Richard Brookhiser is a National Review senior editor and the author of a readable biography of Alexander Hamilton. But his job in recent years seems to involve repeating neoconservative opinions, perhaps in his capacity as an upper-class WASP with a courteous manner and a soft voice. Typically I skim over Brookhiser’s commentaries as déjà vu, but one morning in late February I broke this habit by noticing a column he had written for the New York Post. I imagined this column, which dealt with Obama and Abraham Lincoln, would not treat Mr. Change very gently. But I was wrong.
Instead of getting into Obama’s leftist senatorial voting record, Brookhiser decided to go after another target. The only slip-up Brookhiser cared to notice in the “Obama crew” was its problematic appeal to the Lincoln legacy: “Lincoln’s pre-presidential record was marked by strong stands on controversial issues.” Presumably Obama, who compiled the most conspicuously leftist voting record in the Senate, had done nothing that was “controversial.” Nor had he in February, before the Republicans resolved to go after him for associating himself with an Afrocentric church in Chicago.
But the reference to another Illinois politician, Lincoln, allowed Brookhiser to do his real job, which was to deal with enemies on the right: “On the Republican side, libertarian gadfly Ron Paul declared on ‘Meet the Press’ late last year that Lincoln fought a ‘senseless’ Civil War ‘just to — get rid of the original intent of the Republic.’ The neo-Confederate campfire story is found in several conservative revisionist books on American history; it depicts Lincoln as a statist and a revolutionary, going to war to gratify his own will to power.”
I think the comparison sometimes heard between our sixteenth president and Bismarck, as champions of nineteenth-century nation states, is well founded (with due respect to Brookhiser who considers Bismarck to have been a stand-in for Adolf Hitler). A nineteenth-century nationalist, Lincoln’s willingness to concede to the Southern states an eternal protection of their peculiar institution shows how far he would have gone to “preserve the mystical chords of memory” that supposedly bound the Union together.
The War Between the States was nonetheless an unmitigated tragedy, which should be regretted on both sides. In retrospect, it seems that the steps Lincoln took to drag the South back into the Union were unwise. The Northern side found itself fighting not only despised slave-holders but an entire region of the country, which had united to protect itself against invasion and a brutal military occupation. The Civil War was like the First World War, an unspeakable bloodbath in which a nation or, in the second case, an entire civilization, tore itself apart. Only neocons seem to continue to take pleasure in these bloodbaths many decades later. That is because they loathe the losing sides in both of these catastrophes, and so they and their employees have created a progressive historical narrative that justifies and even celebrates what were probably avoidable bloody wars. One is reminded here of John Podhoretz’s mind-boggling tribute to the firebombing of Dresden last year, as one of the finest moments in our construction of a democratic world order. Undoubtedly revulsion for the Germans, because of the Holocaust, inspired John to pen a tribute in the New York Post to a massacre of helpless civilians that even the passionately anti-German Churchill had condemned as brutal retribution. Brookhiser and his patrons can never stop talking about progressive bloodbaths, and particularly the ones in which they themselves didn’t (or don’t) have to risk their lives.
Brookhiser then goes on to cite the work of Michael Knox Beran, Forge of Empire, whose “insightful” argument he wishes to present as a model of lucid thinking. Allegedly Lincoln understood the world historical role of liberating slaves in the US, and he saw the Civil War as America’s contribution to a democratic order outside as well as inside the US. Beran quotes Lincoln’s statement in 1854 that “I hate the spread of slavery because it deprives our republican example of its just influence in the world,” and he argues, like Allen Bloom in The Closing of the American Mind, that America’s participation in conflicts has been an “educational exercise,” intended to spread “democratic equality.” The Civil War was just such a conflict, and because Lincoln was willing to prosecute it relentlessly, we avoided the grim fates of the Germans and Russians. Brookhiser presents the following as the gist of Beran’s thesis: “Russia freed its serfs without freeing its political institutions; Germany replaced petty tyrants with a militarized imperial state. Czar and Kaiser were forerunners of Stalin and Hitler, the great monsters of the twentieth century. Lincoln’s fight to the death with slavery ensured that America would enter the modern world as a champion of freedom.”
The aforesaid statement, which closely parallels one that Brookhiser’s employer National Review published in January, contains dead-wrong historical generalizations. These generalizations have (alas) become the accepted views of much of what now passes for American conservatism. And they may confirm Bruce Frohnen’s contention that “American conservatism has lost its mind.” Parts of that movement may have lost their shame as well as their minds.
Lincoln did not invade the Southern states to engage in a “fight to the death with slavery.” He did so to preserve the federal union at what turned out to be a very heavy price. All other countries that had permitted slavery, as Ron Paul and others have observed, were able to get rid of human bondage in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries without having had to inflict a bloodbath on their own population. Paul correctly pointed out on “Meet the Press,” that it is impossible that America’s radically changed economy and society would still have a slave system, even if we had not fought the Civil War.
