Wirkman Virkkala has posted a lengthy response to my cursory defense of the Great Emancipator. I think discussions of this type are generally unproductive, but I did want to clarify my own thoughts on Lincoln’s presidency:
- Pace Mr. Virkkala, I don’t “lionize” Lincoln. I think the revisionist Right has aired many legitimate criticisms of his presidency. That said, too many of these critics either ignore or downplay the great moral evil of slavery (see, for example, this “scholar”).
- Given the devastating inter-generational impact of American slavery, I think it’s reasonable to err on the side of caution when assessing the likelihood of voluntary Southern manumission. Virkkala offers the Brazilian model of emancipation as a possible outcome. Perhaps, but it’s worth remembering that Brazilian emancipation was the result of a royal edict. I suspect Southern elites would have proved a tougher nut to crack, if only because political power in an independent Confederacy would have been much more diffuse.
- Moreover, had the South followed Brazil’s example and voluntarily freed the slaves, I think a more virulent form of Jim Crow would have persisted well into the 20th century. Is indentured servitude and government-sanctioned discrimination that much of a step up from chattel slavery? What if the American South replicated South Africa’s experiment in racial apartheid?
- Finally, Lincoln died before he was given the chance to repeal or suspend many of his most extreme wartime measures. Unlike Bush, Lincoln also took great care to couch his expansion of federal power in terms of temporary wartime expediency rather than indefinite presidential prerogatives. A semantic difference, perhaps, but one that suggests Lincoln’s underlying distrust of centralized authority.
Much of this is irresponsible guesswork, but Virkkala’s loose talk of Southern emancipation is of course equally speculative. Like Mr. Virkkala, I deplore many of the trends Linoln’s presidency presaged, from the abrogation of constitutional liberties to the expansion government-sponsored corporatism. But I tend to err on the side that fought to end a miserable institution whose deleterious effects persist to this very day.