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The Right’s Civil War

From Harry Jaffa to Jack Hunter, attitudes toward Lincoln show what conservatives think about centralized power today.
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Jack Hunter has resigned from Sen. Rand Paul’s office, in light of criticisms of his “Southern Avenger” background. Although left-wing and mainstream outlets picked up the story and ran with it, the first shots were fired from the right by the Washington Free Beacon, with further fusillades coming from Commentary and Jennifer Rubin. Why would these particular right-wingers take aim at a Republican senator’s staffer?

“What the schism is about,” writes Joan Walsh at Salon, is not a war fought 150 years ago but “Ron Paul’s skepticism about U.S. support for Israel and his broader anti-interventionist foreign policy views, which his son has blunted in the service of mainstream political success.” Which leads Walsh to ask: “What is it about the modern GOP that so many of its leaders are correct on the righteousness of either the Civil War or the Iraq War, but rarely both?”

The answer is to be found in the American right’s own half-century civil war. As often happens in war, this one has created alliances that turn what should be separate questions into a single, packaged ideology. It wasn’t quite true even in 2002 that you could predict a right-winger’s view of the impending Iraq War based on his or her view of the Civil War, but the correlations were strong enough to be remarkable. A series of disputes on the right spanning five decades had fused together criticisms of Lincoln and opposition to neoconservative foreign policy.

When the right’s civil war began is open to interpretation, but a fateful early skirmish was Willmoore Kendall’s scathing 1959 review of Harry Jaffa’s Crisis of the House Divided. The review argued that Lincoln, or at least Jaffa’s Lincoln, substituted an ambitious ideology aiming at universal equality for the down-to-earth virtues of the Constitution. In effect, this was a revolution on the highest plane—that of the values that guide the interpretation of the fundamental law.

Kendall feared that Jaffa’s ideology would lead to “an endless series of Abraham Lincolns, each persuaded that he is superior in wisdom to the Fathers, each prepared to insist that those who oppose this or that new application of the equality standard are denying the possibility of self-government, each ultimately willing to plunge America into Civil War rather than concede his point…” Jaffa himself later wrote, in an essay titled “The Case for a Stronger National Government”: “Let us rest assured that if something is today required by the public welfare, if it is not expressly prohibited by the Constitution, if it is something right in itself, it is also right according to the Constitution.”

Indeed, Jaffa went further:

The forces released by science and technology are creating an interdependence among the nations of the world similar to the interdependence accomplished among the States of the United States. Whether such an interdependence will—or can—or should—lead to world government is an open question.

The dispute wasn’t an expression of regional grievances or what might be called “neo-Confederate” sentiment: Kendall was a Oklahoman Southerner, but he had no use for John C. Calhoun and ultimately hailed Congress’s 1960s Civil Rights legislation as a triumph of moderation. There were high theoretical implications and motives behind the Kendall-Jaffa argument. Both scholars were admirers of Leo Strauss; Kendall was strongly influenced by Eric Voegelin as well.

In 1965, Jaffa found another sparring partner—Frank Meyer, who like Kendall was a National Review senior editor. Meyer didn’t raise the theoretical questions his colleague did, but he wrote that his own studies had forced him to conclude that Lincoln had destroyed the original constitutional balance between the states and central government:

Were it not for the wounds that Lincoln inflicted upon the Constitution, it would have been infinitely more difficult for Franklin Roosevelt to carry through his revolution, for the coercive welfare state to come into being and bring about the conditions against which we are fighting today. Lincoln, I would maintain, undermined the constitutional safeguards of freedom as he opened the way to centralized government with all its attendant political evils.

Note that both Meyer and Kendall were concerned about the politics of the 1950s and 1960s (and beyond), and Jaffa too associated his perspective with a more centralized contemporary state. Kendall was not a libertarian—nor a states’ righter, exactly; he was sui generis—but he and Meyer, who was strongly libertarian, along with Jaffa from the other side, established the precedent that being a right-winger who liked Lincoln meant favoring the latter-day welfare state and expansive federal power.

Long before Kendall’s clash with Jaffa, Southern Agrarians like Andrew Lytle were writing critically about Lincoln in places like the Virginia Quarterly Review. By the 1950s, they occasionally contributed to conservative journals like National Review as well. In the late 1970s a Southern literary scholar in the tradition of the agrarians, M.E. Bradford, merged their critique with Kendall’s in a series of exchanges with Harry Jaffa in Modern Age. Bradford’s first salvo was “The Heresy of Equality,” Jaffa replied, and Bradford shot back with “Equality, Justice, and the American Revolution.”

In 1981, Reagan was set to appoint Bradford as head of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Irving Kristol, George Will, and others fought successfully to derail the nomination and put William Bennett in office instead. It was a factional dispute on the right made nastier by claims that Bradford had once likened Lincoln to Hitler in a footnote and would embroil the Reagan administration in controversy. With Jaffa, dean of West Coast Straussians, as champion of the pro-Lincoln camp, and with leading neoconservative Kristol having helped defeat Bradford, the once rather academic Lincoln dispute was becoming a marker for wider allegiances. The anti-Lincoln camp tended to overlap with the pre-neoconservative right, especially Frank Meyer’s libertarian and fusionist admirers and the literary traditionalists who had always had a fondness for the Southern Agrarians. Straussians and neoconservatives were strongly in the pro-Lincoln camp—which was much better organized, and beginning in the 1980s most institutions of the right aligned with this faction. The anti-neocons fought a rearguard action at the 1986 Philadelphia Society meeting and in the pages of the Intercollegiate Review.

