L. Neil Smith's Ahistorical Comparison Of Lincoln To Lenin

Brian Tubbs, 12 June, 2000

Part of the "Critiques of Libertarianism" site.

Last updated 10/25/07.

[Editor's note: Libertarianism, like many other ideologies, spawns substantial revisionist histories. These are used to help separate the elect, who know the "truth", from the masses, and thus destroy the common ground needed for communication that might lead to leaving the ideology. L. Neil Smith is one of the more extreme libertarian propagandists, who generally measures all freedom by in terms of guns. This is a criticism of one of his "Lever Action Essays", An American Lenin. It was originally presented at Suite101. Reprinted with permission of the author.]

I read the article. Mr. Smith makes an emotionally compelling argument against Lincoln, but his conclusions are based more on assertions, exaggerations and provocative metaphors, than facts.

Here are a few examples of this...

1. He implies that the Founding Fathers were libertarians, yet provides no substantiation for this. As one who has extensively studied the American Founders, I would strongly disagree with categorizing them as libertarian. Would Mr. Smith honestly call Alexander Hamilton a "libertarian"?!! Or George Washington? Even Thomas Jefferson, who took what could be described as "libertarian" positions during Washington's and Adams's administrations, drifted more to the middle during his own presidency. Recall the Embargo Act and the Louisiana Purchase as but two examples of federal initiatives that true libertarians would decry as blatantly unconstitutional. And what about Noah Webster and Benjamin Rush who together were probably the two most influential Founders in launching America's public schools. Sorry. On this point, Mr. Smith is definitely wrong. The Founders were not libertarian.

2. Minor point: I don't know of many true conservatives (and I'm not talking about libertarians or even semi-libertarians here) who have a "prissy disdain" for the 2nd Amendment.

3. His metaphoric association of the North with a physically abusive husband who steals from his wife is an outrageous exaggeration, in my view. Yet, even if you believe it has merit, you can hardly consider it "proof" of anything. You can't prove an assertion with an emotional illustration or anecdote. Bottom line: the Constitution gives Congress the power to regulate overseas and interstate commerce. It further allows it to set tarriffs. The fact that the tarriffs were not in the South's best interests - something I don't necessarily dispute - does NOT mean that they were illegal or unconstitutional. On the contrary, as detrimental to the South's economic interests as they may have been (and it is a matter of dispute as to HOW detrimental they were), the federal government was still abiding by the terms of the Constitution.

4. His domestic violence scenario has the husband standing in the doorway, beating his wife to a bloody pulp. This is simply not a fair illustration. Had the South not raised an army and navy, seized federal property, and fired the first shots of the war, but rather had they simply sued for independence under terms of the Constitution (or their interpretation of it) and THEN Lincoln sent occupation forces in to jail people, etc., etc....THEN I could see a parallel. But it didn't happen that way. And you know it. And so does Mr. Smith.

5. He argues that the South seceded over the tarriff issue. Regardless of how much modern southerners (like myself, mind you) WANT to believe that, it is simply not true. All you have to do is read SOUTHERN newspaper editorials and SOUTHERN political speeches of that day (in the state houses and at the state secession conventions) and you'll see that secession was driven first by slavery and THEN by tarriffs. More to the point, the Lower South seceded primarily over slavery in that they demanded a federal guarantee of new slave states and territories. Knowing that Lincoln represented the direct opposite of that position - an end to the expansion of slavery, they bolted after his election. Granted, the Upper South states seceded primarily over how they perceived Lincoln was handling the situation. Had Lincoln not attempted to resupply Fort Sumter, for instance, it is possible that Virginia would have stayed in the Union. Regardless, any delusions that slavery played a minor or secondary role in the South's decision to secede (esp. the Lower South) can be put to rest by reading what SOUTHERN political leaders and editorialists had to say in 1860-61. I would point you especially to the Cornerstone Speech by Alexander Hamilton Stephens.

