Lowry on Lincoln

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Rich Lowry has written a brilliant article (and also evidently a book) defending Abraham Lincoln from his critics on the right. He meticulously goes through the charges that certain people on the fringe right level at Lincoln and rebuts them one by one. For example, on the charge that Lincoln was a great centralizer out to destroy the states, Lowry notes that Lincoln’s view of the nation was little different than James Madison. Madison, like Lincoln, fought against the ideas of the likes of John Calhoun, who had defended the doctrine of nullification and asserted the supremacy of the states. As for secession, Lowry makes a point that I have often made regarding the right of the confederate states to rebel:

In his anti-Lincoln tract The Real Lincoln, Thomas DiLorenzo argues that secession is as American as apple pie. “The United States were founded by secessionists,” he insists, “and began with a document, the Declaration, that justified the secession of the American states.” No. The country was founded by revolutionaries and the Declaration justified an act of revolution. No one denies the right of revolution. Madison said that revolution was an “extra & ultra constitutional right.” Even Lincoln, in his First Inaugural Address, concedes the point: “If, by the mere force of numbers, a majority should deprive a minority of any clearly written constitutional right, it might, in a moral point of view, justify revolution — certainly would, if such right were a vital one.”


The friends of secession aren’t eager to invoke the right to revolution, though. For one thing, when a revolution fails, you hang. For another, the Declaration says a revolution shouldn’t be undertaken “for light and transient causes,” but only when a people have suffered “a long train of abuses and usurpations.” What was the train in 1860 and 1861? Seven southern states left the Union before Lincoln was inaugurated. The South had dominated the federal government for decades. Abuses and usurpations? It’s more like lose an election and go home.

He also takes on the likes of Ron Paul, who has asserted that Lincoln could have used the power of the purse to free the slaves rather than fighting a bloody civil war. Lowry writes:

They come up with fanciful alternatives to military conflict. Ron Paul wonders why Lincoln didn’t forestall the war by simply buying up and freeing the slaves. With his usual sense of realism, Paul ignores the fact that Lincoln repeatedly advanced schemes for just such a compensated emancipation. Lincoln argued for these proposals as “the cheapest and most humane way to end the war.” But except in the District of Columbia, they went precisely . . . nowhere. The border states weren’t selling, let alone the South. Even little Delaware, which was selected as a test case because in 1860 it had only 587 slaveholders out of a white population of 90,500, couldn’t be persuaded to cash out of slavery. One plan proposed by Lincoln would have paid $400 or so per slave and achieved full abolition by 1893. A version of the scheme failed in the state’s legislature.

Lowry addresses Lincoln’s war measures, and notes that Lincoln simply used the legitimate powers that were prescribed in the Constitution.

When it comes to the idea that Lincoln’s administration birthed the welfare state, Lowry destroys that argument.

Yet another favorite count against Lincoln on the Right is that he was the midwife for the birth of the modern welfare state — a false claim also made by progressives bent on appropriating him for their own purposes. The war necessarily entailed the growth and centralization of the state, but this hardly makes Lincoln a forerunner to FDR or LBJ. The income tax required to fund the war, instituted in 1861 and soon made into a progressive tax with higher rates for the wealthy, was a temporary measure eliminated in 1872. Wars are expensive. In 1860, the federal budget was well under $100 million. By the end of the war, it was more than $1 billion. But the budget dropped back down to $300 million, excluding payments on the debt, within five years of the end of the war.


To see in any of this the makings of the modern welfare state requires a leap of imagination. In the midst of the war, the State Department had all of 33 employees. The famous instances of government activism not directly related to the war — the subsidies to railroads, the Homestead Act — were a far cry from the massive transfer programs instituted in the 20th century. The railroads got land and loan guarantees but were a genuinely transformational technology often, though not always, providing an economic benefit. The Homestead Act, as Lincoln historian Allen Guelzo argues, can be viewed as a gigantic privatization of public lands, which were sold off at a cut rate to people willing to improve their plots.


In the North during the war, historian Richard Franklin Bensel points out, the industrial and agricultural sectors ran free of government controls. The labor force, although tapped for manpower for the war, was relatively unmolested. The government became entangled with the financial system, but that system was also becoming more modern, sophisticated, and free of European influence. Given its vitality and wealth, the North could wage the war without subjecting itself to heavy-handed command-and-control policies. Compared with the overmatched Confederacy, it was a laissez-faire haven.

Indeed federal government spending as a percentage of GDP increased to approximately 15 percent at the height of the Civil War, but came crashing down to about a 5 percent level immediately after its conclusion, where it remained until the Wilson administration. (Correction – see comments, spending was even lower, and remained low but for WWI until the Great Depression.)

If anything Lincoln was a Hamiltonian conservative. He believed in a strong national government to be sure, but one essentially limited in scope. It’s rather fitting considering that it was Hamilton’s political enemy – Thomas Jefferson – who Lincoln held up as a hero. It is also rather ironic that often those on the right who deride Lincoln are the same who glorify Jefferson. Perhaps that is a subject also worthy of deeper study.



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  1. but came crashing down to about a 5 percent level immediately after its conclusion, where it remained until the Wilson administration.

    Federal expenditure during the fiscal year concluding in 1916 was around ~1.4%. It stood at around 13% per annum at the peak of the 1st World War and then was whittled down to a level of 1.7% during the fiscal year concluding in 1929.

