Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Reacting to my post yesterday about Lincoln suspending habeas corpus and trying to arrest Chief Justice Roger Taney, Timothy Sandefur writes:

Still, I can’t help but wonder why there’s always so much talk about Lincoln’s or the Union’s violations of civil rights during wartime. (Often examples are given which were not done on Lincoln’s orders or even with his permission, but by generals in the field, whose orders were sometimes overruled by Lincoln.) You rarely see an article talking about how the Confederacy violated people’s rights to dissent and so forth. Why is that? Now, perhaps it could be because everyone stipulates that the Confederacy was on the wrong side of the war. If I could be confident of that answer, I would not feel compelled to write further…

But the fact that self-proclaimed “libertarian” writers on this subject insist on emphasizing only the wrongs committed by the Union, and ignore entirely the wrongs committed by the Confederacy–all the while denying that the war was about slavery in the first place–tends, I think, to shift the image in readers’ minds. How often do these Doughface Libertarians repeat the charge that Lincoln instituted a military draft? And how often do they even acknowledge that the Confederacy also drafted its citizens? Readers constantly exposed to this curious bias come, I fear, to imagine that the North was some ravenous machine devouring the lives and liberties of the innocent southerners just wanting their independence. An image closer to the truth would be a Confederacy that was very nearly a police state, basing its political dreams on nauseating theories of racial supremacy and the perpetual enslavement of millions of innocent human beings–demanding their right to enslave others without interference–and finally being brought down by a Union which was itself weakened by racism and other internal fissures.

Let us please have at least some balance. There was a right side in the war–and it was emphatically not the South!

To which I can only say, despite the fact that he appears to be replying to what I wrote, I agree entirely. It was certainly not my intent, in writing about Lincoln’s constitutional problems, to in any way absolve the Confederacy of their crimes. And he’s absolutely right that there are far too many people who fancy themselves libertarians who make precisely the argument he is replying to, an argument I emphatically reject.

I wrote what I wrote for two reasons. First, because I think it is very important to view the great men in our past as real people, not as plaster saints. American history tends to be hagiographic in nature, building images of men like Washington and Lincoln as two dimensional “men in white hats”, sent by God himself to vanquish the forces of evil. The truth is both more complex and far more interesting, I think. Lincoln was not a two-dimensional saint, he was a man, whose greatest strength was not his purity of heart but his brilliance and his steely-eyed sense of reason. As a politician, Lincoln was ruthless and calculating, temperamental and strong-willed. Gore Vidal quotes a fascinating passage from Lincoln in which he talks about the inevitability of the actions of great men, men compelled to make their mark in history, a quote which Vidal characterizes as “Lincoln warning us about Lincoln.”

Second, I was following up on an earlier post about the fragility of constitutional protections in times of war. At a time when we hear often that war protestors are traitors (both today and in the Vietnam era), when the FBI engages in heightended surveillance of those who are merely engaged in voicing views of the war the government does not approve of, and when the present administration has asserted its authority to imprison American citizens without habeas corpus protection, it can not be said often enough or loud enough that our constitution only serves to protect us if we demand that it does so and settle for nothing less. And given that an astonishing percentage of Americans can’t date the civil war within 50 years of its occurence, I seriously doubt that more than a small percentage of my fellow citizens even KNOW about the suspension of habeas corpus under Lincoln (or what habeas corpus means, for that matter).

Sandefur is correct to react to the cartoon versions of history that portray the North as devils and the South as angels, but it’s also important to react to the cartoon histories on the other side (as I have no doubt he agrees) that paint the North, and Lincoln in particular, as a sinless savior. Let’s have the reality, by all means, on both sides. Let’s see history, and the men who shape it, with all the complexities and contradicions that they inevitably contain.

Postscript: I want to thank Mr. Sandefur for bringing to my attention the larger context of the issue that I was largely oblivious to. After going back and reading some of DiLorenzo’s other articles (I had never heard of him before seeing a link to his article on another site), I realize why Sandefur reacted the way he did – DiLorenzo is something of a nutball. When Sandefur referred to “doughfaced libertarians”, he was referring to a group that I was aware of, but didn’t know DiLorenzo was a part of, a group led by Joseph Sobran and a few others. They are self-styled libertarians and “southern patriots” who write the kind of extremist crap that fuels the militia movement. Had I know that DiLorenzo was as fanatically anti-Lincoln (he is also fanatically anti-Straussian, by the way, referring to the “Lincoln-worshipping Straussian neocon cabal”) and as pro-confederacy as he is, I would never have cited him without, at the very least, making it clear that my argument was not intended to support his more general views in any way whatsoever. After reading several of DiLorenzo’s other articles, I can only think, “No wonder Sandefur reacted the way he did!” If I’d done a little research before posting what I did, I could at least have avoided the now-obvious association with a group whose views I emphatically reject.


  1. #1 flatlander100
    August 28, 2004

    Here we go again….

    You wrote: I think it is very important to view the great men in our past as real people, not as plaster saints. American history tends to be hagiographic in nature, building images of men like Washington and Lincoln as two dimensional “men in white hats”, sent by God himself to vanquish the forces of evil.

    Unless you mean by “American History” the kind taught from middle school down, and in bad highschool programs, “American history has not
    tend[ed] to be hagiographic” for a very long time, not in popular historical biography, and not in history as taught in the colleges universities.

    Since the so-called “Neo-Progressives” began their work, I can’t think of any major movement of American historians that has presented as serious history the “plaster saint” approach to American historical biography.

