Lincoln’s Legacy

I am grateful indeed for Allen Guelzo’s very kind words about my book Lincoln at Cooper Union (“Lincoln’s Audition,” Fall 2004). But he and I differ a bit on contemporary politics (I am, as he points out, a former press aide to Mario Cuomo), and so I am not surprised that he takes issue with my contention that Lincoln’s 1860 pre-presidential address was not as “conservative” as many biographers later asserted.

Yes, Lincoln told his New York audience that true conservatism meant “adherence to the old and tried, against the new and untried.” But Lincoln’s “conservative” comment is most accurately read as a wry aside within a complex tapestry embracing history lesson, sermon, and tongue-in-cheek irony, coming amidst endless repetitions of the reminder that the founders who framed the government understood the slavery question as well as, or better than, Americans of Lincoln’s era. As they say: you had to be there. Certainly it is somewhat misleading to isolate this one direct reference to conservatism as an indication of a retrograde posture on slavery—the conclusion that Prof. Guelzo’s comment invites us to draw.

I think Prof. Guelzo and I basically agree that Abraham Lincoln desired to see the stain of slavery removed from the fabric of American life, even if Lincoln was not prepared to join the abolitionist movement whose brave adherents were excluded from the country’s political mainstream. Yet Lincoln was not judged so “conservative” in 1860 that pro-slavery Southerners resisted breaking up the Union before he could even be inaugurated. The fact that Lincoln went on to write the freedom document that transformed America suggests a posture that was, by the standards of his own time, something quite a bit more daring and advanced than the word “conservative,” absent appropriate context and nuance, suggests to modern readers. Lincoln’s Cooper Union audience left the hall that night “whooping it up” over the prospect that enlightened anti-slavery positions would prevail—that nothing else was right—and that, ultimately, “right makes might.” Conservative? I still think not.

Harold Holzer
Rye, NY

Allen C. Guelzo replies:

Only a New York Democrat could complain about a complimentary review for its one gentle refusal to co-operate in Mr. Holzer’s project to de-conservatize Abraham Lincoln. It may give Mr. Holzer no lost sleep to find himself joining arms with Pat Buchanan and Lyndon LaRouche in denying Lincoln’s conservatism, but Holzer’s unwillingness to allow Lincoln’s name to appear on the conservative lineup card is a fairly good marker of how dismayed the American Left is to see the Great Emancipator batting against them—which he does, Holzer’s arm-waving demurrer notwithstanding.

Mr. Holzer’s idea that Lincoln’s self-description as a conservative was “a wry aside” falls down laughing at itself, partly because (as his own book is entirely consumed with illustrating) the Cooper Union speech was Lincoln’s campaign debut in front of an audience of dour Eastern Republicans who were as yet unconvinced that this ex-Whig should be taken seriously; and partly because of the way Lincoln uses the term conservative in so many other places. In 1841, Lincoln chided his fellow Whigs in the Illinois state legislature for failing to act “upon conservative principles.” In his second debate with Douglas, he endorsed the abolition of the interstate slave trade only “upon some conservative principle.” In Columbus in 1859, he defined the “chief and real purpose of the Republican party” as “eminently conservative” because “it proposes nothing save…that which the original framers of the government themselves expected and looked forward to.” And on the very day he was assassinated, he wrote James van Alen to thank him for “the assurance you give me that I shall be supported by conservative men like yourself.” The fact that it is Lincoln who says these things embarrasses Mr. Holzer—and so we are asked to redefine what was meant by conservative.

