David R. Henderson  

Henderson and Gochenour on "Presidential Greatness"

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My co-author, Zachary Gochenour, and I have posted our article, "War and Presidential Greatness," on line here. Here's the abstract:

Historians and journalists commonly survey other historians on the relative "greatness" of American presidents, and these rankings show remarkable consistency between surveys. In this paper we consider commonalities between highly ranked presidents and compare plausible determinants of greatness according to historians. We find that a strong predictor of greatness is the fraction of American lives lost in war during a president's tenure. We find this predictor to be robust and compare favorably to other predictors used in previous historical research. We discuss potential reasons for this correlation and conclude with a discussion of how historians' views might affect policy.

One of the great quotes we lead with is from Theodore Roosevelt, complaining in 1910 after leaving office:
If there is not war, you don't get the great general; if there is not the great occasion, you don't get the great statesman; if Lincoln had lived in times of peace, no one would know his name now.

We end with the following two paragraphs:
Woodrow Wilson, by contrast, inserted the United States into World War I. That was a war that the United States could easily have avoided. Moreover, had the U.S. government avoided World War I, the treaty that ended the war would not likely have been so lopsided. The Versailles Treaty's punitive terms on Germany, as Keynes predicted in 1919, helped set the stage for World War II. So it is reasonable to think that had the United States not entered World War I, there might not have been a World War II. Yet, despite his major blunder and more likely, because of his major blunder, which caused over 100,000 Americans to die in World War I, Wilson is often thought of as a great president.
The danger is that modern presidents understand these incentives. Those who want peace should take historians' ratings of presidents seriously. Beyond that, we should stop celebrating, and try to persuade historians to stop celebrating, presidents who made unnecessary wars. One way to do so is to remember the unseen: the war that didn't happen, the war that was avoided, and the peace and prosperity that resulted. If we applied this standard, then presidents Martin van Buren, John Tyler, Warren G. Harding, and Calvin Coolidge, to name four, would get a substantially higher rating than they are usually given.


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The author at Samizdata.net in a related article titled How perceptions of presidents might have been different writes:
    Oh, the joys of counterfactual history: "Woodrow Wilson, by contrast, inserted the United States into World War I. That was a war that the United States could easily have avoided. Moreover, had the U.S. government avoided World War I, the treaty that e... [Tracked on March 29, 2012 12:05 PM]
COMMENTS (52 to date)
Ted Craig writes:

I would replace war with large government projects. T. Roosevelt is considered a great president and is the only one to earn his Noble Peace Prize. He's considered great because of anti-trust and national parks. Men like Coolidge and Cleveland are considered failures for taking a more tempered approach.

Alex Nowrasteh writes:

Ted, military deaths per capita seem to fit the popularity pretty well. Check out page 21 of their paper.

Richard Manns writes:

There are very contentious assumptions here.

Wars aren't won just because the US turned up. Neither the influx of Eastern Front troops post-Brest-Litovsk, nor the Americans, made any strategic difference to what was effectively a siege of a country. That fabled break-through never happened. Can you honestly say that shifting that front line 20 miles east or west would have mattered in Versailles, beyond making the French even thirstier for revenge?

Further, Germany wasn't particularly humiliated, as what Germany did to Russia (Brest-Litovsk) can testify. And, had the 'betrayal' of Versailles been less of an issue, what about the Communists? By the end, elections were dominated by anti-democracy parties, and this wasn't a unique feature of Germany (see Czechoslovakia, Poland, Austria, Spain). Perhaps if war-guilt hadn't been such a uniting issue in Germany, the Anglosphere would have faced an allied Communist Russia and Germany against the 'capitalist' rest.

I doubt that the US would have enjoyed that at all.

Ken B writes:

My greatest heresy is my belief that it was the armistice as much as the harshness of the treaty that was the great blunder. [A blunder I'd have leapt to make.] Germany faced a crushing defeat militarily, and this was not fully felt by the Germans because of the armistice. This not only deprived the Germans of the chance to learn 'the pity of war', it made it impossible for them to understand why the French and others felt so hostile, which only fed ill will on both sides, delayed the discrediting of conquest we have seen since 1945, and it made plausible to millions the legend of 'the stab in the back.' This last was crucial to the nazi's success.

Post WWII Germans are pacific; post WWI Germans were not; it might have been otherwise.

There were contemporaries who made just this argument and opposed the armistice. They are not as feted as Keynes.

Ken B writes:

As a Canadian I was interested in the ranking of Madison. My impression is that he was one of the greatest of the founding fathers, but a lousy president. 'Mr Madison's war', purely a war of choice, is the only memorable thing about his administration! Perhaps his carried over glory from 1789 contributes to his relatively high ranking, otherwise he seems to be, after Wilson and FDR, the best example for the thesis.

I think the C-Span rankings probably reflect this 'other achievements' effect. JQA was an incomparable ex-president.

Bob Murphy writes:

Great point at the end, David, about people who desire peace and how they should react to the historians' ratings. In a different context I've made a similar argument. I argue that if people say, "Normally the government shouldn't have the power to do X, I grant you, but in wartime we have to make an exception," then oops you just gave the government a great reason to start a war.

Steve Sailer writes:

When Warren G. Harding took office, America had been undergoing a kind of general nervous breakdown for about four years. When he died, America was prosperous, peaceful, and far more psychologically stable. So, he was a terrible president, apparently.

Justin writes:

What is the basis for the claim that Wilson's decision to insert the United States into World War I caused the Treaty of Versailles to be more punitive than it would have been otherwise? That implies that the British and French would have gone easier on Germany but for the presence of the United States at the bargaining table. I'm certainly not an expert in World War I history but in general Wilson and the United States were not pushing for reparations or for particularly harsh long-term limits on German sovereignty or the German economy. He certainly wasn't pushing for the War Guilt Clause. Wilson wanted an orderly restoration of trade with Germany. Wilson generally gave in to the British and French on questions of reparations in return for the creation of the League of Nations.

