Would William Barr reverse The Emancipation Proclamation? 3/1 Heather Cox Richardson
In a speech to the National Religious Broadcasters’ Convention on February 26, Attorney General William Barr said “Politics is everywhere. It is omnipresent. Why is that?”
His answer was illuminating. He believes we are in the midst of a conflict “between two fundamentally different visions of the individual and his relationship to the state. One vision undergirds the political system we call liberal democracy, which limits government and gives priority to preserving personal liberty. The other vision propels a form of totalitarian democracy, which seeks to submerge the individual in a collectivist agenda. It subverts individual freedom in favor of elite conceptions about what best serves the collective.”
Barr’s defense of “personal liberty” against “collectivism” is the same argument made by elite slaveholders before the Civil War, and made by the country’s richest industrialists in the 1890s and the 1920s. They argued that the government’s only role in society was to protect the liberty of individuals to accumulate as much as they could, because only such leaders knew what was best for society. They would become wealthy and powerful, and use that wealth as stewards of the nation to promote civilization by funding libraries and social programs and advancing American interests overseas. If the government became involved in regulating the economy, or providing social welfare, or promoting infrastructure, it would destroy society by promoting a redistribution of wealth designed to make everyone equal, a sort of socialism. Wealth would become more evenly distributed. Those at the top would not be able to accumulate fortunes, and society would no longer advance.
Such a stark division of the world meant that those in power must stay in power, no matter what it took, in order to protect “liberty,” or their opponents would destroy America through a sort of communal leveling. “[T]he difference between the parties is as the difference between the light and darkness, day and night,” said Republican President Benjamin Harrison in 1889, shortly before his party added six new states to the Union to try to guarantee they would never again lose control of the government. “Either the Republican party must be right and the Democratic party wrong, or the conditions must be reversed. One is certainly right, and if so, obviously the other is wrong.”
But one of our greatest political thinkers, Abraham Lincoln, disagreed that the government’s role was to protect liberty and property alone. In his day, the parties were reversed, and extremist Democrats set out to monopolize the government to protect the liberty of large slave owners to enjoy the economic system based on human slavery that brought them huge profits.
Lincoln recognized that their dominance would destroy democracy. He denied that the role of government was simply to protect individuals. “The legitimate object of government, is to do for a community of people, whatever they need to have done, but can not do, at all, or can not, so well do, for themselves—in their separate, and individual capacities.” They could not prosecute crime on their own, of course, but aside from that, there was more that the government should do. It should do “all which… requires combined action, as public roads and highways, public schools, charities, pauperism, orphanage, estates of the deceased, and the machinery of government itself.”
This was a positive goal for a government designed to create a more perfect union of equal citizens, rather than simply keeping a party in power so it could continue to protect its leaders.
Lincoln handled the national crisis of enslavement by signing the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 knowing it would undercut his chances of reelection the following year. He seems a better model for our leaders than Benjamin Harrison as they grapple with the coronavirus, a potential economic recession, and the longest war in American history.