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Abraham Lincoln's negative legacy, part II

By Scott Tibbs, August 20, 2005

Thomas Sowell defends Abraham Lincoln and says Lincoln critics are trashing our history. I do not doubt that some of Lincoln's critics are part of the "blame America first" crowd, but Sowell misses a major point here. Many people today are critical of Lincoln for the same reasons that honorable men like Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee and Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson were.

When this country was formed, it was formed with the idea that states were pretty much sovereign over their own affairs. The War Between the States (or the "War of Northern Aggression") changed that. Lincoln ushered in the era of a powerful central government, something that has shaped American politics to this day. The "New Deal" and the "Great Society" might have expanded government, but they were both built on a foundation poured by Abraham Lincoln.

The war is commonly referred to as the "Civil War". I have often used that term myself, and it is difficult to not use that term after having read and heard it for over 30 years. However, I do not believe it is an accurate term. Merriam-Webster defines "civil war" as "a war between opposing groups of citizens of the same country". That does not describe the War Between the States, which was a war of secession. The South was not fighting for control of the central government, they were fighting to leave the United States. The South was fighting against Northern armies invading Southern states; Southern men joined to fight what they saw as an invading army. The vast majority of Southern soldiers did not own slaves.

Many people describe the Confederates as "traitors". But if the Confederates were traitors for seceding from the United States, then the American colonists were traitors when they seceded from England in 1776. If England had won the Revolutionary War, George Washington and the colonists would be known as "traitors" today. The main difference between the secessionists of 1776 and the secessionists of 1861 is that those who wanted to secede in 1861 lost their war.

There is no doubt that slavery was a reprehensible institution that needed to be sent to the ash heap of history. (Sadly, slavery still exists today in some parts of the world.) However, did it require the most destructive war in American history to end that abominable practice? The War Between the States resulted in more loss of American life than any war before or since, and the South's infrastructure and economy were devastated. Could a peaceful solution have been found to free the slaves without a war and without a military occupation of the South that poisons race relations even to this day?

Modern conservatives and libertarians (along with many civil libertarians on the Left) are very concerned with the size and power of the federal government. Yet the question "settled" by the War Between the States is one that served as a severe limit to federal power. The threat of secession was the most powerful weapon the states had to limit the power of the federal government. If the states do not have this check on federal power, the federal government is limited only by itself.

As to the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln declared that "all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free". Lincoln, shrewd politician that he was, freed slaves only in areas under Confederate control, which he had neither the authority or power to do. The Emancipation Proclamation was little more than a political statement.

Lincoln's legacy, as the President who instigated the most destructive war in American history, has been hotly debated for nearly 150 years and will be hotly debated for many years to come. Lincoln had some good traits and he did some good things, but he also made bad and destructive decisions. Simply dismissing legitimate criticisms of Lincoln as "trashing our history" does a disservice to legitimate political discourse.