The Lincoln question was now tied to factional differences far removed from anything Jaffa, Kendall, Meyer, or Bradford had written. Russell Kirk, who had shown some affection for Lincoln in The Conservative Mind, was on the traditionalist or “paleo” side, as were many admirers of the Southern philosopher Richard Weaver, who had actually praised Lincoln as a principled contrast to Edmund Burke.

Neoconservatives and Straussians, then as now, were committed—respectively, but with a lot of crossover—to an aggressive U.S. foreign policy and greater concentration of power in the executive branch. “American exceptionalism” was already an article of faith for neoconservatives like Kristol and West Coast Straussians like Jaffa. The older traditionalists and libertarians, by contrast, had at times been rather reluctant Cold Warriors: the traditionalists were almost as leery of global capitalism as of communism, while the libertarians tended to question measures like conscription. (Traditionalists did too, in fact.) The old-guard libertarians and traditionalists did not embrace American exceptionalism—or when they did, it was on terms very different from those of Kristol and Jaffa.

In the early 1990s, some of the literary traditionalists and radical libertarians attempted to strengthen their ties to one another in joint opposition to neoconservatives and Straussians. This was the “paleo” moment, during which even as radical a libertarian as the anarcho-capitalist Murray Rothbard became an outspoken supporter of Pat Buchanan. Rothbard’s view of the Civil War as far back as 1961 was to oppose slavery while supporting the principle of secession:

…this analysis leads, in my view, to a ‘pro-Northern’ position in the slavery-in-the-territories struggles of the 1850s, it leads, paradoxically, to a ‘pro-Southern’ position in the Civil War itself. For secession need not, and should not, have been combated by the North; and so we must pin the blame on the North for aggressive war against the seceding South.

The Rothbardian case for secession (and against Lincoln) isn’t a case for the Confederacy. The radical libertarian principle is that anybody may leave any political union at any time for any reason. If that means the slave-owning South may secede from the Union, it also means the slaves themselves may secede—that is, rebel by force against those who keep them in bondage. Radical libertarians of Rothbard’s school believe that secession can be taken all the way to the individual level, dissolving all political bonds and leaving purely contractual individualism.

“If each person may secede from government, we have virtually arrived at the purely free society,” wrote Rothbard, “where defense is supplied along with all other services by the free market and where the invasive State has ceased to exist.” That’s anarcho-capitalism.

Over the 20 years between Buchanan’s first presidential campaign and Ron Paul’s second, an orthodoxy in defense of secession developed on the anti-neocon right, and that orthodoxy was expressed especially forcefully by libertarians influenced by Rothbard.

Jack Hunter was coming of age in the midst of all of this, and he’s one of perhaps a dozen people under the age of 40 who knows the intricacies of these right-wing ideological permutations. He’s a South Carolina native, but before he was the Southern Avenger he was living in Boston, reading Kirk’s Conservative Mind, and rooting for Buchanan against the Bushes. His broadcasts and columns in the 2000s represented a synthesis and popularization of all this history. What may look like a surprising collection of views from a distance—Buchananite rhetoric about immigration, radical libertarian doctrine about secession, and antiwar principles that provoke the wrath of the Washington Free Beacon—has a very clear origin in some very old internecine battles on the right.

That’s the past. Note that since at least the 1980s, if not the 1960s, the anti-Jaffa side has been consistently routed within the conservative movement, and its critique, which was pretty abstract to begin with (but rather unpredictable in the hands of someone like Kendall), has become a formalism. Within this long tradition there has been very little grappling with slavery or with the inadequacy of any response to it other than Lincoln’s. The catechistic reply to “Wasn’t the Civil War necessary to get rid of slavery?” is “Every other country got rid of slavery without a civil war.” The trouble there is that what allowed a country like Britain to end slavery in its colonies without war was—yes— centralized power. Once Westminster decided there would be no more slavery within the empire, that was it. The colonies did not have a right to rebel to keep their peculiar institution. The British Empire could end slavery because it was precisely the kind of thing that Lincoln’s critics feared he would create.

I had the same formation Jack did. And while I can’t speak for him, I think he’s come to the same conclusions that I have: namely that the opposition ideology we imbibed was too abstract, too much the product of the other abstraction that it developed to oppose.

Ideologies are terrible simplifiers, and the ideology that has evolved over more than 50 years on the anti-Lincoln right is itself a terrible simplification that avoids questions that must not be avoided—such as when centralization is conducive to liberty, and at what cost. Many of the right-wing critiques of Lincoln are correct: he effectively burned the Constitution to save it, the old federal system was permanently changed by the war (though federalism and state power of different kinds would re-emerge), and within Lincoln’s moving rhetoric lay the seeds of grandiose ideologies—including perhaps the ideology of American exceptionalism. But even if all that is so, one must look at the other side of the ledger as well: what price wouldn’t you pay to free your countrymen from bondage?

Or yet again: when can any people declare itself independent of another state, and when does any state (not just the U.S. in this instance) have the right to suppress a territory that seeks exit?

The mistake, on the part of American exceptionalists and their opponents alike, is to think there are once-and-for-all answers to these questions that apply in every case. Certainly when talking about the Civil War, an experience unlike anything else in our national history, one must reckon the circumstances as unique—and the product of unique evil.

Daniel McCarthy is the editor of The American Conservative.