Defending Lincoln against Misguided Libertarians
I’m usually pretty open to the kind of work that the libertarian Mises Institute puts out (and I strongly recommend the pdfs of classic books by famous Austrian economists that they make available for free). But yesterday, I stumbled across an article featured on their homepage that struck me as truly outrageous and draws attention to the dangerous contradictions within radical libertarianism.
Professor Thomas DiLorenzo, who will apparently be offering an onlineMises Academy course titled “Lincoln: Founding Father of the American Leviathan State” later this spring, argues that Lincoln misunderstood the Declaration of Independence and is largely responsible for our obsession with revolutions on behalf of equality. DiLorenzo favorably cites an essay by Mel Bradford, who blames Lincoln for America’s more interventionist foreign policy after 1861 and takes issue with Lincoln’s “rhetoric for continuing revolution.”
As DiLorenzo explains:
Professor Bradford was referring to the way in which Lincoln used the “all men are created equal” phrase from the Declaration and reinterpreted it to have meant that it was somehow the duty of Americans to stamp out all sin in the world, wherever it may be found, so that ALL MEN EVERYWHERE could supposedly share in equal freedom. Hence the “rhetoric of continuing revolution” is a rhetorical recipe for perpetual war for perpetual “freedom” everywhere in the world.” It was cemented into place as the new cornerstone of American policy thanks to the deification of Lincoln after his death, which in turn led to the virtual deification of the presidency, and of government in general. The modern-day rhetoric of “American exceptionalism” is just the latest expression of Lincoln’s rhetoric of continuing revolution.
No, using the language of the Declaration does not necessitate stamping out all sin in the world. Indeed, using politics on behalf of a perfectionist worldview is deeply contrary to the conservative interpretation of human nature. We, like many moderate libertarians and classical liberals, believe that mankind is fallen and imperfect and that political mechanisms should be put in place to restrict leaders whose natural impulse is to amass more power. We pursue government by and for the people because the history of man shows that ordered liberty tends to be the best model for good governance and morals. The Civil War wasn’t waged to eradicate all sin. Just one specific sin that was utterly contrary to the Declaration and Constitution—namely, slavery.
Now, on one hand, I can see where DiLorenzo is coming from when he criticizes American neoconservatives who have manipulated the language of Lincoln on behalf of “spreading democracy” across the globe or some other Wilsonian vision that gets us into military trouble. On the other hand, that’s hardly Lincoln’s fault.
I would make the case that the rise of American military intervention after the Civil War was the product of American industrialization and, if anything, Progressive rhetoric by later presidents like Woodrow Wilson and Teddy Roosevelt. Blaming Lincoln for these later historical developments is rather preposterous, since, unlike subsequent progressive leaders, Lincoln took America’s founding documents quite seriously.
The Gettysburg Address is not, as DiLorenzo characterizes it, a rallying cry for ongoing revolution. Anyone who has studied an ounce of 19thcentury American history knows how deeply conflicted Lincoln was about the Civil War. Lincoln rightly justified the War not because he secretly harbored a revolutionary zeal but because America needed to return to the ideals of the Founding and “to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.”
Lincoln was not appropriating the Declaration for his own purposes. On the contrary, he was reminding his fellow Americans of the principles on which the United States was founded and arguing that slavery was incompatible with those guiding principles. Both the Declaration and Gettysburg Address were aimed at the same audience: Americans who care about their shared and unique history, respect ordered liberty, and wish to uphold those values. Lincoln wasn’t using these values to argue for foreign military interventionism, since, as perhaps DiLorenzo needs reminding, the Civil War was a “war between the states.” The Gettysburg Address was not some generic speech that could be delivered anywhere in the world to inspire conflict. Rather, it is a deeply and distinctly and American document that reminds us of our historical obligations. And as Edmund Burke teaches us, a regard for the wisdom of history and an effort to preserve the teachings of our ancestors is exactly the opposite of an irreverent relish for revolution.
DiLorenzo goes on to misalign himself with one of my favorite Southern authors, Robert Penn Warren (For my previous post on Warren, see here.) It’s true that Warren had something of an antipathy for self-righteous Northerners, but, in my reading of Warren, he was worried that non-Southerners after the Civil War were estranged from history. He was no apologist for slavery. Rather, Warren feared that without a visceral understanding of the War’s tragedy, which Southerners maintained, Americans would become overly utopian in their political aims. Misreading the capacity of human sin and history’s hold on human communities, Northeasterners like Ralph Waldo Emerson and his post-War descendents could float into a “total abstraction, in the pure blinding light of total isolation.” American idealists attempt to overcome human pain yet end up completely abstracted from real human life and its demands. As a result, Emerson has no practical relevance to the physical, historical reality of life on the ground, where Americans are forced to confront their own lust, dreams, sins and family past. Warren opens a nuanced conversation over whether or not American exceptionalism is valid and what it means for our relationship with history—but that’s an entirely different conversation than the anti-Lincoln debate DiLorenzo tries to inspire.
DiLorenzo cheekily refers to the Civil War as the “War to Prevent Southern Independence” because, like Murray Rothbard, he is suspicious of any and all uses of government force that impede liberty. War, says DiLorenzo, “is invariably waged over some hidden economic agenda for the benefit of the politically-connected class.”
But do you know what else was a racket to benefit a politically-connected class? Slavery. Do you know what else was an impediment to liberty and the spirit of the Declaration? Again, slavery. Ignoring this historical reality in the name of libertarian purity is precisely the kind of abstract idealism that Robert Penn Warren abhorred.