“When the intellectual authors of the modern right created its doctrines in the 1950s,” wrote Sam Tanenhaus in The New Republic, “they drew on nineteenth-century political thought, borrowing explicitly from the great apologists for slavery, above all, the intellectually fierce South Carolinian John C. Calhoun…. The party of Lincoln… has become the party of Calhoun.” At first glance, such a statement sounds laughable. The Republican Party is indeed the party of Lincoln, a fact it has fully embraced over many years. A 1992 political button for the campaign for president of George H.W. Bush in my possession claims “a proud tradition” for the GOP, featuring photographs of party luminaries Ronald Reagan, Dwight Eisenhower, Teddy Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln. Rich Lowry, editor of the flagship journal of American conservatism, National Review, published a 2013 book extolling the virtues and legacy of Abraham Lincoln, arguing in part that only a Lincolnian vision could return the United States to economic prosperity. Lincoln’s popularity extends to all corners of the American right—even the populist firebrand Patrick J. Buchanan spent an entire chapter praising Lincoln for his views on tariffs in his 1998 book on the benefits of protectionism. How, then, could “the party of Lincoln” have become “the party of Calhoun?”
On the one hand, the conservative movement’s political apparatus for the last six decades—the Republican Party—has celebrated Abraham Lincoln and the Unionist cause. Many, particularly those of a neoconservative bent, all but deify the sixteenth president. On the other hand, several branches of conservatism, including some (though certainly not all, or even most) agrarians, traditionalists, libertarians, and other vestiges of the Old Right, deem Lincoln a tyrant and his war as an abomination of constitutional governance, and venerate the South as the paragon of American liberty. Although Mr. Tanenhaus’s description of the right as the “party of Calhoun” is hyperbolic, in it hides a semblance of truth that ought to cause contemporary conservatives some unease.
The American conservative movement is not a monolithic organism that thinks and acts in one accord; it is instead a collection of disparate groups that, when allied against a common foe, can work together with startling success. Without such a unifying effect, however, the right too easily descends into a swarm of squabbling factions. In George H. Nash’s history of the conservative intellectual movement, first published in 1976, he described the conservative movement as consisting of three parts: libertarians, traditionalists, and anti-communists. In the years since, a plethora of groups percolated on the right, including but not limited to neocons, paleocons, crunchy cons, the religious right, compassionate conservatives, anarcho-capitalists, the Tea Party, and reform conservatives. In times such as these, the conservative movement agrees on little. Let Donald Trump’s presidential campaign-cum-self-aggrandizing temper tantrum testify to that. Though many of the goals of the broader conservative movement are in sync, the underlying philosophical assumptions can differ widely. This disagreement extends to its remembrance of the Civil War.
Richard Weaver, a professor of English at the University of Chicago for many years, first attained prominence with the publication of Ideas Have Consequences in 1948, in which he argued that, by abandoning universal values, “modern man has become a moral idiot.” Along with attracting the praise of a diverse spectrum of thinkers like sociologist Robert Nisbet, theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, and author John Crowe Ransom, Weaver also gained the attention of the burgeoning conservative movement, still in its infancy. Wilmoore Kendall, a political scientist from Yale (and mentor to William F. Buckley Jr.), picked him for “the captaincy of the anti-Liberal team.” Weaver was also a Southerner who identified as a man of the South. In his doctoral dissertation completed at Louisiana State University, Weaver praised the Old South as “the last non-materialist civilization in the Western world” and thought that, for all its faults, on many important issues it had been “right without realizing the grounds of its rightness.”
Weaver’s loyalty to his native region was unsurpassed, but his view of Abraham Lincoln was still unsullied. He admired the reconciliationist bent of the sixteenth president and lamented what was lost with his assassination. Lincoln, because he could call both Kentucky and Illinois home, understood the two sections; thus, Weaver argued, only he could have saved Reconstruction. “As it was, things were done which produced only rancor and made it difficult for either side to believe in the good faith of the other,” Weaver wrote. “It is unfortunate but it is true that the Negro was forced to pay a large part of the bill for the follies of Reconstruction.”
This view extended to many other traditionalists and vanguards of the Old Right. Russell Kirk obviously admired John C. Calhoun, devoting a chapter to him in The Conservative Mind and writing the introduction to a collection of his writings, speeches, and letters. Yet he considered both Calhoun and Lincoln to be exemplars of conservatism. Kirk’s was a mature conservatism.
Another view of the Civil War and Lincoln came from Harry Jaffa and his acolytes. Jaffa was a political scientist at Claremont Graduate University who believed ardently that Lincoln was “the great prophet of our tradition.” In his Crisis of the House Divided, Jaffa argued that Lincoln and the accomplishments of the Civil War were the direct outcome of the founding generation and the documents these men produced by transcending it. Whereas Jefferson only proclaimed that all men were created equal, Lincoln ensured it was so by enshrining that fact on the battlefield. Not only was the Civil War a good war, it was a necessary one—it was only through the bloodshed of hundreds of thousands of Americans that the stain of slavery could be eliminated, thereby allowing the principle of equality to achieve its rightful place in American politics. For Jaffa, political equality was the defining principle of America: “It was because men are by nature equal; because, that is, no man is by nature the ruler of another, that government derives its just powers from the consent—that is, from the opinion of the governed.”
