A review of Vindicating Lincoln: Defending the Politics of Our Greatest President, by Thomas L. Krannawitter

Pick any major figure in American conservative thought since 1945, and you will generally find the attitude toward Abraham Lincoln to be surprisingly ambivalent. Take Willmoore Kendall, one of the sainted names of modern conservatism, as an example: according to Kendall, Lincoln used the Declaration of Independence to demolish the Constitution in the name of promoting equality. "What Lincoln did…was to falsify the facts of history," he argued, "and to do so in a way that preciselyconfuses our self-understanding as a people." Or take Gottfried Dietze, a libertarian, who saw Lincoln's appeal to the Declaration as a pretense which allowed him to demote the Constitution to a mere piece of framery, so that Lincoln would be free to pursue dictatorial glory as president. Lincoln, he said, was "a democratic Machiavellian whose latent desire to achieve immortality broke forth at the first opportunity offered by…the Civil War." Or if not lusting after glory exactly, allows Dietze, Lincoln used the pursuit of equality as an excuse for granting himself "unprecedented and virtually dictatorial powers as president," and tore down the restraints of the Constitution so that he could satisfy a kind of political Oedipus complex.

A good deal of this ambivalence stems from the long history of agrarian resistance to modern industrial capitalism, a resistance whose apostles have at various times included Thomas Jefferson, John Taylor of Caroline, John C. Calhoun, William Jennings Bryan, Allan Tate, John Crowe Ransom, and now Wendell Berry. From their pens has arisen the mythopoetic chant of the land, the land, and the land, as though loam and offal possessed moral qualities. Given that Lincoln got off the land as soon as he turned 21, became a lawyer (those menacing enforcers of contracts and mortgages), and made war upon a Confederacy whose principal product was the most valuable agricultural commodity in the 19th century—one can understand why anyone with visions of rural piety floating through his head probably has little reason to admire Lincoln.

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A more violent reason for this dislike grows out of the near-sighted conclusion that because the Confederacy justified its secession from the federal system on the ground of state rights, Lincoln must necessarily have represented an agent of centralized "big government," and therefore a camel's nose that every good conservative needs to whack the moment it pokes through the political tent flaps. And it is true that, under Lincoln's administration, the volume of federal spending and congressional micro-management increased in a way that would not be seen again until World War I. But this is an accusation which rarely takes into account the utterly unprecedented demands of a four-year civil war, or the fact that, once the war ended in 1865, swollen federal bureaucracy quickly shrank back to its pre-1861 dimensions. (The military force used to administer Reconstruction, often offered as an additional count against the over-mighty federal government in Lincoln's era, never amounted to more than 17,000 men.) Southerners might have claimed to be conservative for trying to conserve state rights (although Alexander Stephens, the vice-president of the Confederacy, thought that the Confederate Constitution was an innovation, "the first, in the history of the world," and a step beyond the "sandy foundation" of the old Constitution because it incorporated the "great, philosophical, and moral truth" of black racial inferiority.) But Lincoln was also struggling to be a conservative by preserving the Union from self-destruction; and that, in turn, was key to preserving popular government in the face of what had become a profoundly reactionary political age. What was being tested by "this great civil war" was not merely the constitutional technicalities of federalism, but the entire project of "any nation so conceived and so dedicated." Was democracy doomed to incessant rounds of self-destruction? Were people really born to be ridden by those born booted and spurred? All the evidence from 1804 onwards said yes; only the American democracy said no, and now this democracy was teetering on the brink, too.

But underlying both of these criticisms of Lincoln is a more inexplicable factor—namely, the failure of conservatives, even after half a century, to reconcile themselves to the civil rights movement. Lincoln may have been dead for four-score-and-seven years when Brown v. Board of Education (1954) inaugurated the "second Reconstruction," but many conservatives who were dubious about the second Reconstruction's use of federal power—especially federal judicial power—as the principal lever for bringing down Jim Crow could hardly help suspecting that the template for federal intervention in the 1950s had been copied from Lincoln's in the "first Reconstruction." I think this view of the relationship between the "first" and "second" Reconstructions pays insufficient attention to the distinctive ways in which the latter was shaped by Progressivism, while the former was a campaign to introduce free-market and free-labor capitalism into a society built around racial caste. And it is true that there were many things wrong with the civil rights movement—its dismissal of the rule of law as a white man's invention, the domino effect of racial egalitarianism toward egalitarian absurdity, the invention of victimhood and identity politics. But it was right about one very big thing, and that was the vicious and deliberate way in which white Southerners trampled the sacredness of American citizenship into the mud, while whites everywhere else turned a conveniently blind eye. Civis romanus est brought down Gaius Verres; civis americanus est ought to have protected Emmett Till, James Meredith, and Medgar Evers, but it didn't. Any conservative who wonders why blacks' perceived self-interest veers so often in the direction of power rather than law has only to consult the many ways in which, for a century after the Civil War, the "rule of law" was used as an excuse for the routine subornation of natural rights and civil justice.

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For Thomas L. Krannawitter, an assistant professor of government at Hillsdale College, to "vindicate" Lincoln, as he does inVindicating Lincoln: Defending the Politics of Our Greatest President, will certainly raise behind some fevered brows the question whether Krannawitter deserves to be called a conservative at all. If the vigor with which he mounts this defense is any indication, those doubts will accumulate into a thundercloud. "Lincoln understood," Krannawitter says in his introduction, "as few of his contemporaries did and few scholars do today, that government by consent of the governed rests upon the idea of human equality." This will not be greeted happily by anyone who laughs off equality as a charming illusion, or who locks arms around race, language, ethnicity, and religion as factors so essential as to make citizenship a mere technical formality, or who imagines that certain primitives cannot be expected to understand anything about politics except the boot in the butt.

