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The Attempt at Vindicating Lincoln

Tags U.S. HistoryPhilosophy and Methodology

11/26/2008David Gordon

[Vindicating Lincoln: Defending the Politics of Our Greatest President. By Thomas L. Krannawitter. Roman & Littlefield, 2008. Xv + 355 pages.]


When I reached page 222 of Vindicating Lincoln, I almost threw the book across the room. There I read, "First, the latest iterations of European philosophy during the antebellum period were to be found in the writings of G.W.F. Hegel and Charles Darwin, whose teachings, when transported to the United States, were often interpreted as justifications for, not arguments against, black slavery" (emphasis added).

Can Krannawitter be ignorant of the fact that Darwin did not discuss human evolution until The Descent of Man in 1871? Perhaps the passage was a trivial slip, that only a reviewer intent on blood would highlight. But several pages later, Krannawitter rides again: "In the antebellum South, religious thought incorporated the ideas of Hegel and Darwin to provide a potent defense of slavery that was well received by many Southern whites" (p. 234).1

In trying to understand how Krannawitter could be guilty of so gross a mistake, we arrive at a key to the book. He was a student of Harry Jaffa, and his book defends to the last detail Jaffa's analysis of Lincoln.

I [Krannawitter] believe in honesty in advertising, and I therefore disclose to the reader that I am a student of Jaffa's. To be fair, I should have concluded almost every paragraph with a footnote acknowledging Jaffa's teaching, but I knew that the reader would tire of it, so let me state here that Jaffa's influence is present throughout the book. (p. xiii)

Now the mystery is solved. Jaffa makes exactly the same mistake, and it has not occurred to Krannawitter to check the claims of his revered teacher.2

It would be an even more serious mistake, though, to dismiss Krannawitter's book as incompetent; whatever his failings, and they are many, he raises an important issue. If we think that slavery is unconditionally wrong, must we not acknowledge that Lincoln's waging war against the South was correct? By contrast with Lincoln, many of the leaders of the Confederacy thought that slavery was a positive good. Must not all libertarians, then, reject the Southern position that secession was constitutionally justifiable? To think otherwise, he claims, is to support slavery. Why then, Krannawitter asks, has a coalition between libertarians and pro-Southern writers formed to assail the Great Emancipator?

Krannawitter's question rests on a false premise. Referring to the critics of Lincoln, he writes

A rejection of the natural right principles that informed Lincoln's statesmanship unites their otherwise disparate writings. They aim to vilify Lincoln and to persuade the American people to abandon his principles and example. (p. 9)

Krannawitter argues in this way: Lincoln rejected slavery; for him, the "all men are created equal" clause of the Declaration of Independence applied to blacks as well as whites, and meant that no one by nature was fit to rule over another human being as his master. Those, then, who attack Lincoln must reject natural rights: they are either historicists or believers in economic determinism. The libertarian opponents of Lincoln, he thinks, fall into the latter class.

Of course, Krannawitter's conclusion does not follow. Many of Lincoln's critics also believe in natural law. He is kind enough to quote me as saying that leading classical liberals, from Lord Acton to Murray Rothbard, have defended the Confederacy (p. 289). Is he unaware that self-ownership and a Lockean theory of property acquisition are the key premises of Rothbard's political philosophy? Does he think that Lord Acton was an opponent of freedom?

Krannawitter has structured his book around a number of complaints against Lincoln. I cannot examine all of the charges, and his responses to them, but one especially interests me, as Krannawitter includes me among the critics. In the chapter "Was Lincoln a Racist?" he attacks the claim that Lincoln's undoubted personal rejection of slavery by no means signified his embrace of full political equality for blacks. Quite the contrary, the critics claim, Lincoln fully shared the racist opinions almost universally held in antebellum America.

The evidence for this lies ready at hand. In his famous debates with Stephen Douglas, Lincoln said that there was

a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid their living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race. (p. 19)3

There is an obvious line that those committed to the equality thesis might take. It might be claimed that Lincoln did not really believe what he said. In order to have a chance at winning the election against Douglas, he had to pander to the racial prejudice of his audience. Usually, those who say this will go on to justify the deceit.

To my surprise, Krannawitter does not follow this course. Rather, he says that the Lincoln's statements are, if read closely, not racist at all.

Is there a physical difference between black and white human beings? Of course, blacks are black, and whites are white. And while this simple difference of skin color does not, in itself, require political and social inequality, the distinction in color in America had become deeply entwined with slavery and questions of racial hierarchy… Lincoln did not endorse a political hierarchy based on race but indicated such a hierarchy may be "a necessity," an inescapable result of widespread racial opinions and assumptions. In such a case, anyone of any color, when presented with the choice of having his race assigned a superior or an inferior position in a given society, with no option of equal citizenship, would choose to have his race in the superior position… This in no way proves that Lincoln did not believe in the equality of rights of all men of all colors or that he did not hope American opinion would someday move in the direction of equal citizenship for all men of all colors. (pp. 21, 24)

Krannawitter has blatantly read into Lincoln's text what he wishes were present in it. Lincoln says nothing at all to indicate that the racial hierarchy rests on prejudices that he does not share. Why does Krannawitter do this?

