The bicentenary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln has seen the publication of a host of new books and magazine articles celebrating the legacy of the 16th president.  Lincoln’s popularity is probably at its highest point thus far, and Honest Abe is defended by writers on both ends of the political spectrum.  Liberals have been happy to offer praise of the first Republican administration, for empowering the federal government at the expense of the states.  In his recent biography of Lincoln, George McGovern declares that the war transformed a “union of states” into a “nation.”  He suggests that the widely shared Southern notion of a republic in which a government of limited powers defended the interests of property owners and a social order based on “family, kinship, and tradition” was replaced by the idea of “a strong centralized government that promoted industrial development, competition, and free-labor capitalism.”

It has become increasingly difficult for Lincoln critics to get a hearing in mainstream conservative media.  Conservative magazines such as National Review have made it political heresy to discuss the failures and shortcomings of the first Republican president.  After all, such criticism could invite the charge of racism and thus undermine the latest GOP presidential candidate’s ability to win the minority vote.  Instead we find, for instance, in the February 23 issue of National Review, a cover story by Allen Guelzo praising Lincoln.  Like the students of Leo Strauss who have appeared in those pages over the years, Guelzo denies that Lincoln had anything to do with the expansion of the federal government.  He sees no connection between Lincoln’s interpretation of the Declaration of Independence and the growth of federal power in later decades.  There is an assumption shared by defenders of Lincoln that his interpretation of the Declaration’s preamble, particularly his definition of equality, was the same as that of the Founding Fathers.  Thomas L. Krannawitter defends this view in his new book, Vindicating Lincoln.  In it, the views ofWest Coast Straussians—Harry Jaffa and his acolytes—are recycled to defend Lincoln against recent charges by libertarian critics.

Decades ago, distinguished conservatives such as M.E. Bradford and Willmoore Kendall debunked Lincoln’s 1861 claim that “The Union is much older than the Constitution.”  Until recently, conservatives denied that the role of government was to impose upon states the egalitarianism that Lincoln attached to the preamble of the Declaration or that these words of Jefferson had any constitutional force.  Without referencing the arguments of either Bradford or Kendall, Krannawitter attempts to defend Lincoln’s dogma without conducting a close examination of the Declaration itself.  Like the Straussians before him, Krannawitter never bothers to read past the preamble to where the colonies declare their right

to be free and independent states . . . and that as free and independent states, they have full power to levy war . . . and to do all other acts and things which independent states may of right do.


Undaunted by the historical facts, Krannawitter doggedly defends the meaning Lincoln gave to the Declaration that “all men are created equal,” by simply stating that the “timeless and universal idea of human equality is the central idea from which the precepts of American government and citizenship flow.”  Yet soon after the states wrote their own constitutions, they instituted strict voting qualifications that excluded most of the adult population.  This fact alone calls into question their commitment to Lincoln’s meaning of the Declaration.  Indeed, there were many different meanings of equality in 1776.  Men could be equally bound by moral duties or enjoy equality before the law, which did not apply to women or children at the time, let alone slaves.  Krannawitter does not bother to ask himself how the representatives of slave states who signed the Declaration could have done so if they shared Lincoln’s understanding.  We are led to believe that they must have been hypocrites.

A less ideologically colored reading of early American history would offer a more accurate conclusion.  Jefferson, Madison, and Mason may have disapproved of the peculiar institution in principle, but they were slow to free their slaves.  Most slaveowners among the Founding Fathers, and even some who owned no slaves, refused to fret over the institution because they did not think the words of the Declaration carried the meaning Lincoln would give them.  To impose a meaning on an historical document that was not intended by its authors is to act precisely as liberal judges do when they interpret the Constitution.  In this regard, Lincoln is not at all the conservative his Straussian apologists believe him to be.

During the heyday of American intellectual conservatism in the 1960’s, William F. Buckley, Jr., permitted vigorous debate in the pages of National Review.  In the August 24, 1965, issue, Frank S. Meyer challenged the uncritical hero worship of Abraham Lincoln, eliciting a rejoinder from Harry Jaffa.  Jaffa objected to Meyer’s claim that Lincoln violated the Constitution when he strengthened federal power at the expense of state sovereignty.  By weakening the ability of states to resist federal tyranny, the delicate balance of power established by the Constitution was lost, resulting in the loss of political and economic liberty.  Meyer claimed that “no political body in the constitutional structure could accrete to itself sovereign power.”  Jaffa responded that this view was the very deficiency of the Articles of Confederation that the Constitution was intended to remedy.  In Federalist 45, however, Madison denied that the Constitution was transferring any more powers to the federal government; it simply “substitutes a more effectual mode of administering them.”  The wording of the Articles—that “each state retains its sovereignty, freedom, and independence”—remained in force.  Jaffa further argued in the September 21, 1965, issue that the loss of state sovereignty had more to do with the judicial “doctrine that the Federal Government has many more implied powers than those enumerated in the Constitution.”  He is “convinced” that this doctrine is in The Federalist but fails to offer any evidence.  Madison, however, was very clear in Federalist 45 that the “powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government are few and defined.  Those which are to remain in the State governments are numerous and indefinite.”  Defined powers are not implied powers.

