Shattering Lincoln’s Dream

Shattering Lincoln’s Dream by • February 9, 2009 • Printer-friendly

I just got a copy of a thoughtful new book, Vindicating Lincoln: Defending the Politics of Our Greatest President, by Thomas L. Krannawitter.  The book mentions me a couple of times, in polite disagreement.  Krannawitter, now of Hillsdale College, is a disciple of Claremont McKenna College’s Harry V. Jaffa, as I once was.

The Jaffa school has an unfortunate tendency to talk as if Lincoln agreed with men who didn’t always agree with each other: Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton.  Unanimity among such strong-minded men of genius would be almost miraculous.

I know of no evidence that Lincoln ever read or mentioned, let alone studied, The Federalist (though Krannawitter opines that he “echoes” Federalist 49).  In fact Lincoln hardly seems aware of the whole ratification debate, the most crucial controversy in American history.

Though Lincoln was largely right about slavery, he was wrong about secession—a separate question, as most Northerners once understood.  During his war, millions of Northerners who opposed slavery also recognized the right of a sovereign state to secede from the Union.  This led Lincoln to crack down on dissent, closing down hundreds of newspapers (many permanently) and having a few thousand war critics arrested.  His excellent biographer David Herbert Donald calls his presidency the worst period for individual liberties in American history.

Lincoln’s knowledge of history was shaky, too; in his First Inaugural Address and ever after, he insisted that the states were not, and had never been, sovereign.  “The Union,” he said in that speech, “is much older than the Constitution.”

So much for the Articles of Confederation, which says plainly that “Each state retains its sovereignty, freedom, and independence . . . ”  And so much for the Declaration of Independence he so often appealed to, which claims for the 13 former colonies the full status of “free and independent states”—or as Willmoore Kendall put it, “a baker’s dozen of new sovereignties,” as opposed to Lincoln’s “a new nation.”

New Jersey and Pennsylvania were sovereign states, just as France, Russia, Prussia, and Holland were.  Independence, sovereignty, and autonomy were almost implied by the term statehood.  A state was not a subdivision, like a province or county, of a larger entity.

Northern Abolitionists, if they meant what they said, should have welcomed the secession of slave states; and some of them did.  But for Lincoln “the Union” was sacred, its terms beyond compromise or negotiation.  When Southern cannons killed a horse at Fort Sumter, he launched a war that would kill 600,000 young men.  As a result he has received a deification any Roman emperor might envy.

I have sometimes been accused of hating Lincoln; the charge is false.  He had qualities that command my esteem and almost affection.  The only American President I really loathe is Franklin D. Roosevelt—liar, adulterer, warmonger, friend and benefactor of Stalin and the Soviet Union, betrayer of Christian Europe, father of the nuclear age, enemy of the U.S. Constitution, and a few other things.  What’s more, it’s personal.  Several members of my family had to fight in his accursed war; I thank the Lord none of them was killed, though my older cousin Jack was terribly wounded and came home from France permanently mad.  (In his lucid moments I never heard him suggest he’d been fighting for freedom.)

Lincoln, we should also remember, was a passionate segregationist, a fact Krannawitter barely touches on, though it might interest our new President to know that the Great Emancipator’s preferred solution was to abolish slavery and to remove all “free colored persons” from the United States.  In 1862 he proposed an amendment that would authorize Congress to pay for this huge project.  “I cannot make it better known than it already is,” he wrote in his State of the Union Message to Congress, “that I strongly favor colonization.”  Nor was this a sudden enthusiasm; he had been arguing for it since the early 1850’s.  As President, Lincoln did in fact create colonies for black freedmen in Haiti and what is now Panama, giving up on the cause only when these fizzled out.  Very few blacks were attracted to such schemes; the United States was the only homeland most blacks had ever known, and it was naive—indeed, utopian—to think they could easily leave it and adapt to Africa.

In August 1862, Lincoln became the first president to invite blacks to the White House; the purpose of this little celebrated historical event was to urge them to lead their liberated brethren (“the African,” as he often called them; he would have thought “the African-American” a contradiction in terms) to exercise their freedom by settling abroad.  Separation was best for both races, given a physical difference that would make assimilation impossible.  (To white audiences he often expressed his horror at racial “amalgamation.”)

For months we have been hearing that the election of a black man to the White House was the fulfillment of Lincoln’s dream.  It would be truer to say that the election of a mulatto was a cruel mockery of his actual dream of a unified, and white, America.

This article first appeared in the February 2009 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.

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