His reasoning appears to be this: Lincoln recognized that blacks had the right to hold property: along with accepting Locke's doctrine of self-ownership, as found in the Declaration of Independence, he also accepted Locke's view of property and the social contract. If, like Locke, he believed that political rule requires the consent of the governed, does not universal suffrage follow?

Therefore if blacks possess equal natural rights, and if the purpose of the republic under which they live is to protect their natural rights through laws made with their consent, then withholding the power to consent by withholding the power of suffrage violates the social contract: the logic of the social contract demands nothing less than making voters of Negroes once their natural humanity and equal rights have been recognized. (p. 26)

We ought then to read statements by Lincoln that ostensibly deny this in a way that does not accord with their surface meaning.

This argument rests on a misreading of Locke. He does indeed think that government requires consent, but it does not follow that everyone has the right to vote. Locke in the Second Treatise on Government makes clear that suffrage depends on property: only parts of the public that pay taxes have a right to vote, in proportion to the assistance which they afford the public. When Locke talks of the need for consent of the public, this means that the government must act in a way that does not provoke a revolution against it, not that everyone has the right to elect the government.4

In fairness to Krannawitter, some scholars interpret Locke differently; but he shows no awareness that the point is controversial. In any case, why would Lincoln's belief that blacks had the right to hold property commit him to what Krannawitter believes to be the full logic of Locke's argument? Basing himself on a conjectural reconstruction, learned from Jaffa, of what Lincoln "must" have thought, he snatches at straws. True, Lincoln says that he rejects political and social equality for blacks; but "he never denied that such policies were right" (p. 32).

Further, Lincoln's commitment to natural rights, so much stressed by Krannawitter, had in truth a very attenuated application to blacks. Lincoln backed the Corwin Amendment of 1861, which Krannawitter mentions (p. 277) though he does not tell us that William Seward introduced the measure into the Senate at Lincoln's behest. Under it, the Constitution would have been entrenched against further amendments that would interfere with slavery. I do not think that anyone who favored this, albeit to preserve the Union, can have had a robust sense of the natural rights of blacks.

If, like Thomas Woods, you do not find Lincoln's rigmarole convincing but take his remarks as they stand, judging him to be a creature of his age, Krannawitter has a remarkable response:

Is Woods a creature of his age? Does Woods think that his own judgment (that Lincoln was a "creature of his age") is merely a reflection of Wood's own historical culture and therefore subject to historical change? Or does Woods claim to be telling us something that he believes is true? I suspect the latter… But then, why should we not also assume that Lincoln's mind and reason possessed the same freedom? Why … is Lincoln a "creature of his age" if Woods is not? (p. 137, emphasis in original)

Krannawitter deserves credit: he paid attention during his freshman philosophy class and learned that universal relativism cannot be sustained. If all judgments are relative, is this very judgment itself relative? But Woods does not advocate this position. He does not claim that everyone is a creature of his age, nor, for that matter, that in every judgment Lincoln made, he reflected no more than the beliefs of his era. Rather, the claim is that in certain specific beliefs, e.g., racial prejudices that we now deem unfounded, Lincoln was a creature of his age. To assert that does not mire one in the swamps of historical relativism.

Krannawitter is much too ready to ascribe false philosophies to his opponents. Thus, because Thomas DiLorenzo, Mark Thornton, and Robert Ekelund think that Lincoln's refusal to accept secession was motivated by his insistence on collecting tariffs and custom duties in Southern ports, they are "economic determinists."

DiLorenzo … looks at Lincoln through the lens of economic determinism, the theory that economic interests compel and inform all human experience. From this point of view, economic interests explain Lincoln's rhetoric and deeds far better than moral principles because moral principles merely reflect economic interests. (p. 215, emphasis in original)

Again, to claim that in a concrete instance someone was motivated by economic interests does not at all commit one to a universal ideology that holds that economic interests trump everything else. It is precisely by paying attention to Lincoln's "rhetoric", e.g., his statement in his first inaugural address that he would not initiate force against the seceding states beyond what was necessary to protect government property and "to collect the duties and imposts", that the libertarian critics of Lincoln arrive at their views.

