TCS Daily


A Lesson for Our Time

By Peter J. Wallison - October 9, 2007 12:00 AM

In August 1864, less than three months before the election, Republican leaders visited President Lincoln at the White House and told him that he had no hope of re-election. Their canvassing indicated that the country was so weary of the war that the Democratic candidate would triumph easily. Some Republicans were urging the President, for the sake of the party, to give up the party's nomination—which had been conferred only two months earlier—so a stronger candidate could be nominated. "Mr. Lincoln is already beaten," wrote Horace Greeley, the famous Republican editor of the New York Tribune. "He cannot be elected. And we must have another ticket to save us from utter overthrow. If we had a ticket as could be made by naming Grant, Butler, or Sherman for President, we could make a fight yet."

In those fraught days, Lincoln himself wrote a memorandum, which he asked his cabinet to sign (on the back so they could not read its contents). "This morning, as for some days past," he wrote, "it seems exceedingly probable that this administration will not be reelected. Then it will be my duty to so cooperate with the President-elect as to save the Union between the election and the inauguration; as he will have secured the election on such grounds that he cannot possibly save it afterward."

But the fledgling Republican Party stayed with Lincoln, rejecting the counsels of the timid and fearful. As Alan Nevins wrote in his four volume account of the Civil War: "The American Party system ever pitches and sways like a wagon traversing rough ground. It gives forth ominous cracks and groans, and threatens to crash on the rocky hillside. Nevertheless, as the generations struggle forward, it endures...a battalion of shortsighted dissenters might clamor for a new chieftain, but the main army marched forward unperturbed behind Lincoln."

The Democrats, meanwhile, held a convention in late August, nominating without serious controversy George B. McClellan, the general whom Lincoln had dismissed as head of the Union forces in Virginia because he would not fight. The Democratic platform denounced "four years of failure" in the war effort and the destruction of "public liberty and private right." It called for the restoration of the rights of the states unimpaired, and a settlement of the issues central to the war—primarily slavery—at a post-war "convention." It was a platform for peace at any price, which Nevins called a document of "submission."

But then the dawn broke. On September 1, the news reached Washington that Atlanta had fallen. Other victories came on as Grant approached closer to Richmond and held on against ferocious counterattacks by Lee. Despite these hints of impending change in the direction of the war, McClellan refused to repudiate the Democratic platform, declaring in his acceptance of the nomination that if "any one State is willing to return to the Union, it should be received at once, with a full guarantee of all its constitutional rights." The results of four years of calamitous war and bloody sacrifice would thus be thrown away.

Nevins writes: "[T]he damage done to the Democratic Party by the platform could not be undone. Its silly and evil stigmatization of the heroic war effort as worthless gave the Northern millions an image of the Democratic Party they could never forget. That phrase upon the failure of the war was to echo down the coming decades...and would cost the party votes for a generation."

Peter J. Wallison is the Arthur F. Burns Fellow in Financial Policy Studies at AEI. He was White Counsel during the Reagan Administration


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18 Comments

Greatness
From outside: G Bush will be remembered as significant as Washington, Lincoln, and Truman. All three, unpopular and anearly abandoned by his ountrymen. Yet they persisted until the fruition of the dream was certain to become reality.

RE
I admit that I don't find W. to be "great" in his own right. Yet at once, he is truly not some evil demon with wicked supernatural powers, and he did not decide to wage war in Iraq because Chevron or British Petroleum whispered in his ear.

The theater of war has been entered. Most Democrats in Congress voted to support it. Once Congress casts its lot with validating a declaration of war requested by the President, its mission is essentially over, since its only other true mission in times of war is to make sure the President is not bankrupting the nation through warfare--and in this day of automagical money printed by the Fed, that really can't happen. Thus, the only noble course to be followed is to stay that course of war until the United States has secured its victory--which it is doing now that Rumsfeld is out and a real General and Admiral are in.

I'm not a Chenyite, either, but Tricky **** said at least one thing that was totally right: "You can't wage war by committee". Amen.

GW Bush
We won't know how history has judged any President after Reagan (and maybe even before that) for many years. I have long thought that President Bush has the potential to go down in history as a great President, depending primarily on the outcomes in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the rest of "war on terror." I have also long thought that the only way for us to lose in Iraq is to quit prematurely.

Remember that Lincoln, probably the greatest President in current estimation, was vilified in the North and hated in the South while he was President--so much by the South that it attempted to get out of the Union upon his election (a feat currently being attempted only by Vermont.)