In fact, Wilson's 14 points were sufficiently deferential to the Germans that they likely hastened her surrender. In the absence of public statements of war aims from the other Allied powers, the Central Powers expected that the final treaty would be reasonably consistent with Wilson's 14 points which would have minimized the long-term damage to the German economy. The terms of the treaty that ultimately lead to World War II were added by Britain and France after Germany's surrender.

While Wilson is certainly responsible for the 100,000 Americans to have died in World War I, there are arguments to be made that the decision to join the war ultimately saved lives by helping to bring the war to a conclusion more quickly. The German's Spring offensive in 1918, for example, ended up causing on the order of 500,000 casualties on both sides. You don't have to shorten the war by much to save 100,000 lives. And had the 14 points been adopted wholesale (not a particularly realistic outcome given the emotions of the French and British), there is a decent chance that World War II could have been avoided.

Ken B writes:

Richard Manns: "Wars aren't won just because the US turned up. Neither the influx of Eastern Front troops post-Brest-Litovsk, nor the Americans, made any strategic difference to what was effectively a siege of a country."

It's too long ago for me to have details but this is wrong. Germany was on the brink of complete collapse at the time of the armistice. The armistice averted that.

Ken B writes:

Justin: Absent the 1M Americans and american aid the French and others would not have been in such a position of strength. Germany was unable to resume hostilities, but the French and allies were.

I'm not saying I buy David's analysis -- see my post above! -- but that's a plausible inference. Also plausible is that absent American intervention more Europeans would have died as you suggest (and I agree).

However I don't think their analysis depends on arguing who is to blame for what. They are trying to test an empirical prediction, that the 'size' of a president's military efforts has a strong positive correlation to his assessment by historians. They use MDPC as a proxy for this 'size'. So Wilson and Madison, who joined a war voluntarily, and FDR, who did not, get lumped in together. War is part of their record. Does that make them look better to history?

Mark Bahner writes:

Hi,

Here's an exchange I had on another blog wherein I maintained that Washington was a far, far better president than Lincoln.

Washington great; Lincoln not so much

The other commenters were very unhappy with my panning of Lincoln.

Collin writes:

I know David thinks Woodrow Wilson as the great Satan of liberterianism (although what President promote free trade and low tariffs?) but the last paragraph is ridiculous amount of logic on Wilson. If the United States wanted to be included in the war, then Wilson should have:

1) Stop all European trade.
2) Stopped citizens from supporting one side (JP Morgan)
3) Ignore not one (Lustania) but two acts of war

That is not to say he was a lousy diplomat and at the key moment after the Lustania supported the English blockade. I suspect most Presidents would have sucked into the conflict as Germany was sick and tired of the Allies getting US made/grown supplies. Then blaming Wilson on all the after effects of the treaty that he did not agree with seems completely off target.

Justin writes:

Ken B: I certainly agree that this point is tangential to the point of the paper (which seems interesting but I haven't had time to read it closely).

Germany was on the brink of collapse at the time of the armistice but that was spurred in large part by the terrible losses suffered in the aftermath of the Spring Offensive. The Spring Offensive was a last ditch effort by the Central Powers to overwhelm the Allies before American forces started appearing in mass. The Spring Offensive was halted and the Hundred Days Offensive was successful in part because of the presence of large numbers of fresh American troops (mostly in defensive positions while the more experienced Allied troops lead the charge).

Had the United States not entered the war, it is unlikely that the Spring Offensive would have taken place or that it would have been a much smaller offensive. The war would likely have ground on much as it had in 1917 with both sides locked in a stalemate. Eventually, Germany would have been exhausted and would have come to the negotiating table in a similar position some months later after thousands of additional losses on both sides. I don't see where Germany would have surrendered in a better negotiating position had the end of the war merely been delayed a few months, both France and Britain would have lost more troops, and demands for reparations would, if anything, have been greater.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Justin,
In his first paragraph, Justin asks:
What is the basis for the claim that Wilson's decision to insert the United States into World War I caused the Treaty of Versailles to be more punitive than it would have been otherwise?
He answers his own question in his second paragraph:
In fact, Wilson's 14 points were sufficiently deferential to the Germans that they likely hastened her surrender. In the absence of public statements of war aims from the other Allied powers, the Central Powers expected that the final treaty would be reasonably consistent with Wilson's 14 points which would have minimized the long-term damage to the German economy.
Exactly. What I like to point out is that on April 6, 1917, when Wilson and Congress had the U.S. enter the war, none of Germany’s territory was occupied. It was because the U.S. entered the war that the German government sued for peace. And, of course, Wilson let them down by not insisting that Clemenceau and Lloyd George stick to them.

CBrinton writes:

Mark Bahner: "The other commenters were very unhappy with my panning of Lincoln."

Gee, some folks are so nuts. They actually think that resisting armed aggression from expansionist slavocrats is a good idea. There's just no reasoning with some people.

David Henderson: "What I like to point out is that on April 6, 1917, when Wilson and Congress had the U.S. enter the war, none of Germany’s territory was occupied. It was because the U.S. entered the war that the German government sued for peace."

I'm not sure what date you're using for when Germany "sued for peace" in WWI. I think the best date would be October 4, 1918, when the German government sent a telegram to Wilson requesting peace negotiations (which took about a month to conclude).

This was almost a year and a half after the US entered the war.

And it was still before any German territory was occupied. The Germans held a good-sized chunk of Belgium when the armistice went into effect on November 11, 1918.