Yes, I know terms like conservative and liberal, not to say moderate, can be wax noses. And certainly today, Mr. Holzer and I would both condemn slavery as retrograde, reactionary, and a violation of natural law. But that’s how I would also characterize most of the policies of the Left—as an infantile nostalgia for pre-capitalist communitarianism, an unctuous plea for diversity fascism (whether the diversity of race or class or soil), and a terror of mobility and liberty in preference for stasis and subsidy. These were, moreover, exactly the characteristics of the slave South, and exactly what made the Confederacy into what Raimondo Luraghi once called “the first modern experiment in state socialism.” I accept the term conservative for myself because I am in favor of conserving the most revolutionary and transformative power in modern history—classical, liberal, democratic capitalism—whereas the Left invites us to restore a rigid state-sponsored hierarchy which it lauds as “fair” and “progressive.” “Free labor,” Lincoln said, “is the just and generous, and prosperous system, which opens the way for all—gives hope to all, and energy, and progress, and improvement of condition to all.” This is what George Fitzhugh denied, and what the Left has always denied. If Holzer would like to get right with Lincoln, he could best do so by declaring himself a conservative, and leaving the fear of “improvement” to be reshaped for modern consumption by the likes of Mario Cuomo, Bella Abzug, and Hillary Clinton.

* * *

Roosevelt’s Record

I thank Robert Eden for his very generous review of my book (“FDR as Statesman,” Fall 2004). My only significant dissent from his article is his reaction to my treatment of Roosevelt’s economic policy. I devoted most of seven chapters and much of two others to the Depression and Roosevelt’s response to it, not just five chapters as Mr. Eden asserted. I also presented, for the first time in any book about Roosevelt I have seen, a serious comparison between the economic performance of the New Deal and contemporary policies in other advanced nations. If the New Deal workfare participants are considered as employed people, as the military draftees and defense workers in most of the main European countries at the time generally are, as people similarly put to work in government occupations, then Roosevelt’s performance is much better than is usually thought.

Mr. Eden (as well as Gregory L. Schneider and Richard Vedder in immediately following reviews of books about the Depression in America) falls victim to the myth that unemployment continued in double digits in the United States up to the country’s entry into World War II and that British, French, and German economic policies were (implicitly) more successful than Roosevelt’s. It is true that Roosevelt was not much interested in economics, and that continued spending and lower taxation were the surest and fastest cures to the Depression. Roosevelt partially grasped this, but judged it necessary to outflank the extremists with a start on a social safety net and with rather hollow gestures of taxing the wealthy, and then to placate the fiscally conservative majority of Americans with his famous “breathing space” from September 1935 to April 1938.

Of course the NIRA was nonsense, which is why Roosevelt was not very upset when it was struck down by the Supreme Court, but Roosevelt tacked sensibly through very treacherous political waters, all the while shuffling his political alliances as he shifted policy. Unemployment had descended from over 30% in 1933 to under 10% on Election Day 1940. By Pearl Harbor, there was virtually no unemployment in the United States, by any measurement. The final phase of the New Deal was the G.I. Bill of Rights, which (posthumously for Roosevelt) effectively elevated much of the American working class into the middle class.

As economics, the New Deal earns a competitive, passing grade. As sociological and economic disaster avoidance, it was a near-perfect score.

Conrad Black
New York, NY

Richard Vedder replies:

I do not know where Conrad Black is getting his unemployment statistics, but they are certainly different from those of anyone else. It is true that there are issues of definition, for example of how to treat workers on government relief programs. But even allowing for that, the statements of Mr. Black are somewhat curious. The official Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) estimate of 1933 unemployment is 24.9%, not the “over 30%” suggested by Black. Lowell Gallaway and I have done monthly estimates centered around the annual BLS estimates (in Unemployment and Government in Twentieth-Century America), and we estimate that unemployment peaked at 28.3% in March of 1933, a fair amount below “over 30%.” Similarly, the statement that unemployment was below 10% on Election Day 1940 is not true as conventionally measured, although perhaps it would be under the Black definition. The statement that unemployment was “virtually” non-existent at the time of Pearl Harbor “by any measurement” is also untrue. The annual unemployment estimate of the BLS for 1941 is 9.9%, and 4.7% in 1942. It seems likely that the BLS unemployment rate for December 1941 was well over 6% (since unemployment rates clearly fell during 1942, suggesting that they were much higher than 4.7% at the beginning of the year). My guess is the rate on December 7, 1941 was about 7%. There are some monthly government estimates for this period, but they are not based on the Current Population Survey (as they have been since 1947). The probable December 1941 rate, while low by Depression standards, was nonetheless well above the median of the period 1900-1929 (the era immediately preceding the Depression).

