Some observers see Lincoln’s presidency and the outcome of the Civil War as the point when America got off-kilter, sort of like a national equivalent to the Fall of Man. At some point between 1860 and 1865, so this line of thinking goes, the country went off the rails and abandoned the legacy of the Revolution and the Constitution, leaving us with the centralized, interventionist, and industrial nation in which we now live.
There’s a nugget of truth to all this, but it’s hidden among a lot of overstatement and moralization. The Civil War did contribute to the creation of a stronger and more vigorous central government, Lincoln’s use of presidential authority was broader than many of his predecessors, and the Union’s victory did accelerate the creation of a more consolidated and economically modern America. At the same time, though, you can’t attribute America’s transformation entirely to the Civil War or to Lincoln’s presidency. The war was a critical step down that road, but it wasn’t the only one—and the road itself was circuitous, since the exertion of federal authority has expanded and contracted at various times between 1865 and today. Lincoln did a great many consequential things, but he didn’t sucker punch the whole country into the modern age single-handedly.
Abraham Lincoln portrait by William F. Cogswell, 1869 (The White House Historical Association via Wikimedia Commons)
In an interesting and provocative essay, Thomas DiLorenzo takes this notion of the Lincoln presidency as something akin to America’s moment of original sin and applies it to foreign policy. He argues that Lincoln abandoned the Founders’ desire for neutrality and friendly commerce in favor of “imperialist fantasies about perfecting the entire planet as the bedrock of American foreign policy ideas.” Lincoln, he states, believed that it was incumbent upon Americans to impose democratic ideals on other countries, and so our subsequent foreign entanglements and interventions follow from this misguided conviction.
DiLorenzo thus uses an interpretation of the past to critique the present. As far as his criticism of American interventionism goes, I’m inclined to agree with him, at least to a considerable extent. What I don’t agree with is his diagnosis of the historical origins of the problem. Like the larger concept of which it’s a part—the notion that the Civil War is the point at which the country somehow went wrong—I think his argument contains a kernel of historic truth hidden in a matrix of serious oversimplification. DiLorenzo makes Lincoln out to be a far more influential figure than he actually was.
He’s certainly correct that Lincoln believed the U.S., as an experiment in popular government, had an important role to play in the world. Indeed, that’s one reason why he took secession so seriously. If the nation collapsed in civil warfare, he thought, then the whole notion of a nation governed by the people themselves was in doubt. Hence his argument at Gettysburg that America was a nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to a proposition of equality, and that the war was a contest to determine whether any such nation could survive. If the Union prevailed, self-government would be vindicated and would have the opportunity to take root elsewhere.
But I don’t think DiLorenzo is accurate in equating Lincoln’s brand of American exceptionalism with a zealous support of foreign intervention. Ever since the Revolution—since earlier than that, actually, if one takes the Puritans into account—Americans have believed they could instruct the world, but not all of them have believed they must do so by force. I don’t really see any reason to assume that Lincoln’s American exceptionalism was necessarily of the militant kind or to lay the blame for America’s status as a global policeman at his feet. True, the interventionist and expansionist U.S. of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries probably wouldn’t have taken the form it did if it weren’t for the creation of a consolidated and industrial nation with a vigorous government, which the Civil War made possible. But that’s not to say that it wouldn’t have become an interventionist and expansionist country at all. The agrarian, slave-based economic interest that was so influential in antebellum America was something of an imperialist engine in its own right, spurring on conflict with Mexico and sparking filibustering expeditions in other parts of Latin America. Indeed, well before the Civil War, America had been practicing a form of internal imperialism with regard to the Indians. It’s therefore entirely possible that an America without a Lincoln presidency or a Civil War might have become an interventionist world power anyway, albeit an interventionist power of a different kind.
I have no idea how Lincoln would feel about modern America’s willingness to spend blood and treasure policing the world. Maybe he’d endorse the extension of American ideals and institutions to foreign countries by force of arms, at least under some circumstances. Or maybe not; after all, he was a vocal critic of America’s war with Mexico in the 1840’s. Whatever the case, I think he’d be quite surprised that anyone would draw a direct line between his readiness to use force to suppress what he considered an internal rebellion and the deployment of American forces across the globe a century and a half later.