I'd also be interested in hearing how a US president was supposed to avoid war with Germany after the Zimmermann telegram became public.

Joel West writes:

a) I would second the "big project" hypothesis. JFK didn't get a lot of people killed before he died, but he did vow to put a man on the moon and spend a lot on the Cold War

b) The title and closing paragraph are wrong: it should say ‘greatness’ because the point of the whole paper is that there is a systematic bias in this subjectively constructed concept.

Ken B writes:

@Justin: "Had the United States not entered the war,..."

My hypothetical applies only to armistice of 1918, when the US had entered the war.

David R. Henderson writes:

@CBrinton,
I'm not sure what date you're using for when Germany "sued for peace" in WWI. I think the best date would be October 4, 1918, when the German government sent a telegram to Wilson requesting peace negotiations (which took about a month to conclude).
I was thinking an even later date: November 1, 1918. But I could believe October 4. That doesn’t undercut my point. The reason the German government contacted the U.S. government is that the U.S. government had entered the war. My point with the April 6, 1917 date is that at the time, by the standard metrics one uses to measure who’s “winning,” the German government was “winning.” The entry of the U.S. government was what turned the tide.
I'd also be interested in hearing how a US president was supposed to avoid war with Germany after the Zimmermann telegram became public.
That’s easy. Don’t go to war. Governments often make contingency plans for what to do in case of war. That’s what the Zimmerman telegram was. I was told by a Pentagon official once that the U.S. military plans for almost everything--although, IMO, they’re a little weak on actual defense. IIRC, he told me that the U.S. government even has made contingency plans for invading Canada. Does that mean Canadians should worry? I don’t think so.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

This is one of those "I agree with very little of it, but it was an absolute pleasure to read" papers - and those are often the most enjoyable ones! Anyone can take pleasure in reading what they agree with.

My thoughts on it are here: http://factsandotherstubbornthings.blogspot.com/2012/03/henderson-and-gochenour-on-presidential.html

I hope they're interesting/helpful.

I was a little confused by the Wilson/Versailles point too (I didn't mention that in my post). You are of course right about the disconnect between the armistice terms and the treaty terms. Is the argument that if they weren't given such generous armistice terms they would have kept fighting? This doesn't seem to help your case. This is also where my knowledge of the situation quickly peters out... would the Allies have won even if the armistice wasn't extended and the war went on a little longer? I would think they would have - but I'm not sure. And if they would have won, is it really plausible to think the treaty would be less punitive? I'm having a lot of trouble with this case.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

Keynes was very critical of Wilson of course, but his view was that he was practically irrelevant to the outcome of the treaty (indeed - that was the whole problem). Keynes also points out that Lloyd George was more conciliatory towards Germany initially, and attributes a lot more of the policy change to the internal politics of Britain that Lloyd George was faced with. That would have happened regardless.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

One more point - if you're interested in reading something funny, read Thorstein Veblen's review of The Economic Consequences of the piece.

His argument - and I don't think I'm distorting it here - is that Keynes is being naive because Britain and France actually wanted to provoke the creation of a reactionary regime in Germany so that it would fight against Russian bolshevism. Veblen is an interesting guy, but he can also be extremely conspiratorial and paranoid.

Ken B writes:

DRH:

My point with the April 6, 1917 date is that at the time, by the standard metrics one uses to measure who’s “winning,” the German government was “winning.” The entry of the U.S. government was what turned the tide.

This is correct, and pretty uncontroversial. Germany came near to 'winning' the war a couple times. Exactly what that victory would have entailed is unclear, but it was the injection of US power that pushed Germany to the brink of collapse. Absent US intervention there is no way you would have seen a settlement as lopsided as Versailles. [Nor would you had Wilson put his foot down with the French.]

Floccina writes:

As the discussion above shows, some wars might be unavoidable but perhaps Martin van Buren deserves respect in that he avoid a war that another man at president might not have avoided.

johnleemk writes:

Mark Bahner:

Your argument would make a lot more sense if Lincoln hadn't run exactly the same calculations as you and asked Congress/the states to buy the freedom of the slaves, on the basis that this would be a lot cheaper and humane than the war. He did this repeatedly in the first two years of his presidency, and got nowhere. Abolitionists were queasy about recognising slavery by compensating slaveowners, and racists/slaveholders of all stripes refused to countenance any sort of emancipation; even the slave states remaining in the Union turned him down.

The recalcitrance on both sides means the slaves could never have been freed peacefully in order to avert the Civil War. The only scenarios in which the Civil War doesn't happen are where slavery continues untouched (and probably strengthened) in the South.

This myth that Lincoln wasn't interested in peaceful emancipation is absolutely crazy. Lincoln never sought to immediately emancipate the slaves, and all his proposals for emancipation until late 1862 involved compensating slaveowners and delaying full emancipation to the late 19th century.

Hunter writes:

I definitely would like to see a ranking of presidents based on peace and prosperity.

Charley Hooper writes:

This article is, in some ways, like Michael Lewis' book Moneyball. Lewis showed how baseball scouts were looking at the wrong metrics when judging baseball prospects. Henderson and Gochenour show us how historians are looking at the wrong metrics when judging presidents. But it all makes sense. Historians look for "important" things. When millions of people die and political borders change, that's important and that's what they focus on. Historians suffer from this occupational handicap, but economists can, like Billy Beane, show us a better way.

"Well-behaved women and presidents seldom make history."

Ken B writes:

@Daniel Kuehn: Thanks for doing all the heavy lifting!

I agree particularly with the point that a great leader is one who makes tough important decisions and gets them right. We know that the pilot froma few years ago, Sully, is seen as a great pilot because circumstances forced him to perform and he did. Without that he'd be considered a non-descript competent pilot.