This view is still very much in vogue on the right of today. Those influenced by Claremont—particularly its political science and political philosophy department—continue to argue much along these same lines. Even with traditionalists, these ideas hold sway. Jaffa is widely believed to be the author of Barry Goldwater’s famous “Extremism in the defense of liberty” line from his 1964 acceptance speech at the Republican convention, and he was a contributor to National Review. Russell Kirk agreed with Jaffa that the principle of secession could not be supported by logical or historical reasons. Even Kendall offered tempered praise of Jaffa’s work, remarking on Crisis of the House Divided that he hoped its readers would be “legion.”
In the same review, however, Kendall warned of a potentially pernicious outcome: “a future made up of an endless series of Abraham Lincolns, each persuaded that he is superior in wisdom and virtue to the Fathers,” leading to a kind of Caesarism from those “dedicated like Lincoln to egalitarian reforms sanctioned by mandates emanating from national majorities.” It is this concern that has most animated Jaffa’s biggest opponents on the right, and it is here where the wobbly nature of conservatism’s three-legged stool becomes most evident. These opponents come from a particular strand of libertarians seen most clearly in the devotees of the libertarian thinker Murray Rothbard. An aversion to Lincoln and Northern “aggression” in the Civil War has a long history on the libertarian right. Frank Meyer, another prominent writer for National Review, thought that Lincoln, by way of “undermining the sovereignty of the several states,” contributed to a “process of retrogression” upon American freedom. While the traditionalist viewpoint shares some commonality with both the libertarians and the neoconservatives, the latter two memories of the Civil War are largely at odds. That two groups as different as libertarians and neoconservatives could be said to exist on the right is a testament to the factious nature of American conservatism. At its best, this libertarian viewpoint provides a necessary antidote to Lincoln hagiography and knee-jerk Unionism. At times, however, it appears to gloss over the evils of slavery and the culpability of the South and embrace discredited Lost Cause narratives in its criticism of the North.
For these libertarians, “the real Lincoln,” as one titles his book, was a tyrant who, as Meyer suggested, undermined the sovereignty of the states by refusing a legitimate right of secession at bayonet’s point. By jailing dissidents, suspending habeus corpus, and sending his army to the South, Lincoln, in this view, showed he truly was, to take Kendall’s terminology, a kind of Caesar. Neither, they contend, was the War Between the States—never the Civil War—a war fought over slavery; states’s rights and tariff concerns were equally as important, if not more important. “For starters, Lincoln aimed to keep the Union together, even if that meant protecting slavery, and many southerners viewed slavery as an evil,” writes Thomas Woods, a libertarian economist and historian who advised Ron Paul during his campaigns for president. “But for the South, there was a larger issue at stake: preserving the last check on the power of the federal government.” Rothbard himself said that the only “two just wars in American history were the American Revolution, and the War for Southern Independence.”
This goes too far, and it upsets the balance of the right. It is one thing to remember, as Robert Penn Warren did, that
the Republican platform of 1860 pledged protection to the institution of slavery where it existed, and that the Republicans were ready, in 1861, to guarantee slavery in the South, as bait for a return to the Union. It is forgotten that in July, 1861, both houses of Congress, by an almost unanimous vote, affirmed that the War was waged not to interfere with the institutions of any state but only to maintain the Union.
It is quite another to suggest that the Southern cause was just. Though it took the Union years to tepidly rally behind the abolitionist cause, the protection of slavery was the Confederacy’s raison d’etre from the very beginning. Any such denials discredit legitimate libertarian concerns. Phil Magness, himself a libertarian historian at George Mason University, writes that the two foundational rules for any libertarian studying the Civil War must be: one, he can be against slavery without necessarily favoring the Union; two, she can oppose the Union’s aggression without supporting the Confederacy. “Let it be noted,” he writes, “that when libertarians say something stupid about the Civil War it usually stems from accepting only one of these ground rules and neglecting the other.” However tricky this tightrope may be to walk, acknowledging the complexity of the debate is much more admirable than a Rothbardian revelry in the cause of the Confederacy.
An event as important to the country’s history as the Civil War is bound to produce a widely variant collective historical memory. A movement as diffuse and tenuous as American conservatism produces more dissonance still. Yet, for a movement that gained influence while out of power like American conservatives, protesting the very foundational philosophy of the ruling parties, such variance makes sense. The Civil War is, as Shelby Foote noted, at the crossroads of our being. Looked at one way, it marked the end of a long struggle against slavery and the beginning of a long one for civil rights and racial equality. Looked at another, it marked the end of limited government and the beginning of the encroaching, ever-present Leviathan that exists today. These memories can be both in sync and in conflict. After all, it was the deployment of strong government in the form of a dominant army and the passage of federal amendments that played a large role in the freeing of American slaves. And yet, as the government’s mechanisms for intruding into the lives of the American people increased from the 1860s on, racial discrimination and segregation remained entrenched—moral suasion had at least as much to do with a broad acceptance of racial equality as big government did.
As the Civil War continues to be debated, its memory encompasses both of these plausible, nuanced perspectives and many more, and the same is true on the American right. The big tent that is American conservatism has encompassed all of these perspectives, all the while retaining some sense of philosophical coherence and unity. Contra Mr. Tanenhaus, the right is the party of both Lincoln and Calhoun.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.