Lincoln vs. Wilson (and Bush)

Jonah Goldberg discusses Abraham Lincoln and Woodrow Wilson as fascists. His conclusion: Lincoln no, because the times required it due to the war; Wilson, yes, because he was undertaking such steps even while we were at peace.

It’s commonly accepted that Lincoln often functioned more as a dictator than as a President, but that was justifiable as we were in a war the likes of which we had never seen, before or since. Wilson centralized and empowered government because he wanted to be powerful. Very different impulses were at work. It’s a question that had occurred to me while reading Liberal Fascism. Goldberg, in the book, does point out that Wilson was an admirer of Lincoln’s accomplishments in centralizing government, while objecting to the reason. (Wilson was no supporter of racial equality.) Lincoln, while believing in a stronger central government as a rule, likely would have blanched at some of the steps Wilson took in peacetime. Wilson then did become effectively a dictator during World War I. It’s this we often forget about when looking back on that time. Harding’s campaign slogan (“A Return to Normalcy,” containing one of my favorite invented words) was not just a call to get back to America’s historic detachment from world affairs, but also a call to end arrests for political activism, suppression of dissent. All the things the Left like to pretend Bush is doing now, Wilson was doing back then. (In many ways they share some faults, though: Bush certainly seems to have a Wilsonian views of world affairs. Wilson went to war to make the world safe for democracy; Bush went to war, at least in part, to promote democracy.)

I’m still working my way through Liberal Fascism, and while I don’t agree with every point, I’ve certainly learned a lot about history. (All that stuff about Wilson was really enlightening.) It’s definitely worth your time reading.

2 thoughts on “Lincoln vs. Wilson (and Bush)

  1. Lincoln no, because the times required it due to the war

    That’s kind of an odd statement since Lincoln himself is the main reason the nation was at war in the first place. Slavery had little to do with it; Lincoln even said if he thought he could preserve both the Union and slavery, he would gladly do so. As for racial equality, blacks were still widely and legally oppressed even in the so-called “free” states.

    The reality is that Lincoln fought the war to solidify the national government as supreme over the states. In this he was obviously quite successful. If the only goal was to end slavery, he could have done what the Brits did: buy all the slaves from their owners and then set them free. With no slave trade to bring in more, slavery was ended quickly and non-violently everywhere but in the U.S.

  2. Patrick, you’re overlooking the fact that, with no provocation, Southern troops attacked Fort Sumter. The North took no aggressive action, and it’s suggested by some historians that James Buchanan, Lincoln’s predecessor, took positive steps to prepare the South for a war by moving national government supplies into Southern territory so they would be in Southern hands. The South, in addition to being wrong on the issue of slavery, were preparing for a war, and started it even though Lincoln was willing to let them keep their slaves if the price was the dividing of a nation. Even once the division was real, he pursued his original goal only as a means to keeping the British and the French neutral, rather than having them enter on the side of the Confederacy, as they were considering.

    Lincoln wanted to free the slaves, but only did it when it hand was forced because preserving the Union was paramount in his mind. I acknowledged his interest in a larger government, but, again, many of the measures he took were as a result of the War, and that power was relinquished after the crisis was over.

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