Monday, December 05, 2005

Lincoln: Patriot or Tyrant?

This is a question that I tend to answer somewhere in the gray middle – although, at times, I seem to lean more towards the latter than the former. Thomas DiLorenza (no friend of Lincoln to be sure) recently penned a critique of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Lincoln biopic. Here is an interesting criticism of Republican policy which seems large correct to me:

She also correctly states that after his election as president, the top requirement for members of his cabinet was that they had to be former Whigs. But she completely misses the significance of this point – of the total victory of the old Whigs. For the previous thirty years the Whig Party was the party of Henry Clay’s "American System," period. Lincoln toiled as much as anyone in the political trenches of the Whig Party for decades to attempt to secure the planks of this "system" – protectionist tariffs, a monopoly central bank run by the federal government, and corporate welfare for the railroad and road-building industries (and later, free land giveaways). This is why they were Whigs: they were the political water carriers of the mostly northern business and banking elite, as their political descendants, the Republican Party, still are to this day. Lincoln filled his cabinet with former Whigs like himself so as to guarantee that the old Whig economic agenda would be a top priority.

The distinguishing feature of these neo-mercantilist policies was that they were all
tools of political plunder that primarily benefited the rich and politically well connected at the expense of the rest of society...

Students of politics have understood for literally centuries that the key to success in democratic politics is to use the coercive powers of the state to dispenseconcentrated benefits (through spending, tariffs that block competition, etc.) on well-organized special interest groups while dispersing and disguising the costs among the general population. The so-called "American System" was a textbook example of this age-old recipe for political plunder…

I have long felt that Lincoln was, primarily, little more than power hungry politico. While I think the man should be esteemed for his tireless boot-strapping work ethic and obvious intelligence, I am equally certain that he presents an abundantly ripe topic for psychoanalysis with careful emphasis on the manifestations of acute inferiority-complex. Can you say, "overcompensation at the expense of the rule of law and the vision of the Founders?" In the name of saving the Union (Lincoln never advocated the abolition of slavery in the southern states), Lincoln exercised power like no other before him (or, mostly, since). This is where my “grayness” kicks in. My old Professor, Mike Rappaport, insists that Lincoln should be viewed as honorable because (1) he chose to break a few laws of lesser importance in order to preserve the larger system and greater body of law, and (2) he could have been more tyrannical given the emergency of the situation (e.g. suspend the election of 1864, etc). I admit, at times, I am sympathetic to these arguments. However, should we really revere someone who foregoes donning the clothes of an outright dictator in exchange for those of a dictator-light? Upon being slapped around by some brute, should I eagerly thank him for sparing my life? When viewing the reality of the times and considering the precedent history and the ominous outlook facing a chief executive in 1861, this is not something that I can readily answer. Still, from a ideological standpoint, if I can’t quite bring myself to call ‘ole Abe a tyrant, I am not so reluctant to deem him a political opportunist of the FDR mold.