History, Research, and Current Themes

"The world needed John Brown and John Brown came, and time will do him justice." Frederick Douglass (1886)

Search This Blog & Links


Wednesday, August 25, 2010

A “White” Man’s Debate: Lincoln Lovers vs. Libertarians

A Black Author Ignored

A little more than a decade ago, Lerone Bennett Jr., the long time editor of Ebony magazine and notable historian of African American history, published his searing critique of Abraham Lincoln, Forced into Glory: Abraham Lincoln’s White Dream (Johnson Publishing Co., 1999).

What Bennett does to great success is to completely debunk the mythical “Lincoln the Great Emancipator” notion by showing that he was in essence a racist and politically a laggard when it came to black liberation, ultimately being forced by the flow of history into taking an “anti-slavery” position.  As Bennett demonstrates, Lincoln was a white-first kind of guy—a fan of racist minstrel shows, an opponent to social equality, and a politician who would have preferred to deport blacks as the best solution to the problem of slavery and racial injustice.   As the President of the United States, Lincoln was “credited” by his enemies for being something he never was, namely an abolitionist.  This was certainly the case with assassin John Wilkes Booth, who poured out his contempt for Lincoln, along with ample references to John Brown, in a letter written prior to shooting the President in 1865.   Although he took a bullet in the head under this misapplied charge of abolitionism, the reality is that “Father Abraham”—as Frederick Douglass made clear many years before Bennett ever picked up a pen—was the white man’s president first and foremost.

To no surprise, Forced into Glory has largely been overlooked and slighted by the vast body of professional and amateur Lincoln defenders, probably because most of them are afraid to take on a leonine scholar like Bennett.  Bennett, who is also the author of the classic black history text, Before the Mayflower, is a formidable historian and a no-nonsense, straight-shooting black writer (the kind that John Brown would have admired), unconcerned about protecting the self-serving mythology of this nation.  Not long ago I was in the company of a professional Lincoln advocate, and when I mentioned Bennett’s book, this estimable person’s response was bluntly dismissive.   The media have likewise dismissed Forced into Glory, but a great deal of attention has been paid to the pro-Lincoln authors and spokesmen, who continue to uplift and defend the “Great Emancipator” myth, as well as the general tendency to promote Lincoln as the paradigm of political greatness. "Lincoln is theology, not historiology,” writes Bennett. “He is a faith, he is a church, he is a religion, and he has his own priests and acolytes, most of whom have a vested interest in [him] and who are passionately opposed to anybody telling the truth about him” (p. 114).

Enter Di Lorenzo the Libertarian

This high note of criticism is exactly where scholar Thomas J. Di Lorenzo picks up the anti-Lincoln tune and sings it for all its worth.  Subsequent to the publication Bennett’s of book, Di Lorenzo, a professor of economics at Loyola College, has written two anti-Lincoln efforts: The Real Lincoln: A New Look at Abraham Lincoln, His Agenda, and an Unnecessary War (Three Rivers Press, 2003), and Lincoln Unmasked: What You're Not Supposed to Know About Dishonest Abe (Three Rivers Press, 2007).  He has also co-authored Abraham Lincoln: Friend or Foe of Freedom? with Joseph A. Morris (The Heartland Institute, 2008), along with other works of scholarship pertaining to U.S. history.

I have not read Di Lorenzo’s books but I have some idea of his arguments as well as the angry counter-arguments made by Lincoln’s adoring defenders against him.  In 2008, Di Lorenzo published a salutary and admiring review of Lerone Bennett’s book on a libertarian website, LewRockwell.com.  It is a good review of Forced into Glory, the author concluding:

Bennett doesn’t buy into the Lincoln Cult’s tall tale that he "evolved" during the war and embraced equality. He quotes the man Lincoln had put in charge of "Negro emigration" as saying that Lincoln "remained a colonizationist and racist until his death."  The real heroes, in Bennett’s view, are the genuine abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips. Lincoln was never an abolitionist per se and, in fact distanced himself and ridiculed them whenever possible.

But Dr. Di Lorenzo is not merely extending Bennett’s thesis, which is rooted in the historic evaluation of black scholars, not to mention the kind but frank opinion of Frederick Douglass who knew Lincoln personally. Quite in contrast, Di Lorenzo has his own agenda, and it is not centered on black liberation, notwithstanding his appreciable criticism of Lincoln’s racialist mentality.