6. Mr. Smith lays the blame of the war completely on the shoulders of Mr. Lincoln, and gives no room for the fact that Lincoln genuinely believed that the Constitution (and its authors) intended for the Union to be perpetual. We can debate this until we're blue in the face, but we should at least ACKNOWLEDGE that Lincoln's interpretation of the Constitution was a reasonable one - even if it's not one you or Mr. Smith agree with. Read Lincoln's First Inaugural Address (let the man speak for himself - we owe him that much) and then read George Washington's Farewell Address. I'll give you one better. Read what James Madison had to say, late in life, in response to some of the rhetoric coming from the South, including from John C. Calhoun. Read what Madison ("The Father of the Constitution") had to say about secession. If you read what Washington, Hamilton, Madison, etc. have to say about the Union, you'll at least see that Andrew Jackson's Proclamation on Nullification (in which he also addressed secession) and Lincoln's First Inaugural are not totally off base. They are reasonable interpretations of what the Framers of our Republic intended.

GIVEN THAT, it is completely understandable that Lincoln believed that the secession was illegal and unconstitutional, and that allowing the southern states to succeed in withdrawing from the Union would be breaking his presidential oath to uphold the Constitution. (Now, DON'T go off half-cocked about how Lincoln allegedly trampled on the Constitution himself. Stick with the chronology of this. We're talking about 1861 as Lincoln was taking office. We're NOT talking YET about his actions AFTER the war began). Bottom line: Lincoln's interpretation of the Constitution was reasonable, and based on that interpretation, he basically had no choice but to try to stop the South was seceding. Anything less, within the paradigm of his reasonable interpretation, would have been a dereliction of duty.

7. Mr. Smith takes a shot at Lincoln's sincerity on the issue of slavery. This is either due to shameful ignorance or deliberate distortion of the historical record. Abraham Lincoln was a lifelong opponent of slavery. He hated slavery. Further, he believed that the Founders had hated slavery (and he was right, by the way). He felt that THEY (the Founders) wanted slavery to be put on the "course of ultimate extinction" (in other words, gradually phased out). (Again, he was correct). Yet he believed that the country was heading in the opposite direction. He felt that slavery was growing stronger, and that its continued expansion must be stopped in order for the Founders' vision of ultimate abolition to be realized. AT THE SAME TIME, he eschewed the "radicalism" of Horace Greeley, William Lloyd Garrison, and other abolitionists, and acknowledged that the North bore as much responsibility for slavery (ultimately) that the South did. Thus, he committed himself to what Clinton would call a "triangulation." He didn't believe the federal government had the authority to ban slavery where it existed, but did believe it had the authority to arrest its expansion. This way, he hoped that it would return to its downward trajectory and eventually die out. THAT was his philosophy and must be remembered as the CONTEXT of his statements and decisions on the issue.

8. Mr. Smith implies (as so many of Lincoln's critics do) that the Emancipation Proclamation was a propaganda tool because it only covered parts of the country where he had no authority. Again, this is ignorance or worse. Anyone who makes this charge has either not bothered to read what Lincoln wrote and said about the Proclamation or has deliberately chosen to ignore what he said. Lincoln long believed that he did not have the authority under the Constitution to ban slavery where it existed. HOWEVER, he did believe (as the war progressed) that, as Commander-in-Chief, he could free the slaves in hostile territory as a wartime measure. That is why the Proclamation covered only those areas not under Union control. It was a military measure. Anyone who reads into this an indifference on Lincoln's part toward slavery is ignoring his support of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution which banned slavery once and for all in the ENTIRE country!

This is all I have time for tonight. I'm sure what I've said is enough to spark intense debate anyway.

Eric, I find you to be an intelligent person, but I think respectfully it is you who have yielded to "camp followers" (in your case, southern partisans, who in 2000, still are fighting the War Between the States). It's one thing to disagree with Lincoln. It's another to declare him an "American Lenin" or a sadistic brute. Lincoln may have been flawed (and was flawed in the sense that we all are), but he was no tyrant or warmonger. He was a sincere, patriotic man caught up in events that hopefully our country will never have to face again.

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