Mr. Black seems to understate the slowness of the U.S. recovery. A more comprehensive measure of economic activity would be real total output (GDP or GNP). The U.S. totals show little change from 1929 to 1939, while there are healthy increases in the two largest European economies, Britain and Germany. On a per capita basis, the U.S. numbers show a very small increase (given some population growth). The conventional wisdom that the U.S. economy’s recovery was sluggish both absolutely and relative to major industrial competitors seems to be supported by the official statistics. Certainly the frenetic Hoover-Roosevelt efforts to get us out of the depression were far less successful than the largely laissez-faire policies followed by an incapacitated Woodrow Wilson and by Warren G. Harding in the 1920-22 Depression, which was more severe than the 1929 downturn after even seven quarters, as measured by industrial production.

Robert Eden replies:

I recommended Conrad Black’s study strongly, arguing that his portrait of FDR’s capacities should be adopted as the indispensable starting point for all serious study of FDR’s statesmanship, both in domestic and in foreign affairs. I urged readers to welcome the great controversy that his book reopens, after sketching some of the major topics which must be considered in the course of that controversy. I am pessimistic that the public will take up the controversy, however, based on the eagerness of reviewers either to sidestep all serious dispute with Black’s book over the New Deal years, or to narrow their dispute to one over statistics. By a “great controversy” I did not mean a specialized quarrel among economic historians looking backward, but a national political dispute over decisions that have yet to be settled, in which of course economists should play some part. Whatever our disagreements on particulars, Lord Black and I both mean to widen the historical horizon of current debate on urgent public questions, by showing that FDR is at the origin of our most important political controversies. We agree that FDR is still at their center, because he was the chief architect of the free world in our time, and of the American regime which is the free world’s center of gravity.

* * *

Jefferson vs. Hamilton

Although Lance Banning is right to defend Jefferson against the sanctimonious criticisms of modern-day radical abolitionists in the academy (“Three-Fifths Historian,” Fall 2004), I must take issue with Banning’s claim that Jefferson was arguably the most influential foe of slavery of his generation. As one of those “misguided” scholars who has helped “to identify the Federalists as antislavery heroes,” I believe that a stronger case can be made that Alexander Hamilton was a more consistent and ultimately more influential foe of slavery than was Jefferson. Indeed, Hamilton’s record on the issue stands in stark contrast to Jefferson’s. Hamilton made the extraordinary claim (for his generation) that the “faculties [of Negroes] are probably as good as ours.” He founded the New York Manumission Society, which not only helped to end slavery in New York (which had the largest slave population north of the Mason-Dixon line), but also set up a school to educate free blacks. He defended the Jay Treaty’s implicit denial of Southern claims against Great Britain for seizing and freeing American slaves at the end of the Revolutionary War. He advised Timothy Pickering to open cordial relations with the Negro republic of Haiti. He furnished an alternative economic vision—an industrial rather than agrarian republic—that would make slavery unnecessary. And Hamilton set forth an interpretation of the Constitution that would enable the federal government to preserve the Union and to restrict the spread of slavery (unlike Pickering and Jefferson, Hamilton never succumbed to sectionalism).

To be sure, strengthening the Union, not eliminating slavery, was Hamilton’s highest political priority, but Hamilton knew full well that the former was the sine qua non for the latter. Indeed, if we follow Harry V. Jaffa’s description of two of the critical tasks of statesmanship—selecting the best means for producing the intended result and not saying or doing anything that might hinder future statesmen from more perfectly attaining the aim—it is more plausible to contend that Jefferson’s support for agrarianism, states’ rights, and diffusing slavery across the nation caused him to fail miserably at these tasks. This, I believe, is why Abraham Lincoln singled out Hamilton for being among “the most antislavery men of those times” and not Jefferson.

Michael D. Chan
Los Angeles, CA

Lance Banning replies:

Alexander Hamilton was certainly an admirable and influential figure, whose stands on slavery and race were, indeed, less conflicted than Jefferson’s. But not all consequences are intended, and it remains hard for me to see that any of Hamilton’s deliberate actions were as influential as those that Jefferson took. Certainly, moreover, it was by no means Hamiltonian principles to which Lincoln and other anti-slavery advocates ordinarily looked for inspiration.

