Lincoln Equivalent to Alexander Stephens? Of Course!

On CNN yesterday, there was a “debate” between Gordon Rhea and a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV). Unfortunately I cannot find the video. But, there was one point in their discussion when excerpts from Alexander Stephens “Cornerstone Speech” was read aloud:

“Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”

The SCV representative (I think his name was Dan Coleman) did not respond by saying that he disagreed with Stephens. NO, instead, he claimed Abraham Lincoln believed exactly the same thing, citing, as Lincoln’s enemies always do, his quotes on race from the Lincoln-Douglas Debates. This is a common tactic of Lincoln’s enemies, as I wrote about in Loathing Lincoln (page 292):

“These critics defended secession as an antislavery strategy in order to ennoble their own antigovernment cause, and discrediting Lincoln was a key element in that endeavor. As part of this effort, they claimed the president had no real commitment to racial equality. . . .  [John Remington] Graham argued that Lincoln, in his 1854 Peoria address, had “articulated the same basic thought” as Alexander Stephens, who believed that blacks were inferior to whites. Less emphasized, however, was the letter Lincoln wrote to Stephens in December 1860, in which the president-elect said, “You think slavery is right and ought to be extended; while we think it is wrong and ought to be restricted.” To be sure, Lincoln denied in his Peoria speech that the black man was equal to the white man, but Graham for one left unmentioned that in the same speech Lincoln had argued that the issue was irrelevant: “If the negro is a man, is it not . . . a total destruction of self-government to say that he shall not govern himself? When the white man governs himself that is self-government; but when he governs another man, that is more than self-government—that is despotism. . . . there can be no moral right in connection with one man’s making a slave of another.” To say the least, this was not a viewpoint with which few, if any white, southern slaveholders would have concurred. It was a tactic of distortion by omission all too characteristic of those who sought to tarnish Lincoln’s reputation by whatever means available. But the point was not historical accuracy. Rather, it was to demonstrate for their audiences that neither secession nor the war was about slavery and that Lincoln had no commitment to racial justice; therefore the president must have had another agenda in mind.”

I wrote about the distortion of Lincoln’s utterances very early in this blog, and I reproduce it here:

1. Here is Abraham Lincoln to Michael Hahn (all italicized words are my emphasis):

Private Executive Mansion, Hon. Michael Hahn Washington, My dear Sir: March 13. 1864.

I congratulate you on having fixed your name in history as the first-free-state Governor of Louisiana. Now you are about to have a Convention which, among other things, will probably define the elective franchise. I barely suggest for your private consideration, whether some of the colored people may not be let in—as, for instance, the very intelligent, and especially those who have fought gallantly in our ranks. They would probably help, in some trying time to come, to keep the jewel of liberty within the family of freedom. But this is only a suggestion, not to the public, but to you alone. Yours truly A. LINCOLN

2. Here is Abraham Lincoln writing about Owen Lovejoy, perhaps one of the most radical members of Congress.

Hon. John H Bryant Executive Mansion, My dear Sir. Washington, May 30, 1864.

Yours of the 14th. Inst. inclosing a card of invitation to a preliminary meeting contemplating the erection of a Monument to the memory of Hon. Owen Lovejoy, was duly received.

As you anticipate, it will be out of my power to attend. Many of you have known Mr. Lovejoy longer than I have, and are better able than I to do his memory complete justice. My personal acquaintance with him commenced only about ten years ago, since when it has been quite intimate; and every step in it has been one of increasing respect and esteem, ending, with his life, in no less than affection on my part. It can be truly said of him that while he was personally ambitious, he bravely endured the obscurity which the unpopularity of his principles imposed, and never accepted official honors, until those honors were ready to admit his principles with him. Throughout my heavy, and perplexing responsibilities here, to the day of his death, it would scarcely wrong any other to say, he was my most generous friend. Let him have the marble monument, along with the well-assured and more enduring one in the hearts of those who love liberty, unselfishly, for all men. Yours truly A. LINCOLN

3. Here is Abraham Lincoln delivering a speech to the “One Hundred Sixty-Fourth Ohio Regiment”:

“SOLDIERS – You are about to return to your homes and your friends, after having, as I learn, performed in camp a comparitively short term of duty in this great contest. I am greatly obliged to you, and to all who have come forward at the call of their country. I wish it might be more generally and universally understood what the country is now engaged in. We have, as all will agree, a free Government, where every man has a right to be equal with every other man. In this great struggle, this form of Government and every form of human right is endangered if our enemies succeed.”