But I took the main point of the article to be not President Bush's legacy, but that the Democrats may paint themselves into a corner with an anti-Iraq war platform. There are still about ten months to go until the conventions, and lots of time for the situation in Iraq to clarify. I don't expect something like the capture of Atlanta, but if there continues to be good news from Iraq that cannot be ignored by the media, then the Democrats will, following all the pandering to the netroots, have time to nominate a candidate and propose a platform that will permit the U.S. to continue the war in Iraq to victory. The only viable Democratic presidential candidate who still has room to do that in my view is Senator Clinton. Fortunately, she appears by far the strongest Democratic candidate.

Last post
Oops--that last post was by David Drake (aka Otterman7).

Why not let the South secede?
Given their economic situation, and their ancestry, why would they not eventually petition to return to the USA after abolishing slavery?

History...
will show that GWB was the President who finally understood who the enemy was and who took the battle to them. He will be noted by factual historians as the one who took note of the Islamfascist's goals and who decided to wage a campaign to thwart those aims.

I remember Reagan and Thatcher very well. They are were unafraid to call things evil when they were evil nor were they faint of heart when confronted with unpopularity. They understood the duty to create a better world for humanity even if other governments did not seek that world for it's people.

I also remember the Democrats and liberals of that era villifying Reagan and Thatcher in similar terms as those villifying Bush.

Bush is not good on immigration or spending but he hit the nail on the head by calling Islamofascism the evil that it is.

Democrats are destroying what little credibility they ever had by continuing their support for terrorists and fascists. They do not deserve the world given them by Reagan, Lincoln, and Thatcher.

A request...
for more logic concerning this. Why would you think they would return? Why do you think letting the South go would be good for the North?

Reagan
Reagan was also despised by his contemporaries.
Yet from everything I have read, his stature has been growing amongst historians.

logic
Letting the south go would not have been good for the north. They needed their colony in order to provide themselves with a captive market for their machine goods and as a source of cheap raw materials.

Our Civil War...
David,

I think you worked it out. It's more about politics than about leadership. This article could not possibly be comparing our own Civil War with the "regime change" we successfully imposed on Iraq...followed by some sort of inevitable attempt at social engineering regarding an ancient culture that is simply not yet ready to join global society...although we probably had to let them try...even if we guessed this would go poorly.

Certainly Colin Powell had it figured out early on.

But I think the author is wrong about the Democrats putting themselves into a tough spot (this time)...because he thinks that the War on Terror might just turn around before the 2008 election? Not going to happen.

Global Islamic fanaticism will not be defeated with what we are doing in Iraq. The Administration might have presented their reconstruction efforts in Iraq in such a manner for simplicity, as they explained it to us. But what they really did not want was for blood to be on America's hands as a result of the anarchy that was certain to result from our simply walking away, letting the Shiite majority sort out the Sunnis and attempt to marginalize the Kurds. We could not "let go" once we took hold no matter how messy it might become...this was the classic "tar baby" situation from the very beginning. But we had to do it anyway.

So now everyone knows that we must fall back into our Okinawa type permanent installations in both Iraq and Afghanistan for the next 50-100 years and President Bush must be crucified (for our sins) in the near term for it. That the government itself might live forever.

Will history ever see that George simply stood his ground like a man? Without asking to be let off the hook? He never asked that "this bitter cup might pass from my lips".

Of course, history is written by those who are strong enough to get published. So we shall see who that might be.

In the end, of course, financial capitalism will dominate the global arena. And the role of sovereignty (as a growth industry) will be diminished into that of a commodity service provider. At that time the foolishness of this current struggle of anarchists against the governments of the world will be seen for precisly what it is: A disruptive waste of blood and treasure. Just as military struggles between sovereign states are now pointless.

All these young men (who are busy killing each other today) could be put to far better use by their own societies creating wealth and living to take care of the people in their own families who depend on them.

In that sense, we will win this War on Terror. It too (like all such things) must simply pass away. And be seen by all men as having been evil.

Many other wars might have gone either way...but not this one.

George W. Bush will be recognized as the President who first declared that we were, indeed, fully engaged in a fight against this enemy. And, of course, that it was he who stood (alone with his soldiers) against such tyranny in the face of all the world's scorn.

That much of history is already written.

Wallison was White Counsel?

Who was Black Counsel? Or was the counsel colored?

Reconstruction
During the 2004 election campaign the analogy expressed in this column was discussed, and I saw a critical difference. In the current Iraq war, Bush does not have a definable ATLANTA yet to be TAKEN.

