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February 17, 2009



ODT, thanks for a fine tribute (and for linking me in the same sentence with the current Big O).

I agree that Lincoln and Washington should have their own holidays restored. Why should they have to share one with Chester Arthur, as estimable a gentleman as he may have been, or Rutherford B Hayes?

Besides, everyone will have a chance to use his Franklin "Get Pierced" commemorative mug at the upcoming Taftapalooza.


ODT, an outstanding piece in the WSJ on Lincoln: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB123482843237395311.html

Father M.

I keep having that Bing Crosby song about Lincoln from the movie, Holiday Inn, playing in my head...

Andrew Cusack

I have never really been able to understand Lincoln-love, which is a definite fault. I can certainly understand loving the myth of the Great Emancipator and all that, but (and admittedly this is where Cusack the Historian kicks in) when one brushes aside the myth and looks at the actual history, one sees a disastrous man who, were it not for the even more catastrophic Woodrow Wilson, would undoubtedly claim the title of Worst President Ever.

But then I am old-fashioned.

The Maximum Leader

Andrew, I would be interested to learn more about your views on Lincoln. I would not think to ever put Lincoln and Wilson together. (I agree with your assessment of Wilson.) I agree that the myth of Lincoln is great, but isn't saving the Union a worthy undertaking?


For Cusack the Historian:

George Pal

I am probably going to regret this but:

How is enforcing a union, voluntarily entered, with well over a half million dead, more injured, lives ruined, cities burned, civilians targeted, anything but brutal tyranny. Add to that the suspension of rights, jailings, and threats aimed at Northern dissenters. Is their any union, was there ever any union worth that price?

Mrs. Peperium

After reading this comment thread, all I can do is repeat something I wrote in "Andrew Cusack, Explained":

"This past October Patum Peperium enjoyed its fourth birthday. We did not celebrate the blessed event as, well, who really cares how old PP is other than the oddest collection of eccentrics who have inhabited the earth at the same exact time? Yes, I'm quite convinced all of you are eccentrics..."

Do I know our audience or what?

Andrew Cusack

Your Maximumness, saving the Union would have been a most worthy task, but Lincoln did no such thing. Lincoln replaced one union — the voluntary union agreed at the Constitutional Convention — with another union — an involuntary union based on a centralized government.

So, the real question is: was it worth all those lives to end the constitutional arrangement we had freely agreed to and, furthermore, to enforce our unilateral change on those states unwilling to accept it? In my view, no.

A friend of mine is taking a class here on the South African reconciliation process. Yesterday they met with an Afrikaner woman who became an ANC terrorist (including a training period in Cuba and everything). When one of the students asked why she thought it was OK that they violently killed innocent people, she merely responded that it was "a historical inevitability".

But, of course, it was not a historical inevitability. She killed innocent people because she took an active willful decision to do so.

Lincoln and the centralists are the same. They wanted a new involuntary union without slavery and they chose the path of death and destruction rather than the moderate path of slow change and evolution.

Radical plans to end injustice NOW should always be greeted with suspicion. They often cost more than they are worth, and the Lincoln presidency proves this.

Andrew Cusack

By the way, I'm looking forward to Taftapalooza!

The Maximum Leader

After the Taftapalooza can we have a Coolidgepalooza?

Andrew and George, I understand your position, but disagree. I wish I had more time to compose a more thoughtful response, as you both deserve a such a response.

If I recall my Constitutional law classes correctly, were not the Articles of Confederation adopted at the time of Independence themselves a permenant compact between the states? I seem to recall this being an important plot point in the case of Texas v. White. Texas v. White was a post Civil War case and I'm viewing it as such. I am pulling it out here merely to point out that the Union, once joined, was a permenant one.

I also seem to recall that Andrew Jackson spoke at length of the permenant nature of the Union when northern states threatened to ceceed over questions involving tarriffs.

I think it is important to address the argument Andrew puts forward of allowing time for evolutionary change. It is a position that I agree with in general. But, it is evident that in 1861 that the Southern states were not interested in talk. It is also evident that they were happy to arm and move ahead with a military solution to the question. I don't think you can blame Lincoln for not trying a different path when he believed he didn't have a choice in the matter. If you view the Union as permenant and further believe that states cannot withdraw from the compact then your only response is to declare states in rebellion and act accordingly. That action is made easier by states in rebellion declaring war on the Union and attacking installations held by Union forces.