* * *

Welfare Rights

I am grateful to R. Shep Melnick for his generous, fair, and mainly accurate review of my book (“The Price of Rights,” Fall 2004), and write to make one clarification. Melnick says that my “goal is straightforward; he wants the Supreme Court to revivify the eligibility- and benefit-expanded constitutional doctrines advocated…in the halcyon days of the late Warren Court.” He adds that I think “we should jettison Roosevelt’s well-founded distrust of judicial activism.”

I think no such thing. Under the influence of Melnick himself (among others), I stand with Roosevelt, not activist judges. Like FDR, I believe that the Second Bill should have a place akin to that of the Declaration of Independence, as a catalogue of the nation’s deepest commitments, protected by citizens rather than by courts. My discussion of the Warren Court is intended not to justify an active judicial role, but to help explain why FDR’s Second Bill of Rights has not become part of our constitutional understanding. I come down against constitutional change for America, and while I try to provide a balanced view of constitutional welfare rights, my bottom line is against them, at least for us.

Cass R. Sunstein
University of Chicago

Disregarding all that I say to the contrary, Prof. Melnick’s review of my book reduces my central ambition to a case for “welfare rights.” He ignores almost all of my arguments, and distorts both the substance and the spirit of the conclusions that flow from them.

Melnick charges me with treating constitutional institutions as “merely instrumental” (with his emphasis on “merely”), ignoring my argument that when these institutions work as intended, they represent moral and intellectual virtues that are ends in themselves. Calling me “quirk[y]” for neglecting Franklin Roosevelt (whom, contrary to Prof. Melnick’s puzzling assertion, I never identify as a Hobbesian), he ignores my reliance on thinkers in the Aristotelean and Lockean traditions, statesmen like Lincoln and the authors of The Federalist, and constitutional scholars like Martin Diamond and Herbert Storing—writers who have more to say than FDR about either welfare or the Constitution, my stated subjects.

My view of the Constitution is markedly different from that of Prof. Melnick and mainstream scholars generally. Left or Right, their constitutionalism is one chiefly of negative liberties; mine is a positive or ends-oriented constitutionalism. At no point do I deny (in fact I affirm) that state programs can cause dependencies that are antithetical to the well-being of their intended beneficiaries. Nor do I deny that programs like vouchers and tax-exempt savings accounts can be crafted to serve the legitimate needs of people in a manner that promotes personal responsibility, an element of personal well-being. Against conventional wisdom, however, and without successful refutation to date, I argue for a constitutional duty to assess such programs by our best understanding of the general welfare. I argue for this constitutional duty because I think it is a demonstrable truth of the American Constitution and because I think awareness of it will improve American political practice.

Sotirios A. Barber
University of Notre Dame

R. Shep Melnick replies:

I am delighted to learn that Cass Sunstein’s “bottom line” is opposition to judicial recognition of welfare rights. This leaves me puzzled about why he devotes most of the second half of his book to showing that this practice is both common and workable.

Sunstein engages in elaborate bobbing and weaving on this issue. For example, he writes, “It would not be at all implausible for the Constitution to be construed to protect some or all of the second bill of rights…. I am not suggesting that the Constitution should be interpreted to include all or most of the second bill. I am only describing a possible path” (p. 152). On page 176: “But even in America, there is an argument for constitutional change, and one of my goals is to suggest that this argument is far more plausible than it might seem at first glance.” On page 215: “The situation in New York…suggests that a degree of judicial enforcement of the second bill is indeed possible—that courts can take some steps toward protecting desperate needs while also respecting reasonable judgments by the legislature.” And this from the final paragraph of the final chapter: “The South African experience shows that some of the strongest objections to constitutionalizing the second bill are misconceived. If courts are asked to protect the rights that Roosevelt identified, they have sensible ways to do so.” As Senator Kerry might have put it, Sunstein did argue for welfare rights—but only after he argued against them.

Prof. Barber accuses me of distorting the “substance and spirit” of his argument. I will concede that trying to get a handle on the “substance and spirit” of this book is like playing Whack-A-Mole at an amusement arcade: just when you think you have drawn a bead on one of the author’s arguments, it suddenly vanishes only to reappear elsewhere in another form.

