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

Lincoln’s Despotic Dream

 

What LincolnBelieved: The Values and Convictions of America’s Greatest President
Michael Lind

Doubleday, 2005
358 pgs.

Michael Lind’s study of Lincoln illustrates the old saying, "God protect me from my friends; from my enemies I can defend myself." He maintains that Lincoln preserved the United States as the hope of liberty throughout the world. Had the Confederate States successfully maintained their independence, republican government would probably have been doomed.

We shall shortly consider the grounds Lind advances for this extraordinary claim. Before doing so, the question arises; what is the republican order that Lincoln, in our author’s view, was concerned to uphold? As Lind tells the tale, Lincoln’s aim combined economic nationalism with white supremacy. For much of the book, readers of Thomas DiLorenzo’s outstanding The Real Lincoln will recognize a familiar portrait, with different value judgments.1 DiLorenzo, a trained economist, deftly exposes the fallacies on which Lincoln’s economics depended: Lind, an ignoramus about economics, embraces these fallacies.

Lincoln, throughout his career, followed the American System of Henry Clay. Clay, in turn, derived many of his ideas from Alexander Hamilton, whom Lind views as a genius. How can the fallacies of ignorant economists stand in comparison with this avatar of Infinite Wisdom? Free trade would have ruined the newly independent United States. Far from a source of mutual benefit, as economists wrongly claim, free trade in the nineteenth century was a British plot to control the world’s economy.

The British, it seems, wanted other nations to remain permanently as suppliers of raw materials. "Under a regime of free trade the flood of manufactured goods from Britain’s established industries would make it difficult for industrial enterprises to succeed in other countries. With their infant industries killed in the cradle by British imports, those countries would then be forced to compete with each other to supply Britain with food and raw materials. . . . British free trade theorists . . . argued that the American people should forever leave manufacturing to Britain, and specialize instead in agriculture" (pp. 75–77, emphasis added).

The fallacy in this argument, which our gullible author has taken over from the nineteenth-century charlatan Henry Carey, lies in the word we have emphasized. Why does it follow that a country that is almost entirely agricultural must always remain so, absent the aid of the state? Increased trade will add to the nation’s wealth: will not this happy circumstance, combined with changing economic conditions, make it likely that manufacturing will at some point become profitable? Meanwhile, the country that does not impose tariffs benefits from cheaper goods than would otherwise be available. If it is objected to this that with tariffs, industries can be built up sooner, why is this supposed to be desirable?

Although Lind cannot contain his own extravagant enthusiasm for protection, he has the honesty to admit that Lincoln was abysmally ignorant on the subject. "Notes on protectionism that he [Lincoln] wrote in December 1847 show that his grasp of the arguments for infant-industry tariffs was that of an amateur. Like other Whig and Republican protectionists, Lincoln argued that the manufacturer and importer, not the consumer, paid the costs of the tariff. While the argument was widespread, it was false; most economists agree that costs of tariffs are passed on to consumers" (p. 93).

Nevertheless, Lind finds something he considers good about Lincoln’s position. "In arguing for a protective tariff, Lincoln identified Britain as the economic enemy and claimed that Anglophile snobs who loved imported British goods were unpatriotic enemies of the American workingman" (p. 94). It is apparent why I unkindly suggested that Lind’s advocacy is not altogether a help to his client.

If Lincoln was ignorant about tariffs, Lind is no better on another key element in the American System, a central bank. Those acquainted with the Austrian theory of the business cycle will be surprised to learn that "Jackson’s destruction of the Bank [of the United States] resulted in the catastrophic Panic of 1837" (p. 84).

One more plank remains in that sublime product of the genius of Hamilton and Clay, the American System: internal improvements. Lincoln, ever the sedulous ape of Clay, of course aggressively supported them; but Lind is constrained to admit that they were a disaster: "However, the internal improvement system, [in] the adoption of which Lincoln had played such a prominent part, had collapsed, with the result that Illinois was left with an enormous debt and an empty treasury. Similar overly ambitious schemes failed in other states, some of which, like Illinois in 1848, amended their constitutions to ban state subsidies to private enterprise" (p. 98, quoting Lincoln’s law partner, William Herndon).

Our irrepressible author is not to be denied, and again, in ham-handed fashion, he finds virtue in economic idiocy: the Illinois internal improvements follow a "familiar pattern" (p. 98). Government and private overinvestment in new technology causes a boom and subsequent collapse, but eventually the innovation becomes widespread and the economy prospers. It does not seem to have occurred to Lind to ask why one must force more technology on the market than it can without collapse absorb. "Where there are no governmentally caused booms and collapses, the people stagnate" hardly seems a counsel of wisdom.