The Maximum Leader

Did the blog just delete my rather lengthy response?

The Maximum Leader

Nope... There it is...


From the Walter Berns piece in the WSJ, linked above:

"Would Lincoln have taken so hard a line, or refused all compromise, had he anticipated that the war would take the lives of -- the number is appalling -- some 620,000 Americans? Probably not. (Nor, I suspect, would the Southern states have seceded had they anticipated the price they would pay.) Intransigent Lincoln surely was, but before blaming him for this, consider the alternative to war, or going to war. What was at stake?

In 1857, the Supreme Court of the United States handed down the decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford, holding that Congress, under the Constitution, could not prohibit slavery in any of the territories, thereby opening them all to slavery. But Chief Justice Roger Taney did more than that in his Dred Scott opinion. Although only dicta -- not part of the holding in the case -- Taney said this: 'The right of property in a slave is distinctly and expressly affirmed in the Constitution.'

If the right of property in a slave is distinctly and expressly affirmed in the Constitution of the United States, then nothing in the Constitution or laws of any state can destroy the right of property in a slave. Assuming Taney spoke for them, the Southerners wanted slavery nationalized. And beyond that, assuming Sens. Crittenden and Davis also spoke for them, they wanted slavery to be extended throughout the length and breadth of the Americas; the only limits being the slaveholders' appetite and the military power of the United States.

This, I suggest, is why Lincoln said no to the Crittenden compromise, or so-called compromise. And who can blame him?"

Old Dominion Tory

If by "radical social change" Andrew is referring to ending slavery, then, as a historian, he must know that, since the earliest days of the Republic, the issue of slavery was never far from any political discussion (e.g., Jefferson and The Slave Power and the Mexican War) and that abolitionism had been a presence in the United States since the late 18th century when states began to end slavery within their borders. Moreover, why is liberty a "radical" notion?
Maxy is entirely correct in that the notion of the Union, one and indivisible, had currency well before the late 1850s. Politicians from all regions--e.g., Jackson, Clay, and Webster--were strong defenders of the idea that the preservation of the Union was a paramount concern. In fact, at the Constitutional Convention, although James Madison strongly opposed a proposed 20-year moratorium on Congressional action on the slave trade, he urged its acceptance because the alternative as he saw it, the dissolution of the Union, was unthinkable. This line of thinking continued right up until the Civil War began. Indeed, many northern politicians voted for the Fugitive Slave Act as a means to stave off secession.
I well understand the constitutional arguments (e.g., voluntary association) and the reaction to perceived coercion by the federal government such as occurred here in the Valley of Virginia. Let's be frank, however: the secessionists bear immense blame for the war. Many of the "rights" they claimed to be defending boiled down to one thing: the perpetuation and extension of human slavery. Dress them up with all the Constitutional niceties you want and they still come down to that.
Moreover, I find it odd, no, downright foolish, that a group of people so fond of invoking the American Revolution to justify their actions often seemed quite oblivious of its history. Confronted with the loss of Boston and the Declaration of Independence, the British Empire did not surrender its claim to America. It went to war, and, if the French monarchy had not intervened, could have won. (Further on that point: Britain’s response to the American rebellion was proper, and, aye, moral.)
In some respects, I can understand why the “fire eaters” believed the federal government would back down on secession. After all, for decades, they had got what they wanted from many northern politicians. Perhaps, too, the Disunionists’ talk of "good riddance to the slaveholding South" further encouraged them in this belief. Moreover, the cautious reaction of President Buchanan to the secessionists’ provocations undoubtedly fanned the flames.
The fact remains, however, is that they arrogantly courted war and contemptuously pushed away the olive branch extended by Lincoln. For example, after the Star of the West incident, South Carolina’s Senator Louis T. Wigfall sneered, “Your flag has been insulted. Redress it if you dare.” Acting on the firm and entirely supportable belief that the Union was meant to be one and indivisible (as Maxy mentions) and that Lincoln and the North redressed the insult, or, perhaps more properly, called the bluff.
The war was not a “historical inevitability” (and, I hope Andrew is not trying to lump Lincoln in with the ANC). It was brought on through a long series of decisions made by fallible men. War, it is said, is the final argument of kings. The Civil War then was the final argument of two differing views of the meaning of the American republic and the revolution that established it.

