Libertarians, Slavery, and the Defense of Lincoln

Corey Robin, author of The Reactionary Mind and blogger extraordinaire, has a short post on “comparisons between libertarianism and slaveholders.” I always learn something from Corey’s work (I highly recommend his book), and it has prompted me to share here the names of two libertarians (both of whom I know personally) who have been vociferously pro-Lincoln in their writings.

Timothy Sandefur, of the Pacific Legal Foundation and an adjunct scholar of the CATO Institute, has been publishing for years vigorous defenses of Abraham Lincoln. I recommend that you go to his website and search “Abraham Lincoln” to get a sampling of Sandefur’s work. Or, read his “How Libertarians Should Think About the Civil War” here.

More recently, Alexander Marriott of Wiley College has published a piece in The Objective Standard defending Lincoln. Dr. Marriott came down to our campus at Lone Star College – Kingwood recently and spoke about his essay. He talked for about 45 minutes, then answered questions from students and faculty for another 45.

Now, part of what interests me here is that both Sandefur and Marriott are Objectivists, or followers of Ayn Rand. Rand has come in for a good deal of abuse lately, but on the subject of Abraham Lincoln, Sandefur and Marriott have been excellent. Not only that, they have been willing to challenge others within their own camp to reconsider their views toward Lincoln. I asked Sandefur through Twitter if there was some connection between his Objectivism and his defense of Lincoln, and he said it was because “we think in principles.” I asked Marriott the same thing when he was at Lone Star – Kingwood, and his response was that he had to think about it.

I don’t have a good answer for this question yet myself, but it is one worth pondering, and one about which I’d be anxious to hear responses from readers. At the very least, it seems to me that Lincoln’s libertarian critics have a very different conception of “freedom” than the sixteenth president (I think they would totally agree with my assessment). Lincoln himself pointed this out in 1864, when he said the following:

The world has never had a good definition of the word liberty, and the American people, just now, are much in want of one. We all declare for liberty; but in using the same word we do not all mean the same thing. With some the word liberty may mean for each man to do as he pleases with himself, and the product of his labor; while with others the same word may mean for some men to do as they please with other men, and the product of other men’s labor. Here are two, not only different, but incompatable things, called by the same name—liberty. And it follows that each of the things is, by the respective parties, called by two different and incompatable names—liberty and tyranny.

The shepherd drives the wolf from the sheep’s throat, for which the sheep thanks the shepherd as a liberator, while the wolf denounces him for the same act as the destroyer of liberty, especially as the sheep was a black one. Plainly the sheep and the wolf are not agreed upon a definition of the word liberty; and precisely the same difference prevails to-day among us human creatures, even in the North, and all professing to love liberty. Hence we behold the processes by which thousands are daily passing from under the yoke of bondage, hailed by some as the advance of liberty, and bewailed by others as the destruction of all liberty. Recently, as it seems, the people of Maryland have been doing something to define liberty; and thanks to them that, in what they have done, the wolf’s dictionary, has been repudiated.

I guess the question is – and Corey and Timothy (and more recently Alexander) have continually brought this to people’s attention – whether libertarians are on the side of the sheep or the wolf.

The Anti-Lincoln Agenda and the Washington Times

Author James Bovard recently published an op-ed in the Washington Times which seemed, at least in part, a reply to one of the points I raised in my response to his piece in the Wall Street Journal. He graciously sent me the link to the piece, which has prompted this response.

The basic thrust of both of his articles, it seems to me, is contained in these passages from the Times:

Some defenders of the Union tactics insist that there was no intent to harshly  punish civilians. However, after three years of a bloody stalemate, the Lincoln  administration had adapted a total-war mindset to scourge the South into  submission. As Sheridan was finishing his  fiery campaign, Gen. William Sherman wrote to Grant that “Until we can repopulate Georgia,  it is useless to occupy it, but the utter destruction of its roads, houses and  people will cripple their military resources.” Sherman had previously  telegrammed Washington that “[t]here is a class of people — men, women and  children, who must be killed or banished before you can hope for peace and  order.” President Lincoln congratulated both Sheridan and Sherman for campaigns that  sowed devastation far and wide.

After the Civil War, politicians and many historians consecrated the conflict  as a moral crusade and its sometimes-grisly tactics were consigned to oblivion.  The habit of sweeping abusive policies under the rug also permeated post-Civil  War policy toward the Indians (Sheridan  famously declared, “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.”) and the suppression  of Filipino insurgents after the Spanish-American War. Later, historians  sometimes ignored U.S. military tactics in World War II and Vietnam that  resulted in heavy civilian casualties.

The failure to recognize how wars routinely spawn pervasive brutality and  collateral deaths lowers Americans’ resistance to new conflicts that promise to  make the world safe for democracy, or rid the world of evil, or achieve other  lofty sounding goals. For instance, the Obama administration sold its bombing of  Libya as a self-evident triumph of good over a vile despot. Instead, chaos  reigns in Tripoli. As the administration ramps up bombing in Syria and Iraq,  both its rhetoric and its tactics echo prior U.S. misfires.

