The great centralizer: Abraham Lincoln and the War between the States.

Author:DiLorenzo, Thomas J.
 
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By the 1850s the authority of all government in America was at a low point;

government to the American was, at most, merely an institution with a

negative role, a guardian of fair play.

David Donald, Lincoln Reconsidered

The war... has tended, more than any other event in the history of the

country to militate against the Jeffersonian idea, that "the best

government is that which governs least."

Illinois Governor Richard Yates, January 2, 1865

Many historians consider President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal a point of demarcation with respect to the role of government in America, whereby the political economy was transformed from a limited, constitutional government to a highly centralized welfare-warfare state. Others go farther back to the so-called Progressive Era of the early twentieth century. But a clearer breaking point in the relationship between American citizens and the state was the South's defeat in its war for independence.

Lincoln's election in 1860 effectively signaled the long-fought-for victory of the (by then defunct) Whig Party, the political descendants of the Federalists. Lincoln considered himself the political heir of Henry Clay, the leader of the Whigs, who for forty years championed the building of an American empire through protectionist tariffs, corporate welfare (euphemistically called "internal improvements"), a central bank, and a highly centralized state. Clay called that policy combination the "American System." Commenting on Lincoln's July 16, 1852, eulogy for Clay, Roy Basler, the editor of Lincoln's collected works, observed that "one could hardly read any paragraph in [the eulogy] without feeling that Lincoln was, consciously or unconsciously, inviting comparison and contrast of himself with [Clay]" (1946, 18).

Before his election as president, Lincoln spent virtually his entire twenty-eight-year political career promoting the so-called American System. Basler writes that as of 1857 Lincoln "had no solution to the problem of slavery except the colonization idea which he had inherited from Henry Clay... when he spoke ... of respecting the Negro as a human being, his words lacked effectiveness"(23). The American System, not slavery, preoccupied Lincoln's political mind.

Lincoln will forever be remembered as the Great Emancipator. But he was also the Great Centralizer, whose policies did much to undermine the decentralized, federal system established by the Founders.

Slavery's Role in Precipitating and Sustaining the War

Historical research on the causes of the War between the States ranges from claims that slavery was the predominant cause (Foner 1974) to the view of James Ford Rhodes that "of the American Civil War it may safely be asserted that there was a single cause, slavery" (Stampp 1974, 118). Slavery was certainly an important element, but its importance seems to have been exaggerated as much as other causes--particularly economic motivations--have been overlooked or ignored.

For well over a century, objective analyses of Lincoln have been all but censored by the history profession through the tactic of insinuating that anyone who criticizes Lincoln must secretly approve of antebellum slavery. So, for the record, I affirm that slavery is an evil institution--as are all government-enforced racial policies, including forced segregation, coerced integration, and mandatory racial quotas. Such policies have no place in a free society because they rest on the collectivist idea that people should be judged as members of racial or ethnic groups, not as individuals. But a free society must be based on the idea of the equality of individual rights under the law, with the role of government restricted to protecting those individual rights and removing barriers to their enjoyment. In this sense the abolition of slavery was a giant step forward for the cause of human freedom everywhere.

In that light, open-minded Americans should consider that many of Lincoln's personal views on race relations can be described only as the views of a white supremacist. Indeed, he even used the words "superior and inferior" to define the "proper" places of the two races in American society. In the September 18, 1858, debate with Senator Stephen Douglas, he stated:

I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing

about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black

races--that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors

of Negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with

white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical

difference between the white and black races which I believe will for ever

forbid the two races from living together on terms of social and political

equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together

there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any

other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white

race. (Basler 1953, 145-46)

When asked what should be done if the slaves were ever freed, Lincoln's initial response was to suggest sending them all back to Africa' "Send them to Liberia, to their own native land. But free them and make them politically and socially our equals? My own feelings will not admit this" (Basler 1953, 255-56). As president, Lincoln held a meeting in the White House with freed black leaders, whom he encouraged to lead a colonization effort back to Africa by example. He developed plans to send freed blacks to Haiti and Central America--anywhere but the United States (370-75).

Lincoln's idol, Henry Clay, was a lifelong member of the American Colonization Society and was its president when he died. In his 1852 eulogy, Lincoln approvingly quoted Clay's statement that "there is a moral fitness in the idea of returning to Africa her children" (Basler 1946, 266). Clay's colonization proposal "was made twenty-five years ago," Lincoln observed, but "every succeeding year has added strength to the hope of its realization.-- May it indeed be realized!" (277).

Some ten years later, in his December 1, 1862, message to Congress, Lincoln reiterated that "I cannot make it better known than it already is, that I strongly favor colonization" (685).

Lincoln frequently castigated the abolitionists as zealots who "would shiver into fragments the Union of these States; tear to tatters its now venerated constitution; and even burn the last copy of the Bible, rather than slavery should continue a single hour" (Basler 1946, 274). But being the master politician, he adopted the position of his political role model, slave owner Henry Clay. As described by Robert Johannsen, that position was "opposition to slavery in principle, toleration of it in practice, and a vigorous hostility toward the abolition movement" (1991, 22).

Lincoln had no intention to disturb Southern slavery in 1860. In his First Inaugural Address he announced that "I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so" (Basler 1946, 580). He also promised in the same address to uphold and strengthen the fugitive slave clause of the Constitution, even though lax or nonenforcement of that clause would have quickened slavery's demise.

Interestingly, none of the four political parties that fielded candidates in the 1860 election even mentioned the abolition of Southern slavery in its platform (Louisiana State University Civil War Institute 1998). When the issue of slavery was brought up, it was in the context of its prohibition in the territories, not in the South. Even then, the reason for objecting to the extension of slavery was not always a moral one. Although undoubtedly some sincere abolitionists believed that disallowing slavery in the territories would contribute to its eventual demise everywhere, a prominent concern was that freed slaves would then compete with white laborers in the territories. As William Seward explained, "the motive of those who protested against the extension of slavery had always really been concern for the welfare of the white man, and not an unnatural sympathy for the Negro" (McPherson 1966, 24).

Horace Greeley explained the Republican Party's position on the extension of slavery in the new territories: "All the unoccupied territory...shall be reserved for the benefit of the white Caucasian race--a thing which cannot be except by the exclusion of slavery" (Berwanger 1967, 130). Illinois senator and Lincoln confidant Lyman Trumball announced in 1859 that "we, the Republican party, are the white man's party. We are for the free white man, and for making white labor acceptable and honorable, which it can never be when Negro slave labor is brought into competition with it" (133).

When Representative David Wilmot of Pennsylvania introduced his historic proviso to exclude slavery from the territories acquired after the Mexican War, he carefully explained that he had "no morbid sympathy for the slave," but "plead the cause and the rights of white freemen. I would preserve to free white labor a fair country, a rich inheritance, where the sons of toil, of my own race and color, can live without the disgrace which association with Negro slavery brings upon free labor" (Litwack 1961,47).

Lincoln's actions were consistent with his words with regard to the slavery issue. In the summer of 1861 he was presented with an opportunity to liberate thousands of slaves, but he refused to do so. General John Fremont, the Republican candidate for president in 1856, was the Union army's military commander in Missouri. Fremont drew a line across the state from east to west separating the pro-Confederacy side from the pro-Union side and issued an order stating that any individual on the Confederate side caught carrying a firearm would be shot and that anyone aiding the...

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