George Pal

Lincoln’s failures start with “in Order to form a perfect Union… insure domestic Tranquility… and secure the Blessings of Liberty”. A coerced union can never be a perfect union, domestic Tranquility was sacrificed to the new "perpetual Union", and the Blessings of Liberty – for me but not for thee. Three failures in just the Preamble!

In the post which started this debate, Lincoln, in his speech, states: “I have often inquired of myself, what great principle or idea it was that kept this Confederacy so long together.” Lincoln either recognizes the Union to be a confederation of states or is playing to the audience in the use of the term.

Thomas Jefferson: "If there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this Union, or to change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left to combat it." - 1st Inaugural Address

Jefferson again, at the time of the New England Federalists secession” "If any state in the Union will declare that it prefers separation... to a continuance in the union.... I have no hesitation in saying, 'Let us separate.'"

James Madison: "the people… not as individuals composing one entire nation, but as composing the distinct and independent States to which they respectively belong." - Federalist Paper 39,

Governor Morris of Pennsylvania head of the committee on style of the Constitutional Convention of 1787: (on the meaning of "We the people") The Constitution was a compact not between individuals, but between political societies, the people, not of America, but of the United States, each enjoying sovereign power and of course equal rights.

Alexis de Tocqueville: The Union was formed by the voluntary agreement of the States; and in uniting together they have not forfeited their nationality, nor have they been reduced to the condition of one and the same people. If one of the States choose to withdraw from the compact, it would be difficult to disprove its right of doing so, and the Federal Government would have no means of maintaining its claims directly either by force or right.” - Democracy in America

The South felt itself to be aggrieved and the Constitution violated, for example, by nullification of the Fugitive Slave Law of the Compromise of 1850 and Article IV, Section 3 of the Constitution, which dealt with fugitive slaves. Ten Northern states had statutes nullifying the two laws. Northern abolitionists attempted to disrupt and encourage slave insurrection in the South. The Republican Party published 100,000 copies of “The Impending Crisis” by Hinton Helper, which called for slave revolt, and distributed them in the South.

As the North came to realize the vital importance of the South to its industry and recognized at the same time the probable competition the South posed, onerous taxes and tariffs were used to keep the South in its place. Southern complaints evolved into grievance, resentment, and finally bitterness. As this evolution was taking place Northerners turned to the idea of the "perpetual Union", i.e. perpetual status quo. Whether Lincoln was performing for the crowds with his use of “Confederacy” or whether he believed it, he was now turned. There was that and the inescapable whiff of biblical determinism and secular American exceptionalism which wafted about Lincoln, like some aura, an aura only he was fully aware of and one he was ready to act upon. The South’s decision to secede may have been wrong and imprudent or may have been right and prudent but it was definitely legal. For Lincoln to extort from North and South such a high price in preventing what was clearly legal in the pursuit of a perpetual Union which was clearly illegal and un-Constitutional marks him a brutal tyrant, notwithstanding the secular canonization which has been going on for over a century now.

Andrew Cusack

[The following was written yesterday before the most recent two comments were posted.]

Well here's how it appears to me. If you sign up for a club, and no where in the club's rules and regulations does it say that joining is permanent, irrevocable, and there's no chance of leaving the club, then I would naturally assume that I am free to leave that club.

A voluntary association entered into cannot be considered permanent and irrevocable unless it is explicitly stated that it is so when joined. If a state joins a permanent and irrevocable association without being informed and forewarned that it is permanent and irrevocable, then that state has the right to leave then and there because it joined under a false notion of the nature of the association.

The Constitution, the compact which unites the states, makes no statement whatsoever on permanency or irrevocability. On the contrary, the Bill of Rights explicitly states that any and all powers not granted by the Constitution to the General Government are reserved to the States. Thus the assumption is that ultimate sovereignty remains with the States, with a very limited amount of sovereignty voluntarily relinquished to the General Government via the instrument of union (id est, the Constitution).

State governments have much, much broader power than the federal government, their only significant limitations being that they maintain a republican form of government, that they not build navies, and that they have no powers to make treaties. Our wacky little Supreme Court would beg to differ with the Constitution, and has succesfully attempted to impose numerous other restrictions on the powers of the state governments, but while these impositions have generally been obeyed they have no actual authority in law. (If you persuaded the Supreme Court to issue a judgement stating that the Constitution forbids men born on Tuesdays from being elected President, it'd be all very well, but that wouldn't actually make it law.)

