Misunderstanding Both Lincoln and Basic Economics

  • February 23, 2024
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Our Ancient Faith: Lincoln, Democracy, and the American Experiment
by Allen C. Guelzo
Alfred A. Knopf, 2024; 247 pp.

Allen Guelzo has been carried away by Abraham Lincoln’s magniloquent rhetoric. Guelzo, a historian who has written a number of books about Lincoln, would like very much to believe that his hero was a champion of individual rights and economic freedom. Lincoln’s ideal for America was of a nation with a large number of small businesses, allowing people to work independently of domination by others. Slavery was the supreme denial of this ideal and, as such, abhorrent to him. In a phrase Guelzo often repeats, Lincoln wanted an America with “neither slaves, nor masters.” In this America, blacks would have the same citizenship rights as whites.

Further, Guelzo claims, the complaints against Lincoln from his detractors are wrong. During the War between the States, he did not act as a dictator, ruthlessly suppressing opposition; to the contrary, he acted with caution, anxious to avoid violating the Constitution. Guelzo has done me the honor of quoting me, but I was wrong to draw a parallel between Lincoln and his slightly younger contemporary, Otto von Bismarck. Unlike the great German Chancellor, Lincoln was not a “ruthless manufacturer of a modern Wohlfahrtsstaat (welfare state).” He did, however, realize that secession was a principle of anarchy: constitutional democracy could not survive if it was allowed. Moreover, his military action against the South was a response to its violent insurrection and rebellion. One suspects that he would agree with Edward Everett, who in his oration at Gettysburg in 1863 spoke of the secessionist leaders as “bold, bad men.”

Guelzo has the merit of raising a fundamental issue, but it is one about which he is mistaken. He thinks that a “democratic order cannot survive if large parts of society conclude that they will walk away whenever they are displeased with the result—or, in this case, not even walk away, but assault federal property (namely, Fort Sumter).” The obvious question to ask Guelzo is “Why can’t it survive?” Wouldn’t the “democratic order” remain as it was before the secession but with less territory? If the response is that people could secede from the smaller state, what is wrong with that? If Guelzo thinks that it’s bad that states fall below a minimum size, and—as I don’t believe—he’s right, why wouldn’t those who contemplate secession be deterred from doing so by its bad consequences?

So far as Lincoln’s devotion to freedom is concerned, Guelzo is constrained to admit:

What Lincoln seemed to find most objectionable about Southern demands to admit slavery to the rest of the western territories was not their racial tyranny, but the likelihood that legalizing slavery would cut off access to those territories . . . for white farmers who would not be able to rival the economies of scale enjoyed by slave-gang labor. . . . He certainly had no desire in the 1850s to tamper with slavery in the existing slave states. Although Lincoln had often repeated his hope for the “ultimate extinction of the institution,” he clarified “ultimate” to mean somewhere off in the far, far distance.

So far as the reference to the 1850s is concerned, it should be noted that, as Thomas DiLorenzo has shown, Lincoln not only endorsed but was a behind-the-scenes promoter of the Corwin Amendment, which would have locked into the Constitution a guarantee against interference with slavery in the states where it already existed.

Guelzo also agrees with DiLorenzo that Lincoln was a devoted disciple of Henry Clay and his “American System,” though the two authors look upon this from very different perspectives. Lincoln sought to build up industry through supporting “internal improvements” and tariff protection for products he favored; this “support” was frequently characterized by corruption. Guelzo notes that the Jeffersonians opposed these measures, but he presents the clash between them and the supporters of the American System in a misleading way. As he sees it, the Jeffersonians hated industry and cities, preferring “neo-feudal agrarianism” to the urban democratic culture, where every man had a chance to get ahead. The real contrast lies elsewhere, between those who thought that economic development—whether industrial or agricultural—took place better through the free decisions of individuals and those who thought it took place better through control by the state.

