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Lincoln and Bismarck: Enemies of Liberalism

Mises Daily: Monday, August 19, 2002 by

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Ludwig von Mises was born in 1881, when the Prussian autocrat Otto von Bismarck was at the height of his power, and in his book Planning for Freedom, Mises speaks of "the clash of two orthodoxies; the Bismarck orthodoxy versus the Jefferson orthodoxy."

Abraham Lincoln is incorrectly remembered as a man in the Jeffersonian tradition and as the restorer of liberty, while Bismarck is generally seen as a ruthless dictator, eager to sacrifice men to his policy of deciding the future of his countrymen "by blood and iron."

Contrary to this view, both men--Abraham Lincoln and Otto von Bismarck--should be viewed as allied together in the common cause of destroying the principles of classical liberalism. Both Lincoln and Bismarck followed the course that Mises rightly named after Bismarck.

It shouldn't be surprising that the actions of two despots would closely parallel each other. The activities involved in centralizing power would necessarily involve similar means to that end--chiefly, war, dictatorship, and deception.

Both Lincoln and Bismarck began their careers laboring in their respective wildernesses in pursuit of their twin goals: the consolidation of their general federations into a centralized regime of privilege and the destruction of free trade and other classical liberal ideas. And both Lincoln and Bismarck would found their power on the slave labor of conscript armies.

Otto von Bismarck sprang from a long line of Prussian Junker landowners, and he identified with the Junker's disdain for the emerging industrial society in Germany, with its liberal ideas of individualism and opposition to feudal privilege and monarchical absolutism. Bismarck would loyally serve the ideal of feudal and monarchical authoritarianism as the twin pillars of the Prussian state's self-declared destiny to unify a disunited Germany.

Abraham Lincoln would rise through the ranks of the pre-Republican Whig Party of Illinois, eventually securing unquestioned control over the state party machine, all the time advocating the mercantilist agenda of tariffs, subsidies to politically connected businesses, a central bank and paper money, and a strong executive.

As Professor Thomas DiLorenzo shows in his book, The Real Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln was devoted in his unquestioning belief in the beneficial effects of protective tariffs, even once telling a reporter that although he didn't know why, he was sure that protectionist tariffs would make everything cheaper. Lincoln also opposed free trade with a crude version of the labor theory of value, saying, "To secure to each laborer the whole product of his labor, or as nearly as possible, is a most worthy object of any good government." In Abraham Lincoln, the party of protectionism and privilege found its hope of breaking the decades-old resistance to mercantilist schemes.

In Prussia during the revolutionary year of 1848, the king acquiesced to the demand for a constitution, an elected parliament, and the creation of citizen militias. In 1862, the new king, Wilhelm I, a soldier by training and interests, wished to increase the size of the army in order to be able to train all those liable for conscription. This would also allow him to reduce the size of the Landwehr, or militias, which Prussian conservatives regarded as a dangerously liberal institution, since they elected their own officers, unlike the king's army.

The Chamber of Deputies would only authorize the increase in the army if the militias were untouched and if the term of conscription was reduced from three years to two. Several years of crisis ensued between a liberal-dominated parliament and a conservative monarchy determined to maintain absolute control over the army and to defeat any concession to parliamentary control.

To break the deadlock in parliament, the king finally gave in to Bismarck's demand for supreme power in domestic and foreign affairs and appointed him prime minister. Giving his maiden speech in the Chamber, Bismarck uttered the words forever associated with his personality: "Germany does not look to Prussia's liberalism but to her strength. . . . The great questions of the day will not be decided by speeches and the resolutions of majorities--that was the great mistake of 1848--but by iron and blood."

To break the impasse with the German liberals, Bismarck used an illegal ruse, as he was to admit later. As the Prussian constitution stipulated, the budget had to be approved by the Chamber of Deputies, the House of Lords, and the king, but Bismarck invented the claim that if one of the three branches rejected the budget, there was "a gap in the constitution" and the king was entitled to collect the existing taxes and continue to spend them until agreement was reached.

The "gap in the constitution" theory was not original. Lincoln, too, invented a similar ruse to discover several previously unheard-of presidential powers that had lain dormant, or so he claimed. With the secession of the Deep South--and, later, the Upper South, in response to his call to arms to invade the former Union States--Lincoln then engaged in a series of unconstitutional actions that centralized power and served to free him from the constitutional authority of Congress. After engineering the delay in calling Congress back to Washington for three months after having used duplicitous communications to force the South to fire first, Lincoln usurped the congressional powers of appropriation and spending as he built up his military forces, unconstitutionally ordered a naval blockade of Southern ports, and began planning the invasion of the Confederacy before Congress even had a chance to gather.