You can find all of these in the Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln. Sadly, these types of remarks are far less quoted by the president’s critics than those which they believe reflect poorly on him. I wonder why that is?



Jefferson Davis Statue at UT

In the past few days there has been a bit of a stir about the Jefferson Davis statue at UT being defaced and that students want it removed from campus. I much prefer the suggestion of others that instead of removing the statue, perhaps a plaque could be placed on it explaining why it was placed there to begin with. Of course, with these actions the perpetrators may have unwittingly created sympathy for Davis. As I’ve written about before (see here, and here), considering what Davis stood for, that cannot be the result desired by those objecting to the statue’s presence on campus.

UPDATE (1:55 p.m. 5/12/2015):

I think it would be appropriate to place a statue next to Davis, of someone like Frederick Douglass, or Harriet Tubman, or Sojourner Truth. That might be, as Lincoln once said, “altogether fitting and proper.”

Lincoln on the Tavis Smiley Show


See here for a nice discussion on the legacies of the Civil War on The Tavis Smiley Show (from April 9). My friend Eric Walther was part of the panel and Lincoln comes up several times in the course of their conversation. It was an interesting talk among some esteemed historians, one I enjoyed very much.

Still, I have a few criticisms regarding the show. One, Smiley begins with a quote from Howard Zinn, the essence of which was that Lincoln was the candidate of northern business interests. None of the panelists (and I’m conceding they may all have been a bit nervous; I would have been!) called out Zinn’s fundamental error here in that “business interests” were making  a nice, tidy profit from the status quo and there was no reason to favor any disruption to that cozy arrangement, one which Lincoln and the Republicans threatened. As the libertarian Timothy Sandefur puts it, in a refutation of Zinn’s argument:

[people claim that] antislavery was only “the stalking horse for more practical causes.” This is always a convenient thesis, often a plausible one, frequently a trick devised to put us out of the right way. Seeking the “real” materialistic, cui bono cause of any historical phenomenon enables us to ignore the professed purposes of the actors themselves, and thus perpetuates a sort of conspiracy theory or pareidolia method of history. It’s a favorite of such as Howard Zinn, who seek to ignore or hide the ideological factor in historical events in the service of a broader propaganda campaign. That’s not to say that materialistic self-interest is never the right answer on the history test; it’s certainly a common human motivation. But we should always beware anyone who tells us that an historical figure who said he believed X, acted to promote X, fought the enemies of X, sacrificed other interests to X—didn’t really believe X, but only said it to disguise his real interest in Z. It’s always equally likely that the person who says this is seeking not the truth but the denigration of X in his own time.”

Thanks to the panelists for emphasizing throughout the show that slavery was the cause of the conflict and there is no getting around that basic fact.

There was also some discussion about Lincoln not being the Great Emancipator, and that this was a vitally important truth to teach our students. Of course, this is closely allied to the idea that the slaves emancipated themselves. I’ve never understood why we have to choose between Lincoln freeing the slaves and the slaves freeing themselves. Why can’t it be both/and rather than either/or? As James McPherson puts it in his most recent book (see also a quote from David Blight on page 107 of McPherson’s work):

Proponents of the traditional interpretation that Lincoln had something to do with freeing the slaves, and that the Emancipation Proclamation was an important step in that process, are quite ready to acknowledge that the actions of slaves who came into Union lines forced the Lincoln administration to decide what to do about them. . . . But most of them [the slaves running to Union lines] had done so by the Union army coming to them rather than by escaping to the Union army. The remaining 3.3. million slaves achieved freedom by the Thirteenth Amendment whose adoption was possible only through Union military victory. And no one deserved more credit for that victory than Abraham Lincoln, commander in chief of an army of liberation.”

Indeed. I think that we have a hard time conceding the truth of McPherson’s point simply because we have little understanding anymore of statesmanship and its importance. Instead, we lazily rely on clichés about inept, corrupt politicians, shun the political process almost entirely, and therefore impoverish our public life, if not the prospects of freedom more generally. Maybe we should teach that as well to our students?

