Monday, September 4, 2017

Lord Acton to General Lee

Lord Acton is most remembered for:
Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority; still more when you superadd the tendency of the certainty of corruption by authority.
So I was most surprised to see:
“And remember, where you have a concentration of power in a few hands, all too frequently men with the mentality of gangsters get control. History has proven that.” – Lord Acton 
in an email purporting that he wrote this General Lee.  Now as I have pointed out in the past:
“The problem with Internet quotations is that many are not genuine.”  - Abraham Lincoln 
So I started digging and found many bloggers and places like using it.  Now, a column at is immediately suspicious to me.  When they first came to my attention as an "antiwar" libertarian operation, some of their emphasis on "paleoconservatism" sounded like a dog whistle to the remaining racists and white supremacists who are not tatted up and carrying tiki torches without that necessary accessory, the mai-tai.  But to be fair, the non-interventionist wing of conservatism had some perfectly decent and sincere people, like Sen. Robert Taft and Gen. Smedley Butler.

Unfortunately their policies only made sense in an era when two oceans and limited trade outside the Western Hemisphere made it possible to ignore insane people with ICBMs and hydrogen bombs., and countries trying to destroy "the Great Satan" through terrorism.  I wonder how long non-interventionism as a doctrine would have survived if Hitler's ICBM project, the A10, had started hitting our East Coast.

A little more digging found the quote was real.  Acton was an abolitionist, so why write such a letter to commander of the army of the slaveholders?  Acton apparently regarded states' rights as a more decentralized distribution of power than the newly empowered national government.

The problem here is that the slaveholders were hard to distinguish from the gangsters who opposed liberty.  They supported states' rights until free states started to pass personal liberty laws that put the burden of proof on slaveowners to prove a black was actually a runaway slave; now federal law took precedence.  They opposed free speech, making it a capital crime to distribute abolitionist literature because it promoted "servile insurrection."  A tiny number of wealthy slave owners largely ran the country, rather like Democrat billionaires and Hollyweird celebrities did until recently.  For some years, the House of Representatives operated under the "gag rule," prohibiting reception or consideration of abolitionist petitions.  And Rep. Preston Brooks' beating of Sen. Charles Sumner to the point of permanent disability on the Senate floor is the ultimate statement of gangsterism.

I support federalism as a restraint on concentrations of power.  But let's not kid ourselves that states' rights was a particularly libertarian idea.  The Jim Crow laws ordered businesses to discriminate based on race, forcing them to turn away paying customers, contrary to their own business interests.   And while the federal courts have run roughshod over the intentions of the writers of the Fourteenth Amendment in pursuit of progressive ideas, the Fourteenth Amendment clearly changed the distribution of power in our federal system, with generally positive results until the 1960s.

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