When it did finally convene during the heady days of war, Congress had nothing left to do except vote the funds and grant retroactive approval for Lincoln's illegal actions. The Congress realized that Lincoln's new army was intended for use as a domestic weapon of suppression and intimidation of dissenters, just as the Prussian liberals realized as they fought Bismarck and the king as to who would control the army in Prussia--the people, through their representatives, or the old establishment.

In Prussia, flush with the victory of Prussian arms against Austria after the battle of Sadowa (Koniggratz) and the expulsion of Austria from influence in Germany, Bismarck agreed to admit that collecting and spending tax funds without parliamentary authorization was illegal, and to grant concessions in domestic affairs, if the parliament agreed to retroactively approve Bismarck's illegal actions and to give him a free hand in foreign policy.

Like under Lincoln, the representatives of the people were reduced to the status of a rubber-stamp parliament by the euphoria of war. Like Lincoln, the use of the army defeated the spirit of resistance to the dictator's policies, both in Bismarck's Prussia and in Lincoln's North for long after the war itself ended. In the American experience, secession was destroyed as a viable tool to prevent the despotic centralization of power.

In both America and Prussia, the army ruled. In the words of Justice Benjamin R. Curtis, Lincoln had established "a military despotism." Both Lincoln and Bismarck based their rule on military intimidation and the force of arms to settle disputes in their respective drives for national reunification.

What is baffling is that both men did not particularly care for the people they conquered. Lincoln did not highly regard Southerners, and Bismarck disdained the South Germans. But to each man, what mattered was the idol of national--that is, territorial--union, regardless of the wishes of the people. And in the United States, as well as in Prussia, one man was the government.

Bismarck's grand opportunity arose from the wreckage of the Napoleonic wars, when the assembled powers at the Congress of Vienna consolidated the 300-odd territories of Germany into the 39 states of the German Confederation--ranging in size from huge to tiny--with a federally appointed parliament in the free city of Frankfurt. After Bismarck engineered the outbreak of war and Prussia defeated Austria, Bismarck dissolved the German Confederation and replaced it with a new North German Confederation dominated by Prussia and Bismarck.

Inside its borders, German states either were annexed to Prussia, including the ancient free city of Frankfurt, or, like Saxony, were forcibly incorporated into the confederation. The four South German states retained their independence, but as defeated allies of Austria, they were required to pay war indemnities and sign secret military alliance treaties with Prussia, which included putting their armies under Prussian command in wartime.

Another similarity between these two dictators is the use of deception to launch their wars. Just as Lincoln used the Sumter ruse to corner the South, Bismarck engineered France into declaring war on Prussia. The infamous Ems telegram, like the manipulation of the Fort Sumter issue, was a duplicitous communication purposely designed to incite war. In fact, Bismarck later stated that "Success essentially depends upon the impression which the origination of the war makes upon us and others; it is important that we should be the party attacked." Being the aggressor would have rallied opposition against Prussia. But, on the other hand, posing as the victim of aggression would gain the sympathy of other powers and the support of all Germany. Lincoln used the same understanding to secure the overwhelming support of the North.

With the defeat of France, the unified German Empire emerged. But the reunification of Germany, like that of the American Union in 1865, was not the product of the representatives of the people, as German liberals desired, nor was it even the product of the free will of the various German monarchs; rather, it was the result of armed might. Prussia had conquered Germany, in addition to Denmark, Austria, and France, just as the North had conquered the South during Lincoln's administration.

Bismarck studied the U.S. Constitution for the general outlines of the new constitution for Germany. He established a federal structure with an executive (the kaiser), the Federal Council (Bundesrat) and the new Imperial Parliament (Reichstag). He paid special attention to his own office; indeed, the entire constitution was designed with one aim in mind: preserving Bismarck's unchallenged sway over the Prussian king and new German emperor, on the one hand, and the people and especially the liberal German intellectuals on the other. It was designed to fit the personalities and working styles of Bismarck and William I, and it made Bismarck the most powerful man in the empire.

Similarly, Abraham Lincoln's reinterpretation of the U.S. Constitution made him the most powerful man in the Union, with the self-declared power to arrest, detain, and prosecute; to appropriate and spend tax funds; to accumulate debt, print money, conscript men, launch invasions, and install puppet governments in the conquered states. Lincoln ruled, ignoring the courts and the legislature as he saw fit.

And just as Mises described Bismarck and Metternich before him, Lincoln was fully convinced that ideas could be successfully defeated by policemen and soldiers, as he deployed his men to shut down dissent and opposition to his regime. Lincoln replaced a confederated republic, where the state and federal governments in theory mutually checked and balanced each other, with a forced Union where the member states were subordinated to the Union government.

