Bill Clinton is the American icon, whose face is rapidly eclipsing both the profile of the heroic young Kennedy and the simpering grin of Jimmy Carter—the presidential images that until recently symbolized victory and despair for Democrats and something else for Republicans. It was understandable if, in the early 60’s, Republicans could not appreciate the Kennedy charm. If only Americans knew the truth, they must have felt, about this womanizing son of a rum-runner, they would not make the mistake of voting for him a second time. Perhaps they were right. In those days, there may well have been American citizens who cared enough about the intellectual and moral qualities of their leaders to take up their pitchforks and drive Mordred and Guinevere from Camelot.
There is no excuse for this kind of fantasy today. Ever since 1992, conservative journalists have been telling me that Clinton would end up impeached and indicted. The London Sunday Telegraph‘s Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, who had the goods on Bill long before any American reporter, confidently predicted he would be out by 1994. Unfortunately, the rugged honesty of 18th-century Americans is stored in a museum of moral history along with chaste women, chivalrous gentlemen, and the complete works of Parson Weems. If Clinton had been George Washington, he would have turned the cherry tree into gunstocks to sell to the Indians and spent the profits in a brothel. Confronted by his father, he would have pinned the crime on his mother and run for office on a platform promising price supports for fruit-growers and civil rights for children and Native Americans.
Almost the entire summer was consumed by the President’s “ethical” problems. Senator Thompson’s investigations into Clinton’s ties with the two Chinas were, unfortunately, complicated by the Republicans’ Asian skeletons in their own fundraising closet. Still, the only conservative books to make a stir were exposes of the first family. Enough dirt has been unearthed to turn Arizona into a potato farm, and yet Clinton keeps smiling. His smile only deepened when House Republicans were dumb enough to stage a coup against Speaker Gingrich (haven’t they heard about not dividing your forces in the face of the enemy?) and then lose.
It is not that no one cares. Obviously, many Americans think Clinton is the worse thing to happen to this country since Franklin Roosevelt, but how many people even know who FDR was or what he did? Most of us might even enjoy the spectacle of Bill and Hillary being dragged through the mud, not because we are virtuous republicans but for the same reason that we read the tabloids. Like most slaves, we are content to lick our master’s boots until the day he needs our help. When he falls from power, we loot his house and insult his wife. We strip the sheets off his deathbed even before the corpse is cold.
Presidents are our masters. They know it, and we know it. They rule by right of popular will instead of the will of God, but they rule nonetheless. This was not the intention of the men who fought in the bloody war of secession from the English crown. At the Constitutional Convention, Alexander Hamilton was suspected of harboring monarchist sentiments, but a Hamiltonian monarch would have been a very Whiggish kind of king, more like George II than either his son or his Stuart predecessors. For all his faults, Hamilton was no friend to absolutism. He favored a broadly republican regime directed by representatives of a dedicated aristocracy. A strong executive was a necessity, if only as a symbolic representative of the diverse states and communities that were cobbling together a makeshift union. Octavio Paz says much the same thing about Spain and Mexico: Spain will succeed because the King represents all the peoples of the nation, while Mexico must fail because no democracy can represent the tribes of Mexico.
Paradoxically, Americans might have been better able to preserve their liberties under an inherited monarchy—where people are expected to love the king, while protecting their privileges against his usurpations—than under a democracy, where the fiction of a majority can overturn all precedent and privilege. Asked what kind of government had been designed in Philadelphia, Ben Franklin responded, “a republic, if you can keep it.” Everyone understood what he meant. Despite all the rhetoric of exporting democracy around the world, self-government is a rare and difficult accomplishment even for an independent-minded people. All the Framers understood that tyranny and servility are natural phenomena; courage and independence are the privileges of aristocracy. The dream of republicans, in ancient Greece as in 18th-century America, was to give the majority—not everybody, mind you, but a majority—the possibility of living like aristocrats who could, like John Randolph, love liberty and hate equality, understanding that equality is the tool of cynical despots.
The American republic, which was an expression of the American character, rested on a set of simple assumptions. In foreign affairs, we would mind our own business and ask others to do the same. This policy was not only just but essential for the survival of the republic. Conquests require standing armies, which entail the militarization of the nation and the elevation of the military hero into a demigod. An imperial republic is a contradiction in terms, as the examples of Athens, Rome, and Venice show.
At home, the national government was severely constrained by the Constitution. The states were semi-sovereign, and as the only Federalist President, John Adams, observed. Congress was not a parliament representing the will of the nation: it was a diplomatic body representing sovereign states. Most Americans were farmers, and this federal republic was also an agrarian nation, north and south. Despite the efforts of Hamilton and later the Whigs to sell off the nation to the bankers, the Jeffersonians were keen on paying off the debt, balancing the budget, and minimizing the corruption that is inevitable in government.
