Buy the Book

King Abe at 199

Greatest president or villainous destroyer of states' rights?

By 7.22.08

Send to Kindle

Vindicating Lincoln: Defending the Politics of Our Greatest President
By Thomas L. Krannawitter
(Rowman & Littlefield, 376 pages, $24.95)

Americans, by and large, do not object to a little hero-worship now and then, as long as the hero is a democratic champion fighting for equal rights, or what we used to call "a fair shake." It's hard to think of a single hero -- from Superman to Martin Luther King -- who hasn't been associated in some way with the "never-ending battle for truth, justice and the American way."

This goes double for our 16th president. For more than a century Abraham Lincoln was a veritable demigod, his reputation singularly incorruptible. North of the Mason-Dixon Line none dared utter an uncharitable word about him, with the lone exception of Edgar Lee Masters, himself raised not far from Abe's stomping grounds, and whose lawyer father officed with Lincoln's partner William Henry Herndon. Masters pere and fils seldom missed an opportunity to shatter the myth of the Great Emancipator, but it was the author of The Spoon River Anthology who grew rabid in his belief that the cold, lazy fanatic Lincoln was alone responsible for inciting the "War of Northern Aggression," for hammering the final tenpenny nail into the coffin of States' sovereignty, for dismantling the Constitution and ultimately corrupting the founders' dream. "Abraham Lincoln destroyed the American system," wrote Masters in his Lincoln The Man. "He was the ruin of its character and its primal hope. The Lincoln myth must cease."

Channeling his old drinking buddy H.L. Mencken, Masters describes Honest Abe thus:

He went about grotesquely dressed, carrying a faded umbrella, wearing a ludicrous plug hat. He was mannerless, unkempt, and one wonders if he was not unwashed, in those days of the weekly bath in the foot tub, if a bath was taken at all. [As attorney, for the Illinois Central R. R. he was found] riding about on special trains furnished him and posing as 'Humble Abe Lincoln.' . . . He set out to marry Mary Owens, and when she would not have him he was enraged and proceeded to degrade her by a vulgarity of words which were as well untrue.

The U.S. Congress attempted to ban Master's biography, which was offered only once in a brief first edition. It needn't have bothered. Booksellers were reluctant to stock the book, which they claimed did not sell.

Since the 1950s, however, the mythbusters and iconoclasts have been busily unmasking the Rail Splitter, chief among them the so-called neo-Confederates both north and south. Libertarian authors like Thomas DiLorenzo, author of The Real Lincoln, have dusted off Masters' book, using it as a reference point, while black studies majors compose volumes detailing the Great Emancipator's supposed racist beliefs.

IN ELEMENTARY SCHOOL in rural Illinois we were taught to revere "the Prairie Flower of the West" like a plaster saint. We took pilgrimages to his two-story home and his tomb in Springfield and visited his log cabin lodgings in New Salem. He was Moses, Julius Caesar, Mark Twain and Ragged Dick all in one. What we never heard, as grade school or college students, was much explanation of Lincoln's politics. What, besides preserving the Union, did he stand for?

This would have meant getting into ideas like natural rights versus states' rights, and that was beyond our teachers. Fortunately Thomas L. Krannawitter, assistant professor of government at Hillsdale College, has stepped into the breech. Riding to old Abe's defense, Prof. Krannawitter, who in his review of The Real Lincoln calls its author, "a giddy, careless, half-educated boy," debunks the idea that President Lincoln was the bogeyman of states' rights, favoring centralized government, empire, and mercantilism over equal natural rights and free market economics.

Important though the issues of slavery, individual natural rights, and state sovereignty were, there were more important matters to consider. Government of the people, by the people and for the people was on trial for its life, and there was no reason to think the American experiment would not go the way of the French Revolution. (Ironically, the American Revolution was no revolution at all, since no government was deposed. It was rather a textbook secessionist movement, writes DiLorenzo.)

In fact, King Abe's detractors were convinced the American experiment had already degenerated into a Napoleonic dictatorship. By denying the Southern states their legitimate and natural right to secede, Lincoln was more of a tyrant than Robespierre or Napoleon. In Abe's defense, Krannawitter argues there was no constitutional right of secession. True, but there was also nothing in the Constitution to prevent a state from seceding (despite what a majority of pro-Union justices wrote in Texas v. White). Had the Founders tried to insert such a clause, we would still be operating under the Articles of Confederation. Arguably the right of secession or "separation" was enunciated in the Declaration of Independence where Thomas Jefferson argued that whenever the consent of the governed is withdrawn it is the right of the people to "abolish" that government and "to institute a new government."

The issue, then, was the natural right of a people to withdraw from a voluntary union versus the importance of keeping the great democratic experiment alive. Lincoln chose the latter, thereby preserving the union and ending the peculiar institution of slavery.

Krannawitter argues that if Lincoln is not great, then no politician is, and without great politicians we sink into the deep funk of cynicism, throwing up our hands at the political process, while despots take charge (sort of like the liberals on the Supreme Court are doing currently). I don't know. I happen to think cynicism an important quality and cynicism directed toward politicians essential. Essential, that is, if we hope to keep the great democratic experiment alive.

Like this Article

Print this Article

Print Article
About the Author
Christopher Orlet writes from St. Louis.