Monday, February 28, 2011

Abraham Lincoln As Seen By Contemporary British Classical Liberals

The Guardian's Martin Kettle looks back and finds that "support for the south was anything but unusual among liberal and progressive 1860s Britain" — Lincoln, Evil? Our Certainties of 1865 Give Us Pause Today. Of his own paper, the author writes:
    The issue that caused the problem for the Guardian was not slavery. The Guardian had always hated slavery. But it doubted the Union hated slavery to the same degree. It argued that the Union had always tacitly condoned slavery by shielding the southern slave states from the condemnation they deserved. It was critical of Lincoln's emancipation proclamation for stopping short of a full repudiation of slavery throughout the US. And it chastised the president for being so willing to negotiate with the south, with slavery one of the issues still on the table. All of which criticisms were true....

    The great stumbling-block issue for the Guardian and many other liberals was the right to self-determination. The paper believed that the south had the right to secede and to establish an independent state. It suspected that it would succeed. It thought, as Gladstone did, that this might hasten the end of slavery – and it may have been right, since no slave society, including Cuba and Brazil, survived into the 20th century. Above all, though, the paper wanted to be consistent. It had supported independence for the Slavs, the Hungarians, the Italians and the Egyptians – so why not for the Confederates, too?
He quotes his paper in 1862 as saying that "it is impossible not to feel that it was an evil day both for America and the world, when he was chosen president of the United States." Indeed it was. Three years later, in its obituary of the slain tyrant, the paper would say, "Of his rule we can never speak except as a series of acts abhorrent to every true notion of constitutional right and human liberty."

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Blogger Mark in Spokane said...

Well, Action, after all, supported the southern rebels, so this isn't really news. Don't overlook, though, the self-interest of both British and French liberals (almost all of whom were expansionist) in dividing the United States to cripple its rise as a great power. France took advantage of America's civil war to launch a take-over of Mexico under the hapless Maximillian Hapsburg, for example.

And, it bears repeating simply because it is always overlooked in discussions about Lincoln's views of self-determination, that Lincoln did not deny that succession was possible. He denied that succession could be unilateral, without the agreement of the other States in the Union. Read Lincoln's first inaugural address on this point. Lincoln understood the Constitution to be a true compact, one that bound the States together by mutual consent and agreement. As such, it could only be dissolved by mutual consent and agreement. That is a more nuanced and sophisticated argument than is usually presented by Lincoln's critics and southern sympathizers.

3:02 AM  
Blogger The Western Confucian said...

I didn't post this to get your goat, but I knew it would.

You're probably right about the need for a nuanced view of Lincoln, which is not what we get from official history.

One question arises, if union "could only be dissolved by mutual consent and agreement," what does this say of the American Revolution?

8:27 AM  
Blogger Mark in Spokane said...

I thought that you might be trying to get my goat a bit, after I've been posting on Lincoln's classical liberal approach to conservativism.

I am afraid I don't understand the gist of the question. The Articles of Confederation, which were agreed to during the Revolution and where the mechanism by which the general government of the Union functioned until the ratification of the current Constitution, categorically deny to States any right to succession -- it expressly refers to the Union as "perpetual." The current Constitution actually omitted that term, allowing the possibility that a State could leave the Union -- if the other States agreed to the parting, as required by the compact that created the Union via ratification of the Constitution.

Part of what needs to be understood is the nature of ratification -- what did it mean for a State to ratify the Constitution. Did it create a unilateral contract -- something where the State alone could bind itself to the Constitution -- or did it create a multilateral agreement between the States themselves, an agreement which created another entity of government, the Federal government? Calhoun argued for the first approach -- and that was the approach of the Confederates. However, the Founders -- including Jefferson and Madison -- took a different view. This can easily been seen by Madison and Jefferson's view of the Hartford Convention during the War of 1812 -- Jefferson supported a plan by Madison (then president) to march an army into New England if the NE States attempted to succeed without permission of the Southern states and the Federal government (permission which never would have been granted). This was also Jackson's approach in dealing with SC when it threatened succession in the 1830's...

10:30 AM  

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