the belief that all men were created equal, that these rights did not apply to the slave.
It was this argument that drove Lincoln to reenter politics in the 1850s. Here are some of his comments on the rights mentioned in the Declaration of Independence:
"...what I do say is that no man is good enough to govern another man, without that other's consent. I say this is the leading principle--the sheet anchor of American republicanism." From the Lincoln/Douglass debates. (Miller, p.243)
"Nearly eighty years ago...we began by declaring that all men were created equal, but now,...we have run down to the other declaration, that for SOME men to enslave others is a 'sacred right of self government.' These principles cannot stand together. They are as opposite as God and Mammon, and whoever holds to the one, must despise the other." (Miller, p.247)
The next two quotes are from the Lincoln/Douglass debates:
"But if the negro is a man, is it not to that extent, a total destruction of self-government, to say that he too shall not govern himself? When the white man governs himself that is self-government; but when he governs himself, and also governs another man, that is more than self-government--that is despotism. If the negro is a man, why then my ancient faith teaches me that "all men were created equal"; and that there can be no moral right in one man's making a slave of another." (Miller, p. 261-262)
"I have quoted so much at this time merely to show that according to our ancient faith, the just powers of governments are derived from the consent of the governed. Now the relation of masters and slaves is, pro tanto [just so far], a violation of this principle. The master not only governs the slave without his consent; but he governs him by a set of rules altogether different from those which he prescribes for himself. Allow ALL the governed an equal voice in the government, and that, and that only is self government." (Miller, p. 262)
The issue as to whether or not the United States would allow all men of all races to pursue life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness was the real issue of the Civil War. The South stated unequivocally that these rights were not available to their slaves, and that this principle was the cornerstone of their political thought and of the Confederacy. The victory of the North over the South guarenteed that all men and women, not without struggle, would be able to live their lives as they saw fit. It was Lincoln who we have to thank for framing the issue in this matter and preserving these rights for all of us. It is a pity that because the President Obama is attempting to co-opt Lincoln's legacy for his own purposes should cause conservatives, Christian and secular, from embracing Lincoln's true legacy. Without Lincoln's legacy, we would not even be able to understand that the principles in the Declaration of Independence extended not only to those already born, but to the unborn as well.
There will be one more article in this series.