The Right Coast

April 12, 2004
By Mike Rappaport

I was in Washington this past weekend, showing many of the sights to my children. It is always odd for me to go back to a city where I lived. Had I not gone into teaching, I would probably have remained in Washington for the rest of my life. Before I left Washington, that would have sounded great. After more than a decade in San Diego, all I can say is "there but for the grace of God." The tremendous power of path dependence.

I showed my kids the Lincoln Memorial. When I left Washington, I had pretty conventional views for a libertarian about Lincoln -- I really disliked him and thought he was overrated in much the way that FDR is. He was a nationalist, whereas I believed strong federalism was the way protect liberty; he was against secession, whereas I thought that secession was a legitimate right and preventing it was unjustified (abstracting from the fact that the Southern secession was effected to protect slavery); and he seemed to exercise executive power without regard to individual rights, holding military trials, suspending habeas corpus, instituting a blockade on his own authority, etc. While it is true that Lincoln did preside over the end of slavery -- perhaps the highest good within a libertarian worldview -- by his own admission, he argued that he would preserve slavery in order to protect the Union. Thus, ending slavery seemed to be a decidedly secondary goal for him.

What a difference the years have made. I now rate Lincoln as one of the greatest Presidents, placing him near George Washington. (I am leaving out Presidents from the last third of the twentieth century, since they are too close to us to judge. Otherwise, Ronald Reagan might be in that group.) Why have I changed my mind?

First, I have come to appreciate the limits of federalism as a means of protecting liberty. Sure small states that must compete against one another and from which one can exit are important, but small independent countries often fight wars against one another and have large standing armies. Federalism works best when it is a principle embedded in a larger union of states -- a point that Lincoln recognized. Second, Lincoln understood that secession, especially when it was not in response to real and serious deprivations of rights, was inconsistent with the ordered liberty that a federal republic made possible. Third, Lincoln's infringements on rights during the Civil War were, it now seems to me, quite limited and are hardly the stuff of tyranny. If one is fighting a war, then employing the laws of war makes sense, even if that war is a civil war.

But what really seems great about Lincoln -- apart from his superb writing -- is how he combined moral ends and pragmatic means. Lincoln had an extremely attractive and practical vision of the free society -- of a world without slavery, of freedom for the common man, of shifting majorities, and of checks and balances. But Lincoln also recognized the need, in a free society, not to be too far ahead of public opinion. Thus, he was led to employ moderate and gradualist means to achieve moral ends. In a world where abolitionists (who sought an immediate end to slavery) were considered extremists, he advocated gradual changes, compensation for slaveowners, and even colonization for the former slaves. He recognized that gradual change that could be supported by large numbers would lead to the most enduring and attractive reforms. Of course, he also recognized that when the war was forced upon him, that greater and quicker changes were now possible and necessary. Lincoln was a master of reading the situation, and determining how quickly and how far he could use his power to promote moral ends.

The notion of wise statesmanship used to leave me cold. It just seemed too statist. But I now recognize that the Lincolns and Churchills make contributions to liberty that are equal to those of made by the Adam Smiths and John Lockes.