Unfortunately a more appropriate analogy might be Reconstruction, when Grant encountered an asymmetrical enemy which drained the national will.

Disagreement with the article's assumptions
This article comes across that Lincoln was the greatest President that ever lived and because of him we had great prosperity and reconciliation throughout the USA until the Truman was disliked in popularity polls. The problem with Lincoln is that, "to the victors, write the history."

The fact is you don't have to fight a civil war to get rid of slavery: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abolition_of_slavery_timeline
Many countries do it on their own either out of rational mind, or of pure economics. Our country had two things that plagued our country from day one. A mercantalistic system, and slavery. Protectionist tariffs in the end helped the north and hurt the south. The result was a fight between the legislative winners and losers of these two issues and it became a congressional cold war between the sides that finally boiled over. If the northern controlled legislature simply changed the tariff situation, the reason for the southern 'fight' would have changed dramatically and the country would not have been in the mess that is was in. We are having the same myopic vision of dealing with the nature of terrorism, suicide terrorism in particular. Do we ever ask why this is happening?

After the failure of a war, we had a failure of a reconstruction, and then we were left with a failure of a system of segregation that lated until the 50's and the 60's.

If we are going to have comparable results in the "War on terror" to the Civil War... please help us.

They might have let them go, but
They might have let them go, but they fired on Ft. Sumter and that could not go unchallenged.

If the southern States had simply said they were withdrawing from the Union and ignored everything out of Washington, DC, they probably would have gotten away with it, because there would have been nothing worth starting a war over.

Ending the evils of slavery was a good justification for fighting a war, but if it were a good justification for starting a war, it would have happened earlier.

Not really
"Many countries do it on their own either out of rational mind, or of pure economics."

In large measure it was the British empire that wiped out slavery on a global basis by wiping out slave trading. They did it, not through economics or through moral persuasion but through ruthless use of their domination as the world's only significant naval power in the 19th century to seize slaving ships on the high seas irrespective of what flag they flew. Slave trading persisted in the Pacific Ocean even into the late 19th century because of the much smaller British naval presence there, but even that was largely brought to an end by the 1890s, though not before a number of Pacfic islands had been largely (or completely in the case of Easter Island) been depopulated.

The trading aspect is important. Without slave trading, slavery as an institution soon collapses, because it is predicated on low cost labor. Take away access to cheap sources, and it withers away. The British trading sanctions largely put an end to slavery in middle eastern regions, largely because Britain gained control of the shipment routes and ports in Africa. Gordon died in Khartoum in large measure because of Britain's long standing interventionist policy on slave trading.

There has long been a demented fantasy in some parts of the US that Britain was looking for ways to join the South in forcing a permanent split in the US. Britain to join and ally with a slave holding state when it was offering sanctuary in British North America? Utterly implausible, and the British Prime Minister who suggested it would have been howled out of office.

Listen to his 1964 speech for Goldwater
it is awesome...

Our own reconstruction took 100 years...
The American Civil War ended in 1865 and the Civil Rights Act that finally gave Black citizens the vote was signed into law in 1964.

Whoever thought that reconstruction in Iraq could be accompished "really quickly" was not paying much attention.

nothing like a war to define phony "greatness"
GWB has never used the term "islamofascism"...indeed his whole approach makes one wonder if he really does understand who the enemy is. responding to a military attack by state-supported reactionary jihadists, he started out by going into afghanistan, then largely abandoned the effort to go after a secular state whose only apparent link to terrorism was decrepit old abu nidal. it's amusing that neocons hold out hope for a miraculous atlanta-type event to save the repubs before the next election, but the reality in iraq is we can't control the sunni middle, we can't even go into the shi'ite south, and the kurds, our only bright spot so far, are on the verge of ruining everything by messing with turkey. the only possible stable result in iraq will be a political deal resulting in an iran-leaning shi'ite dominated government. great job running this war (btw, after 4 1/2 years, our involvement in ww2 and our own civil war were already finished). each year we spend approximately 150% of the entire GNP of iraq on this war and no one is demanding an accounting of where the money is going. meanwhile at home, GWB's profligate spending on education and medicare are more lyndon johnson than ronald reagan. his timid tax cuts never went far enough and are about to be totally undone when the demos are fully in power in '09. the long-range erosion of personal liberties has continued unabated. but hey, let's all rally around our misguided involvement in a foreign sectarian civil war...that's "greatness", i guess.

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