In fact, Di Lorenzo is a libertarian, and if you are not sure what that means, consider the masthead of the website that publishes Di Lorenzo’s essays: “Anti-State, Anti-War, Pro-Market.” Not being a political scientist, I do not want to misrepresent libertarianism, but I am sure that like any other political perspective, libertarianism is no monolith and doubtless has a range of opinions.  Thus, I more than suspect that some libertarians are well-meaning humanitarians and others are greedy racists.  On paper, libertarianism sounds ideal: humans should be free to maximize their existence as long as they do not impose themselves on anyone else’s freedom; private property and free markets are upheld as the standard of a quality society, and one’s own body is the beginning of what is entailed by private property.  But it is here where tension arises, particularly with respect to the libertarian view of the Civil War.  This is also where serious questions arise regarding Di Lorenzo’s use of Lerone Bennett’s critique.

Slavery and the Civil War: The Libertarian Impasse

Di Lorenzo obviously acknowledges the perspective that Bennett brings to bear upon the Lincoln myth and this speaks well of his candor and objectivity as a scholar.  But beyond Bennett’s expose, Di Lorenzo posits an argument that I seriously doubt would be acceptable to Lerone Bennett, Frederick Douglass, or anyone committed to black liberation.  On one hand, because libertarians believe that one’s own body is private property, one would naturally expect that they would be against slavery.   No libertarian could consistently support slavery because slavery is the ultimate abuse of private property—it is invasive, abusive, degrading, and exploitative, entirely antithetical to any conception of personal liberty.

On the other hand, Di Lorenzo's primary opposition to Lincoln is not on the basis of racism, but on the basis of his representing the ultimate expression of Big Government and the tyranny of the federal government over state governments.  To Di Lorenzo and his libertarian allies, the Civil War was an “unnecessary” conflict that ultimately undermined the rights of the states and allowed the behemoth of big government to arise on the landscape of U.S. history.

This is where we are suddenly jolted back to reality.  Di Lorenzo may hate Lincoln the racist, but he hates Lincoln the President far more.  Likewise, he may hate chattel slavery, but he is willing to subordinate the struggle of black people to what he thinks is the greater struggle of the Civil War—the rights of the Southern states over the intrusive, abusive power of the federal government.  

This is a big problem, the libertarian impasse.  In fact, Di Lorenzo seems a strange sort of “bedfellow,” who naps beside black Lerone Bennett in the afternoon, but tucks himself in with neo-Confederates and other advocates of “State’s Rights” at the end of the day.  It is either a mark of delusion or political immorality that Di Lorenzo thinks he can make love to Bennett's book like some black paramour, while being married to States’ Rights and upholding the slave masters of John Brown’s era as the victims of Lincoln’s tyranny.

Luxurious Debate

Beyond the conflicted perspective of Di Lorenzo and his libertarian zeal is the larger debate between anti-Lincoln libertarians and pro-Lincoln scholars.  Di Lorenzo has gone back and forth with Lincoln’s defenders (e.g., writers for the Claremont Institute, a veritable Lincoln cathedral) and frankly it’s pretty comical.  Standing on the firm platform of Lincoln’s racism, Di Lorenzo has managed to strike hard, rocking the temple of Lincoln adoration enough to scare the faithful worshippers inside.  In return, Di Lorenzo has been harangued as both a poor scholar and another John Wilkes Booth.  Since we are moving into the Civil War sesquicentennial, the comedy may heat up to a drama, as each side seeks to make its point in the ultimate Lincoln bout of the century.

But let us be clear: this is a battle for "white" people to fight—and I do not mean people with “white” skin, but people who think according to the conventions of white social and political priority. The battle between libertarians like Di Lorenzo and Lincoln’s carpet knights is a contest premised on the luxury of white privilege and white priority.  If either side of this contest could see beyond their own assumptions, they would have to admit that their interpretations of history do not work for the betterment of black people and therefore do not work at all.

We know that Lincoln entered the Civil War to preserve the Union and that he considered the dilemma of black liberation a secondary matter until he could no longer afford to treat it as such.  We know that Lincoln had no passion in his bones for black people’s freedom, and that he hesitated to put guns in their hands even to win his war, and that he had to be dragged by circumstances toward emancipation.  We also know that almost entirely through the Civil War, Lincoln would have compromised with the slave states in order to preserve the Union.  Not only was Lincoln opposed to social equality between whites and blacks, but also that he saw the United States as a nation primarily for white people.  Those who pretend he is more than this are engaging in wishful thinking--but being able to do so is one of the luxuries of "white" intellectuals.