You point out that "it is evident that in 1861 that the Southern states were not interested in talk". Well tough nuggins for Mr. Lincoln! Sometimes things don't go the way we want them to. The moderate solution is to wait, prepare, plan, influence, persuade, hope. The radical solution is to resort to violence to enforce your ways on others.

It is worth remembering that Lincoln was NOT elected with a mandate to end slavery (something which, at any rate, is outwith the legitimate powers of the presidency). He may very well have wanted to end slavery, but (again) you can't just fight wars over your inability to achieve certain things. (Or rather, as Lincoln proved, you CAN, but you shouldn't). Elected politicians in a constitutional order have a responsibility to work within that order without resorting to violence.

No doubt much blame can be laid at the quasi-messianic radicalism which became inherent in much of northern Protestantism. From that perspective, the Civil War was a holy crusade to purge a nation of a blight unsightly in the eyes of the Lord. There are probably those who believe this today, and we will leave them to their silly notions.

What it was really about was: power. The proper historical way to view the Civil War is basically one region asserting its supremacy over the whole of a country. Just as 19th-century "Germany" was in fact Greater Prussia, so was 19th-century America in fact Greater New England. New England effectively took over New York through migration in the 1820s, creating a "Northeast". (The Midwest, meanwhile, has already been commented on as "New New England" given the strong N.E. origins of the population there). This Northeast then vied for power with the South and saw no reason why it should be "held back" by Southern interests. (Nor did the South see why it should be overrun by Northern concerns). And so, just as Prussia took over the whole of "Germany", the Northeast asserted its hegemony over the whole of the United States. The old union was gone forever and the new union was born.

Andrew Cusack

In response to ODT:

"Let's be frank, however: the secessionists bear immense blame for the war. Many of the "rights" they claimed to be defending boiled down to one thing: the perpetuation and extension of human slavery. Dress them up with all the Constitutional niceties you want and they still come down to that."

You are correct, sort of. Slavery was the immediate application but the general issue was "Who will rule?" Will the federal government rule the states, as Lincoln wanted? Will the states rule themselves, as the Confederacy wanted? Or will the states and the federal government limit themselves to the agreed areas of jurisdiction, as the Constitution provided?

It is unfortunate that something as unattractive as slavery was the immediate starting point for this dispute over power, but it is nonetheless the historical reality. "Hard cases make bad law" as the maxim goes, and both waging war and reordering the nature of settled government in order to eliminate slavery without any juridical authority so to do has had wide applications APART from the issue of slavery.

"Moreover, I find it odd, no, downright foolish, that a group of people so fond of invoking the American Revolution to justify their actions often seemed quite oblivious of its history. Confronted with the loss of Boston and the Declaration of Independence, the British Empire did not surrender its claim to America. It went to war, and, if the French monarchy had not intervened, could have won. (Further on that point: Britain’s response to the American rebellion was proper, and, aye, moral.)"

There is nonetheless a vast difference here. According to the established order of the British constitution, the Crown-in-Parliament is Supreme. The British government had complete lawmaking authority over the American colonies.

But according to the United States constitution, the federal government DID NOT have complete lawmaking authority over the states. It only had authority in a very limited and specified areas delineated in the Constitution. After states seceded from the Union, the United States constitution no longer applied to them, and they were a de jure foreign power.

"The fact remains, however, is that they arrogantly courted war and contemptuously pushed away the olive branch extended by Lincoln."

Admittedly, the South fired the shots against Fort Sumter; a very foolish and unwise thing to do. I simply would have let the Feds sit there forever and wait it out.

Nonetheless it was Lincoln repeatedly rebuffed conference offers from the southern states for the maintenance of peace and a mutually-agreed settlement.


George: Wouldn't you say the "brutal tyrant" epithet rings a bit hollow when launched in defense of the Slave Power?

Andrew: Well, so much for Lincoln. Pat Buchanan meantime has dismissed Churchill and FDR. We eccentrics await with interest a Paleo take on historic leaders who shine by contrast: Francisco Franco? Ian Smith? Queen Ranavalona?

Andrew Cusack

What is the deal with Pat Buchanan? He's totally right about some things (FDR) and then 100% wrong about others (protectionism).