Economics forms only one part of the program of Clay and Lincoln; they also had in mind a plan for racial harmony. This plan was not altogether in accord with contemporary egalitarian concerns. Clay, as usual followed by Lincoln, wished to isolate blacks from whites, ideally by deporting blacks from America.

Lind rightly calls attention to the excellent work of Lerone Bennett, Forced Into Glory.2Bennett, and Lind following him, contends that Lincoln’s often-repeated professions of faith in the equality clause of the Declaration of Independence must be understood in a special sense, so far as blacks are concerned. True enough, Lincoln thought that blacks counted among the men who were "created equal." But their equal human rights did not entitle them to equal political rights: far from it.

In Lincoln’s view, America was a country for whites. Precisely here lies the reason he so vigorously opposed the extension of slavery to the territories. "Lincoln emphasized that he and other Republicans sought to protect whites in the North and West from competing with blacks. [Lincoln remarked] ‘Negro equality will be abundant, as every White laborer will have occasion to regret when he is elbowed from his plow or anvil by slave niggers’" (p. 129).

Not only must slaves be excluded from the territories: free blacks were not welcome either: "For Lincoln, as for most Free-Soilers, the movement against the extension of slavery was half of a program to create a white West, the other half of which consisted of state laws designed to keep free blacks out of Northern and Western states. . . . Lincoln was well aware of such Black Laws. He had voted for them in Illinois and repeatedly told voters they were necessary to prevent the evils of racial integration and racial intermarriage" (p. 130).

Better still if blacks departed altogether from America; Lincoln firmly supported "colonization" schemes to accomplish this end. The final destination need not be Africa: Anywhere outside the United States would do. Nor was this a foible of Lincoln’s youth. The Great Emancipator continued to encourage colonization throughout much of the Civil War.

Those anxious to preserve the image of Lincoln as a champion of racial equality have clung to one desperate expedient. Did not Lincoln make room, in the last days of the war, for a limited black franchise? His views, it is alleged, had evolved in an egalitarian direction. Lind rejects this view, much to the outraged horror of that devoted votary of the Lincoln cult, James McPherson: "Lincoln, however, was willing to exclude all black men from voting rights except for ‘the very intelligent, and . . . those who serve our cause as soldiers.’ How were the ‘very intelligent’ to be distinguished from the rest of the adult male population? Presumably by something like the ‘literacy tests’ used in the segregated South to deny voting rights to most blacks for generations" (pp. 223–24).

Thus, "America’s greatest President" was an advocate of foolish economics and a white racial supremacist. Can our fumbling advocate do anything else for Lincoln’s reputation? Admirers of Lincoln will be disappointed to learn that Lind is not yet through: those of us less enamored of Lincoln have much to learn from the remainder of his "defense" brief.

Having presented his account of Lincoln’s confused beliefs, Lind turns to the Civil War itself. Though he rejects the charge that Lincoln was a dictator, he concedes much to his critics: "In the area of habeas corpus law, Lincoln’s theory and practice provided a bad example that subsequent presidents could invoke to excuse unjustified abuses of the civil liberties of Americans and foreigners" (p. 182). Lind further admits that in defending his policy of military arrests, "the president lied to the American public" (p. 179). Whether Lincoln’s patronage of the so-called Lieber Code, of which Lind offers a roseate portrayal, atones for all this malfeasance, readers must judge for themselves.

A puzzling question confronts us. Cromwell famously asked for his portrait to be painted "warts and all." Lind has given us a picture of Lincoln that can fairly be characterized as almost nothing but warts. Why, then, from his own point of view, does he rate Lincoln so highly?

The answer emerges in the book’s last chapter. If Lincoln had not crushed the South, America today would probably not have been able to pursue its twentieth-century mission to make the world safe for democracy. "Abraham Lincoln’s hope that the democratization of the world would result from the American example, then, was realized in the middle of the twentieth century in a way he could not have expected. . . . But Lincoln deserves credit as well. By identifying the cause of the Union with the universalist liberal republicanism of his idol Henry Clay and the Founders, Lincoln may have given this tradition a new lease on life, initially in the United States and then, after 1945, in the world" (pp. 307–08).

What a disaster, by contrast, would have ensued had the South triumphed: "The Southern elite of an Imperial America might have championed global free trade in order to sell the products of their American and colonial plantations. But it would not have used its influence in the twentieth century to champion a world order based on national self-determination and democracy" (p. 311). Is this not a horrible prospect? Worldwide free trade, instead of ideological world wars to impose democracy: how can any reasonable person fail to share Lind’s admiration for our greatest president?



1See my review in the Mises Review, Summer 2002. Lind, by the way, never cites DiLorenzo, though there is reason to think Lind knows his book well. He also never mentions works of Harry Jaffa, although he does cite Allen Guelzo, who is very sympathetic to Jaffa.

2See my review in the Mises Review, Winter 2000.

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