Bob Murphy writes:

His parroting of the standard scoop on the presidents made me throw up in my mouth, but I must confess that Daniel Kuehn raised some good objections at his blog.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

If I have made Bob vomit in his own mouth, my work here is done.

Ken B - thanks.

A way of putting it that I thought of on Zac's fb page is that this current analysis really only counts the gross costs of these war-makers. If you are a pacifist and if you think the costs of war always dwarf any benefits, that might be reasonable. But most of us note that we don't like FDR because of the gross costs we paid under him - rather we like him because of the net benefits that that cost provided us with. A Europe free of the Nazis, a response to an invasion, and an end to an already-too-far-progressed holocaust. That's to say nothing of the fall of colonialism, the strengthening of peace-oriented international organizations, the unification of a continent, etc. that followed in the war's wake.

Judging only by the gross cost in lives, of course the regression will give you that we like presidents with high body counts.

But - to quote Bastiat and steal a line from Zac and David - you have to consider the unseen and the hard to measure, namely, the benefits of the conflict. I don't know how you measure these benefits but you really need to. It's those net benefits that I think most people have in mind when they say these presidents are "great".

If you make the right (ie - net benefit maximizing) choices in normal times, that's certainly laudable - but it's not going to garner the same recognition as the guy that makes the net benefit maximizing decision when the world is falling apart around him. I don't think it good garner the same recognition, personally.

No economist should quibble with this net benefit vs. gross cost argument.

How we count the benefits and costs will - of course - always be a point of contention.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

This is kind of along the lines of people who talk about war spending being "wasted" or "destruction" (in fact I think there's a line to that effect in the paper when they go over some national income accounting).

It's "destroyed" in the very superficial sense that the bomb is detonated. But by that line of logic I "destroy" the gas I fill my tank with!

Surely this isn't a sensible way to talk about war spending.

If that bomb ends a tyrannical regime, we can't just say the resources were "destroyed" without exploring the question a little more deeply. There can be real value creation. That doesn't mean there will be, of course - but there can be.

SpotCash writes:

Stick to eco and leave Clio alone.

CBrinton writes:

David Henderson: "My point with the April 6, 1917 date is that at the time, by the standard metrics one uses to measure who’s “winning,” the German government was “winning.” The entry of the U.S. government was what turned the tide."

I'd be interested in hearing what you consider "the standard metrics one uses to measure who's 'winning'" a war.

Maybe it's true that on April 6, 1917 the Germans were "winning."

But in January 1917, the German high command didn't think they were "winning". They thought the trends of the war were _not_ in their favor. Which is why they (re-)launched unrestricted submarine warfare starting February 1, 1917. They did this knowing full well it was a major gamble, with a good chance of bringing the US into the war against them.

Doesn't sound like the action of someone who's "winning."


Me: "I'd also be interested in hearing how a US president was supposed to avoid war with Germany after the Zimmermann telegram became public."

David Henderson: "That’s easy. Don’t go to war. Governments often make contingency plans for what to do in case of war. That’s what the Zimmerman telegram was."

I guess I should have provided a little more context. By the time the Zimmermann telegram was publicly confirmed as genuine (March 1, 1917), the Germans had been waging unrestricted submarine warfare for a month. By late March, seven US-flagged ships had been sunk by German submarines, resulting in 35 deaths.

With this background, the US public was understandably not at all disposed to take as a mere "contingency plan" a secret German telegram offering Mexico, in the event that unrestricted submarine warfare led to war between the US and Germany, "a proposal of alliance on the following basis: make war together, make peace together, generous financial support and an understanding on our part that Mexico is to reconquer the lost territory in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona" and also advising the Mexicans to "invite Japan to immediate adherence [to the Mexican-German alliance]".

As far as I can tell, your scenario for a German victory in the absence of US involvement depends on the Germans' being able to both wage unrestricted submarine warfare and avoid US involvement at the same time. I don't think that was a realistic possibility.

Mark Bahner writes:
Gee, some folks are so nuts. They actually think that resisting armed aggression from expansionist slavocrats is a good idea. There's just no reasoning with some people.

Heh, heh, heh! Here's another person! What "armed aggression"? Fort Sumter was in South Carolina. It was of absolutely no use to the Union.

In contrast, the *Union* attacked the South, at the First Battle of Bull Run. In fact, almost the entire Civil War was fought in the South. The North destroyed the South in the Civil War. And why? Because the South decided to leave the Union when they saw that the Northern states were no longer following the U.S. Constitution, which required slaves to be returned to their owners. (And I'm most certainly *not* saying this was moral. It was blatantly immoral. But the way to change it was to ***change the Constitution***. Not to kill 100s of thousands of Southerners.)

And as I pointed out in exquisite detail, virtually no one in the South could be called a "slaveocrat." The percentage of households owning even 10 slaves was incredibly small.

But live in your dream world. You've got plenty of company.

CBrinton writes:

Mark Bahner: "What "armed aggression"? Fort Sumter was in South Carolina. It was of absolutely no use to the Union."

Fort Sumter was not the only Union property seized by armed aggression from the slavocrats. There were lots of others. A few examples:
In Alabama, Fort Morgan and Fort Gaines; in Florida the Apalachicola arsenal and Fort Marion; and, in Louisiana, Fort Jackson, Fort St. Philip, the Baton Rouge arsenal, and the Marine Hospital in New Orleans.

But apparently theft is OK if done by armed mobs of slavery expansionists (all of the above seizures occurred before the respective states even purported to secede).

Mark Bahner: "And as I pointed out in exquisite detail, virtually no one in the South could be called a "slaveocrat." The percentage of households owning even 10 slaves was incredibly small."