  2. Ron Paul wonders why Lincoln didn’t forestall the war by simply buying up and freeing the slaves.

    13% = share of the labor force accounted for by slaves
    67% = share of domestic income accounted for by labor (guess from hist values)
    .55 = ratio of productivity of slave labor to the mean (guess)

    Therefore = 4.8% of domestic product attributable to slave labor.

    p/e ratio = 15.87 (cribbed from securities markets)

    15.87 x 4.8 = 76% of domestic product;

    however, the slaveholders would have to pay taxes to service the federal debt. About a quarter of Southern households owned slaves. In our own time, the most affluent quarter of the population corrals about 60% of disposable income ‘ere the assessment of taxes. About 40% of the population lived in the slave states. Ergo, a guess that 24% of the revenue stream to service the posited redemption bonds would come from quondam slaveholder households. Therefore,

    100% of gdp = gross value of posited redemption bond issue.

    Slapping together some figures from the economic historian T.J. Weiss and others, it would appear that nominal gdp in 1860 might have been around
    $3.5 bn, or about $885 per slave. That would be the mean price; presumably a working buck would command much more. (This assumes that Southern slaveholders would regard it as a purely economic transaction and also not insist on a risk premium taking into account the possibility of default on posited redemption bonds or, alternatively, inflation of the currency).

    N.B, given the economic consequence of federal spending as it was in the ante-bellum period, it is a reasonable guess that federal spending as a ratio of domestic product would have had to have roughly quadrupled after such a redemption, with 3/4 of federal revenues devoted to servicing redemption bonds.

    (I imagine Stanley Engerman has cooked up some serious figures).

  3. I see that the Neo-Confederate nutcases are out in full force in the comments to Lowry’s article with their usual ignorance of history, refusal to respond to facts and contempt for anyone who does not share their hatred for our Sixteenth President.

  4. Just read somewheres that the US is the only country that suffered a civil war to end slavery. Go figure.

  5. I see that the Neo-Confederate nutcases are out in full force in the comments

    Don, I didn’t even bother scanning the comments because I knew they would be, especially when I saw the article had about 1,000 comments.

  6. I guess whoever wrote what you read was bone ignorant of history T-Shaw and never heard of the many slave revolts throughout history, Haiti, or how the slave revolt in Guyana in 1823 helped lead to the abolition of slavery in the British Empire. There were several slave revolts in the South, but the reaction of the slave holders was to spearhead the movement to destroy the Union, and to attempt to create a country, the Confederacy, brought into existence solely to defend the precious right to hold other human beings in bondage.

  7. “The fact that one doesn’t worship the 16th POTUS does not mean that one hates the man.”

    “Worship” T.Shaw? Neo-Confederates routinely refer to Abraham Lincoln as a Marxist dictator. Their irrationality and ignorance is a never ending source of wonder for me. One can be critical of Lincoln without being a crank, but overwhelmingly the criticism of Lincoln comes today from people who can at best be charitably described as cranks, although I think far worse terms would be usually more accurate.

  8. As of now, there are 1,248 comments on Mr. Lowry’s article. I think the more provocative submissions at National Review generally garner a few score. Lowry is not an acerbic character, quite the contrary. One might suggest that people find that the thesis advanced implicates them in a very personal way.

  9. Re: civil war to free slaves – I’m guessing that revolts don’t count. It does happen that slaves try to attain their freedom, but I don’t know of any other case where non-slaves rose up politically to free the slaves, leading to a civil war.

    Re: secession versus revolution – That’s seems like a distinction without a difference. The Americans (rightly) believed that their government no longer represented them, and they split from it. The Confederates (wrongly) believed the same.

  10. I didn’t think National Review hds 1,248 readers.

    I learn something every day. Today, I learned about the “common ground” between Nat Turner’s gang and the Northern Army.

  11. You publish something critical of fringe history, you get 1,248 readers per second, all of them angry.

  12. I guess this is what happens when you insist on viewing the 19th century with 21st-century colored glasses. Conservative/libertarian Lincoln bashing comes down to, IMO, any of several things:

    1. A genuine conviction that the Nation would be better off if states had the right to secede, given the overweening power that the Federal government holds today.

    2. An assumption that any historical figure that Obama praises and compares himself to must be evil.

    3. A conviction that nothing good can possibly come from Illinois.

    4. A wish that the South had won the Civil War, either for cultural reasons or due to latent or not-so-latent racism that ultimately believes blacks should have been “kept in their place”.

    5. An assumption that “if it would be wrong for the Federal government to declare war on the states now, it must have been wrong then,” ignoring the vast differences between the current and past situations. That would be kind of like assuming that if it would be wrong to amputate a perfectly healthy limb, it must be wrong to perform said operation in ANY situation.

  13. The Right, which (unlike its benighted leadership) is increasingly agitated about illegal immigration and the gang’s-of-eight efforts to put one over on the rest of the country, will be warming up to Lincoln in the decades to come with or without Lowry’s efforts.

    After all, the slaveholders were the Antebellum equivalent of the big-business interests now supporting the gang-of-eight — more concerned with cheap exploitable labor than they are about the well-being of their “workers” or the long-term prospects for this country. Ironically, despite all the efforts to pry the Confederate flag out from Billy-Bob’s cold, dead fingers, he might yet decide to pack that thing away on his own volition.

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