Lincoln, The Man

Sunday, April 28th, 2013

Both the propaganda wing of the Democratic Party and the intellectual wing of the Republican Party (insert joke here) want you to love Abraham Lincoln, Foseti notes, so that should be enough to convince you that you almost certainly don’t love Abraham Lincoln:

There is, perhaps, no better tour guide on an anti-Lincoln journey than [Edgar Lee Masters' Lincoln, The Man].

Masters’ Lincoln is the first truly modern statesman (that is to say a wonderful politician, but not an actual statesman in the sense that he’s not leader and doesn’t have a governing philosophy). Lincoln lacks vision, conviction and any philosophical foundation. He says what needs to be said to please the crowd he’s in front of and what he says changes to fit the crowd. He has no fixed principles and no view of how government should work. He seeks to achieve and retain power. Perhaps that’s why he’s worshipped by both American political parties today. But, we’re getting ahead of ourselves…

The book is really about why the Civil War was fought. There are basically three competing theories: 1) ending slavery; 2) preserving the Union; and 3) ending federalism. The third is, of course the Southern position, and it’s Masters’.

Every other civilized country ended slavery without resorting to civil war, let alone one that ended with the death of roughly 2.5% of the country’s population.


The reason wars are fought must be judged not by propaganda uttered by the winning side during (and a century after) the fighting but by the peace process that follows.


If you follow Masters, the war wasn’t about slavery and it wasn’t about union. It was about the triumph of the Federal government (as Mencken noted above). This suggestion coincides nearly perfectly with the actual outcomes of the war.

Did Lincoln really believe that unlimited bloodshed was justified to end slavery? Did he even support ending it? It’s unclear.

If Lincoln fought the war to end slavery — to paraphrase his words, to change the pay structure of slaves and nothing more — surely, he is among history’s greatest butchers.


I think Masters explanation for why the war was fought is better than most. As I said, we must judge wars based on their outcomes, not based on propaganda. By that metric, the slaves weren’t free and the resulting “union” was absurd. The South was no more united with the North than occupied France was united with the Third Reich. If you kill enough people, you get a union of some kind. To Masters’ point, there certainly was no union on the legal terms that prevailed prior to the fighting. In both cases, it’s impossible for the resulting outcome to justify the loss of life and the level of destruction.

Yet Masters’ view of what the US really was seems a bit naive. If the country really was teetering on the edge so precariously that a few men who believed they were the instruments of God’s will could bring it all down, then how long could it survive? Nevertheless, the US that emerges from the war sounds familiar: foreign interventions justified on religious grounds, a central government beholden to business interests, increasing centralization of all policy, nearly unlimited executive powers in wartime and so on.

This is just more Lost Cause, commenter Thrasymachus claims:

There needs to be a fourth theory, one that seems pretty obvious to me based on the historical facts- the Civil War was a rebellion by the North and Midwest against the federal government, which was controlled by the South through the Marshall/Taney Supreme Court from Marbury v. Madison through Dred Scott.

People in the North and the Midwest wanted the West settled by whites only. The South wanted it as plantation slavery territory. The North and Midwest were willing to have this question settled by referendum, but the South used the Supreme Court to prevent this. With Dred Scott there was really nothing to keep the West free and white, and with the pending Lemmon v. New York Taney probably would have made slavery legal in all states. The Kansas free state constitution prohibited slavery, but it also prohibited blacks from setling in Kansas, as the Illinois constitution and the Boer Republic did.

This seems the obvious explanation of what happened to me, but the story doesn’t flatter Lincoln and the North and Midwest and doesn’t flatter especially the Supreme Court. The modern mindset gives you two choices- you love blacks and want to do all you can to help them or you hate them and want to abuse and oppress them. The idea that people might be indifferent to blacks and just not want any near them is completely lost to the modern mind.

Foseti counters:

Masters does basically consider this, but it’s very weak. If that was the case, federal power would have decreased after the war, not increased exponentially.

Dred Scott didn’t force slavery on the territories, it just left the option open.

Also, it’s super obvious if you read a bunch from the time that the abolitionists were the only ones that wanted war (for quite some time before the war). Your theory stands that on its head. Dred Scott would have never been heard were it not carefully set up by the abolitionists, for example.

Finally, Masters walks through all the compromises and shows that they were always broken by the north — again contradicting your theory.

The idea that Lincoln assumed massive power to reduce federal power is too clever by half. Benefit of the doubt has to go to him assuming power for power.


  1. L. C. Rees says:

    Lincoln had a distinct “governing philosophy”: he was a Whig. His hero was fellow Kentuckian and Whig Henry Clay. Clay’s core platform was the American System, a continuation of Hamilton’s mercantilism as adapted by the Virginia Dynasty and their long-time Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin.

    Support for Jeffersonian Hamiltonism was Republican Party consensus from 1815-1824, shared by Clay and even Darth Calhoun. It was based on what little worked for the U.S. during its drubbing 1812-1815. After 1824, supporters of the American System coalesced into the Whig Party. Lincoln loyally supported that party and its platform from the beginnings of his career until its break up in 1852. He helped implement the American System during the first years of his administration.

    The event that precipitated Lincoln’s rise was his angry reaction to the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854. That act created an opportunity for control of the General Government to stay with the South even though long-term population growth favored the North. If popular sovereignty flipped enough states in the West, the South would still have a tie in the Senate and, through the 3/5ths compromise, a larger share of the House than their free population warranted.

    It had been pushed through Congress by his old friend from the Illinois judicial circuit Stephen A. Douglas. Lincoln, knowing he could whip Douglas, immediately challenged Douglas to a series of debates. Douglas, knowing Lincoln was (then) a political non-entity, refused. Lincoln later got his chance to confront Judge Douglas but, in the interim, he and others in the midwest formed the Republican Party to thwart one-party rule.

    In 1859, a group of influential Louisianans, including Braxton Bragg, founded a military academy. The first superintendent was a Yankee from Ohio, a friend of Braggs. Though this Yankee thrived in the position and liked and even admired the South, he was opposed to secession. When it came to Louisiana, he resigned his position and headed North. He later wrote what I consider the the best rationale for why the South deserved to lose the War of the Rebellion:

    You cannot qualify war in harsher terms than I will. War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it; and those who brought war into our country deserve all the curses and maledictions a people can pour out. I know I had no hand in making this war, and I know I will make more sacrifices to-day than any of you to secure peace. But you cannot have peace and a division of our country. If the United States submits to a division now, it will not stop, but will go on until we reap the fate of Mexico, which is eternal war. The United States does and must assert its authority, wherever it once had power; for, if it relaxes one bit to pressure, it is gone, and I believe that such is the national feeling.

    Sherman, though the adopted son (and son-in-law) of a Whig senator and cabinet secretary and younger brother of Republican party stalwart Senator John Sherman of Ohio (and the later Antitrust Act), was not fond of Lincoln. However, he and Lincoln both abhorred the potential extension of the European state system into the Americas. That would only happen if the Union fell apart, as Lincoln observed in an 1838 speech:

    Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant to step the ocean and crush us at a blow? Never! All the armies of Europe, Asia, and Africa combined, with all the treasure of the earth (our own excepted) in their military chest, with a Buonaparte for a commander, could not by force take a drink from the Ohio or make a track on the Blue Ridge in a trial of a thousand years. At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer. If it ever reach us it must spring up amongst us; it cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen we must live through all time or die by suicide.

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