Dec 17, 2011

Ron Paul on the Question of Abraham Lincoln

NOTE: Please note that this is the link to the video interview my essay is based on: Ron Paul on the Morning Joe. I tried to embed the video, but technical difficulties prevent that. Please watch the video before coming to any conclusions about the faithfulness of my transcriptions. Thank you.

I am going to come right out and say it. I do not support Ron Paul for President. This is either a great puzzlement, or frustration, or affront, or abomination to many of my friends and acquaintances, but I am sure it is not a surprise. For months, as they relentlessly and enthusiastically campaigned for their man, I stood on the sidelines observing, listening to their reasoning and arguments, and wondering if I would eventually become a casualty in one of the all-out conflicts that so frequently characterize their run-ins with the supporters of other candidates.

It wasn’t until very recently that I was able to finally put my finger on the exact reason that Ron Paul’s ideas make me uncomfortable. My research, observations, and preponderance of the evidence have led me to a realization that I am compelled to share at length, as a more in-depth explanation of the hints I have already given. I hope that this exposition will be taken in the spirit in which it is offered: humbly, without malice, and for clarity’s sake.

There are quite a lot of objections to Ron Paul that my Paul enthusiast friends are used to hearing and rejecting on a daily basis. Probably the most of these is foreign policy. For many Americans, particularly traditional conservative Republicans, the Congressman’s non-interventionist ideas are too hard to swallow. But besides a few points on which I disagree, they don’t bother me that much. I am open to new ideas and trying new things. Others are turned off by the Congressman’s ideas for ending the Federal Reserve and drastically altering our economic policy. I have no problems there that couldn’t be surmounted by a little more specific discussion. Some point to the Congressman’s vast array of kooky or downright scary (depending on who you ask) connections and supporters. I have pointed to that myself as reason to pause, but I realize that after thirty years in politics, it is conceivable that one may develop connections that are not actually indicative of one’s own character. On none of these points do I have a strong enough objection to Paul’s ideas to single him out as someone I would absolutely not support.

My major objection to Dr. Paul, one that is serious enough to discount him as a candidate that I would consider supporting, is that he is unequivocally, dangerously, inexcusably wrong about Abraham Lincoln and the American Civil War. I have ventured to state this to a few of the less dogmatic Paul supporters I know, and the reaction has always been basically the same: okay, but I couldn’t care less what he thinks of Lincoln. How on earth is that relevant? This reaction is understandable, which is why I am making this concerted effort to explain exactly why it is of the utmost importance. To quote myself from an earlier post:

Lincoln's politics, rhetoric, and presidency dealt with Constitutional issues of vast and far-reaching import. To misunderstand the Civil War is to misunderstand the most crucial period in Constitutional history after the framing of the document. To misunderstand the president who effectively re-founded the country from two rent pieces is to misunderstand the heritage of republican ideals the Founders espoused and the principles this country is built on.
Far more than any other man of his time, Abraham Lincoln understood, defended, and reasserted the character, principles, and intent of our Founding Fathers, Founding Documents, and fine Republic. A demonization of him and his politics is effectively a demonization of all of those things, and for Ron Paul, a candidate who is lauded as the last, lonely, great champion of liberty and the Constitution, to botch with appalling thoroughness many of these constitutional issues, is a cannon-volley of alarm-blasts.

The more I research this discrepancy, the more I see that this is an ingrown problem, rooted in the conflict between libertarianism and conservatism, which I cannot and will not even attempt to address here. I have learned from direct experience that any single detail of everything I am going to assert can be debated endlessly between myself and someone more libertarian than myself, to no avail. It is my hope, not to convince everyone of every point I make (I would have to write a book to do that and that book has already pretty much been written: Vindicating Lincoln: Defending the Politics of Our Greatest President by Thomas Krannawitter) but to be very clear about why I, as a conservative, cannot accept Paul. I also hope it may help any of my open-minded friends who are not aware that this conflict exists and may not be sure of where they themselves stand on the libertarian vs. conservative line. In order to keep this to a manageable length, I will simply respond to the manuscript of one of Dr. Paul’s television appearances in which he addresses the topic explicitly.

