Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Historical revisionism

Update: it was late and I erred. It was Roger Hedgecock, who was filling in for Rush Limbaugh on his radio show, not John Gambling.

Even Republicans can be and are guilty of it. Yes, Republicans. Especially Republicans who call upon the myth of Lincoln, and dishonor Ronald Reagan by becoming the tax-and-spenders that they once accused the Democrats of being.

Before I start, let me give a lot of thanks to Thomas DiLorenzo, whose terrific book The Real Lincoln opened my eyes to what the first Republicans were about. Like their Whig predecessors, they were basically mercantilists: they believed in "protecting" domestic industry with high tariffs, and the shifting of government power to a strong center (i.e. Washington) to facilitate the first two.

While I'm still not convinced about everything Professor DiLorenzo argues, I'll say this: you cannot just dismiss this book. If you want to disregard it as another attention-grabber by a wacko historian, think again. Consider that Walter Williams himself wrote the foreword (not to say Dr. Williams is perfect, but it's darned hard to disagree with the good professor, so what an accolade!). I met Professor DiLorenzo a year ago when he spoke at FEE, and his scholarship on the real Abraham Lincoln is astounding. It shattered my personal mythos about the man even more than when I realized FDR was basically a socialist.

DiLorenzo included a chapter on Lincoln's legacy, particularly Reconstruction. Lincoln was dead, yes, but I think DiLorenzo is right to blame the Republicans' actions on what Lincoln began. At the same time, DiLorenzo destroyed the great myth built around Andrew Johnson.

Now, what provoked me to write this entry was Roger Hedgecock, filling in for Rush Limbaugh on Monday. As a conservative talk show host, he proved that historical revisionism is not confined to liberals or Democrats. Among the various things he claimed was that Booth shot Lincoln in part because Andrew Johnson would succeed him. According to Gambling, Johnson was a Southerner and still sympathetic to the South, and Lincoln needed him on the 1864 ticket to win enough votes. It is true that Johnson was born in North Carolina, but he was not quite a "Southern sympathizer." For one thing, as a Senator he supported the Homestead Bill, which made him more than a few enemies among his Southern colleagues. The only true "sympathy" that Johnson had for the South was to integrate it back into the Union quickly and with the least amount of pain. As we'll see in a few paragraphs, after the Civil War ended, Republicans devastated the South even further.

Gambling also claimed, basically, that Republicans are the ones with a history of protecting individual liberty, and that Democrats since the Civil War have been the ones destroying individual liberty. Nothing could be further from reality. The continued federal usurpation of our individual liberties has never known any limit to any political party. The latest example is the "Real ID Act" that passed last week with ease, 368–58 in the House, and by a unanimous 100–0 in the Senate. If Republicans claim to cherish the rights of the individual, how could they have supported such abhorrent legislation?

But what really caught my attention was when Gambling unfair maligned Andrew Johnson. Schoolchildren today are taught that Johnson was the only president to be impeached (not removed from office, but impeached). Sometimes they're taught that Johnson was an alcoholic, which is possibly true; some thought he was intoxicated when he delivered his vice-presidential inaugural address in 1865. They're taught that he was impeached in 1868 for attempting to fire his Secretary of War, Edward Stanton, in violation of current law. What schoolchildren are rarely taught is that the "Tenure of Office Act" was repealed in 1887 (simply for being a bad law), and that the Supreme Court in 1926 formally declared it unconstitutional.

The law was indeed very unconstitutional. The Constitution says that the President may nominate certain officials with "the advice and consent of the Senate." However, the Constitution does not require the President to seek Senate approval to fire one of his appointees. The TOOA was Congress' way of usurping Presidential authority over his own branch, but it was more sinister than that. Stanton was not only publicly opposing Johnson's administration, he had been conspiring with "Radical Republicans" on Reconstruction, which Johnson opposed. For more information, read this page at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

Impeaching Johnson over the TOOA was a smokescreen, though. HarpWeek (based on the popular Harper's Weekly newspaper of the time) runs the website http://www.impeach-andrewjohnson.com/, which discusses the reasons. Chief among them was that Johnson opposed Reconstruction. It was unconstitutional, brutal, and no less than martial law. Article IV, Section 4 of the U.S. Constitution says:
The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government, and shall protect each of them against Invasion; and on Application of the Legislature, or of the Executive (when the Legislature cannot be convened), against domestic Violence.
Completely against the Constitution, the North sent massive federal armies to occupy the Southern states. It was nothing less than a coup d'état of the state legislatures that wouldn't bow down to the North. As Professor DiLorenzo wrote in The Real Lincoln:
For the most part, Southern state governments were run by military dictatorships in the form of federally appointed U.S. Army generals. Those sitting governors of the Southern states whom the Federal army was able to capture at the end of the war were imprisoned without trial.
Incredibly, the trampling of the Constitution got even worse. The South, except for Tennessee, had the audacity to oppose the victorious Northern federalists. Nearly all the South's state legislatures refused to ratify the Fourteenth Amendment, which was the first great step in the federal consolidation of governmental power. From The Real Lincoln:
Congress responded to the South's rejection of the Fourteenth Amendment by passing the Reconstruction Act of 1867, which established a comprehensive military dictatorship to run the governments of each of the ten states that were not yet restored to the Union. passed under the false pretense that there was little or no protection of life and property in the South, the law required passage of the Fourteenth Amendment before military rule would end in a state. And it was indeed a false pretense, since the courts had been operating normally in the South since the end of the war.

Great resources were expended on registring the adult male ex-slaved to vote, while a law denying the franchise to anyone involved in the late "rebellion" disenfranchised most Southern white men. So rigorous were the restrictions placed on white Southern males that anyone who even organized contributions of food and clothing for family and friends serving in the Confederate army was disenfranchised, as were all those who purchased bonds from the Confederate government. Even if one did not participate in the war effort, voter registration required one to publicly proclaim that one's sympathies were with the Federal armies during the war, something that very few white Southerners would have dared to do.
I think, also, that their honor prevented them from uttering lies. Perhaps it's because I'm a Yankee through my late father, but I've always had a romanticized view of Southern gentility and honor.

Johnson opposed the violence and corruption of Reconstruction, and his attempt to fire Stanton was just the excuse the Republican Congress needed to get Johnson out of the way. Indeed, Johnson was succeeded by Ulysses S. Grant, whose administration was one of the most corrupt ever known. Grant was no exception, as DiLorenzo notes, using the federal government's expansion to secure jobs for his friends and relatives.

I give full credit and humble thanks to Professor DiLorenzo and others, who helped illuminate the dark, revisionist history that I've suffered all my life. The Real Lincoln and HarpWeek showed me a side of Andrew Johnson that is rarely taught: a man who believed in "Jacksonian democracy," who opposed tariffs and government "internal improvements" money, and who opposed the federal government's rapidly growing powers.

I highly recommend The Real Lincoln as an eye-opener and myth-shatterer. It's among the best $10 you can spend. (The link is to Amazon. I'm not getting any kickbacks.)

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