The number of slaves one owns does not determine whether one is a slavocrat. The desire to protect and extend slavery does. There were lots of such people in 1860. And, as you may have noticed, the most wealthy and influential people in a society tend to have political and social influence well in excess of their numbers.

Ken B writes:

As I said, it's been a long time but ...

Germany came close to winning WWI with submarines and 'restricted' warfare. Then the British made some important changes, the key one being a more rational convoy system. The Germans eventually decided they needed to ramp up to 'unrestricted' in order to interdict enough shipping. This might well have worked, except (with the Zimmerman telegram) it tipped opinion in the USA. That put a clock on German efforts to win the war, and that clock ran out.

Mark Bahner writes:
Fort Sumter was not the only Union property seized by armed aggression from the slavocrats. There were lots of others. A few examples: In Alabama, Fort Morgan and Fort Gaines; in Florida the Apalachicola arsenal and Fort Marion; and, in Louisiana, Fort Jackson, Fort St. Philip, the Baton Rouge arsenal, and the Marine Hospital in New Orleans.

Yes, take a look at this jpg:

Confederate States of America

Do you notice how all of those forts and aresenals, and the hospital, are all in the Confederate States of America?

But apparently theft is OK if done by armed mobs of slavery expansionists (all of the above seizures occurred before the respective states even purported to secede).

Point taken. But the fact that the seizures were not reversed after the legislatures of those states voted to secede means that the legislatures of those states approved of the seizures. Obviously, the Union could have sought restitution for the loss of all of those.

The number of slaves one owns does not determine whether one is a slavocrat. The desire to protect and extend slavery does.

So even if one doesn't own any slaves, one can be a "slavocrat"? That seems like a convenient way to call people derogatory names.

The simple fact of the matter is that there is nothing in the Consitution which forbids a state from seceding from the Union. Lincoln approved of the first attack on the South in the First Battle of Bull Run in July 1861. And "on January 27, President Lincoln issued a war order authorizing the Union to launch a unified aggressive action against the Confederacy."

Then he relieved General McClellan for ignoring the order.

I guess McClellan was under the misimpression that he worked for the Department of Defense. Instead, he apparently worked for the Department of Offense.

Mark Bahner writes:
Your argument would make a lot more sense if Lincoln hadn't run exactly the same calculations as you and asked Congress/the states to buy the freedom of the slaves, on the basis that this would be a lot cheaper and humane than the war.

No, my argument makes sense *because* Lincoln did precisely that.

A great President would stick to his principles, and simply refuse to do violence against citizens of his own country (or citizens of another country...from the Confederate point of view) unless those citizens were behaving violently towards the citizens of his country. And he would only order violence in a *defensive* manner, which is all that is authorized by the Constitution.

I appreciate that Lincoln at least considered and made modest efforts towards buying the freedom of slaves. But a *great* president, or even a very good one, would have been willing to be impeached and removed from office, rather than to give orders which he *knew* would result in the violent deaths of tens (or even hundreds) of thousands of his countrymen.

johnleemk writes:

Mark Bahner:

What on earth are you talking about? If states' refusals to enforce the fugitive slave laws were the driving factor behind secession, why did the South explicitly cite Republican success at the federal level in the 1860 elections as the reason for secession? The issue of state nullification of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was alive and well throughout the 1850s, and yet that never pushed the South over the edge.

After the Supreme Court ruled in 1859 that states could not nullify the federal Fugitive Slave Act, the North pursued a constitutional approach to overturning it and containing the expansion of slavery to the territories -- it elected a federal government that would pursue these measures. The South seceded because it wanted an end to all restrictions on the introduction of slavery to the territories, and full federal enforcement of Fugitive Slave Laws, and it knew that a Republican government would fully oppose both of these.

Moreover, nothing in the Constitution requires the states to enforce fugitive slave laws. The Supreme Court explicitly held in 1843 that this was the case. The South's treatment of the fugitive slave issue totally puts paid to the notion that some higher notion of due process (no due process was given to anyone accused of being a fugitive slave, under Southern-backed federal laws passed in the 1850s) or states' rights. The South refused to respect the liberties upheld in the constitutions and laws of Northern states, and in the CSA Constitution, explicitly forbade states from taking any steps towards abolishing or inhibiting the spread of slavery.

johnleemk writes:

At this point we get into the navel-gazing question about whether it was legal for the South to unilaterally secede and just how sovereign are states of the US. It's well-settled US law today, ever since Texas v White in 1869, that states do not have the right to unilaterally secede -- no constitutional amendments were necessary for the courts to hold that this is the case. James Madison, Andrew Jackson and even James Buchanan all believed unilateral secession was unconstitutional. That settles the question.

Lincoln swore an oath to uphold the laws of the union, and faithfully execute them. He sought a peaceful end to the conflict but firmly believed that if none were possible, it was his job to put down the rebellion and ensure faithful execution of the law in the rebellious states. Given the understanding of unilateral secession's unconstitutionality, Lincoln was upholding the law and Constitution to the fullest, in line with his principles as a former Whig.

CBrinton writes:

Mark Bahner: "the fact that the seizures [of US property] were not reversed after the legislatures of those states voted to secede means that the legislatures of those states approved of the seizures. Obviously, the Union could have sought restitution for the loss of all of those"

So let's get this straight: the victim of a theft, if that theft is retroactively approved by a _government_, has some duty to accept restitution rather than use self-help to recover his stolen property?

I'm not sure how to describe this political philosophy. I know "Libertarian" doesn't cover it.

Mark Bahner: "So even if one doesn't own any slaves, one can be a "slavocrat"?"