By defending a liberal doctrine of jurisprudence, which would necessarily transfer more power to the federal government, Jaffa could not object to the comparison Meyer made between Lincoln and latter-day architects of big-government liberalism:

Were it not for the wounds that Lincoln inflicted upon the Constitution, it would have been infinitely more difficult for Franklin Roosevelt to carry through his revolution, for the coercive welfare state to come into being and bring about the conditions against which we are fighting today.


Jaffa made no attempt to discredit this charge except to say that the “aggrandizement” of federal power was entirely constitutional.  (Indeed, several years earlier, Jaffa made that argument in an essay entitled “The Case for a Stronger National Government.”)

However, a more recent disciple of Strauss has taken up Meyer’s challenge.  In The American Enterprise, Dinesh D’Souza came to the defense of Lincoln against the charge of accelerating, if not inaugurating, the growth of federal power to the detriment of state sovereignty.  The growth of federal power, he argued, was simply an expected—and presumably justified—result of war.  D’Souza also acknowledged the suspension of habeas corpus and the arrest of Northerners who sympathized with the South.  “But where is the evidence for neo-Confederate insistence that Lincoln can be blamed for the bloated welfare state?”  History, once again, provides an answer.  James M. McPherson, no “neo-Confederate” defender of the South, documented in Battle Cry of Freedom the detrimental impact of the Civil War on our liberties:

The old federal republic in which the national government had rarely touched the average citizen except through the post-office gave way to a more centralized polity that taxed the people directly and created an internal revenue bureau to collect these taxes, drafted men in the army, expanded the jurisdiction of federal courts, created a national currency and a national banking system, and established the first national agency for social welfare—the Freedmen’s Bureau.  Eleven of the first twelve amendments to the Constitution had limited the powers of the national government; six of the next seven, beginning with the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865, vastly expanded those powers at the expense of the states.


The Republican Party was the product of 19th-century nationalism.  It favored Northern commercial interests and sought to expand the reach of federal power both domestically and internationally.  In 1853, William Henry Seward, who would become Lincoln’s secretary of state, spoke of the need to “exercise a paramount influence in the affairs of the nations situated in this hemisphere.”  His national-greatness policy constitutes what, “in the language of many, is called ‘progress’ and the position itself is what, by the same class, is called ‘manifest destiny.’”  Applying the Monroe Doctrine to Cuba and Canada was insufficient.  “You are already,” he told his audience, “the great continental power of America.  But does that content you?  I trust it does not.  You want the commerce of the world, which is the empire of the world.”  In his Lincoln biography, George McGovern reminds his readers of the 1864 Republican Party platform, which called for the “vigorous implementation of the Monroe Doctrine.”  The grand nationalist ambitions of the Republican Party leaders could not be fulfilled without a strong central government.  Gone forever was the memory of Washington’s plea for a humble republic that would avoid foreign entanglements.  Republican plans were greatly, though temporarily, frustrated by the departure of the Southern states from the Union.

Some neoconservatives find inspiration in the political rhetoric of early Republican Party leaders.  Recall, for instance, the complaint ofWilliam Kristol and David Brooks in the Wall Street Journal that “today’s conservatism” does not “appeal to American greatness.”  Yet we know from experience that “national greatness” thinking usually results in the centralization of power and the loss of individual liberty.  And this goes hand in hand with the “big-government conservatism” that is so often defended when Republicans are in power.  When asked by E.J. Dionne whether he and Brooks thought the New Deal was a mistake, Kristol replied, “Are we willing to say that the country is worse off because of FDR or JFK or LBJ?  I’m not willing to say that.”  At least in the minds of some neoconservatives, Lincoln’s principles do not conflict with New Deal liberalism.  “Our nationalism is that of an exceptional nation founded on a universal principle,” wrote Kristol and Brooks, “on what Lincoln called ‘an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times.’”  Kristol and Brooks represent the views of many in the Republican Party establishment.  For instance, Republican presidential speechwriter Michael Gerson wants us to believe that our founding documents—as interpreted by Lincoln—require our military to “fight for the liberty of strangers.”

Ultimately, the blame for this tendency to view Father Abraham as the initiator of the imperial presidency must be placed at Lincoln’s feet.  As Edward S. Corwin argued in his 1941 essay “The Aggrandizement of Presidential Power,” Lincoln established two precedents.  The president could respond to matters that he thought presented actual or potential violence and may endanger the nation’s interests without undue concern for congressional or state objections.  Thus, later presidents could use “Lincoln’s acts as if they supposed the thesis of presidential autonomy—in other words, presidential autocracy—in other fields of presidential power.”  Lincoln exercised presidential power in ways the Supreme Court found illegal, yet the unconstitutionality of his policies has yet to tarnish his reputation among his “conservative” devotees.  To preserve the Union, Lincoln pursued an undeniably laudable end using immoral means that destroyed the Old Republic by removing with violent force obstacles to the centralization of federal power.

In National Review, another student of Strauss, Charles Kesler, tells us that conservatives, eager to take back the Republican Party from its “liberal wing,” were inspired by Jaffa’s writings to employ “Lincoln’s principles” of “human equality, liberty, and natural-rights-based constitutionalism.”  These abstract rights have not preserved conservative principles; they have compromised them.  Liberal Republicans faithfully took Lincoln’s abstract theories to their logical conclusion.  Were the affirmative-action policies of the Nixon administration or the corporate-welfare spending long favored by the GOP really unrelated to the founding principles of the Party of Lincoln?