The nine chapters that make up this book can almost stand as separate essays, or even as nine responses corresponding to the most familiar indictments hurled at Lincoln these days. They include such over-burned chestnuts as:

Was Lincoln a racist? This is usually thought of as the accusation of the mad-dog Left. But as Krannawitter shows, it is just as much the accusation of conservative neo-Confederates who seem to hope that the guilt of the Confederacy in enslaving innocent fellow-countrymen—and in many cases, given widespread plantation miscegenation, their own flesh and blood—or in contemplating treason and war against their country can be overshadowed by fastening the yoke of hypocrisy around Lincoln. And is there not something odd in finding an eminent left-wing hater of the American past (Howard Zinn) mouthing the same argument about Lincoln's "hypocrisy" on race as an eminent libertarian hater of Lincoln (Thomas DiLorenzo)?

Was Lincoln, so to speak, pro-choice? Not, replies Krannawitter, if we take at all seriously Lincoln's objections to Stephen A. Douglas's doctrine of popular sovereignty. By reducing slavery to a matter of choice—to a referendum in which white voters decided purely by procedural majoritarianism whether an outrage on natural law could be committed—Douglas performed exactly the same intellectual operation as those who today howl for "choice." In Douglas's understanding, democracy was a kind of end in itself, with the vox populi as its only compass. Lincoln, by contrast, argued that democracy was a means—a wonderful and admirable means, but still a means—toward protecting and implementing the natural rights enumerated in the Declaration and shared by every human being, black or white, in the womb or out of it.

Who was right about the founding, Taney or Lincoln? Lincoln argued that equality was the central proposition of the Declaration, and that the Constitution existed as the most prudent means imaginable for implementing that proposition. This has provided bales of fodder for leftist critics, who find the Constitution hopelessly riddled with pro-slavery assumptions; but it has also served the interests of conservatives who suspect that invocations of Jeffersonian égalité will spark a reign of terror, or at least an unprecedented amount of state intervention in order to enforce equality. The curiosity here is that the most egregious examples of state intervention in American history have been undertaken on behalf of inegalitarianism—from the Three-Fifths Clause to the "separate-but-equal" farce of Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), to, in more recent times, racial quota systems. And it's worth remembering that the most radical example of raw judicial power in American history, Roger Brooke Taney's Dred Scott v. Sanford (1857), was on behalf of the most radical form of inequality.

Do states possess a constitutional right of secession? If one were inclined to worry that the singular threat to liberty comes from over-mighty central government, then one may think favorably of secession as an emergency defense against the monster State. Actually, the framers of the Constitution were just as afraid that liberty was in danger from small-minded provincial oligarchies as from centralized tyranny. Hamilton, for instance, feared the "prospect of a number of petty states, with the appearance only of union, jarring, jealous and perverse, without any determined direction, fluctuating and unhappy at home, weak and insignificant by their dissensions in the eyes of other nations." As Krannawitter demonstrates, the constitutional "right" of secession is a myth, based on bad history and worse motives. Conservative history, I think, can do better.

The Lincoln Krannawitter vindicates is a man conservative in a wholly unconservative way, or at least not in the Eeyore-like way too many conservatives embrace. For like Bright and Cobden in England, and Guizot, Bastiat, and Tocqueville in France, Lincoln thought of liberty as equality of opportunity, as the de-privileging of birth and inherited status, as the empowerment of the productive, the commercial, and the diligent. In contrast to the agrarians' vision, liberty offered a future to be striven after, not a Golden Age to be mourned. The dreamers of Golden Ages hoped that time could be made to stand still, that social mobility and economic dynamism could be made to appear ugly and craven, that (in the words of the prince of Victorian Toryism, Benjamin Disraeli) "All is race; there is no other truth." Lincoln was a conservative, Krannawitter argues, but a conservative who believed profoundly in a future of social mobility and self-improvement, to which nothing was more contradictory than a world constructed according to fixed hierarchies of race and slavery. Progressive politics (so-called) compliments itself on looking to the future; in fact, it is promoting a restoration of patrician feudalism, and its hostility to free-market economics differs not at all from what Richard Cobden called "the mock philanthropy of the Tory landowners." No wonder Lincoln kept a portrait of John Bright, Cobden's ally, in his office.

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For a century and more after his death, Abraham Lincoln was extolled as the greatest example of what American democracy offered in a statesman. But just as a vast skepticism about the value of democracy has darkened the American mind over the past generation, so has a skepticism about the value of Abraham Lincoln, and it has become fashionable for democracy's despisers to cast Lincoln as a racist, a wrecker of the Constitution, a military despot, a capitalist tool, and a great fixer rather than a Great Emancipator. Nothing, however, surpasses Vindicating Lincoln in exploding the addled libels of the Lincoln-haters. One by one, in his nine chapters, Krannawitter patiently-and sometimes hilariously-disassembles the myths of Lincoln-the-tyrant, Lincoln-the-racist, and Lincoln-the-betrayer, and once more restores the epic gleam of Lincoln the defender of natural right, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Union. It is a good thing, too, for he is right to warn that "if Americans come to believe that the President reputed to be the greatest was in truth a scoundrel unworthy of respect," then they will ineluctably surrender to "the mistaken idea that there is nothing noble or beautiful about politics." The result will be political cynicism and a withdrawal from the public square of citizenship into "our private pursuits and private interests." Who then "will hold our government accountable to Constitutional and moral standards"? Who, indeed? And then conservatives will have become the chief instrument of the nightmare they complain about. Conservative philosophy, I think, can do better. And it can start with Vindicating Lincoln.