David R. Henderson  

Land of Lincoln

Markets in Everything... Quoted Out of Context Again...

My occasional co-author, Jeff Hummel, has scored a real coup: getting a balanced assessment of Abraham Lincoln published in Illinois. And not just in Illinois but also in the most important Illinois newsaper, the Chicago Tribune. And not just in the Chicago Tribune, but also on Lincoln's birthday.

Best sentence:

The presidency of Abraham Lincoln thus witnessed the simultaneous culmination and repudiation of the American Revolution.

Note that whereas Robert Higgs dates the growth of big government to the WWI, Great Depression, WWII interventions, Hummel uses Higgs-type reasoning to date it to the Civil War. Indeed, that was the hook I used to persuade Fortune to let me review his excellent book on the Civil War, Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men.

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CATEGORIES: Economic History

COMMENTS (13 to date)
MattYoung writes:

I put the bigger Lincoln government as the cause of the Civil War. It caused a serious contradiction in that the Republicans, leading the expansion with Keynesian policy under priced the cost of Manifest Destiny and the wealth shock resulted in civil war.

I particularly blame John Fremont, the Californians, and the radical Republican Keynesians.

I am beginning to think that Keynes may have started WW2 also.

Nick Schulz writes:

David, you will agree that perpetuating the enslavement of blacks took enormous amounts of state power, yes? I find the libertarian knock on Lincoln odd. Slave holders demanded the state assert enormous power to help them enslave men. Why do some libertarians despise Lincoln so? I understand why paleos do, but not libertarians.

David R. Henderson writes:

Yes, I do agree. Jeff lays that out in his book and points out that the Northern abolitionists were the big proponents of Northern secession: "No union with slaveholders."
You read Jeff's article, right? That explains why we don't like Lincoln. The way to eliminate slavery while still being true to the Declaration of Independence would have been to let the South secede. Then the underground railway could have stopped at the Ohio River rather than the Canadian border. Slavery would have been much harder to enforce and would have ended without over 600,000 deaths and a powerful central government with way fewer checks on its power.

RickC writes:


I would add that some Northern abolitionists were among the fiercest critics of Lincoln's war. People like Lysander Spooner, William Lloyd Garrison and Horace Greeley seemed to have understood something about the war that most people today, having been fed the mythology of Lincoln and the overly simplistic idea of slavery as the cause of the war, don't. What was it they saw?

I would also recommend Thomas DiLorenzo's two books on Lincoln. He has been heavily criticized by the keepers of Lincoln's myth but my own research shows his work to be well substantiated by the facts.

George J. Georganas writes:

So, the Declaration of Independence allows a minority to secede, if they do not like the outcome of a presidential election. This is what the South did as soon as Lincoln was elected. And if the South were to adhere to that interpretation, surely they would have allowed their slaves to secede, when the slaves so wished.
Why bother with any laws, when one can move out of reach of them by just declaring so ?
Also, note the asymmetry in the assertion about the Underground Railroad: Why force blacks to take refuge north and not call for whites to move to Cuba, Mexico or wherever they chose to settle ? Maybe because every other nation had abolished slavery by that time, so slavery ought to become a sacred part of American Exceptionalism ?

GregN writes:

No Free Lunch.

Suppose you believe that both slavery is bad and increased state intervention is bad. Do you think that the elimination of slavery was worth, at least, the cost of increased state intervention? I happen to think so.

RickC writes:

Actually George,

The Declaration did establish that a minority could choose to secede if THEY felt the government under which they lived had ceased to respect their rights and look after their interests. That's the whole point of the document.

How they understood their reasons for secession is not for other people to judge. Did 600,000 people have to be killed, and at least that many maimed for life, to force them to remain under the sway of that government? That is the question you should be asking yourself.

As far as the question of slavery, there was a real argument, voiced by leading abolitionists in the North of that period, that slavery would not have survived long after secession. Even Jefferson Davis recognized that secession spelled the end of slavery in the South.

You should look into those abolitionists' arguments and see why they thought like they did. And then ask yourself again if so many actually had to be killed and maimed to bring slavery to an end in the U.S.

On the question of secession, I leave you with this thought from Lincoln himself:

"Any people anywhere, being inclined and having the power, have the right to rise up and shake off the existing government, and form a new one that suits them better. . .Nor is this right confined to cases in which the whole people of an existing governemnt may choose to exercise it. Any portion of such people, that can, may revolutionize, and make their own of so much of the territory as they inhabit." Jan. 12 1848

Zac writes:

Already mentioned, but I'll plug again. The best book on Lincoln's presidency: The Real Lincoln [amazon.com] by Thomas DiLorenzo.

