Ilana Mercer’s recent rant against President Lincoln (“Lincoln’s legacy of corruption“) really doesn’t need a response. But we can’t resist the temptation.
It is interesting to learn that Ms. Mercer believes that Thomas J. DiLorenzo’s soon-to-be released book, “The Real Lincoln: A New Look at Abraham Lincoln, His Agenda, and an Unnecessary War,” will prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that Lincoln cared not a whit for slavery. And it is interesting to learn that the same forthcoming volume will demonstrate that Lincoln is the father of all the evils of the modern Leviathan state. It would also be interesting to discover that water is dry, and that heavy bodies do not fall, but let that pass. If DiLorenzo’s book shares Mercer’s comprehensive ignorance of the whole content and meaning of Lincoln’s public and private life, then students of these matters will find better use of their time.
Mercer, the dutiful disciple, parrots from her mentor that “Lincoln relates to liberty: not in the slightest.” In the place of “Lincoln the Emancipator,” she is led to see a man whose “proclaimed primary objective was to destroy federalism and states’ rights.” “If anti-slavery sentiments were his muse,” she says, “the dissembling Lincoln never let on until 1854, which is when he began getting religion on slavery.”
Then, apparently, began a sequence of “dissembling” unique in human political history. For if Ms. Mercer would care to read, as some of us have done, the entire collected writings and speeches of Lincoln over the period of, say, 1854 until his election to the presidency, she would be hard pressed to find three connected paragraphs, or several thousand words in total, on policy issues of the day that were not directly related to the issue of slavery.
To repeat, Lincoln’s entire recorded corpus of thought, from his serious re-entry into national politics until his election as president, is devoted substantially – and, many would say, obsessively – to the sole issue of slavery. His public speeches, his private correspondence – everything he wrote, said and did – is focused like a laser on the issue of the evil of human servitude, and how to stop it from permanently corrupting the Union he loved. No doubt, “DiLorenzo’s soon-to-be released book” will explain this fact to the satisfaction of those who are still grinding their teeth over Appomattox. But non-fanatics might be willing at least to acknowledge that Lincoln’s public career had … well, it had something, anyway, to do with slavery.
Not Ms. Mercer. The “dissembling” Lincoln apparently spent these seven years in the grip of a “consummate and unrelenting devotion to the cause of ‘protectionist tariffs, taxpayer subsidies … for corporations,’ and the nationalization of the money supply, so that governments could ‘simply print paper money in order to finance their special-interest subsidies.’” Wow, without ever even talking about it! Maybe there was a secret handshake.
Lincoln’s words are not, to be sure, unrelievedly devoted to describing the evil of slavery. He was a wise and prudent man. So he spoke thoughtfully and wisely to the evil principles supporting the practice of human chattel slavery. This point he made judiciously – even rarely – always carefully. Unlike some, Lincoln hardly ever indulged in the pleasure of self-righteous moral proclamation. He had more important things to do. His every thought and word are devoted not to stating the obvious – that slavery is evil – but to the infinitely more difficult moral question of how to help lead a fundamentally decent people out of the bog of that evil in a way that would vindicate the possibility of moral self-government, and keep faith with the founding promises of the American Union that he loved more than life.
The various smoking guns Mercer collects from DiLorenzo’s book are all smoke, no gun.
“To realize his dream of empire,” Mercer tells us, “Lincoln would have to crush any notion of the Union as a voluntary pact between sovereign states. In fact, the entire American political history, including the fact that America was born of secession, would have to be expunged, and secession tarnished as treason.”
Well, let’s see. Robert E. Lee said that, “Secession is nothing but revolution.” And indeed, America was born of revolution – a revolution that took care to justify itself not with legal niceties but with an appeal to the Creator and the common wisdom of mankind that its cause was just. To what moral principles did the South appeal in its revolt against the Union – the principle of human equality? Lincoln did not erase national memory of the founding revolt, made in the name of equality as a gift of the Maker. Rather, he nobly distinguished the Revolution from an unlawful and unjustifiable rebellion – wrongly called “legal secession” – by which the South sought to protect its ability to exert the right of the powerful over the weak.
Mercer quotes “Lincoln’s own famous 1862 words: ‘If I could save the Union without freeing any slaves I would do it.’” She omits, as the superficial always do, his concluding remark to that famous abolitionist: “I have here stated my purpose according to my view of official duty, and I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men, everywhere could be free.” Lincoln spoke and acted consistently from the conviction that the constitutional powers of the federal government did not include the power to interfere with slavery in the states where it existed. But he never wavered from the view that there was no constitutional, moral or prudential reason to acquiesce in the expansion of slavery, or in a national acknowledgment of its intrinsic morality. To do such things, he believed, both as man and as president, would be to doom the Union, and with it the possibility of moral self-government.
Indeed, there would be little so-called “evidence” of Lincoln’s unconcern for slavery were it not for Lincoln’s respect for the Constitution – a respect that cost him more than we will ever know. The distinction Lincoln drew in his comment to Greeley, between his official and his personal position should be obvious. But Lincoln was elected as the moderate among Republican candidates precisely because his record of commitment to respecting the constitutional compromise on slavery was so clear and constant. It is simply ignorant to accuse this great-souled lover of human liberty with self-serving disrespect for the Constitution, when his entire public career was a balance between selfless devotion to the cause of human liberty, and the disciplined restraint that was required by his commitment to the lawful regime of self-government.
The greatness of Lincoln’s statesmanship can be glimpsed only by those, unlike Mercer and, apparently, DiLorenzo, who are willing and able to feel the gravity of the dilemmas he faced, and to see the vision of decent self-government under God that he served. Men of good will can certainly agree that our contemporary political order is corrupt, and far from the founding vision. We can even agree that the roots of that corruption are partly to be found in the expansion of federal power that was occasioned by the Civil War. But blaming Lincoln for any of this is like blaming Churchill for the Cold War, and its costs and travails. If we are to begin to restore what is noblest within the human capacity for self-government, we had better begin by recovering our ability to recognize the heroic charity and prudence of our greatest president.
And that man, all small-minded naysayers to the contrary, was Abraham Lincoln.
Dr. Richard Ferrier is president of The Declaration Foundation. David Quackenbush is a senior academic fellow with the Declaration Foundation.