Further, the end of the Civil War saw a much more consolidated central government established in the US than the one that had existed here before; and it was this irreversible consolidation that would lead into the powerful administrative state that the US would become in the twentieth century. Whether or not Lincoln intended to destroy the dual sovereignty that had been built into the original constitutional design, that course became the inescapable one once he had suppressed the Southern attempt at secession. Whatever reins of control had been applied to the central government would thereafter grow weaker and weaker, partly because, as Forrest McDonald has stressed, states were shown to be the mere creatures of the federal administration.
The most questionable aspect of Brookhiser’s judgment is that Germany and Russia were doomed to murderous totalitarian regimes long after because they had failed to carry out the kind of destructive modernizing ritual that had deprived the US of 636,000 human lives and had ruined the economies of entire Southern states. What Beran and his neoconservative enthusiasts seem to be restating is a view that has been characteristic of the non-Communist European Left in the twentieth century, namely that Germany and Russia had to undergo fascism or Stalinism because unlike the happy French, they had failed to produce a “democratic revolution.” What this argument holds up as a “democratic revolution” are the French Revolution and the American war against the slaveholding American South, two conflicts that Marx had considered the icebreakers of revolutionary change. George Washington had failed to produce the needed kind of centralized control for the purpose of achieving greater equality. Therefore Lincoln, Wilson, FDR and Truman had to complete the unfinished work of state-building at later times, by leading their country through bloodbaths toward administrative centralization.
The most dubious part of the Brookhiser tribute to democratic wars is the stress on continuity in German and Russian history, from failures of revolutionary will in the nineteenth century down to Hitler and Stalin. What is left out of this account is any recognition of contingencies and variables. Alexander II was assassinated on March 13, 1881, on the very day that he had capped his earlier reforms by signing a liberal constitution for his people. Were it not for his assassin Alexander, who had abolished serfdom, and established a system of local self-rule in Russia, and a professional judiciary based on legal equality, would have created a modern parliamentary monarchy, without Beran’s prescribed bloodbath. Alexander’s son reversed course and tried to restore Russian autocracy. Despite this reversal, by 1914 Russia had moved back in a zigzag fashion toward the parliamentary restraints that Alexander II had set in place. Unfortunately the First World War broke out, a cataclysm into which the tsarist government had blundered, and one that brought all liberalizing experiments to an end. But there was certainly no direct path leading from the reforming Tsar Alexander to the Gulags of Stalin.
Nor can one show any such recognizable path in the tortuous history of Germany, from its unification in 1871 until the elevation of Hitler as chancellor of the Weimar Republic in January 1933. Despite its concessions to the Prussian state and Prussia’s dominant political elements in 1871, the German Empire was a regime characterized by an incorruptible judiciary, equality before the law, and a far greater degree of federalism than what is now allowed in our present American federal republic. Without the First World War, which post-Bismarckian, but not Bismarckian, statecraft helped to bring about, the German Empire might well have evolved into a nineteenth-century (albeit not necessarily twentieth century) liberal parliamentary monarchy. The Imperial Reichstag had control over the military and other budgets and so the attempt to see the German government in the late nineteenth century as a military tyranny is simply wrong.
Even after the fall of the monarchy, the republic, which the victorious Allies imposed on Germany and then punished for the War, might have survived if the Great Depression had not come along. This disaster aided both Communist and Nazi totalitarians, who in Germany worked together to bring down the Weimar Republic. The historical details that I am providing would be common knowledge for Brookhiser and his patrons were their intent not to assert the counterfactual for their own ideological and sociological reasons. Thus they imagine that some straight line can be drawn effortlessly from the failure of German and Russian societies to undergo something like Lincoln’s bloody democratic revolution down to the murderous governments of Hitler and Stalin. But these societies were not the way the neocons and their court historians describe them; nor were they foredoomed to what happened to them much later.
Although a relatively minor failing beside his other more reprehensible blunders, Brookhiser is wrong when he describes the entities that the German empire absorbed as “petty tyrannies.” Most of those states, like Baden-Württemberg, Bavaria, and Hanover, were parliamentary regimes that provided for religious freedom and political debate. The head of the Catholic Center Party, Ludwig Windhorst, who became Bismarck’s great parliamentary opponent, had been a high government official in Hanover, before that principality was forcibly integrated into Prussia and then into the German Empire. Hanover had sided with the loser, Austria, in the war that Austria had fought with Prussia in 1866; and it thereafter forfeited its independence. A once common observation, which is partly justified, is that the German Empire might have moved in a less troublesome direction if one of Brookhiser’s “petty tyrannies” had unified it. But not even Germany’s merger with Prussia had to result in the disasters Brookhiser, perhaps on faith, maintains were inescapable. The problem is that neither Brookhiser nor his patrons may be open to real facts. And here Hegel should be given the last word: If facts and the needs of the hour are put into opposition, then “it must be all the worse for the facts.”
Paul Gottfried [send him mail] is Horace Raffensperger Professor of Humanities at Elizabethtown College and author of Multiculturalism and the Politics of Guilt, The Strange Death of Marxism, and Conservatism in America: Making Sense of the American Right.