Since 1864, no prudent American should have expected this nation’s wars to  have happy or uplifting endings. Unfortunately, as long as the spotlight is kept  off atrocities, most citizens will continue to underestimate the odds that wars  will spawn debacles and injustices that return to haunt us.

In addressing some of these points, there are a few of my own that I’d like to make – and a few important ones that Bovard has omitted.

First, in my original response to Bovard here, I did not (or at least I don’t think I did) deny that atrocities took place. My point was and still is that there are historians (e.g. Mark Grimsley and Mark Neely, Jr., to name only two) who argue – with evidence – that the level of destruction did not rise to the level of a total war. To be sure, other historians would disagree, but this is not an entirely settled matter, at least in my view. In addition, even if total war occurred, as I have previously said, this destruction was entirely avoidable. Leaving aside certain facts, namely the Republican Party’s prewar plan to end slavery peacefully (please, please, read Timothy Sandefur too, on this point) and that the Confederacy began the war at Fort Sumter when Lincoln sent in food – not weapons – to hungry soldiers inside the fort, before the Sheridan Campaign took place it was public knowledge across North America that all the Lincoln Administration required of the Confederacy was that they rejoin the Union (I think Lincoln called it “submit to the national authority”) and give up slavery forever:

“To whom it may concern: Washington, July 8 [18], 1864.

Any proposition which embraces the restoration of peace, the integrity of the whole Union, and the abandonment of slavery, and which comes by and with an authority that can control the armies now at war against the United States, will be received and considered by the Executive Government of the United States, and will be met by liberal terms on other substantial and collateral points; and the bearer or bearers thereof shall have safe conduct both ways.


This the Confederacy would not do, and so the destruction in the Shenandoah Valley, ghastly as it surely was for many, was, because of Confederate recalcitrance, perhaps necessary to bring the war to a speedier conclusion. Furthermore, after the Sheridan Campaign, in Annual Message to Congress (December 1864), Lincoln said the following:

The national resources, then, are unexhausted, and, as we believe, inexhaustible. The public purpose to re-establish and maintain the national authority is unchanged, and, as we believe, unchangeable. The manner of continuing the effort remains to choose. On careful consideration of all the evidence accessible it seems to me that no attempt at negotiation with the insurgent leader could result in any good. He would accept nothing short of severance of the Union—precisely what we will not and cannot give. His declarations to this effect are explicit and oft-repeated. He does not attempt to deceive us. He affords us no excuse to deceive ourselves. He cannot voluntarily reaccept the Union; we cannot voluntarily yield it. Between him and us the issue is distinct, simple, and inflexible. It is an issue which can only be tried by war, and decided by victory. If we yield, we are beaten; if the Southern people fail him, he is beaten. Either way, it would be the victory and defeat following war. What is true, however, of him who heads the insurgent cause, is not necessarily true of those who follow. Although he cannot reaccept the Union, they can. Some of them, we know, already desire peace and reunion. The number of such may increase. They can, at any moment, have peace simply by laying down their arms and submitting to the national authority under the Constitution. After so much, the government could not, if it would, maintain war against them. The loyal people would not sustain or allow it. If questions should remain, we would adjust them by the peaceful means of legislation, conference, courts, and votes, operating only in constitutional and lawful channels. Some certain, and other possible, questions are, and would be, beyond the Executive power to adjust; as, for instance, the admission of members into Congress, and whatever might require the appropriation of money. The Executive power itself would be greatly diminished by the cessation of actual war. Pardons and remissions of forfeitures, however, would still be within Executive control. In what spirit and temper this control would be exercised can be fairly judged of by the past.

Two months after his message to Congress Lincoln met with Confederate leaders at Hampton Roads, Virginia, in February 1865 seeking a way to end the conflict. There are of course conflicting accounts of what happened at this meeting, but one thing is clear: all the Confederacy had to do was acknowledge the authority of the national government and end slavery and the war would be over. Again, they refused. I ask, are Lincoln’s actions here the actions of someone conducting “total war,” or are they those of a leader attempting to end the conflict as quickly as possible?

So, to be clear: it is terrible that atrocities took place during the Civil War. On that point Bovard and I agree. But the origins of the conflict lay in another atrocity: American slavery, and had that stain upon America been peacefully removed, as the Republicans advocated, then perhaps the military devastation Bovard rightly laments would never have taken place.

Now, once the war was over (when, in another example of just how far from a total war the Civil War seems to be, Confederate leaders were glorified across the white South), Bovard says that “sweeping abusive policies under the rug also permeated post-Civil  War policy toward the Indians.” Really, the Civil War caused American injustice toward the natives? I always thought that the cruelty toward the Indians, sadly, went back a bit further than that. As for Americans forgetting wartime cruelties causing atrocities overseas, well, if that is so then why have the former states of the Confederacy, like the rest of America, so often been enthusiastic participants in such ventures? One would think they would have been particularly sensitive to “wars [that] routinely spawn pervasive brutality and  collateral deaths.”

