To part one.
To part two.
To part three.

February 19, 2001

   Strakon Lights Up, No. 96

The twelve worst
Part four

I'm glad I waited until Presidents Day before finishing my examination of the worst, most destructive, most tyrannical U.S. presidents. An annual poll taken on the occasion of this high holy day of statism reveals that "Americans," whoever they are these days, find these men to be the four greatest presidents:

1. Ronald Reagan
2. John F. Kennedy
3. Abraham Lincoln
4. Bill Clinton

CNN noted that Reagan displaces Kennedy, who was top man on last year's list.

There's something there to horrify everyone — left, right, center, or libertarian — who still owns and operates a live brain. For one thing, it's yet another painful illustration of our neighbors' inability to grasp any history that precedes their own adult lifetime. Admirers of Lincoln will reel in dismay at their hero's inability to nail down the number-one slot in the mass mind for all time. But it's a self-inflicted wound. If most Americans are present-centered, and feel that they and their country are outside history, Lincoln had much to do with making that come to pass.


Readers of the first three parts of this series already know the identity of my three worst presidents. In order of worsening evil, they are:

3. Woodrow Wilson
2. Franklin Roosevelt
1. Abraham Lincoln

Lincoln was the great evil genius of the nineteenth century in America. He was not merely the worst American president of that century; he was the worst American. And Roosevelt was the Lincoln — and the worst American — of the last century. Wilson, for his part, was the most important link between the two.

Lincoln swept away what remained of the decrepit and morbidly inflated federal Republic, and created the imperial United State. The dust of history's battles often takes a while to settle, and a hundred years later people on their way into the dustbin of history were still wailing about "states' rights." But as Shelby Foote and other historians have pointed out, before Lincoln came to power Americans said, "The United States are ..." and, after Lincoln, they began saying, "The United States is ..." That was a fatal change in people's mental image of the nation-state that ruled them, and it reflected the underlying reality all too well. (My own coinage — "United State" — is only a gesture toward politico-grammatical correctness.)

Wilson inherited the continental empire Lincoln secured and the infant foreign empire forged by McKinley and guarded by Theodore Roosevelt. By injecting the United State into the first installment of Europe's great civil war, Wilson ensured the nation's role as indispensable partner and presumptive heir of the British Empire. By injecting the United State into the second installment of that civil war, and blasting the Japanese Empire's own expectations of inheritance, Franklin Roosevelt consummated the imperial succession.

Lincoln and Wilson were fascists before fascism was cool, and Roosevelt was the great fascist champion of anti-fascism. Lincoln implemented the Whig/Republican program; Wilson the national-liberal or "Progressive" program, including the Federal Reserve System and the income tax; and Roosevelt the updated program of liberal corporate statism. Crucially assisted by their foreign wars (and Lincoln's invasion of the seceded South was a foreign war), all three men racheted up the power of the Central Government and, in so doing, enhanced the power of their sponsors in the ruling class. Lincoln, indeed, initiated the transformation of a mercantile and creditor class that enjoyed important, but limited, exploitative privileges into a true ruling class.


I knew that when I reached the final part of this series, I would be in the difficult position of a prosecutor with an unwieldy if not interminable bill of indictment. I cannot present my unholy trinity's particular crimes in a comprehensive way because those crimes — those confiscations and nationalizations, destructions of wealth and enterprise, repressions of dissent, mass murders, and enslavements — are so many. Rather than list them in a scatter-shot or desultory way, I'll try to bring some threads together by concentrating on my trinity's contributions to what I've called homicidal humanitarianism.

American Exceptionalism had a long history before Lincoln ever slouched into Washington to be born as America's secular Christ. But that traditional outlook didn't have to become homicidal or tyrannical. Indeed, there is something to  the idea of American Exceptionalism — something both valid and inspiring — so long as we don't push it to mystical extremes. Unfortunately, that's exactly where Lincoln pushed it when he deified the Union. (The Gettysburg Address, by the way, is the Lincolnite Sermon on the Mount.) He made his spiritual ancestors — Hamilton, Jackson, and Daniel Webster — look like radical decentralizers. According to Lincoln's political religion, the Union was permanent, imperishable, and unchangeable — or, more precisely, it could change only in becoming stronger and more extensive.

