And yet some American libertarians have denounced Lincoln as a despotic enemy of liberty and as the founder of the Progressive tradition of big government. Amazingly, some of these libertarians have even defended the Lost Cause of the Confederacy as the last bastion of republican liberty in the world, and thus they lament its defeat by the superior arms of Lincoln's military. Recently, this neo-Confederate libertarianism has received publicity through the campaigning of Ron Paul, because Paul has a long history of criticizing Lincoln and lamenting the loss of the Confederacy. Moreover, Barack Obama's claim that the Progressive ideology of big government is in the tradition of Abraham Lincoln has been cited by some libertarians as confirmation for their loathing of Lincoln. (Some of my thinking about this has been influenced by my reading of John Barr's book manuscript--Loathing Lincoln: An American Political Tradition, 1858-2012--which I hope will be published sometime soon.)
We now have two good refutations of this libertarian critique of Lincoln that show why he should be seen as a classical liberal defender of individual liberty and limited government. Timothy Sandefur has written "How Libertarians Ought to Think about the U.S. Civil War." And Allen Guelzo has written "Abraham Lincoln or the Progressives: Who Was the Real Father of Big Government?" Another important work along these lines is Jason Jividen's book Claiming Lincoln: Progressivism, Equality, and the Battle for Lincoln's Legacy in Presidential Rhetoric, which shows how the Progressives had to distort Lincoln's political thought and practice to appropriate him to their cause.
Sandefur refutes those libertarians who argue that the Confederate states were justified by a constitutional right to secession or a natural right to revolution. In fact, the Constitution does not provide for secession; and there is no natural right to revolt for the sake of enslaving human beings. While some neo-Confederate libertarians argue that Southern secession had nothing to do with slavery, Sandefur rightly points to the Southern declarations of secession as clear and authoritative statements that preserving slavery was the primary reason for secession.
Guelzo offers a good survey of the evidence against the libertarian claim that Lincoln was the father of big government. He shows that the growth of the federal government during the Civil War was mostly a temporary response to the extraordinary emergency of the war. Libertarians or classical liberals should agree with Lincoln that protecting liberty against the initiation of violence by slaveholders is a proper purpose of government.
As both Sandefur and Guelzo indicate, Lincoln was clear and consistent in his devotion to what he called "the principle of self-government"--"each individual is naturally entitled to do as he pleases with himself and the fruit of his labor, so far as he in no wise interferes with any other man's rights" (CW 2:493).
The neo-Confederate libertarians are confused in their understanding of liberty. Lincoln explained:
We all declare for liberty; but in using the same word we do not all mean the same thing. With some the word liberty may mean for each man to do as he pleases with himself, and the product of his labor; while with others the same word may mean for some men to do as they please with other men, and the product of other men's labor. Here are two, not only different, but incompatible things, called by the same name--liberty. And it follows that each of the things is, by the respective parties, called by two different and incompatible names--liberty and tyranny. The shepherd drives the wolf from the sheep's throat, for which the sheep thanks the shepherd as a liberator, while the wolf denounces him for the same act as the destroyer of liberty, especially as the sheep was a black one. Plainly the sheep and the wolf are not agreed upon a definition of the word liberty. (CW 7:301-302)The neo-Confederate libertarians have mistakenly adopted the wolf's definition of liberty. Lincoln and Darwin rightly defended the shepherd's definition.
Lincoln's Aesopian imagery in this passage suggests all the major questions that have arisen in the debate over Lincoln's words and deeds. If Lincoln believes that all human beings are created equal, why does he divide them into sheep, shepherds, and wolves? Does the liberty of the sheep depend on the shepherd’s protecting them from wolves? Why can’t the sheep protect themselves? What motivates the shepherd? Ambition? If so, might not the shepherd be tempted to create a fear of wolves in order to satisfy his ambition? Are local shepherds more or less trustworthy than national shepherds? Is the national shepherd justified in arguing that he must suspend civil liberties in order to liberate the sheep? Must the shepherd deny the liberty of wolves in order to liberate the sheep? Should the sheep trust the shepherd when he says that the wolves have the constitutional liberty to keep the sheep in slavery? If the shepherd believes that the sheep are all black does that show his racism—his belief that black sheep cannot govern themselves without the help of shepherds? Does this cast doubt on the possibility of having government of the sheep, by the sheep, for the sheep?
Some of my pertinent posts can be found here, here. and here.