At any rate, kudos to Tavis Smiley for hosting this panel on how the Civil War affects us still.





Lincoln Assassination

Just a quick post to note the 150-year anniversary of the Lincoln assassination. I’ve posted something on this before here. Make sure to also read historian Jennifer Weber’s reply to my post.

I think the most discouraging thing of all is despite all the progress this country has made over last century-and-a-half, so many of the issues surrounding the Civil War remain unresolved, or euphemized, or people remain in total denial over what the war was about. For a brief survey, see here, here, and here.

For now, the words of Walt Whitman from the poetry foundation:

O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done,

The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won,

The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,

While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring;

But O heart! heart! heart!

O the bleeding drops of red,

Where on the deck my Captain lies,

Fallen cold and dead.

O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells;

Rise up—for you the flag is flung—for you the bugle trills,

For you bouquets and ribbon’d wreaths—for you the shores a-crowding,

For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning;

Here Captain! dear father!

This arm beneath your head!

It is some dream that on the deck,

You’ve fallen cold and dead.

My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still,

My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will,

The ship is anchor’d safe and sound, its voyage closed and done,

From fearful trip the victor ship comes in with object won;

Exult O shores, and ring O bells!

But I with mournful tread,

Walk the deck my Captain lies,

Fallen cold and dead.




One Year Anniversary

Well, today is the anniversary of an entire year of blogging on Abraham Lincoln and his critics. What have I learned in the past 365 days? First, I am impressed by all the good work being done by various bloggers (for a sampling, go here, here, and here) on the Civil War. Some of the writing is so good and informative (not to mention meticulous and frequently funny) that at times I find it difficult to believe that I have anything important or original to say. Still, I press on. Second, I am acutely aware that many of the issues that Lincoln dealt with have not gone away? The meaning of liberty? Check. The meaning of equality? Check. Matters of race? Check.  Questions about suffrage? Check. Vindicating democracy? Check. The power of the federal government versus state and local governments? Check. Issues of habeas corpus? Check.

As a word of encouragement to my readers, let me close with one of my favorite Lincoln utterances, to a group of United States soldiers, from 1864:

August 22, 1864

I suppose you are going home to see your families and friends. For the service you have done in this great struggle in which we are engaged I present you sincere thanks for myself and the country. I almost always feel inclined, when I happen to say anything to soldiers, to impress upon them in a few brief remarks the importance of success in this contest. It is not merely for to-day, but for all time to come that we should perpetuate for our children’s children this great and free government, which we have enjoyed all our lives. I beg you to remember this, not merely for my sake, but for yours. I happen temporarily to occupy this big White House. I am a living witness that any one of your children may look to come here as my father’s child has. It is in order that each of you may have through this free government which we have enjoyed, an open field and a fair chance for your industry, enterprise and intelligence; that you may all have equal privileges in the race of life, with all its desirable human aspirations. It is for this the struggle should be maintained, that we may not lose our birthright—not only for one, but for two or three years. The nation is worth fighting for, to secure such an inestimable jewel.

National Review and the Confederacy

I was pleased to see this piece in National Review Online yesterday. The sooner we quite romancing the Confederacy, as the author calls it, the better. Still, there is a line in the piece that is, quite simply, inaccurate, if not a bit romantic in and of itself. To wit: “I understand the inclination of Confederate soldiers’ great-great-grandchildren to glorify their great-great-grandfathers. I’m not ashamed of the Confederate side of my Civil War ancestry — after 150 years, you can’t possibly know why a man did what he did. Many Confederate soldiers abhorred slavery; many found rebelling against the United States acutely painful. God knows they weren’t Nazis, though they certainly picked the wrong side.” Actually, as these pieces and this book show, we can know why soldiers fought: to preserve slavery (thanks to Phil Klinkner for alerting me to the articles/statistics). I noted in my book that because many conservatives have critiqued Lincoln since 1858, there has been, at least from Harry Jaffa’s Crisis of the House Divided (1959) onward, a vigorous defense of the sixteenth president coming from conservatives. So, whatever your political persuasion, as Lincoln once put it: “Stand with anybody that stands RIGHT. Stand with him while he is right and PART with him when he goes wrong.”




