To be sure, this was a mind-bending experience. I watched Steven Spielberg’s movie Lincoln on the same weekend that I read Joseph Fallon’s Lincoln Uncensored, the e-book of the week released by the Laissez Faire Club. Worlds collided.
Fallon’s book, which is brilliant and the most useful Lincoln book I’ve read, sticks to the facts by organizing material from the 10 volumes of collected writings and speeches of Lincoln. The reader is given Lincoln’s own words on subjects like slavery, secession, Fort Sumter, equality of blacks and Mexicans, habeas corpus, war power, free speech, tariffs, debt, the Emancipation Proclamation, the Union, and vastly more.
Fallon (educated at American University and Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs) is, obviously, a master researcher. His editorial notes take advantage of all modern scholarship and are carefully cited.
Lincoln emerges as the consummate politician, and I don’t mean that as a compliment. Political power was his driving principle. All else was malleable, words and rhetoric formulated as means to an end, and that end was centralization of the state. This is sadly true of his late-life sympathies to the abolitionist cause. They served his purposes well.
Fallon has added to each section some background discussion of the core issues. Just as an example, he assembles Lincoln’s pro-secession statements, such as:
“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 government 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.”
It’s a great statement, one that summarizes the classical liberal position for right of self-determination. Can this possibly be the same war president who ruled during the appalling bloodbath that killed 620,000 soldiers and perhaps another 100,000-plus civilians in order to prevent secession and shore up a forced union? Yes, it is. The year was 1848. He was speaking on behalf of the Texas secession from Mexico.
At the same time, Lincoln’s liberally minded words do not pertain to human rights generally. He did not oppose slavery in general. He was opposed to the extension of slavery for political reasons. By his own account, he “declared a thousand times” that that government cannot “rightfully interfere with slaves or slavery where it already exists.”
Reading Fallon’s book, the contrast between the liberating demigod of the civic religion and the undeniable reality, as illustrated through Lincoln’s own words, could not be more stark.
Then you see the movie and all the portrayed events take on a completely new meaning. Instead of a charming humanitarian, you see a clever politician drunk on power. Instead of a liberator, you see how the language of liberation was used to support despotism. Parts of the movie hint at the truth. He suppressed free speech. He assumed dictatorial powers without legal justification. He jailed critics. In the name of union, he turned the land of the free into killing fields.
Reading Fallon, two great problems with Abraham Lincoln emerge: his means and his ends. The means were themselves horrifying, and the new Lincoln movie provides only a hint of it with the piles of limbs and bodies that variously appear in battlefield and hospice scenes. This war was ghastly and unnecessary (Britain ended slavery peacefully just 30 years earlier, as Thomas DiLorenzo frequently points out). He ordered mass executions. He made the Bill of Rights a dead letter.
In order to understand Lincoln’s passion for preserving the Union, you have to put yourself into a different era of federal finance. There was but one source of revenue: the tariff. There were no internal taxes. There was no “too big to fail,” because there was no central bank capable of bailing out an entire industrial base. As Lincoln himself said by way of explanation, “The tariff is to the government what a meal is to the family” (1861). The South’s ports collected 75% of all federal tax revenue. Without that revenue — that’s what secession meant — the federal government would be starved.
So in one sense, Lincoln was doing only what we’ve come to expect of presidents. One only has to imagine how Bush or Obama or any modern American president would react to the prospect of a 75% cut in incoming revenue — especially if there were no central bank to make up the difference. Would any modern president let the people go, just stand by, and let the federal government starve? Let every opportunity for graft, payoffs, spending on projects, and patronage just evaporate? No chance.
The controversy has raged for a long time about whether the Civil War was really about slavery. It depends on the meaning of “about.” In terms of Lincoln’s motivation, the Fallon book makes it indisputably clear that it was not the desire to end slavery that drove Lincoln’s prosecution of the war, but the need for national unity, which in turn comes down to enforcing the revenue stream. Anyone who knows anything about how politics operates can see this very clearly. In fact, I don’t even know why this would be a controversial claim at all. Why does the head of any state put down rebellion? To liberate people or to enslave them?
As for the motivation of the South to secede, matters become more complex. The desire to shore up slavery and protect the territory from the abolitionists played a large and even decisive role, given that most everyone assumed that slavery was essential to the South. There was also the desire on the part of Southern elites to set up a new government that could form its own trading relationships with foreign nations. And though the demand for secession is an essential right of a free people, the new Confederate government drafted, taxed, and inflated in a way that contradicts every other principle of liberty.
The lesson here is that no government or power of any size or scale can be relied upon to defend liberty. And governments in wartime come into their own, stopping at nothing to protect their power at the people’s expense.
The movie ends with a sequence that is supposed to inspire, but only gave me chills. Thaddeus Stevens has his wife read him the text of the 13th Amendment. “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States.” He breathes a great sigh of relief.
Slavery is gone, and thank God. But what about involuntary servitude? Ask the hundreds of thousands of people now locked up for nonviolent crimes like smoking pot. Ask those who are jailed for failing to fork over enough of their earnings to the government. Ask those who are jailed for sharing files online. Ask those who are jailed for creating alternative currencies or just trying to run a business but failing to adhere to every jot and tittle of the central plan.
In the film, Stevens believes liberty has won. Yet I’m sitting in a theater full of involuntary servants. Indeed, involuntary servitude is the very essence of government. It is the very means by which government seizes control of society. A real 13th Amendment, one that actually got rid of involuntary servitude, would guarantee freedom in every sense. That is not what happened. How and why should be a concern of every citizen interested in the fate of liberty.
No one book and certainly no one movie can possibly capture the incredible complexities of this astonishing event in American history. But it seems reasonable to start with Lincoln’s own words as presented in his letters and speeches. This requires carefully going through 10 volumes of his collected works. Lincoln Uncensored has done the work for you. It is this week’s free download in the Laissez Faire Club.