Old Dominion Tory

Andrew wrote, “Slavery was the immediate application but the general issue was ‘Who will rule?’”
Good question. The slave states were quite willing to use power of the federal government to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act, even in states that had outlawed slavery within their borders (see the book, The Town that Started the Civil War for an example). The slave states ruthlessly used threats of secession and the dissolution of the Union to get their way numerous times during the antebellum period. In the end, the slave states’ price for abstaining from rebellion—those so-called “peace feelers”—was the unfettered extension of slavery across the country under the full protection of the United States Government. The South’s fire-eaters were determined that the answer to the question of who should be in charge would be, “Why us, of course.” I cannot cast that as anything but an attempted assertion of a tyranny of the minority or, as Andrew might put it, “one region asserting its supremacy over the whole of a country.”
He also wrote, “The moderate solution is to wait, prepare, plan, influence, persuade, hope. The radical solution is to resort to violence to enforce your ways on others.” Well, then, the Deep South states were at least as radical as you depict Mr. Lincoln’s because they threatened violence—and then resorted to it.

George Pal

“George: Wouldn't you say the "brutal tyrant" epithet rings a bit hollow when launched in defense of the Slave Power?”

MCNS, yes, but rings beautifully launched in defense of Freedom. Democratic governments reflect the moral, ethical, and practical ideas and notions of its citizens and their leaders. For better or worse slavery was found to be both legal and moral at the time of the inception of the country. The pendulum had swing by the time of secessions but obviously not enough. More time and persuasive argument were needed, not calls for slave insurrection and war.

If slavery had been the overriding principle for the war, the casus belli, then why wait almost two years into the war to end the institution. Defeat after humiliating defeat led to the Proclamation, not moral considerations. Practical and desperate military considerations demanded weakening the South’s ability to wage war and freeing the slaves, it was hoped, would do that.

In July 1862, Congress passed the Second Confiscation Act, which freed the slaves of anyone convicted of aiding the rebellion – a practical consideration, not a moral one.

In reply to an editorial by Horace Greeley in the New York Tribune, Lincoln stated that the goal of ending slavery was subordinate to the cause of preserving the Union. (Can’t find the text of his reply just now).

If “brutal tyrant” seems too harsh for you I will stop using it. How about, in the future, Logcabin Longshanks.

"The slave states ruthlessly used threats of secession... "

ODT, how is using the threat of a legal option "ruthless"? It's done all the time.


I had been hesitant to add my own remarks, but I see the can of worms has been opened, and the fish are biting madly.

Lincoln was a complex man; reducing him to a mere tyrant or elevating him to sainthood (the latter which popular opinion is so fond of doing) is neither one of them helpful. But let's at least lay to rest the old canard that the Civil War was fought to end slavery, and that its leader was the great friend of the Negro. Lincoln was a politician; whatever he may have believed in principle, he acted in ways he deemed politically expedient. Cheek by jowl with his remarks on the equality of all men you will find his recommendation that slaves be deported to outside colonies (1860 Cooper Union speech), an idea he supported for the rest of his life, and denunciation of "equality between the white and black races"(August 21, 1858 debate with Stephen Douglas). His remarks to Horace Greeley were also revealing:

"My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and it is not either to save or destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union."
(letter, August 1862)

That Lincoln was no friend to the abolitionist movement is clear. American abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison said that "Lincoln had not a drop of anti-slavery blood in his veins."

As to the question of secession, nowhere in the Constitution was secession ever explicitly prohibited; this fact is made even clearer by Congress's action in 1861 proposing that an amendment be added expressly forbidding secession. If Congress proposed such an amendment, then it's clear Congress believed the Constitution, as it then stood, did not prohibit this action.

Of course, responding to these remarks with mere namecalling ("You paleocon! Nanny nanny boo boo") doesn't really get us anywhere, does it?

Old Dominion Tory

I take "ruthless" to mean cruel or heartless, and I see a measure of cruelty and heartlessness in the incessant threats of secession (and the inherent violence therein)--no matter how legal some might consider it.
Lincoln, "a brutal tyrant"? Come now. If he were indeed a tyrant, then why did he allow the elections of 1862 and 1864 to take place? Please recall that 1864 did not start out as a bang-up year for the Union, and, often, Lincoln expressed doubts about his reelection. That hardly seems the stuff of tyranny.

Old Dominion Tory

Thanks for the contribution, Christine. Interesting to note that the Constitution still does not expressly forbid secession. The absence of such a stricture must account for the unofficial motto of South Carolina: If at first you don't secede, try, try again.
Have a good weekend, Christine, and everyone else! Thanks for the stimulating discussion.

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