Selma’s Anniversary, Civil Rights, and Lincoln’s Opponents

As the vast majority of the United States celebrates the 50-year anniversary of the March on Selma (see here for a different stance), I was reminded of something I wrote toward the end of Loathing Lincoln (page 315) regarding the Civil Rights Act of 1964:

one of the reasons that the United States became a more racially inclusive nation after World War II was due to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a federal law opposed by many whites and one that paleolibertarians still condemn. Indeed, Ron Paul said on the floor of Congress in 2004, the forty-year anniversary of the legislation, that “the Civil Rights Act of 1964 did not improve race relations or enhance freedom. Instead, the forced integration dictated by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 increased racial tensions while diminishing individual liberty.” In defending his fellow paleolibertarian from conservative attacks during the 2012 presidential campaign, DiLorenzo called the 1964 legislation “inequality under the law in the form of institutionalized discrimination against white males, which is what ‘civil rights regulation’ became immediately upon passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”

One of the more interesting and I think important books published in recent years is Gavin Wright’s Sharing the Prize: The Economics of the Civil Rights Revolution in the American South (2013), a work that shows in painstaking detail that Congressman Paul was wrong that the Civil Rights Act resulted in “diminishing individual liberty.” Not only that, Wright’s volume also illustrates that some of our current concepts about the ineffectiveness of federal power or the wisdom of business (or the political and economic expertise of some Lincoln critics) needs some serious reexamination.

To set the context for Wright’s book, it is a longstanding idea among some conservatives (at least as I interpret it), that the Civil Rights Act was, if not unconstitutional, unnecessary. Here is Thomas Woods (another of Lincoln’s detractors), quoting Thomas Sowell, a widely respected and influential economist – and fan of Abraham Lincoln – at the Hoover Institution:

The rise in the number of blacks in professional and technical occupations in the two years from 1964 to 1966 (after the Civil Rights Act) was in fact less than in the one year from 1961 to 1962 (before the Civil Rights Act).  If one takes into account the growing black population by looking at percentages instead of absolute numbers, it becomes even clearer that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 represented no acceleration in trends that had been going on for many years.  The percentage of employed blacks who were managers and administrators was the same in 1967 as in 1964 — and 1960. Nor did the institution of ‘goals and timetables’ at the end of 1971 mark any acceleration in the long trend of rising black representation in these occupations.  True, there was an appreciable increase in the percentage of blacks in professional and technical fields from 1971 to 1972, but almost entirely offset by a reduction in the percentage of blacks who were managers and administrators.

Now, in 1991, The Journal of Economic Literature published an important piece by John J. Donohue III and James Heckman entitled “Continuous Versus Episodic Change: The Impact of Civil Rights Policy on the Economic Status of Blacks.” In a detailed piece, Donohue and Heckman argued that federal policy had in fact been quite effective. Their conclusion (please take the time to read the entire piece)?

However such a division might be made, the nature, location, and timing of black progress in the decade following the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the creation of the Office of Federal Contract Compliance support a Federal enforcement story. With the greatest relative black improvement coming in the South, which was the target of a comprehensive Federal effort to dismantle segregation in schooling, voting, accommodations, and employment, the inference is buttressed that Federal civil rights policy was the major contributor to the sustained improvement in black economic status that began in 1965 (emphasis mine). Future work will have to explore more carefully the mechanism by which the Federal antidiscrimination framework translated the command of law into significant black economic advance.

Wright’s Sharing the Prize is, it seems to me, the “future work” that Donohue and Heckman called for. Here is a fair summary of Wright’s argument:

The Civil Rights revolution could hardly have been an inevitable byproduct of economic change, because if the white South had been left to its own devices, the revolution would not have happened. As David Chappell points out, in every major Deep South election in which segregation was an issue between Brown and the Voting Rights Act, the segregationist candidate won. Jason Sokol, who emphasizes the diversity of southern white responses, nonetheless writes, “All but the most liberal of southern whites opposed school integration.” With rare exceptions, southern business leaders held very similar views, acting first to delay and then to minimize racial change. Only the prospect or experience of economic losses – from boycotts, from the effects of turbulence and school closures on the climate for investment, and from the threat of withdrawal of federal contracts and funding – induced some business groups to support moderate accommodation to the cumulating pressures.

