January 14, 2007

"The Tyrant Lincoln"?

What he might have also remarked on was the odd habit that some of Mr. Bush’s supporters seem to have in comparing him to the tyrant Lincoln as a way of praising his leadership or urging him to follow Lincoln’s example. (Perhaps the comparisons between two Presidents who routinely violated the Constitution and launched aggressive wars are just too obvious to be ignored.)

--Daniel Larison
Daniel Larison is a prolific blogger, a self-proclaimed paleoconservative, who writes well and frequently surprises with his insights.

Last summer my daughter and I visited Washington, and of course visited the Lincoln Memorial. Inscribed on the wall in giant letters are his eloquent words from the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural. I have always been taught, and assumed, that Lincoln was a remarkable leader.

There is a contrary view, as reflected in this debate, for example, and in various writings of H.L.Mencken, such as this:
The Gettysburg speech was at once the shortest and the most famous oration in American history... the highest emotion reduced to a few poetical phrases. Lincoln himself never even remotely approached it. It is genuinely stupendous. But let us not forget that it is poetry, not logic; beauty, not sense. Think of the argument in it. Put it into the cold words of everyday. The doctrine is simply this: that the Union soldiers who died at Gettysburg sacrificed their lives to the cause of self-determination—that government of the people, by the people, for the people, should not perish from the earth. It is difficult to imagine anything more untrue. The Union soldiers in the battle actually fought against self-determination; it was the Confederates who fought for the right of their people to govern themselves.
I have wondered myself whether the goal of preserving the Union was worth the 600,000 lives that were lost in the war, and whether a negotiated separation would have been better in the long run. Would slavery have been abolished in the South within a generation, as it was in Brazil, without war, and without the violent reaction that ended in the system of Jim Crow?

The Civil War was the first industrialized war, and resulted in slaughter on a massive scale, the suspension of many constitutional liberties, and set the stage for the next period of centralized power, the growth of trusts, and the emergence of America as an assertive world power a generation later.

Lincoln was a larger than life figure. Was he our greatest President, or as Larison says, a tyrant?

Not a closed question.

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