However critical of Krannawitter one may be, one must be grateful to him for one admission:

In many ways, Lincoln's legacy hinges on the question of whether states did in fact possess a constitutional right of secession. If they did, then virtually everything Lincoln did as president was illegal at best, immoral at worst. If Lincoln had no legal power and no constitutional duty to maintain the Union against secessionist movements, then Lincoln might well deserve the title "war criminal" … and should be viewed with contempt. (p. 147)

Of course, Krannawitter thinks there was no right of secession, but his arguments for this are weak. He correctly notes that the anti-Federalist opponents of the Constitution claimed that it would subordinate the states to the federal government. He then adds

"That is, not only did the supporters of the Constitution of 1787 understand that it would form a national government proper and that states would fall under the jurisdiction of that national government, at least to some extent, but even the most vehement opponents of the Constitution agreed! (p. 162)

If everyone at the time of the adoption of the Constitution agreed that it established a strong central government, in which the powers of the states were radically attenuated, is this not conclusive proof that the Southern position of 1860–61 was wrong?

Krannawitter has ignored an important fact that undermines his contention. Precisely in order to rebut the anti-Federalist complaints that the new government unduly subordinated the states, the Federalist defenders of the document in the Virginia Ratification Convention of 1788 were anxious to assure opponents that if the federal government infringed on the prerogatives of the state, the state would not be bound by these actions. It is the great merit of Kevin Gutzman's Virginia's American Revolution (Lexington Books, 2007) to have made this clear. Gutzman notes that toward

the end of the Richmond [Ratification] Convention, Federalists believed they had found a solution. Would the concerns of the Republicans be allayed, they asked, if the form of ratification included … a general statement of Virginia's right to reclaim control of such questions in case of federal overreaching were affixed? After all, the Federalists explained, when two parties made a contract, any conditions in the ratification were understood to operate as amendments, and the reservation would do the same here. (Gutzman, p. 86)

Thus, contrary to Krannawitter, Virginia's conditions were not assertions of a general right of revolution but explicit limitations under which the state entered the new government. Is it not plausible to think, then, that if the state judged the federal government a persistent violator of its rights, it might withdraw from the Union? Further, it would not make sense to hold that some states were more firmly bound to the Union than others. Virginia's reservations applied to the other states as well. Krannawitter unfortunately was unable to make use of Gutzman's major scholarly work; he confines his criticism to Gutzman's books written for a popular audience. He might plead in extenuation that Gutzman's book appeared too late for him to use; but Gutzman's main conclusions about the Richmond Convention were set forward in his "Edmund Randolph and Virginia Constitutionalism" (The Review of Politics 66 [2004], pp. 469–97).

Gutzman's research helps us to understand better the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions of 1798 and 1799. Contrary to Krannawitter, these resolutions were not the product of Jefferson's tendency toward hyperbole. Quite the contrary, Jefferson and Madison were solidly in the tradition of the Richmond Convention:

the twin enunciations of the Republican constitutional position adopted by the Virginia and Kentucky legislatures corresponded closely to the explication of the federal Constitution offered by Virginia Federalists in the Richmond Ratification Convention of 1788. By the time matters came to a head in 1798, the Virginians had insisted on holding the Federalists to their vows of 1788 for a full decade. (Gutzman, p. 114)

Krannawitter tries to tie nullification to Calhoun's "historicist" position; but ironically for him, Jefferson, the coauthor of the resolutions, was also the author of the Declaration of Independence that, according to him, formed the foundation of Lincoln's views. Further, it is grounds for concern that while Krannawitter cites Madison's rejection of Calhoun's nullification doctrine, he never quotes the Virginia Resolution that Madison wrote. (He does quote the Kentucky Resolution, written by Jefferson [p. 181].) Had he done so, it would have been clear that Madison had misrepresented his earlier position. The Virginia Resolution said that states have the power to interpose against federal legislation and accordingly held the Alien and Sedition Acts unconstitutional, appealing to the other states to do likewise.

Krannawitter has vindicated neither Lincoln nor Jaffa. Lest I be accused of writing an unduly negative review, I shall conclude by recommending his discussion of the Progressives and the New Deal (pp. 293ff.) If Krannawitter were to expand these remarks, he would write a valuable book.


Despite the picture from the Amazon.com site, "Defending the Politics" rather then "Ideals" is on the book's title page and dust jacket.


  • 1. An earlier passage (p. 130) might be read as making the same mistake, but it admits of another reading, so I of course give our author the benefit of the doubt. The passage claims that Darwin's views suggested to "many" that "there simply was no distinct human species." That is odd, since in The Descent of Man, Darwin argues in support of the contrary view.
  • 2. For a discussion of Jaffa's mistake, see my "Jaffa On Equality, Democracy, Morality," notes 109 and 110, and the text to which these notes refer.
  • 3. Here Krannawitter quotes me as wondering how someone who said this can be regarded as a believer in equality between blacks and whites.
  • 4. For a good discussion of Locke's views on voting, see Martin Seliger, "Locke's Theory of Revolutionary Action", Western Political Quarterly, Vol.16, no.3 (September 1963), pp. 599 ff.

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David Gordon is Senior Fellow at the Mises Institute and editor of the Mises Review.