Lincoln the 'Tyrant': The Libertarians' Favorite Bogeyman

On a recent pilgrimage to Gettysburg I ventured into the Evergreen cemetery, the scene of chaotic and bloody fighting throughout the engagement. Like Abraham Lincoln on a cold November day in 1863, I pondered the meaning of it all. With the post-Tea Party wave of libertarianism sweeping the nation, Lincoln’s reputation has received a serious pillorying. He has even been labeled a tyrant, who used the issue of slavery as a mendacious faux excuse to pummel the South into submitting to the will of the growing federal power in Washington D.C. In fact, some insist, the labeling of slavery as the casus belli of the Civil War is simply a great lie perpetrated by our educational system.

First of all, was Lincoln in fact a tyrant? For me the root of such a characterization centers on the man’s motivations. A man of international vision that belied his homespun image, Lincoln saw the growing power of an industrialized Europe and realized that a divided America would be a vulnerable one. “The central idea of secession,” he argued, “is anarchy.” Hence, maintaining the Union was his prime motivation, not the amassing of self-serving power.

It is true that Lincoln unilaterally suspended the writ of habeas corpus. From a Constitutional standpoint, the power of the federal government to suspend habeas corpus “in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public Safety” is clearly spelled out in Article 1, Section IX. And an insurrection of eleven states would certainly qualify as such. Whether or not Lincoln had the authority (Article I pertains to Congress) most significant to me is that the Constitution does allow for the suspension of habeas corpus in times of severe crisis. So, doesn’t the question distill down to a more wonkish matter of legal procedure, rather than the sublime notion of denying the rights of man?

Constitutional minutia aside, the question remains whether or not Lincoln’s actions made him a tyrant. Consider the country in 1861-1862, the years in which the writ was suspended, re-instituted and then suspended again until war’s end. The war was not going well for the North, and Southern sympathies were strong in the border states and the lower Midwestern counties. The federal city was surrounded by an openly hostile Virginia on one side and a strongly secessionist Maryland on the other. “Copperhead” politicians actively sought office and could only sow further seeds of discord if elected. Considering these factors, one wonders what other course of action Lincoln could have taken to stabilize the situation in order to successfully prosecute the war. “Must I shoot a simple-minded soldier boy who deserts,” he asked, “while I may not touch a hair on the head of the wily agitator who induces him to desert?”

It seems that one’s appreciation for Lincoln’s place in history is largely an off-shoot of one’s position on the rebellion itself.

If the South was within its rights to secede, then Lincoln was a cruel oppressor. If not, then he had no choice but to put down a major insurrection.

What most glib pro-Southern observers of the war’s issues forget is that there were three million Americans enslaved in that same South, who would have been dragged into a newly formed Confederate States of America. “How is it,” asked Samuel Johnson as early as 1775, “that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of Negroes?” Can any true libertarian argue that using the power of the federal government to end a state’s perpetuation of human bondage is an act of tyranny, regardless of the reason? And whether or not either side was willing to admit it, slavery was indeed the core issue of the war.

For those who believe otherwise then I ask you: In 1861, if the entire country was either all free or all slave states, would war have still come? If secession was about securing the South’s dearest rights, I must ask a follow-up: the right to do what exactly? We know the answer of course.

Was the North without sin? Certainly not, as anyone who understands the economic symbiosis of the two regions can attest. But in the end it was a Northern president using Northern troops who freed the slaves, and erased from the American experience what Lincoln himself referred to as “the base alloy of hypocrisy.”

A common blasé position among the Lew Rockwell’s of the world (a man who never felt the lash himself of course) is that slavery would have eventually died out as modernization overtook the antebellum Southern way of life. Yes it can be argued that it was economically inefficient – but it’s Marx not Mises who argues that systems of production necessarily dictate political forms. Consider that the de facto servitude of Blacks in the post-reconstruction South lasted well into the 1960s, and South Africa’s apartheid into the 1980s…both of which were ended by external pressures rather than internal catharsis
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Given the cost in dead and treasure, would it have been best to let the South go and hope for the best in slavery’s natural demise? As Patrick Henry, a southerner, once asked: “Is life so sweet or peace so dear as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery?” Certainly Lincoln’s steadfast prosecution of the war revealed his feelings on this fundamental question.

So when I look at Lincoln I see a man who, for myriad reasons ranging from realpolitik to moral imperative, released three million people from the shackles of slavery. I see a man who may have over-reached his legal authority by making the suspension of habeas corpus an executive rather than legislative initiative, but did not act outside the spirit of the Constitution regarding its position on whether such a right was untouchable.

I can only conclude that to think Lincoln a tyrant is to support the Confederacy’s right to secede in the first place…and take its enslaved Americans with them. Given what a weakened state a split country would have placed us in as we moved into the industrial age, given the force for good that a united and powerful America has been in the world since Appomattox, and considering even his most brazen suspensions of Constitutional rights were temporary, and resulted in no one swinging from the gallows for their opposition to the war, I must support the actions of this great President who was ultimately motivated by love of country, not lust for power. As Shakespeare might have said: “Despotism should be made of sterner stuff.”

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