Yes. It's very simple. Most monarchists were not monarchs themselves. Many communists were not actually members of any organized communist party. And even people who didn't own slaves could be slavocrats.

If you think slavery is a positive good, it's hard to see why "slavocrat" should be considered derogatory. It's a perfectly accurate way to describe people devoted to protecting and expanding slavery.

CBrinton writes:

Mark Bahner: "the fact that the seizures [of US property] were not reversed after the legislatures of those states voted to secede means that the legislatures of those states approved of the seizures. Obviously, the Union could have sought restitution for the loss of all of those"

So let's get this straight: the victim of a theft, if that theft is retroactively approved by a _government_, has some duty to accept restitution rather than use self-help to recover his stolen property?

I'm not sure how to describe this political philosophy. I know "Libertarian" doesn't cover it.

Mark Bahner: "So even if one doesn't own any slaves, one can be a "slavocrat"?"

Yes. It's very simple. Most monarchists were not monarchs themselves. Many communists were not actually members of any organized communist party. And even people who didn't own slaves could be slavocrats.

If you think slavery is a positive good, it's hard to see why "slavocrat" should be considered derogatory. It's a perfectly accurate way to describe people devoted to protecting and expanding slavery.

Mark Bahner writes:
The number of slaves one owns does not determine whether one is a slavocrat. The desire to protect and extend slavery does. There were lots of such people in 1860. And, as you may have noticed, the most wealthy and influential people in a society tend to have political and social influence well in excess of their numbers.

Yes, I have certainly noticed that the wealthy exert political and social influence well in excess of their numbers. And any good politician (and Commander in Chief) should recognize that, and use that to his advantage. It's called, "Divide and conquer."

Since the significant majority (~75%) of households in the South did *not* own slaves, and since only about 3 percent of the households in the South owned more than 20 slaves, Lincoln could have used this to his advantage.

He should have proposed that families owning fewer than 5 slaves be paid something like twice the market rate for their slaves. And families owning less than 6-20 slaves be given full market value. Then those owning 21-100 slaves could be given one-quarter market value. And those owning 100+ be given one-tenth market value.

Then he could have, at every chance he ever spoke in public, hammered on the fact that all the problems were being created by the top 1 percent of Southern families. The 99 percent were completely blameless. ("Ripped from today's headlines," as they say on Law and Order. ;-))

That would have made clear that the Southern aristocracy were to blame for the war.

In fact, he even could have proposed that for every Union soldier killed on a *Union* state's land, the 3 percent of Southern households owning more than 20 slaves would collectively have to pay something like $200,000 after the war. That would give the Southern aristocracy every reason in the world to make sure Southern troops never attacked Union states! For example, when the South fought the battle of Gettysburg (PA), about 3000 Union lives were lost. That would mean that the ~50,000 Southern families who owned more than 20 slaves would be on the hook for $600,000,000 after the war...or $12,000 each for that battle alone.

Mark Bahner writes:
What on earth are you talking about? If states' refusals to enforce the fugitive slave laws were the driving factor behind secession, why did the South explicitly cite Republican success at the federal level in the 1860 elections as the reason for secession?

Because the Republicans were clearly not fond of returning slaves to Southern states. Isn't that obvious?

After the Supreme Court ruled in 1859 that states could not nullify the federal Fugitive Slave Act, the North pursued a constitutional approach to overturning it...

So you yourself know that the North wanted to eliminate the Fugitive Slave Act. And you wonder what I'm talking about!

Moreover, nothing in the Constitution requires the states to enforce fugitive slave laws.

I think you need to read the antebellum Constitution more carefully:

No person held to service or labor in one state, under the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in consequence of any law or regulation therein, be discharged from such service or labor, but shall be delivered up on claim of the party to whom such service or labor may be due.

The Constitution absolutely did require that states return fugitive slaves. But Northern states simply started to ignore this part of the Constitution.

Mark Bahner writes:
The South refused to respect the liberties upheld in the constitutions and laws of Northern states,

Because those liberties were *not* "the Supreme Law of the Land". The federal Constitution is "the Supreme Law of the Land."

And the Constitution *required* Northern states to return escaped slaves to the slavery in the South.

Mark Bahner writes:
It's well-settled US law today, ever since Texas v White in 1869, that states do not have the right to unilaterally secede...

Yes, and it was well-settled law, under Plessy vs Ferguson, that Southern states could ignore the 14th Amendment. Until Brown vs Board of Education. And the Freedom Riders. And Loving vs Virginia. Etc.

Mark Bahner writes:
So let's get this straight: the victim of a theft, if that theft is retroactively approved by a _government_, has some duty to accept restitution rather than use self-help to recover his stolen property?

You're writing as though Lincoln's money was stolen. It was Union taxpayer's money that was stolen. (And it should be noted that all that property was also partly owned by the citizens of the Confederacy. In fact, it was their land on which the property was located.)

And so Lincoln spent BILLIONS of dollars (and tens of thousands of Union lives) to recover...what might have been, at the outside, a couple tens of millions worth of property. So he spent on the order of $100 for every $1 "recovered." (Note that in case of Fort Sumter, after the South rebuilt it, Lincoln had it destroyed completely.)

This is the definition of a great President?

I'm not sure how to describe this political philosophy. I know "Libertarian" doesn't cover

Ah, yes, and waging a war of aggression that results in more than 500,000 deaths *is* "Libertarian."

If we did a poll of members of the Libertarian Party, and asked them whether my views or Lincoln's actions were more compatible with their political philosophy, I have absolutely no doubt that they'd choose my views. Libertarians aren't big fans of wars of aggression.