Of course, slavery is a bad thing. In fact, its the worst thing. But if you think that Lincoln's presidency, or the Civil War, was primarily about slavery - you need to read more history.

Snark writes:

For a more balanced perspective, I would recommend Thomas L. Krannawitter's "Dishonest About Abe" review of DiLorenzo's "The Real Lincoln"

The Great Emancipator was no saint, but neither is he quite the sinner that his detractors would have us believe.

guthrie writes:

David, as usual, you are the most challenging author I’ve read today (not a bad thing, btw). If you smell hair burning, it’s because you’ve got my noodle cooking! Anyhoo, in reflecting on why the ideas presented by you and Mr. Hummel challenge me so, I’ve come up with these questions:

I don’t doubt that slavery was quite low on the list of ‘reasons’ for the war. The real issue was political and economic power. The South felt like a Northern colony and wanted to assert itself. Why succession in the first place? Why not try to adopt northern industry and technology to compete? Did the South really have no other option?

Wasn’t it Lincoln’s view that the succession itself threatened the ideals described in the Declaration and Constitution? How untrue is this idea?

Wasn’t the Union worth fighting for? If not, what is worth fighting for? Under what circumstances would Lincoln’s (or any) administration be justified in using force?

Wouldn’t a successful succession weaken both the North and South, economically speaking? Wouldn’t the threat of a European power, such as England, re-asserting itself on the continent be greater were that the case? (Is that last sentence convoluted enough for you?!)

I welcome your comments!

rpl writes:
I don’t doubt that slavery was quite low on the list of ‘reasons’ for the war. The real issue was political and economic power.
You should doubt more. Read South Carolina's articles of secession (http://facweb.furman.edu/~benson/docs/decl-sc.htm). After getting through the flowery rhetoric and the assertions that they have the right to secede if they want to, the only substantive reason they give for secession is slavery. It starts in paragraph 17 and continues to the end. The single longest paragraph in the document (p21) is a protracted whine about free states not repatriating escaped slaves.

You can argue that it was wrong to hold the Union together by force if you wish, but let's not persist in trying to whitewash the reason for the South's secession. It was slavery all the way.

b. writes:

George J. Georganas writes: "Maybe because every other nation had abolished slavery by that time, so slavery ought to become a sacred part of American Exceptionalism ?"

You are incorrect here George, slavery has remained in existence since prehistoric times. Brazil, for example, didn't abolish slavery until almost 1890; and slavery is practiced even today in Sudan.

rpl writes: "It was slavery all the way."

Slavery and racism were big portions of the rhetoric for all sides, but that doesn't mean it was the main reason - just that it was the best way to mobilize popular support.
I imagine that trying to explain the harmful effects of the tariff in taxing the South in order to provide protection and "corporate welfare" for Northern industrialists (in the name of infrastructure spending, no less) would be much more difficult to sell to the masses.
The rhetoric that the Whig/Republicans used in the Midwest to break the Midwest-South alliance that had prevailed before then, for example, was heavily based upon keeping the States safe for "free white labor".

I would also point out that before Lincoln initiated hostilities, there were more slave states in the Union than in the Confederacy - including several states with more slaves than Texas had. Slavery was common only in the east and Gulf coast areas of Texas, yet much of the state was anti-Union for other reasons. After secession, many Texans, including the governor, argued that Texas should remain independent rather than join the Confederacy.
And of course, everyone knows that the Emancipation Proclamation didn't apply to the four slave states that remained in the Union the entire war.
So there was definitely much more going on than just the slavery issue.

George J. Georganas writes:

Granted, about slavery continuing even today and in much worse form than in Antebellum South. But that only reinforces the point that pro-slavery US Americans could (and can) take refuge in such places, instead of seceding and, thus, forcing their slaves to take the shortened Underground Railroad to the Ohio.

Secession and rebellion are not the same thing. Lincoln is right about the right to rebel. That right, also, allows the majority to resist rebellion. If one chooses to forego the wise tribunals set up by one's ancestors and settle matters by means of armed force, so can the next fellow.
The fact is the Southerners rebelled after Lincoln was elected. Had one of his three opponents been elected, they would not have rebelled. Losing a free and fair election hurts and can lead to rebellion, but cannot be grounds for lawful secession.

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