    What I suspect you intended to say was that Americans’ understanding of their own history tends to be painfully simple-minded and a public which knows appallingly little about its own nation’s history tends to think of American leaders from Washington to [God help us all] G. Bush in hagiographic terms.

    But the American History that is being written by American historians and taught by American historians in the colleges and universities is not and has not been “hagiographic” for a good deal longer than half a century.

    I occasionally run into similar claims about “American history” from folks with particular agendas to sell — folks who claim that “history textbooks ignore blacks” or “ignore Native Americans” or “ignore women.” The only way such claims could be made honestly is if the folks making them haven’t seen a high school or college history textbook in the last quarter century. Which is often, sad to say, the case. From them I’ve learned to expect nothing better.

    However, you certainly are well and widely read enough to know better.

    Most… no, Ed, all … of the colleaguges I’ve worked with over the last quarter century or so work damn hard at presenting to classes a history that is not hagiographic, a history that very much comports with what you outline in the sentences following the one I quoted above.

    Watch your generalizations, Ed. On this one, I know that you know better.

  2. #2 Ed Brayton
    August 28, 2004


    As I’ve explained before, I am in fact referring to what is taught at the high school level and below, not to what is taught in college. Now I don’t pretend to keep up with what the high school textbooks say today, but when I was in high school 20 years ago, it was very much a matter of hagiography. So are most of the popular uses of history in the media, and popular histories of the David Barton variety. But that is not an indictment of serious historians and their work at the college level and above.

  3. #3 serial catowner
    August 28, 2004

    I’ve waded deeply enough into the historical swamp to wonder if it can be taught at the high school level, and be pretty sure it isn’t being taught well. Hagiography is worse than nothing, unless you let the ‘other side’ set up their own icons to be demolished by curious students.

    Maybe the best thing would be to teach students to write history, and teach them the questions that make it possible to read history critically.

    Certainly the modern moves to depict Lincoln as a warmonger who attacked the peaceful South for no good reason will leave any serious historian wondering if any serious work can be done in today’s U.S.. A very dangerous situation for any country to be in.

  4. #4 Mark D. Fulwiler
    August 28, 2004

    Mr. Sandefur is incorrect that there was a “right” side in the War Between The States. Neither Lincoln’s statist Republican near-dictatorship nor the Confederacy deserved the support of any free man.

  5. #5 eon
    August 29, 2004

    Let’s assume for a minute that Lincoln did all the unconstituional things he did because things like Due Process would have inhibited the expeditious prosecution of the Civil War, perhaps fatally.

    Let’s assume further that Lincoln’s motivation for prosecuting the War expeditiously was to a noble purpose; either to finally eradicate slavery from the republic, or to preserve the republic, or both.

    I think you can make a case for something along those lines, just as you can make a similar (and perhaps stronger) case regarding the FBI’s tactics in its investigation of the KKK in 1964-1965. The purpose was noble, even though the prosecution was unconstitutional.

    Very few people would complain about the use of unconstitutional means to eradicate slavery or organized, violent racism. I dare say, furthermore, that the majority doesn’t really give a damn about an accused’s rights under the 4th, 5th and 6th Amendments when the person is accused of committing a crime of which everyone “knows” he’s guilty. Due Process and justice are often at odds in the public mind.

    We have a history of blasting holes in fundamental rights when the consequences of upholding such rights are unpalatable. Witness the 20-some exceptions to the warrant requirement that the Supreme Court has carved out over the years, or the near-annual attacks on the 1st Amendment with regard to freedom of speech, free exercise and establishment … all of it for “the greater good.”

    Though they differ in degree, every last one of the infringements on constitutional liberties noted above (any many that were not) will enjoy a spirited defense by someone, and the defense will surely be well-received by everyone thinking herself to have a sense of justice. For all the unconstitutional stuff Lincoln did, for example, he’s still widely considered to be our greatest president.

    That’s why the ACLU is so hated, and its why Joe Citizen is such a jackass in the grand scheme of things. Principles are easy to hold sacrosanct when their application leads to a popular result. In the inevitable cases, however, when Due Process leads to a failure of retribution, or gives protection to an out-group, or simply doesn’t produce the result that the horde demands, the principle in question gets itself a shiny new ad hoc exception. And that’s the best-case scenario.

    Bottom line is that the American love affair with the Bill of Rights is a study in the twin godheads of expedience and hypocrisy. To most people, I’d sound like a nut if I said that I would rather that the Union had lost the Civil War than excuse the Lincoln’s attempts to arrest all the “activist judges” and their compatriots. But that’s exactly what I think. I’d rather have the Klan of the early 60’s still doing their thing than have the FBI infiltrate and destabilize the organization.

    I don’t hold those opinions because I’m some uber-principled saint. Far from it. But I am idealistic — in a deeply cynical sort of way — and I am absolutely convinced that dealing with problems like racism and religionism through unconstitutional means is just throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

    But that’s American history.


  6. #6 Chris Krolczyk
    September 3, 2004

    Speaking of Thomas DiLorenzo…

    Be forewarned: some of his stuff on Lincoln was published or republished by WorldNutDaily. As loathe as I am to use guilt by association as a gauge at times, that’s not much in the way of a recommendation.

    Oh, and if you’re willing to waste a huge stretch of your spare time, reading some of the debates on alternative outcomes of the Civil War on usenet (particularly on soc.history.what-if) is a really good way to get a feel for the subject of libertarian support for the entire Lincoln=Bad, Confederacy=Good hypothesis. And yeah, it turns into heated debates even on the most minor of questions.

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