Still, it is undeniable that Barber’s mode of constitutional interpretation “treats constitutional provisions not as authoritative in themselves, but as means to the end of the Preamble” (p. 101). The only part of the Preamble that merits Barber’s attention is the “general welfare” clause, which he reads to incorporate a “promise of equal political and economic opportunity for all and an adequate level of well-being for every child and every adult who is or was willing to make… ‘reasonable effort in their own behalf.” (p. 119). Since the institutions created by our Constitution seem to be chronically incapable of achieving these lofty goals, the Constitution (or at least everything after the Preamble) must be judged a failure (pp. 118-9, 152, 154) and even “cease to be effective law” (p. 155). I cannot conceive of a better way to convince judges (and legislators and citizens) to ignore the words of the Constitution in favor of vague egalitarian sentiments that can be pulled out of the magical hat of the Preamble.

* * *

Harlan’s “Hypocrisy”

Michael M. Uhlmann’s citation of Justice Harlan’s opinion in Cumming v. Richmond County Board of Education (“Reply to Harry V. Jaffa,” Fall 2004) does not prove that Harlan was insincere in his belief that the Constitution was “color-blind.” Harlan’s opinion did not uphold, as Uhlmann claims, “a Georgia school board’s right to create segregated schools.” In his opinion for a unanimous court, Harlan wrote that “[i]t was said at the argument that the vice in the common school system of Georgia was the requirement that the white and colored children of the State be educated in separate schools. But we need not consider that question in this case. No such issue was made in the pleadings.”

There was no public high school system in Richmond County, Georgia. Instead, the county operated or subsidized a small number of schools, and all high schools in Richmond County—both private and public—charged tuition. The school board decided to close one black high school attended by sixty boys and devote the financial saving to the maintenance of black grammar schools. There was no publicly subsidized high school for white boys and the only remaining publicly subsidized high school was for white girls. Harlan reasoned that “[t]he appropriation of a portion of the taxes for a white girls’ high school is not more discrimination against these colored plaintiffs than it is against many white people in the county. A taxpayer who has boys and no girls of a school age has as much right to complain of the unequal distribution of the taxes to a girls’ high school as have these plaintiffs.”

The remedy that the plaintiffs requested was that public money be withdrawn from the white girls’ school or that the school be closed. Harlan pointed out, however, that “[t]he colored school children of the county would not be advanced in the matter of their education by a decree compelling the defendant board to cease giving support to a high school for white children. The board had before it the question whether it should maintain under its control, a high school for about 60 colored children or withhold the benefits of education in primary schools from 300 colored children of the same race…. Its decision was in the interest of the greater number of colored children, leaving the smaller number to obtain a high school education in existing private institutions at an expense not beyond that incurred in the high school discontinued by the board.”

Harlan could have played the part of a judicial activist and ignored the pleadings and decided on grounds not before the court. Perhaps this would have relieved him of any suspicion of “hypocrisy”—but he would have been able to do so only in dissent. In Plessy the court approved “separate but equal” railway cars. Harlan was able to delay the extension of that doctrine to publicly supported schools by convincing his colleagues that the issue of “separate but equal” was not before the court.

Edward J. Erler
California State University, San Bernardino

* * *

Life After Death

In his thoughtful review of my book (“Mythic Morals,” Fall 2004), Thomas Martin asks some tough and central questions about the nature of justice in ancient Greek religion. Why does Zeus say virtually nothing about it in the Iliad? Why, when the gods punish human crimes, do they punish the generations for the sins of their fathers? Why does their notion of justice seem primarily to consist of revenge, and why, so often, do they see that it is carried out indirectly, through the agency of men?

There is no way to answer these questions, other than to admit that divine justice is vengeful, that it offers little comfort to mortals, and often fails to protect the innocent in the course of punishing the guilty. The Athenian lawgiver Solon, in a poem about justice, compares the “vengeance of Zeus” to a sudden thunderstorm that stirs up the sea and wrecks the crops before it moves away and the sunshine returns. Because he is immortal and ageless, Zeus does not necessarily act immediately to punish individual crimes; rather, he takes his time, avenging some wrongs now, and some later.