One must suppose that even under the Lincolnite premise such an entity could fall into error, especially if guided by weak or evil men. But the "logical gravity," so to speak, established by such a system of thought inevitably draws men into presuming that every authentic strengthening or extension of the Union's power — and, certainly, every victory over a foreign adversary — is a victory for the forces of right and good. Many of the Founders, in scrutinizing any political proposal, adhered to a presumption of guilt with respect to government; even many of those who erected the Central Government under the Constitution said government — any government — was a necessary evil. Lincoln, in effect, preached the opposite, at least as it touched on the Union government; and many Americans after his reign were left with a presumption of the Washington government's innocence (if not holiness). Lincoln sought to remove the Union from the ordinary history of mankind, to redefine it as immune to the ordinary forces of time and natural diminution. In doing so he also removed it from the realm of ordinary morality.

And that is the foundation of homicidal humanitarianism. Some revisionists like to argue that Lincoln didn't really free the slaves because the Emancipation Proclamation affected slavery only in those areas in "rebellion" and therefore didn't really affect it at all; and also, perhaps, because he was dead by the time the Thirteenth Amendment was ratified. But if we quibble on this point we hamper our understanding of homicidal humanitarianism. Lincoln freed the slaves, all right — and Franklin Roosevelt destroyed the Nazis (with a little help from the Russians) and the Japanese imperialists, even though he died before final victory was achieved in either theater of war.

The demise of chattel slavery and the collapse of Hitler's and Hirohito's empires were good things in themselves. But the defeat of evil does not entail the victory of good. In the foreign sphere, that is perhaps most apparent with Wilson's overthrowing of German militarism — a glorious triumph that paved the way for the not-so-glorious triumphs of Nazism, Leninism, and Stalinism. To understand the fundamental error of Lincolnism — of homicidal humanitarianism — we must apply to the Union government the beautifully simple rule of human conduct we all learned as children: Two wrongs do not make a right. A moral man cannot emancipate slaves by enslaving free men (if I may adapt the title of Jeffrey Hummel's book on Lincoln's War). Nor can he emancipate them by arranging the mass murder of free men. Likewise a moral man cannot "liberate" the victims of tyranny by carpet-bombing them using B-17s and B-29s.

This is more than some idle conjecture about how the powers of heaven might be toting up men's sins and virtues in preparation for the day of judgment. The official imposition of a system of anti-morality under the rubric of ordinary morality has its effect under the sun and in our lives. Though Lincoln received his condign punishment at the hands of a risen patriot, Wilson and Roosevelt, in dying from natural causes, both "got away with it" in this life. But we  haven't gotten away with it, as is plain enough to anyone who can smell what is in front of his nose.

Our people's chances of getting away with it were slim, as they came to tolerate an entity within their society that continually extended its power and influence over the rest of society and, at the same time, operated according to its own impenetrable, sovereign anti-morality disguised as morality. There is some reason to believe that many or even most children are no longer taught that two wrongs do not make a right; and if it is so, how can it astonish us? We would stand a better chance of keeping our moral balance if we were ruled by Attila or Genghis Khan instead of by men who claim to understand right conduct as we understand it, and then call it right to starve and poison hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children.

The progressive corruption of ordinary morality and of ordinary men is the primary legacy of Lincoln, Wilson, and Roosevelt. That corruption went far toward making possible both their stupendous achievements in state-building and the impressive achievements of the lesser villains who inhabited the Presidential Palace. It also led to historical amnesia among many Americans who either wallowed in wholesome civic fairy tales or, smelling bad faith and unresolvable contradictions, concluded that history was something to stay the hell away from.

But Abraham, Woodrow, and Franklin had much help in establishing their legacy, and I am not referring only to their allies and successors. I don't know whether we've ever had participatory democracy in America, but we've certainly always had participatory degradation.

February 19, 2001

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