In his appearance on the Morning Joe Show December 27, 2007, Ron Paul made the following statements about Abe Lincoln and the War:

You haven’t read the right historians. You ought to read Tom DiLorenzo’s book The Real Lincoln.
Alright, stop right there. Right out of the gate, we already have a serious problem in Paul’s choice of reading. DiLorenzo, as I learned extensively at Hillsdale College, is the poster child for bad Southern apologetic scholarship. Hell-bent on assassinating the character of an assassinated man, the economist DiLorenzo (not a historian) has polluted, colluded, and butchered the history of the Civil War time and again with his ill-accomplished work. If you think I am speaking purely out of bias, consider this book review from the Claremont Institute (and this other):
The book is a compendium of misquotations, out-of-context quotations, and wrongly attributed quotations — one howler after another, yet none of it funny....
Perhaps even more distorting than the false statements and misrepresentations in the book are the omissions. For a book intended to reveal the "real" Lincoln, it is astounding how little of Lincoln's political universe DiLorenzo discusses or seems to understand.
It is not at all surprising, then, that throughout the rest of the interview the Congressman repeats a lot of bad scholarship on the topic. He states,
Lincoln was not that antislavery. He has his famous quote that everybody who has read history knows about. He said, ‘If I can save the Union by keeping slavery, I will.’ And he says, ‘If I can save the Union by getting rid of slavery, I will.’ He was not strong anti-slavery....That makes my whole point.
Paul later chastised the hosts for not reading history, but this statement would indicate that it is Paul who needs to do that very thing. First, Abraham Lincoln strongly opposed slavery throughout his entire political career. There are numerous quotes here, taken from his various speeches and letters, which demonstrate that his position never changed on the evil of slavery. "I have always hated slavery, I think as much as any abolitionist," he said prior to the presidency. If Congressman Paul were not as unfamiliar with Lincoln’s speeches and papers as he appears to be, he would know this.

Second, Paul refers in his statement to the letter Lincoln wrote to Horace Greeley in the summer of 1862, after he had informed his cabinet that the Emancipation Proclamation was forthcoming. The letter is a response to the abolitionist Greeley’s published editorial entitled “The Prayer of Twenty Millions” which criticized the president for not taking aggressive steps toward abolishing slavery before the war began. In it he says:

I would save the Union. I would save it the shortest way under the Constitution.... If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.... I have here stated my purpose according to my view of official duty; and I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men everywhere could be free.
Paul uses his paraphrase as evidence that Lincoln was not strongly antislavery, but as you can see from the context, Lincoln actually reaffirms, in the same short letter, his commitment to the ideal that all men should be free. By the time Lincoln wrote those words, many thousands of American lives had already been lost with no end to the bloodshed in sight. This is evidence that, well into the conflict, Lincoln retained his conviction that his duty as President was simply to save the Union, not to attack that “peculiar institution” of the South.

The Congressman follows this up with a natural transition into asserting that the war was fought for economic reasons alone. “Have you ever heard of the economic reasons for going to war?” he askes the hosts impatiently. Libertarians have argued for some time now that the North waged an economic war on the South by use of high tariffs that put an unfair burden on its export-driven economy. These economists, especially DiLorenzo, use the 1828 “Tariff of Abominations” as their case-in-point example of this economic conflict. This tariff was a 50% tax on imported goods (a boon to the North and bane to the South) and tipped off the Nullification Crisis of 1832-33, which paved the intellectual road to secession. But as a close reading of history reveals, it wasn’t so simple as North vs. South in either economic struggle or the nullification fiasco.

John C. Calhoun, a prominent Southern leader and political theorist, had engineered previous tariffs himself, and he played with the Tariff of Abominations, along with other Democrats, to ensure the election of Democrat Andrew Jackson over the New Englander John Quincy Adams. They expected the tariff to die in Congress from the poison pill they had attached to it, but it passed, quite embarrassingly, and Calhoun scrambled to save his reputation. The result was his “Exposition and Protest,” which condemned the tariff and advanced the idea of nullification, leading to the nullification crisis in South Carolina. Ironically, Andrew Jackson, now president, threatened to deploy federal troops to his home state of South Carolina for unilaterally “nullifying” a federal law. Whatever economic reasons for going to war existed then, they still, as always, pale to the South’s unrelenting determination to maintain and advance its peculiar institution of slavery.