On the other hand, only a “white” man can presume to argue against the necessity of the Civil War as does Di Lorenzo, who ends up arguing for the right of the Confederacy to secede from the Union allegedly on legal and constitutional principle.  Since the relationship of states to the federal union is supposed to be voluntary, Di Lorenzo argues, the pro-slavery states had every right to secede.   This means that Di Lorenzo would rather have let the Confederacy secede and form a new nation entirely premised on black chattel slavery and its expansion into new territories.  If Di Lorenzo had his way, or so it appears, slave masters would have their inalienable rights preserved while blacks would remain without liberty.  Is this really the right historical answer?

To Di Lorenzo, since Lincoln brought the full force of the federal government down upon the Confederacy, he was not only acting as a tyrant toward constitutional freedom, but laying the groundwork for a new kind of federal government—a powerful, centralized government that is ever inclined to swallow up more and more individual freedom and impose itself upon the individual states and their citizens. 

I realize that the argument over the role of the government is a big argument and it does impact everyone.  But I am not satisfied that this argument takes precedence over the argument of black people against the United States regarding their fundamental freedom and human rights.  John Brown went to war against slavery precisely because he believed that the only way the United States could authenticate its own claims was to secure the complete freedom and human rights of blacks.  He would be quite appalled by the libertarian notion that the “rights” of slave states and slave masters had to be protected in keeping with the Declaration of Independence.

And What Would Bennett Say?

As much as Di Lorenzo uses Forced into Glory to reinforce his own contempt for President Lincoln, I doubt that the libertarian sleight-of-hand would fool Bennett.  After all, Bennett does not condemn Lincoln for waging war against the South, only for having to be forced into taking black freedom seriously, then afterward being portrayed as a great liberator.  Nor would Bennett allow for Di Lorenzo’s tendency to put the Confederate states in the position of being the real heroes of the Constitution.  Uplifting Virginia and South Carolina as being on the vanguard of freedom is sort of like upholding Larry Flynt as the hero of the First Amendment.  When you find yourself uplifting immoral, exploitative people in the name of "rights," you had better re-think your cause.

Personally, I do not care at all whether Lincoln usurped too much power in bringing the South to its knees.  I have no concern that Lincoln raised the mightiest army in 19th century history to crush the “States’ Rights” rebellion.  While it may be argued that the President trampled upon certain constitutional rights, let us remember these were the rights of a privileged “race” of people who were content to violate the human rights of four millions of black people in their “peculiar institution.”  Whose rights should matter more?  

Let's just say your family members were held captive--enslaved, raped, and exploited by a very powerful neighbor next door.  Would you really care if the local sheriff broke into the neighbor’s house and set your family free, although he violated the neighbor’s rights while doing so?  And if a spectator looking on were to lament loudly about the neighbor's "rights," what would you think of him?  Why are Lincoln’s “violations” of Southern “rights” so important to libertarians, when the weightier matter was clearly the oppressiveness of slavery?  How can Di Lorenzo justly weigh this federal "tyranny" against the bondage and oppression of black people and then have the audacity to say that the Civil War was “unnecessary”?  Only a “white” man prioritizing “white” prerogatives would ever take this position.  It is otherwise completely nonsensical.

The Civil War Was Necessary

Quite to the contrary, the Civil War was absolutely necessary as a moral response to chattel slavery in the United States.  Although the Union did not enter the conflict to “free the slaves,” a segment of men in blue consciously volunteered precisely to break the yoke of Southern oppression.  When Lincoln got around to recruiting black soldiers this was even more true; indeed, the same force of history that pulled Lincoln toward an anti-slavery stance was also pulling the North.  Notwithstanding the perseverance of white supremacist thinking, the Civil War forced the “white” people of the North to take a militant position that benefited the black population for the first time since the founding of the nation.  Indeed, the same force that drove the North toward destroying slavery was the force that also drove through to Reconstruction.

Libertarianism sounds sweet, but given the selfishness of humanity, I doubt that it works well except for the most privileged classes, which in this country pertains to both money and skin color. I have yet to hear a libertarian argument pertaining to Lincoln and the Civil War that satisfies my own sense of history, or adequately addresses the black struggle from the standpoint of blacks themselves.  Interestingly, there is at least one black libertarian spokesman of notoriety. Walter E. Williams, a scholar at George Mason University, who argues for lasses-faire capitalism and against the claim that racism is still an expansive problem today.  Given the ongoing realities of life in the United States, his views on racism are particularly suspect to most African Americans and their allies.  Nor does Williams seem to suggest a solution to the problem of slavery in historical terms while defending the rights of Southern secession.  With all due respect, I wonder if he would have argued the libertarian position in favor of secession while wearing a set of leg irons and with a whip at his back. 

No comments: