Abraham Lincoln is justly celebrated as the Great Emancipator. The Civil War freed nearly 4 million African-Americans from human bondage. It thereby fulfilled the promise of the American Revolution, eradicating a major coercive blight on the country. But unfortunately, Lincoln did almost as much to repudiate as to reaffirm the radical principles of the Declaration of Independence.
To begin with, the 16th president’s determination to hold the Union together with military force was an explicit rejection of the revolutionary right of self-determination. Even the London Times of Nov. 7, 1861, recognized “an exact analogy between the North and the government of George III, and the South and the 13 revolted provinces,” which at the outset of the Revolution, all tolerated slavery. As a legal recourse, the legitimacy of secession was admittedly debatable, but as a revolutionary right, it is universal and unconditional. That at least is how the Declaration reads.
Beyond its horrendous cost in lives and money, the Civil War brought about a dramatic surge in the size, scope and intrusiveness of government. The radical ideology that inspired America’s Revolution had been hostile to political power and contributed to a steady erosion of all forms of coercion in the years leading up to the Civil War. “By the 1850s the authority of all government in America was at a low point,” writes Lincoln biographer David Donald. The great irony of the Civil War is that, at the very moment abolition triumphed, the American polity did an about-face.
Read the rest here.
My favorite is the ending:
This portrait may not jibe with the popular hagiography, but that is often what happens when you replace blind hero worship with the complexities of history.