But Congressman Paul continues in his jumbled history, stating:

Do you know who Lysander Spooner is? Lysander Spooner was the greatest abolitionist from Massachusetts, and he supported the South, because he understood this. Read Lysander Spooner on treason. He explains this and he fought Lincoln even before Lincoln became president, making this point.
This is the very same Lysander Spooner, I believe, who, in A Plan for the Abolition of Slavery to the Non-Slaveholders of the South, wrote:
We are unwilling to take the responsibility of advising any general insurrection, or any taking of life, until we of the North go down to take part in it, in such numbers as to insure a certain and easy victory.... Give the Slave-holders, then, a taste of their own whips.
Paul continues:
Lincoln is part of the Hamiltonians, who wanted a strong, strong national government and this was an opportunity.... Why, do you, have you ever, do you know what John Quincy Adams did every time he went to Congress after he was president? He introduced an amendment to the Constitution to make it very clear that slavery would be abolished.
Remember John C. Calhoun, the Southern politician who inspired the secessionists and argued slavery as a “positive good?” He was supposed to be the South’s most tireless protector of the states’ rights tradition (a tradition which, quite ironically, was thoroughly abused in the South by its Confederate Constitution). But he was one of those Hamiltonians too, a firm nationalist and cheerleader for internal improvements and Hamiltonian economics, when it suited him. So it is not really so simple as saying that Lincoln and the Northerners were nationalists who were glad for the arrival of the secession crisis because it “was a tool for him to go at the South.” That’s a lot like saying that there was glee in the Bush Administration at the perpetration of 9/11 because it gave them an excuse to invade Iraq.

John Quincy Adams did work tirelessly for the demise of slavery in Congress, but to no avail, since, oddly enough, Southerners refused to cooperate. He ended up saying that the end to slavery would only come as the result of a president using his special powers in war time to stomp the institution. “When a country is invaded, and two hostile armies are set in martial array, the commanders of both armies have power to emancipate all the slaves in the invaded territory,” he said to Congress in 1842. But Paul’s history breaks down again here:

Even before the Civil War broke out there was a constitutional amendment to abolish slavery like in 1860, which did not get support from Lincoln. That’s what you’ve got to read, you’ve got to read your history. I think you are absolutely confused on what Lincoln stood for, and that it was necessary to kill all these people. You can get rid of slavery it’s been done many times.
Now, I have been reading my history, and I’ve been looking very hard for any whisper of an amendment introduced in 1860 to abolish slavery. I have only been able to find proposals to protect slavery in the Constitution, a measure that was popular at the time because Northern members of Congress were panicking over the looming secession crisis and were trying to appease the Southern states. There was the Corwin Amendment, which would have prohibited Congress from interfering with slavery; Lincoln indicated that he would not oppose it as president. The South was not interested. There was also the Crittenden Compromise, which packaged a generous number of appeasement-oriented amendments with a few resolutions, but it also failed miserably. As Michael Vorenberg wrote in Final Freedom, “as antislavery northerners devised every method except a constitutional amendment to end slavery, proslavery southerners established the precedent of proposing amendments that preserved slavery forever.” Mr. Vorenberg must be just as “confused” as I am, or perhaps he is simply not “reading [his] history.” There is also a fair amount of naiveté at work in Dr. Paul. I ask you, had Congress, in the absence of the Southern delegates, who had withdrawn, approved an amendment to the Constitution abolishing slavery, would the South have not seceded? Strange argument indeed.

Yet Doctor Paul’s narrative becomes more appalling as he gets further into the interview. This is where all of those who trust in the Congressman as a great champion of the Constitution need to pay careful attention. What is wrong with the following statement?