 To be clear, the foregoing summary is not meant to downplay the significance of the belated conversion of southern business to desegregation, nor even to belittle the ex post facto efforts to rewrite history and celebrate the Civil Rights revolution as proud chapter in regional history. The point is simply to reject claims that the transition was merely an epiphenomenon driven by deeper economic and demographic forces. . . . In the end, there is a core of truth in the assertion that southern business chose “economic rationality over racial order,” . . .

here we have a case in which groups fought tooth and nail against changes that turned out to be good business moves. A closely related lesson is for economists, who tend to assume that business firms know best how to maximize their own profits (page 18-19, Sharing the Prize).

Indeed. So, I think we can conclude that the Civil Rights Act was a constitutional (on this point, see here), economic, and moral success and one that Americans justly celebrate while at the same time being a bit more skeptical – to say the least – of those today who claim the law was unnecessary or caused a narrowing of freedom’s scope.  I’ll close with some words of Lincoln’s that I think are particularly apt:

the Jefferson party were formed upon their supposed superior devotion to the personal rights of men, holding the rights of property to be secondary only, and greatly inferior, and then assuming that the so-called democracy of to-day, are the Jefferson, and their opponents, the anti-Jefferson parties, it will be equally interesting to note how completely the two have changed hands as to the principle upon which they were originally supposed to be divided.

The democracy of to-day hold the liberty of one man to be absolutely nothing, when in conflict with another man’s right of property. Republicans, on the contrary, are for both the man and the dollar; but in cases of conflict, the man before the dollar.

I remember once being much amused at seeing two partially intoxicated men engage in a fight with their great-coats on, which fight, after a long, and rather harmless contest, ended in each having fought himself out of his own coat, and into that of the other. If the two leading parties of this day are really identical with the two in the days of Jefferson and Adams, they have performed about the same feat as the two drunken men.

But soberly, it is now no child’s play to save the principles of Jefferson from total overthrow in this nation.

Some Juicy Quotes from Lincoln’s Enemies

Please check out this link to a post by Timothy Sandefur. The piece by Sandefur contains a letter from some young libertarians to former Congressman Ron Paul and his support for, as they say, some rather “un-libertarian” stances. The letter also contains some quotes from Lincoln detractors such as Hans Hermann-Hoppe. Take a look, if for no other reason than to see the type of America we might live in if some of these people ever took power.

Lincoln’s Background and Inequality

I am speaking this weekend at the Lincoln Boyhood National Home in Indiana and it was in that context that when I saw this article on social mobility yesterday, I was reminded of Lincoln’s rise from poverty to being a successful lawyer and, later, president. Most Americans, including, I think, Lincoln himself, have found that upward climb to be inspiring, although a few critics, to be sure, condemned the president on that basis. Here is Lincoln’s former friend, Albert Taylor Bledsoe, in 1873:

We think, on the whole, that Mr. Lincoln was “the right man in the rightplace.” No man fitter than he, indeed, to represent the Northern Demos; or, as Wendell Phillips has it, “the party of the North pledged against the party of the South.” For if, as we believe, that was the cause of brute force, blind passion, fanatical hate, lust of power, and the greed of gain, against the cause of constitutional law and human rights, then who was better fitted to represent it than the talented, but the low, ignorant and vulgar, rail-splitter of Illinois? Or if, as we also believe, it was the cause of infidelity and atheism, and against the principles and the spirit of the Christian religion, then who more worthy to muster its motley hosts, and let them slip with the fury of the pit, than the low-bred infidel of Pigeon Creek, in whose eyes the Savior of the world was “an Illegitimate child,” and the Holy Mother as base as his own.

But I wonder, quite frequently as it happens, if we don’t too often celebrate this one aspect of Lincoln’s character precisely because it is no longer attainable in modern-day America. In celebrating Lincoln as a symbol of equal opportunity, or work, or natural rights (at least as many people, especially conservatives, define it), or as the rightful heir of the founders, might we be unwittingly, as Sheldon Wolin put it, “nudging . . . society toward a different direction where inequalities will be taken for granted, rationalized, perhaps celebrated”?