The experiment succeeded for several generations, but in the past 140 years, the republic slowly hardened into empire. In the more advanced phase—the presidencies of Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson—the diagnosis of imperial progression is complicated by world wars, depression, and the ideological millstones invented by the devil to tempt mankind in its last stage of decadence—Nazism and communism. The purpose of our imperial regime is revealed most clearly in its infancy, and even today it bears the features of the politicians who presided at its birth in the 1860’s and 1870’s.
Inevitably, we are forced to examine the legacy of Abraham Lincoln. In the United States today, it is as easy to speak honestly of Abraham Lincoln as it would have been for a Russian to attack the memory of Lenin in 1940. Every other American hero has come in for a serious debunking—Washington, Jefferson, Patrick Henry—but it is still considered treason to speak plainly about Abraham Lincoln.
The reason for Lincoln’s canonization is simple: the American regime rests upon Lincoln’s accomplishment, because Lincoln destroyed the Old Republic of the Founding Fathers and laid the foundation for a new order in which the government exercises absolute power in the name of equality and human rights. Lincoln’s personal ambition and political inexperience led to a war that devastated the wealthiest section of the United States and turned the peaceful republic of Jefferson and Jackson into a plutocratic empire whose army is stationed all over the world. Worst of all, it was Lincoln who taught American demagogues to misappropriate the language of Scripture and to turn practical political questions into holy crusades for human rights.
In the course of their great crusade, the President and his chief generals concerted the first total war of modern times, a war waged against the women and children of the South: houses were burned, food and property stolen, women (mostly black) were raped—all on a grand scale and as part of a deliberate policy to starve and torture the Southern people into submission. Lincoln’s innovations were recognized and condemned as revolutionary by the European powers. The President, in his simplicity, could not understand what the fuss was about. In the event. Grant and Sherman were proved right, and with the partial exception of the Franco-Prussian War, every major military conflict since the American “Civil War” has been a total war waged against soldiers and civilians alike.
In 1997 American troops are quartered in a hundred different countries, most prominently in Bosnia, which we have conquered in order to assist the anti-Christian jihad going on there. In the early 19th century, we refused to go to war to help the republics of Latin America or nations like Greece and Serbia fighting to liberate themselves from the Turks—it wasn’t our fight, we said. Today, we are doing everything in our power to give those nations back to the Turks, as part of an imperial grand design whose origins lie in the Lincoln administration, which began our government’s policy of imperialism by conquering and subjugating the once-free states of the South.
Previous empires have been more frank in describing their activities. The Athenians and Romans spoke of peace and civilization, but also of glory and self-interest. We, however, are not by nature an imperial race and cloak our worst actions in the mantle of religious language. We are in Bosnia to protect human rights and to reestablish democracy—as if Turks had the slightest idea of what that would mean. We went to Vietnam to stop the spread of godless communism. We have spent virtually the entire century promoting wars to end all wars, waging perpetual war for perpetual peace.
Lincoln’s admirers have said that he was motivated by a commitment to equality and a respect for African-American slaves. However, the racial attitudes espoused by Lincoln and his colleagues are closer to those of the KKK than to those of the NAACP. As early as 1837 Lincoln argued that “The Congress of the United States has no power under the Constitution to interfere with the institution of slavery in the different states.” His Emancipation Proclamation was a strictly political act designed to appeal to European liberals. In fact, it only applied to slaves outside Lincoln’s jurisdiction, not to slaves held in the slave states within the Union.
In the Lincoln-Douglas debates, Lincoln expressed his racism with brutal frankness: “I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races [applause] . . . I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people . . . there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will for ever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality.”
Early in his career, Lincoln had favored the deportation of blacks to Africa or Latin America—a massive campaign of ethnic cleansing—but realizing the impracticality of such schemes, he was “in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.” Too much should not be made of Lincoln’s lifelong commitment to white racial hegemony. His racial outlook was almost entirely conventional. His only distinction is the success he had in combining negrophobia with resentment of the South as a winning electoral strategy.
Lincoln justified his extralegal acts on the grounds that he was saving the Union, but since he routinely violated the Constitution on which that Union was based, he is like the man who beats his wife in order to save the marriage. Until the Southern states seceded, Lincoln had never contradicted an earlier statement he had made, endorsing the right to secede: “Any people anywhere . . . have the right to rise up and shake off the existing government, and form a new one that suits them better,” adding that “Any portion of such people that can, may revolutionize, and make their own, of so much territory as they inhabit.” To make it clear that this was no casual obiter dictum, he also said: “This is a most valuable, a most sacred right—a right which we hope and believe is to liberate the world.”
