The Reluctant Emancipator
I like to call myself a reactionary utopian because it sounds romantic. The truth, however, is less glamorous. Lets be honest. Im actually a recovering Republican. Once youve learned to hate the Democrats, its hard to stop.
In the Goldwater era, when I was young, Republicans were talking about such high principles as federalism, limited government, and fiscal restraint. How did the party go from all these things to their polar opposites in George W. Bush?
In a word, war. As we prepare for another slam-dunk cakewalk preemptive war, this time with Iran, it may be well to recall that the GOP had its origins in big government, which leads to, and thrives on, war. Only weeks after the first Republican president took office, the United States were at war against their estranged sister states.
It proved to be the bloodiest war in American history, consuming 600,000 young Americans. Setting moral and political questions aside, we can never really know what was lost. How many of those young men, had they lived, would have blossomed into Edisons, Fords, Gershwins, and other geniuses whose fruits we would still enjoy and profit from? All we know is that the country was perpetually impoverished by this colossal waste of life. You never hum the tunes that never got written.
Nevertheless, we still celebrate no, deify the man who brought on this horror by refusing to countenance the peaceful withdrawal of seven states. Of course Lincoln is chiefly honored for ending slavery. Its a nice story, but it isnt exactly true.
When the Confederacy was formed, so many Southern Democrats left both houses of the U.S. Congress that both the House and the Senate were left with Republican majorities. With this near-monopoly of power, the GOP in those days, the GYP, I suppose passed two confiscation acts in 1861 and 1862, authorizing the seizure of any private property used to assist the rebellion. These powers were so vaguely defined that they permitted limitless repression, such as the closing of newspapers critical of Lincolns war. In combination with Lincolns suspension of habeas corpus, anyone could be arrested for anything in the Land of the Free.
The 1862 act expressly declared slaves in the seceding states forever free. This was the real Emancipation Proclamation, but Lincoln was actually reluctant to act on it, doubting its constitutionality. For months the radical Republicans attacked him and egged him on, and finally he gave it effect in the most famous executive order of all time. He argued that in wartime he might take a punitive step that would be illegal during a time of peace.
This was a dubious technical argument, and Lincoln wrote his own Emancipation Proclamation in dull, dry language, with none of his typically memorable rhetoric. It had, as the historian Richard Hofstadter later put it, all the moral grandeur of a bill of lading.
Lincoln had had other plans for ending slavery. Hed always thought it should be done gradually, with compensation to the slaveowners and the freed blacks to be encouraged to leave the United States. It was his conviction, repeatedly and openly stated, that though all men are created equal, abstractly speaking, the Negro the African, he called him could never enjoy political and social equality with the white man in this country; the black man would have to find his equality somewhere else, without [i.e., outside] the United States.
So Lincoln waged war to prevent the political separation of North and South, but in the hope of achieving racial separation between black and white. Both goals entailed vast expansions of Federal and executive power. Limited government, anyone?
With its current Jacobin-Wilsonian zeal for spreading democracy around the globe, the Republican Party today is more or less back where it started. And once again, a Republican president is claiming wartime powers, under the Constitution, to act outside the Constitution. But at least Lincoln thought he owed the public an explanation, and he did give them one, of sorts.
Still, the myth persists that Lincoln lived his whole life for the purpose of abolishing slavery, and was finally able to do this with a single inspired sovereign act. Like most historical myths, this one ignores all the interesting details. As Lincoln himself said, I have not controlled events, but plainly confess that events have controlled me.
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