CBrinton writes:

Mark Bahner: "the significant majority (~75%) of households in the South did *not* own slaves"

This figure is wrong, by a significant margin.
US Census figures from 1860 show that about 37% of households in the Deep South states owned slaves, and about 31% of households in all the CSA states combined (the 31% figure is actually too low since it includes the counties of Virginia that joined West Virginia; I don't have the county-by-county numbers at hand).

Mark Bahner: [Lincoln] "should have proposed that families owning fewer than 5 slaves be paid something like twice the market rate for their slaves. And families owning less than 6-20 slaves be given full market value. Then those owning 21-100 slaves could be given one-quarter market value. And those owning 100+ be given one-tenth market value."

The slavocrat elite's response to such a proposal would have been very simple: 'Anyone who even considers accepting an offer of money from the US government for his slaves is a nigger-loving Black Republican traitor, and will be lynched.' Any inhabitant of the CSA who tried to accept such a payment would be signing his own death warrant.
This proposal would have accomplished nothing.

Me: "So let's get this straight: the victim of a theft, if that theft is retroactively approved by a _government_, has some duty to accept restitution rather than use self-help to recover his stolen property?"

Mark Bahner: "It was Union taxpayer's money [sic] that was stolen. . . . . [the US government] spent on the order of $100 for every $1 "recovered.""

So? I thought we were talking about property rights. Under Libertarian ethics, if my property is stolen, I have an absolute right to recover it from the thief. If I decide that spending much more than its value makes sense (for example, to deter other possible thieves), that's purely my decision.

And all the places I named were, utterly unambiguously, the property of the US government in 1861.

I repeat my question: Is is the case that, to libertarians, the victim of a theft has a duty to accept restitution if the theft is retroactively approved by a government? If so, what work of libertarian philosophy describes this duty?

Mark Bahner: "If we did a poll of members of the Libertarian Party, and asked them whether my views or Lincoln's actions were more compatible with their political philosophy, I have absolutely no doubt that they'd choose my views."

I actually would be interested in seeing the results of such a poll. However, I apparently have a higher opinion of libertarians than you do: I am equally sure a majority would recognize the obvious truth that the US government was right to resist slavocrat aggression, and that permitting an expansionist, militaristic slavocracy to arise in North America would have been a very back thing for liberty.

Rich Rostrom writes:

The authors of the underlying paper are apparently ignorant of an important point of US history.

John Tyler pushed energetically for the annexation of Texas, a measure which was almost certain to provoke war with Mexico. That the annexation was not completed (and the war did not start) till after he was out of office was not his doing.

As for WW I... There is considerable thought that in the dark days of 1917, with Russia collapsing, Italy on its knees, and the French army in mutiny, the Allied leaders sustained the war only because "the Yanks were coming". If the US had not entered the war, the Allies might have sued for peace.

Germany would have retained its pre-war territories and added more, including parts of Poland that were to be cleared of Poles and Jews. Most of eastern Europe would be German satellite states. That would have been viewed in Germany as a victory, justifying the aggressive militarism of Germany's leadership. Similar wars would have followed, eventually.

The notion that Germany was unfairly punished after WW I, provoking WW II, is another canard.

The German leaders who pushed Europe into war went unpunished, except the Kaiser, who went into exile. No one was punished for the massacres of Belgian civilians in 1914. Germany lost no core territory.

Though Germans made a great deal of fuss about the iniquitous terms of Versailles, there was almost no sentiment in Germany for a new war. Remember the staggering death toll for Britain - and that Germany's losses were proportionately worse. Even after the 'blitz' defeat of Poland in 1939, Halder and von Brauchitsch seriously discussed a coup to remove Hitler and save Germany from certain disaster in the war. Most of the public had no more confidence. Even some senior Nazis, like Goering, were opposed. Germans were, in general, more worried than please by the outbreak of war - but of course no one dared argue with Hiter.


After the glorious victories of 1940, attitudes changed. But that must not be projected onto 1939.

Mark Bahner writes:

Mark Bahner: "It was Union taxpayer's money [sic] that was stolen. . . . . [the US government] spent on the order of $100 for every $1 "recovered.""

So? I thought we were talking about property rights.

No, we were talking about whether Lincoln was a great President. He wasn't. He presided over a war of aggression that resulted in more than 500,000 deaths. And spent 100s of times more money than anything he "reoovered" that was "stolen."

Under Libertarian ethics, if my property is stolen, I have an absolute right to recover it from the thief.

Wrong. 99+ percent of Libertarians would say you don't have the right to rampage through states, killing innocent people and destroying their property, in some bogus attempt to "recover" the stolen material. Or "stolen" material, as the case may be.

Let's say a women leaves a man, and takes the family TV set, that they each paid for in part. 99+ percent of Libertarians would not say the man has the right to break into all the woman's friends' houses, smash their TVs, then finally find her, beat her senseless, and take back the TV. And then tell her if she ever him again, he'd kill her.

And all the places I named were, utterly unambiguously, the property of the US government in 1861.

They were paid for by money from Confederate states as well as Union states. So they were like the family TV.

I repeat my question: Is is the case that, to libertarians, the victim of a theft has a duty to accept restitution if the theft is retroactively approved by a government?

As I wrote before, if you did a poll of Libertarians, and asked them if Lincoln should have:

1) Did what he did, which was to invade the South and essentially destroy it, presiding over a war of aggression in which 500,000+ people were killed, or

2) Maintain troops in the positions they were before the First Battle of Bull Run, and work to free the slaves not only in the Confederacy, but in the Union as well,

...I'm sure that the poll would be overwhelmingly in my favor, and not in Linocln's.