Well, Abraham Lincoln didn’t need to kill so many people and run a civil war. He could have just, you know, gotten rid of slavery.
I am agog and aghast. For a Congressman who is lauded by his supporters as a great constitutionalist, this is an utter blasphemy. Can it be that Ron Paul understands the Constitution so poorly that he thinks it lawfully within the power of a president to do such a thing? In this statement, and as he hints throughout the interview, Dr. Paul lambasts Abraham Lincoln for respecting the Constitution. He suggests, outright, and with great exasperation, that Abraham Lincoln should have thrown the Constitution into the Potomac and abolished slavery with the wave of his thin, long arm, like a true tyrant and dictator. In fact, to make it all the worse, what we see above is that, at every turn, the Congressman criticizes, slanders, and degrades President Lincoln for the actions he took, and did not take, in accordance with and under submission to the Constitution of the United States. I suppose that if President Lincoln had acted in such a way, the South would have very demurely submitted and given up their slaves without a long and bloody war. This is, quite frankly, a preposterously stupid and shortsighted argument.

To delve farther into this statement, however, is perhaps to come to the heart of Paul’s non-interventionism. His comments reveal, not really a strong commitment to the Constitution, but a pervading disgust for war that prompts him to easily disregard the Constitution in a makeshift prevention of war. Had Ron Paul been inaugurated President Paul in 1860, would he have so flagrantly shunned the Constitution, violated the individual freedom and liberty of millions, and destroyed all of the props on which our limited government and self-governing society stood, all in the name of an ill-gotten, and assuredly farcical peace?

Lincoln repeated in his First Inaugural Address a statement he had made previously in the Debates, “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.” Quite ironically, though Lincoln-haters commonly refer to him as a tyrant, statements like Paul's above suggest that they may be merely frustrated that he was not the tyrant they wish he were. And all of this brings us to the primary question at issue here. Does Dr. Paul’s contempt for the statesman Lincoln give me a legitimate reason to warn against him and question his supposed expertise on the Constitution? Yes, here is why.

We are concerned today, in modern America, that we face possibly insurmountable problems that will determine if we are to have “a new birth of freedom” or the end of our great experiment in self-government. I know of no president other than Abraham Lincoln who faced such a real problem as this. With an enduring understanding of and respect for our Founders and Constitution, Lincoln prudently maneuvered the rapids that would have led to the utter ruin of our Republic. If we are to successfully navigate this new crisis, it must be with a prudent statesman, truly well versed in the Constitution, at the helm of our ship of state. God help us if into this battle we are led by an imprudent leader who is fervently believed to be, when he is not, a great, expert in the Constitution. In this and other television appearances, Dr. Paul indicates that he clearly misunderstands, manipulates, and misrepresents the most important and relevant period of Constitutional history. If you doubt what I am saying, you must read Lincoln for yourself, in the Lincoln-Douglas debates, in his speeches to Congress, in his response to Dred Scott, and the rest. Was Abe Lincoln perfect? By no means. Did he make mistakes? Certainly. Was he ever wrong? Occasionally. Was he, nonetheless, one of the greatest and perhaps the greatest president we ever had? In my opinion, yes. Regardless of my personal opinion, however, Abraham Lincoln was, and still is, the Father of the Republican Party. This should remain in perspective when looking out over the field of candidates who wish to become the nominee of the Republican Party.

Congressman Paul has said that “to bring about radical and permanent change in any society, our primary focus must be on the conversion of minds through education.” If all of the Congressman’s own education is based on such fallacies as his beliefs about the Civil War, and if all of his political philosophy is colored by the misunderstanding of the Constitution that he reveals in his statements about Lincoln, then I must conclude that Dr. Ron Paul must either be seriously confused, disingenuous, or incompetent in the areas in which he professes to excel. I caution everyone who has unquestioningly accepted an exalted view of the Congressman, because he often mentions the Constitution in his public statements, to pause and consider the previous allegations seriously.


F.Mitchell said...

I remember learning about John C. Calhoun and his role in the "War Between the States" from the very very Southern Mrs. Morgan in my South Carolina High School classroom:-).

The majority of Paulists seem to be very much unaware of the historic details surrounding the states rights arguments they often try to make. What you point out in your thoughtfully considered essay is the biggest of such discrepancies. It alone is reason enough to discredit any political candidate, but especially so Ron Paul who sets such great store by the history of our great nation. Thank you for bringing attention to this important topic concerning Ron Paul.

Jen Leslie said...

A well thought out piece that is factual and analytical, and rejects the rampant emotionalism that encompasses this primary season where there is a frenzy of supporters and lack of pragmatism.

Priscilla said...

Thank you both. I appreciate your feedback.