General Robert E. Lee told Lord Acton of his fear that the War Between the States that produced a "consolidation of the states into one vast republic" had also produced a centralized government "sure to be aggressive abroad and despotic at home."

What both Lincoln and Bismarck sought was to alter their respective forms of government to create a facade of parliamentary institutions that disguised the continuation of authoritarian policies. Bismarck realized that although the middle class wanted to end the domination of the aristocracy, it also wanted to achieve national unification. Bismarck believed that here was the key to a solution of the constitutional conflict. National unity could be used to restrict classical liberal freedoms; nationalism could be the means of taming liberalism.

In Lincoln we see this, too. Under the idol of Union, the Jeffersonian tradition was overthrown. Nationalism led to restrictions on free trade and individualism. The War for the Union acted as cover for the installation of economic and legal privileges for connected mercantile elite, as the states were herded back together at gunpoint.

No one is silly enough to talk of Bismarck as the defender of German liberties; of the Iron Chancellor giving Germany a new birth of freedom. Instead of a new birth of freedom, both Lincoln and Bismarck laid the foundation for the total states and the total wars of the 20th century, with their massive armies and the subordination of the citizen to the schemes of the state.

In his book Omnipotent Government: The Rise of the Total State and Total War (1942),  Ludwig von Mises described the significance of the defeat of France and the unification of Germany by quoting Bismarck's comments to one of the German princes: "This day safeguards and strengthens the German princes and the principles of conservatism." Mises described the significance of this event: "They had triumphed because they had defeated (classical) liberalism. The princes had overthrown their own people."

And it was at this time that Crown Prince Frederick, the hope of German liberals, feared the results of the success of Prussian arms in defeating France and uniting Germany "We are no longer looked upon as the innocent victims of wrong, but rather as arrogant victors." And he uttered words that have become famous as a lament for modern German history: Germany, "this nation of thinkers and philosophers, poets and artists, idealists and enthusiasts," would instead be seen "as a nation of conquerors and destroyers."

In Omnipotent Government, Mises faulted the common explanations for the origins of the Nazi catastrophe that would come later that rooted it in the German character.

"The most popular interpretation of the ascendancy of Nazism explains it as an outcome of the German national character. . . . It is very easy indeed to assemble many facts of German history and many quotations from German authors that can be used to demonstrate an inherent German propensity toward aggression. But it is no less easy to discover the same characteristics in the history and literature of other linguistic groups, e.g., Italian, French, and English. . . . There have been in Germany, as in all other nations, eulogists of aggression, war, and conquest. But there have been other Germans too. The greatest are not to be found in the ranks of those glorifying tyranny and German world hegemony. Are Heinrich von Kleist, Richard Wagner, and Detlev von Liliencron more representative of the [German] national character than Kant, Goethe, Schiller, Mozart, and Beethoven?"

A tragedy is that American apologists for U.S. imperialism have been leaders in the inherent guilt of the German people school of history. And this tragedy is compounded by the opponents of American imperialism in France and throughout Europe, in Latin America, in Asia, and especially in the Arab world, who equate U.S. imperialism with the American character and the old ideals of laissez-faire and federalism. Whereas once, to paraphrase Crown Prince Frederick, Americans were known as a nation of thinkers and philosophers, inventors and idealists, they are increasingly seen by the rest of the world as a nation of conquerors and destroyers.

And to paraphrase Mises, there have been in America, as in all other nations, eulogists of aggression, war, and conquest. But there have been other Americans, too. The greatest are not to be found in the ranks of those glorifying tyranny and American world hegemony. Are George W. Bush, William Kristol, and John Ashcroft more representative of the American national character than Jefferson, Henry, Lee, Hazlitt, and Rothbard?

William Gladstone, the English liberal statesman and hero to German liberals (and supporter of the Confederacy), said of Bismarck that "He made Germany great and Germans small." But Bismarck detested Gladstone and contemptuously referred to him as "Professor Gladstone" and "that big Utopian Babbler."

Lincoln, like Bismarck, scorned the liberal policies of peace and free trade. And it is because of Lincoln's war that America came to be less and less associated with those ideals of free trade and peace. Abraham Lincoln made the American national state great, but Americans as free men small. Abraham Lincoln overthrew his own people and began reversing the gains of  classical liberalism--a reversal that still continues to this day throughout the world.


Adam Young writes from Ontario, Canada. Send him MAIL, and see his Mises.org Articles Archive. For further reading, see Dreadnought: Britain, Germany, and the Coming of the Great War, by Robert K. Massie; Reassessing The Presidency, edited by John V. Denson; Omnipotent Government by Ludwig von Mises; and The Real Lincoln by Thomas DiLorenzo.