Prof. Martin finds it hard to imagine why the ancient Greeks could live with a notion of divine justice that offers mortals so little, however realistic it might seem to be when one reflects on the state of human life in the world. He suggests instead that people (then as now) respected justice because they anticipated that they would be punished for their crimes in the life after death.

In the Odyssey, where you end up after death has more to do with your status in life than with your conduct. Menelaus, a fairly ordinary performer by heroic standards, ends up in the relatively attractive Elysian Fields because he was the son-in-law of Zeus. Certainly some ancient people believed that they would have a better or worse existence because of what they did or did not do in this life. Initiation into the Eleusinian mysteries could get you into a more comfortable part of the Lower World. Plato at the end of his dialogue “About Justice” (now known as the Republic) has an Armenian stranger explain how what you do in life will be rewarded by better or worse forms of reincarnation. It is hard to know how many people (including Plato himself) ever believed this story, or the stories the so-called Orphics told about the afterlife.

Unlike the Egyptians, the Greeks seem to have concentrated on what happened in this life. Their gravestones speak of lost hopes, of promise unfulfilled, of the pain of separation, not of the joy of reunion. For that we have to wait until Christianity comes along, with its promises of rewards and punishments in the next life. One of the main reasons why the new religion began to appeal to the Greeks and Romans is that it offered a hope of redemption in the next world. Such a possibility seems to me to have been largely absent from the traditional religious beliefs of the ancient Greeks and Romans.

Mary Lefkowitz
Wellesley College

Thomas R. Martin replies:

Although I hope that it will have been evident from my review that I admire Mary Lefkowitz’s book, I think, to judge from her reply, that there are two important issues on which we disagree. First, I don’t think it’s right to apply the term “justice,” in either an ancient Greek or a modern American sense of the concept, to divine action that amounts to, as she says, vengeance and frequent harm to innocents. I certainly do agree that it is realistic to see this as the state of human life in this world, but I wouldn’t call it justice. My impression is that ancient Greeks believed that justice was the work of human beings, not gods.

Secondly, I don’t agree with the standard view, that the idea of rewards and punishments in the next life was largely absent from traditional Greek and Roman religious beliefs. Perhaps we are disagreeing merely about how common such a view was in pre-Christian Greek and Roman civilization, but I think that the evidence from the Eleusinian Mysteries, Orphism, Epicureanism, and various passages in Greek literature suggests this view was not as unusual among “average” people as is generally assumed. For me the unresolved question is how and in what period in Greek history the idea of punishment and reward in the afterlife gained traction. It certainly had by Plato’s time, as the ApologyGorgias, andRepublic make clear.

Part of the problem in deciding this issue is how much weight to put on arguments from silence, especially the one about what to make of what people do or do not mention on their gravestones. People buried in my local cemetery would, from a historical perspective, and taken as a group, certainly count as believers in the afterlife—the sign at the entrance to the cemetery reads, “I am the Resurrection and the Life.” Of the hundreds of inscribed stones in this location, only a handful have any inscription other than the name of the dead. Not one refers explicitly to what does or does not happen in the afterlife, or indeed to whether there is an afterlife at all. Perhaps one might argue that these people didn’t need to refer to the afterlife and its rewards and punishments because anyone visiting the cemetery would realize that they took this idea for granted, but the fact remains that the silence of the gravestones about it would not be a reliable guide to the beliefs of the “traditional” religion of these people.

Finally, I want to say that I firmly believe that there were people then, as there are now, who led virtuous and just lives without believing that an afterlife promises rewards or punishments. What I would like to know more about is what the future prospects are for a world in which a growing number of people, primarily in the “West,” seem to be living their lives without a belief that divine judgment will assess their actions and attitudes after their deaths. Since it’s even harder to study the future than the past, one of the most fascinating aspects for me of studying classical antiquity is that it offers the best insight that I know of into the morally terrifying challenge of living virtuously and justly either without—or, I would argue—with a belief in eternal rewards and punishments for the dead.