Edited and written by David Gordon, senior fellow of the Mises Institute and author of four books and thousands of essays.

New Slavery for Old

Spring 1998

James M. McPherson
Oxford University Press, 1996, xiv+258 pgs.

As usual, let us begin with a paradox. James McPherson, a leading historian of the Civil War, ardently supports the Union cause and views Abraham Lincoln as an outstanding champion of "positive liberalism" (p. 183). Yet M.E. Bradford, in recent years the foremost advocate of Southern traditional conservatism, thought highly of McPherson and his work. Can such things be?

The solution to our paradox lies near at hand. McPherson to a large extent confirmed Bradford's account of the fundamental issue at stake in the Civil War, though he drew from his account a moral totally different from the assessment of the great Southern conservative.

To the seceding Southern states, a Lincoln presidency threatened revolutionary upheaval. The result of the 1860 election meant that the predictions of the South Carolina "fire-eaters" of a Northern assault on the Southern way of life were now to be realized. Rather than endure such a course passively, the Southern states departed from the union.

McPherson accepts the Southern position that Lincoln's election threatened the Southern way of life with doom. "Southerners read Lincoln's speeches; they knew by heart his words about the house divided and the ultimate extinction of slavery. Lincoln's election in 1860 was a sign that they had lost control of the national government; if they remained in the Union, they feared that ultimate extinction of their way of life would be their destiny." That is why, he notes, the South seceded. "It was not merely Lincoln's election but his election as a principled opponent of slavery on moral grounds that precipitated secession" (p. 198, emphasis in original). Small wonder, then, that Bradford approved of McPherson; he confirmed to the hilt Bradford's analysis of Lincoln as a revolutionary.

One might object to McPherson and Bradford in this way. Whatever Lincoln's personal views on slavery, he did not in 1861 propose to force abolition on the South. Quite the contrary: did he not declare in his First Inaugural Address that he would not interfere with slavery where it already existed? And whatever Lincoln's aims, he could have done little against the South so long as the Southern states maintained their power in Congress and the Supreme Court. Did not the South act with fatal haste in 1861?

Perhaps it did. But, as McPherson makes clear, it had a strong case. Lincoln rejected compromise and later attempted to make his moral convictions about slavery legally binding. "Lincoln opposed the last minute attempts to woo them [the seceding states] back with the Crittenden Compromise" (p. 43).

Lincoln's Secretary of State, the militantly anti-slavery William H. Seward, almost ruined Lincoln's plan to impose his will on the South. He "would have evacuated Fort Sumter and thereby extinguished the spark that threatened to flame into war" (p. l94). And we cannot have that, can we!

But if Southern partisans can with justice claim that Lincoln detested their way of life and eschewed compromise, does this not set the stage for a deeper objection to their position? Suppose Lincoln was hostile to slavery: he was perfectly entitled to act on his convictions, to the extent the Constitution permitted. Nothing in that document guarantees Southern control of the national government. If the acolytes of John C. Calhoun did not care for the outcome of the election of 1860, so much the worse for them!

Once more, our author provides material sufficient to overthrow this objection, though he shrinks from the conclusion his own analysis suggests. "Lincoln was bound by a Constitution that protected slavery in any state where citizens wanted it. The republic of liberty, for whose preservation the North was fighting, had been a republic in which slavery was legal everywhere in 1776. That was the great American paradox--a land of freedom based on slavery" (p. 62).

On the one hand, one must object to McPherson's last sentence: a constitution that fails to forbid slavery is hardly based on it. But on the other hand, our author is in substance correct. The Constitution gives the federal government very limited power to interfere with a state's institutions. If the Southern states believed with good reason that Lincoln in his heart execrated part of the law he had sworn to uphold, were they not with perfect justice entitled to depart?

Our author does not see matters in this straightforward way. On the contrary: he somehow derives the conclusion that the South aggressed against the North. "In 1860 Southerners again threatened [as in 1856] to secede if a Republican was elected president. Lincoln was fed up with their protestations that they were merely trying to protect themselves from Northern aggression. 'You say, you will destroy the Union,' said Lincoln on February 27, 1860, in a speech at New York City intended to be read by Southerners; 'and then, you say, the great crime of having destroyed it will be upon us. That is cool. A highwayman holds a pistol to my ear, and mutters through his teeth, 'Stand and deliver, or I shall kill you, and then you will be a murderer'" (p. 42). McPherson, the context makes obvious, subscribes entirely to Lincoln's statement.

McPherson in doing so misses the key point. The Constitution was a compact among sovereign states. If so, a state, or a group of states, could always act according to its perceived interests in deciding whether the advantages of union suffice for its continuance.

Nor will it do to adduce the results of the election of 1860, accusing the South of "undemocratically" refusing to accept the popular verdict. The United States is not, and never was, a plebiscitary democracy. The seceding states did not deny the legitimacy of the election. Precisely because Lincoln was legally president, they wanted out. And they had every right under the Constitution to exercise this choice. Bradford had no problem in grasping this; but McPherson, blinded by his own "liberal" views, cannot see that his own analysis of Lincoln undermines his thesis of Southern aggression.

Now an even deeper objection arises to the line of argument I have so far pursued. Suppose that the Southern states did act in accord with the Constitution as written, and Lincoln was at odds with the principle of state sovereignty that underlies that document. Nevertheless, was not Lincoln, morally speaking, correct? The South supported, and Lincoln opposed, slavery --a system clearly at odds with a classical-liberal view of human rights.

Of the latter point there can be no doubt, but the case for Lincoln is not thereby made. The framers of the Constitution believed that the powers of the central government must be strictly limited. The pursuit of a (real or alleged) good does not justify breaking free of these restraints.

The framers had a point, as we can see from the results of Lincoln's defiance of the bounds they imposed. Our author views these with elation, but readers of this journal will I suspect be less enthusiastic. "Negative liberty was the dominant theme in early American history--freedom from constraints on individual rights imposed by a powerful state. The Bill of Rights is the classic expression of negative liberty, or Jeffersonian humanistic liberalism. The first ten amendments to the Constitution protect individual liberties by placing a straitjacket of 'shall nots' on the federal government. . . . Whereas eleven of the first twelve constitutional amendments severely limited the power of the national government, six of the next seven vastly expanded those powers" (pp. 184-85).

But, someone might object, all I have shown is a difference of opinion. McPherson believes that the abolition of slavery and subsequent "civil-rights" measures justify a strong state. Bradford does not. Who can say who is right?

The matter admits of more decisive resolution than our imagined objector supposes. Once you allow that in pursuit of a "moral" end, you may abandon moral principle, disaster soon arrives. If war to end slavery is justified, why not the scorched-earth policy of Sherman, Sheridan, Butler, et hoc genus omne?

McPherson willingly embraces this consequence. He quotes Sherman with obvious agreement: "A commander 'may take your house, your fields, your everything, and turn you all out, helpless, to starve. It may be wrong, but that don't [sic] alter the case. In war you can't help yourselves'" (p. 82). So much for natural law!

M.E. Bradford, as frequently happens, hit the mark. McPherson is indeed an important writer. However much one may differ with his evaluations, McPherson has set the key issue of the Civil War in clear perspective: the traditional American system or a tyrannical centralized state.

Readers should not miss our author's account of the influence of Theodore Parker's transcendentalist vaporings on Lincoln's misreading of the Constitution (p. 189).


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