I actually would be interested in seeing the results of such a poll. However, I apparently have a higher opinion of libertarians than you do: I am equally sure a majority would recognize the obvious truth that the US government was right to resist slavocrat aggression,

The U.S. government did *not* do that. It waged a war of aggression in which 500,000+ people were killed.

That is a historical fact. And that's why, if you did a poll of Libertarians, you'd see that Lincoln is not thought of as a great (or even a very good) President.

CBrinton writes:

I again repeat my question to Mark Bahner:

Is is the case that, to libertarians, the victim of a theft has a duty to accept restitution if the theft is retroactively approved by a government? If so, what work of libertarian philosophy describes this duty?

Seems simple enough. I'd say a sentence or two should suffice.

johnleemk writes:

Mark Bahner, you are contradicting yourself. You said that the North should have dealt with the fugitive slave laws in the constitutional manner. They did so, by electing a Republican government. The South's response was to secede, explicitly because they knew the Republican government would reverse the advances slavery had made.

"The Constitution absolutely did require that states return fugitive slaves. But Northern states simply started to ignore this part of the Constitution."

The Supreme Court ruled in the 1840s that the Constitution does not require state governments to enforce fugitive slave laws. That portion of the Constitution is entirely silent as to who should enforce the return of fugitive slaves, and the Supreme Court then ruled that the federal government would have to be responsible for its enforcement. This then led to the federal Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.

You are clearly ignorant of the historical realities of the era, as evidenced by your continuous supposition that slavery could have been peacefully abolished in the South. The fact is that nobody in mainstream US politics then, Lincoln included, sought to abolish slavery. Abolitionists were to mainstream politics then as isolationists or pacifists are to mainstream politics today.

The key issues of the day were how to treat slavery in US territories, and the enforcement of fugitive slave laws. The first issue was by far paramount, and the South refused to countenance any kind of compromise on the expansion of slavery. In the days leading up to the Civil War, leaders on both sides sought to compromise on the issues -- Republicans, Lincoln included, were actually willing to agree to stronger fugitive slave laws and the entrenchment of slavery in the Constitution by a 13th amendment. This proposed amendment passed the Republican-controlled Congress and is still pending for state ratification today.

Where negotiations broke down was simple: the territories. Lincoln and other hardline Republicans refused to accept the expansion of slavery to any territory. Pro-compromise Republicans were willing to restore the Missouri Compromise. The South refused to accept anything other than the expansion of slavery to all future territorial acquisitions Tell me, which of these proposals is the imperialist one?

Lincoln and his branch of the Republicans/Whigs were actually anti-war and anti-imperialist. Lincoln as a Congressman actually spoke out against the Mexican-American War, calling it imperialist, and threatened to withhold funding for the troops. He lost his re-election campaign because of his opposition to the war.

The reason anti-war Lincoln waged the Civil War is simple: he was putting down an unconstitutional rebellion against the United States government, in line with his duty to execute the laws of the Union throughout all its states and territories. Even if one adopts a strict constructionist reading of the Constitution, it is clear from the framers' other written work that they intended for the Union to be perpetual, indissoluble on a unilateral basis. Your reading of the Constitution is in the fringe for a reason.

Beyond strict legal reasoning, the South had no just reason to secede. The two main reasons they explicitly cited for secession were the success of the Republicans in federal elections, and their fear that they would be blocked in their attempts to spread slavery to the rest of the North American continent not yet within the fold of the US. That first reason is why Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address called the war a struggle to ensure that government of the people, by the people, for the people, would not perish from the earth.

The South was happy to accept the results of federal elections until 1860, because their sectional interests continually won. They were happy to roll back federal restrictions on the spread of slavery to new territories, happy to enforce federal fugitive slave laws on northern states. Then when their interests lost in 1860, when these advances seemed to be on the brink of evaporating, the South declared it would not recognise the results of the elections, and secede instead. It is the South that broke the federal compact, not the North. It is the South that wanted further imperialism and further oppression.

Apologism for the CSA is a lost cause (pun unintended). Secession was unethical, and made for unethical reasons, to preserve a regime of oppression. The war was not necessary, and should have been avoided, but the recalcitrance of the South made it inevitable. The North is not really a hero in the story of the Civil War (at best, it is something of an accidental hero), but it is difficult to argue that the South are anything but villains.

Mark Bahner writes:
You are clearly ignorant of the historical realities of the era, as evidenced by your continuous supposition that slavery could have been peacefully abolished in the South. The fact is that nobody in mainstream US politics then, Lincoln included, sought to abolish slavery.

Haven't you read *your own comments* on March 28, at 11:23 am?

Your argument would make a lot more sense if Lincoln hadn't run exactly the same calculations as you and asked Congress/the states to buy the freedom of the slaves, on the basis that this would be a lot cheaper and humane than the war. He did this repeatedly in the first two years of his presidency, and got nowhere.

As you *yourself* noted, Lincoln tried to do something very similar to what I'm saying he should have done. He just didn't try very hard (e.g., proposing that the owners of few slaves be paid more than market price, while large owners of slaves be paid much less than market price), because he was more interested in waging a war of aggression against the Confederate states.

Lincoln and his branch of the Republicans/Whigs were actually anti-war and anti-imperialist.

Yeah, right. Lincoln was anti-war, but somehow the Union government waged a war aggression while he was Commander in Chief, in which over 500,000 people were killed.

Apologism for the CSA...

I'm not apologizing for the CSA. To say that Lincoln was wrong to wage a war of aggression against them isn't to say that their goal to preserve slavery wasn't also wrong. Slavery was an abomination...completely in contradiction to the Declaration of Independence. But that was something that was done when the Constitution was written.

A great President would have used the secession of the Conferate states as an opportunity to change the Constitution to eliminate slavery in the Union. Not as an opportunity to wage a war of aggression.

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