The worship of Lincoln was an almost natural phenomenon in the years after a brutal and tragic war. More recently. Father Abraham is honored for the ideological revolution he begat, a revolution that converted a moderate and balanced republic into the kind of Jacobin democracy practiced by Robespierre. Like Robespierre, Lincoln was a nonbeliever who loved to misuse religious language. M.E. Bradford aptly criticized “his habit of wrapping up his policy in the idiom of Holy Scripture, concealing within the Trojan horse of his gasconade and moral superiority, an agenda that would never have been approved if presented in any other form,”
Religious rhetoric was common in American statesmen of the 19th century, many of whom were committed Christians. Lincoln, on the other hand, was a freethinker. His stepmother said of the young Lincoln’s religion: “Abe had no particular religion—didn’t think of these questions at that time, if he ever did,” and as one early biographer put it, “When he went to church at all, he went to mock and came away to mimic.” He frequently spoke against the divinity of Christ, and there is no sign that he changed his mind.
This mixture of messianic language and cynical brutality is commonplace among our own rulers, particularly in domestic politics, where the ideology of civil rights and human rights are invoked to justify wars of conquest and the subversion of every obstacle to totalitarian government. Back in the 60’s there were well-meaning idealists who thought that Southern states ought to grant voting rights and other privileges to African-American citizens. Many were content to fight these battles locally in a civil manner and with respect for the Constitution. Others, however, on the principle that might makes right, invoked the power of the federal government, whose agents were all too happy to step in and impose a second reconstruction.
But how do these human rights work in practice? Before 1965 black Southerners, it is certainly true, enjoyed fewer civil rights than whites; now, we are all equally disenfranchised and disempowered. There is no point in blaming blacks, who were merely the tool of ambitious lawyers and politicians. We are all in the same boat. A few years ago in Alexandria, Virginia, a black mother was sick of seeing drug peddlers in her neighborhood. She succeeded in getting an anti-loitering ordinance passed, only to see it challenged by the NAACP. What kind of civil rights organization, she asked, puts drug dealers back on the streets of a black neighborhood?
The administrations of Lincoln and Grant were a trial run for the imperial government that has been replacing the Old Republic since 1932. It was in Lincoln’s administration that the government learned the dangerous lesson that to finance the schemes that enriched their supporters the government only needed to print more money. The Gilded Age of corruption during the Grant administration was only a successor to Lincoln’s wheeling and dealing. As Bradford comments: “The euphemism of our time calls this ‘income redistribution,’ but it was theft in 1864, and it is theft today.”
Conservative historian Gottfried Dietze compared Lincoln’s regime with the French Committee of Public Safety, which imposed a reign of terror on the people of France. In a famous article Mel Bradford outlined Lincoln’s dictatorial measures: he illegally summoned the militia in 1861 (without Congress), spent millions in unauthorized funds, decreed a blockade, defied the Supreme Court, seized property, arrested over 20,000 of his political enemies and confined them without trial, closed over 300 newspapers, imported an army of foreign mercenaries (as many as 500,000 men), used federal troops to secure his own reelection, and created the state of West Virginia in defiance of the Constitution.
The result was the creation of an American system that turned its back on Jeffersonian democracy and elevated the national government to a divine status. As our own current President has said, there are those who say they love their country but hate their government. Before Lincoln, this attitude would have puzzled no one. This republic was founded by men who loved their country but hated their government. The price of liberty is eternal vigilance, and it is against our rulers that we must be on guard.
Perhaps Lincoln’s worst bequest was to African-Americans. A few years ago I was having lunch with a black historian in New York, and he observed of Lincoln that his Emancipation Proclamation plunged millions of African-Americans into a market economy they did not understand. The best historians of slavery have shown that, on average, black slaves were better off than contemporary white workers in the North and better off than their own free children after emancipation. Anyone who says that at least those children had their freedom, knows very little of the African-American experience.
Today, many wars after Mr. Lincoln’s and with trillions of dollars of debt, the American people are bond slaves to great multinational interests who send our sons into foreign wars in which we have nothing to gain, who openly bribe our political leaders with campaign contributions from foreign governments, and who have created a vast government apparatus that tells us how to bring up our children, where to send them to school, how to provide for our elderly parents, what we can eat and drink, what we can smoke, and what we can say or think. If George Washington and Thomas Jefferson had known what lay ahead, they would have put on red coats and suppressed the secessionists of 1776.