I applaud James Bovard’s critique of what he calls “wartime brutality.” He is right that it is an important and necessary job for all Americans to remember the tragedies of war so that we can avoid such suffering in the future, and he has done us a service in reminding us of this fact (I would be pleased to see Bovard publish another op-ed,  with this year being the 150th anniversary of the Fort Pillow Massacre). But we also must be very clear on the causes of such conflict and do all that we reasonably can to remove the sources of hostility that might lead to violence. And on this point, in the 1860s it was the United States government, representing millions of Americans, that wanted the country to remain unified, with the Republicans favoring a national policy to remove the stain of slavery from the country by peaceful methods, while the Confederacy and its leaders desired that the country be split apart so that they could continue to violently hold African Americans in bondage forever. That, as Lincoln said in his Second Inaugural Address, is why the war came, and why the terrible violence that followed, thankfully resulting in the end of inhuman bondage, occurred.

Lincoln and the WPA Narratives and Inequality

In the Summer 2014 issue of Louisiana History Matthew Pinkser has some nice words about my essay on attitudes of ex-slaves alive in the 1930s in Lincoln’s Enduring Legacy:

“John Barr’s contribution on “African American Memory and the Great Emancipator” is the only essay [in the book] that focuses significant research on less conventional primary sources. In his useful study, Barr quantifies adn analyzes references to Lincoln in the 1930s Works Progress Administration (WPA) interviews with ex-slaves. The results are not  unexpected – the Great Emancipator was still popular in Depression-era black memory-but the details about Lincoln’s various roles in African American folklore will nonetheless educate many readers.”

Well, thank you!

I read several thousand interviews for that chapter and you can find part of it in my book, not to mention another essay, published with David Silkenat, in the Lincoln Herald. Pinkser is correct that many African Americans still praised Lincoln, but some did not, for very specific – and instructive – reasons. Here is one quote from the essay in Lincoln’s Enduring Legacy, and  Loathing Lincoln:

But it was Thomas Hall, also from North Carolina, who best explained black discontent with Abraham Lincoln and by implication the United States: “Lincoln got the praise for freeing us, but did he do it? He give us freedom without giving us any chance to live ourselves and we still had to depend on the southern white man for work, food, and clothing, and he held us through our necessity and want in a state of servitude but little better than slavery. Lincoln done but little forthe negro race and from living standpoint nothing. White folks are not going to do nothing for negroes except keep them down. Harriet Beecher Stowe, the writer of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, did that for her own good. She had her own interests at heart and I don’t like her, Lincoln, or none of the crowd. The Yankees helped free us, so they say, but they let us be put back in slavery again.”

For me, this was important in that I argue that such attitudes reflected a deep-seated and justifiable disappointment, even loathing, with how the country had betrayed the war’s (I include Reconstruction here) egalitarian promises. Again, from the book:

By the 1930s there was unquestionable bitterness among African Americans about the shabby, violent treatment they had endured at the hands of whites since the 1860s. Such unfulfilled hopes and expectations go a long way in explaining the reasons for their harsh comments, as few as there are, in the WPA narratives. Their attitudes were consistent with previous criticism by previous African Americans, and it anticipated a decidedly negative view of Lincoln that would reemerge decades later within the black community and the country at large, during the civil rights movement, especially in Lerone Bennett’s seminal 1968 essay claiming that Abraham Lincoln was a white supremacist.

For the most part, however, African Americans continued to celebrate the memory of Abraham Lincoln. Blacks throughout the South, in contrast to the Ladies’ Memorial Associations, Sons of Confederate Veterans, and United Daughters of the Confederacy, all of whom glorified the antebellum South and established monuments to the men of the Confederacy who had tried to perpetuate slavery, continued their Emancipation Day celebrations after the war and revered the memory of Abraham Lincoln. Additionally, in contrast to the unreconstructed Confederates of the Lost Cause who glorified the Confederacy, they did not remember Lincoln uncritically, nor did they have any use for the alleged heroes of Confederacy or their apologists. Indeed, in 1930 African American poet Sterling Brown insightfully described Lost Cause apologists as “pathetic,” full of “the self-pity of the defeated,” motivated by the “evils of modern life [which] furnish the impulse to an easy romantic escape in dreams of a pleasanter past,” all in the service of “the buttressing of ancient prejudices.” African Americans who voiced criticism of Lincoln were doing so because they rightly believed that the federal government should have done more since the end of Reconstruction to ensure a new birth of freedom for their race, while Lincoln’s white critics claimed they were enslaved because the president had allegedly centralized power in Washington, D.C. It was apparent, finally, that in the 1930s Lincoln was still a haunting presence in the heartsof many black Americans.