Guelzo fails to see that answering the question of economic development requires the study of economic principles, such as the law of comparative advantage, which are the discoveries of a value-free science. He instead looks at the tariff issue as a contrast between the agricultural and industrial “interests.” America needed tariffs to build up its nascent industries until they could fend for themselves. Britain, which had already built up its industrial might, rightly repealed the Corn Laws. “In both cases, the strategy was aimed at a hostile and reactionary agrarianism.” Our confidence in Guelzo’s knowledge of the history of economic thought does not increase when we read, “Herndon identifies John Ramsay McCulloch, rather than [Adam] Smith, as one of Lincoln’s models, which is odd, since McCulloch followed the lead of David Ricardo and particularly questioned any labor theory of value.” Both Ricardo and McCulloch were strong proponents of the labor theory of value.

Although Guelzo has read very widely, his knowledge of philosophy is often deficient and his arguments unsound. For example, he says:

The Enlightenment began as a scientific revolt against the hierarchical notions of the physical universe as taught by Aristotelian scholastics. Rather than seeing all objects imbedded in a “great chain” of occult relationships that stretched from the base earth to the spotless heavens, all those relationships now appeared in the testimony of Galileo and Newton as individual entities, in no necessary order or relationship to each other, and moved only by measurable and predictable natural forces.

What is supposed to be the inconsistency in believing both that objects are governed by occult relationships and that individual entities are governed by measurable and predictable laws? Newton believed both. Far from thinking that individual entities are governed “only” by mechanical relationships, he thought that God needed to intervene in the solar system from time to time and that absolute space was God’s sensorium. It’s quite true that later physicists don’t hold these views, but nevertheless Newton did, and this did not prevent him from being rather good at science.

Immanuel Kant is a notoriously difficult writer, and there are many conflicting interpretations of his thought. For this reason, we should judge what Guelzo says about him charitably, but even if we do so, we cannot avoid the conclusion that he does not know what he is talking about. He says:

Reason had no greater admirer than Immanuel Kant, and yet even Kant warned that reason made mistakes that experience did little to correct. The reasoning mind could deal only with the appearances of things, not the things-in-themselves, which required an entirely different way of knowing, apart from reason. . . . However, Kant believed, tools did exist with which to penetrate and apprehend those underlying realities; one was criticism, another was intuition.

Kant most assuredly does not believe that human beings can obtain knowledge of things-in-themselves. He does think that the moral law, the product of “pure practical reason,” makes it rational to postulate God, freedom, and immortality, but this does not amount to knowledge, which for human beings is limited to the phenomenal world. I don’t know what Guelzo could mean by saying that “criticism” enables us “to penetrate and apprehend these underlying realities”; a main project of the Critique of Pure Reason is to show that human beings do not have such knowledge. Human beings do not know things-in-themselves by intuition; only God has an intellectual intuition of things-in-themselves.

If anything, Guelzo’s account of John Rawls is even worse. He says that Lincoln’s second inaugural address “was not Rawlsian relativism. He [Lincoln] was inviting, not the descent of a veil of ignorance about the right or wrong of slavery, but a pure confession of guilt from the limited, stumbling, blind, and wrong-headed folly of all parties.” Later in the book, Guelzo says that “Rawls believed that ‘deeply opposed though reasonable comprehensive doctrines may live together and all affirm the political conception of a constitutional regime’ because no questions of that nature were really of compelling significance . . . he [Lincoln] could not tolerate indifference to slavery itself.”

This is risibly inept. Rawls wouldn’t count a comprehensive doctrine that accepted slavery as reasonable. All of the reasonable doctrines are supposed to converge on accepting Rawls’s two principles of justice—the first of which, the liberty principle, excludes slavery. There are many excellent reasons to reject Rawls’s theory, but Guelzo’s ludicrous misrepresentations of it aren’t among them.

Let us return from philosophy to Lincoln bashing. Our principal grievance against Lincoln is that he was responsible for a horrendous and destructive war that could have been averted had he accepted peaceful separation. Lincoln spoke of “malice toward none” and “charity for all,” but his actions belied his words.