Book Review: America's Forgotten History, Part 2: Foundations by Mark David Ledbetter

Continuing on from Part 1 of his envisioned 5-volume series chronicling the less well-known aspects of America's libertarian origins and its deviation from those origins, Mark David Ledbetter's Part 2 examines the long span of events leading up to the American "Civil War"- or, as libertarians like me call it, the War Between the States, or even the War for Southern Independence and the War of Northern Aggression. As stated in my review of Part 1, MDL's greatest strength is that he does not approach America's history with the eyes of a professional historian; he looks at it instead as a libertarian trying to make sense of how America came so far adrift of her original moorings. Part 2, much more so than Part 1, will show you precisely how that drift occurred, and precisely why it is so important to understand the period leading up to the War Between the States.

At the conclusion of Part 1 of the series, the first 4 Presidents- Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison- were examined and weighed, and for the most part were judged to be great and worthy men, despite their own personal failing and shortcomings. Washington, for all of his lack of true strategic skill in battle (it should be noted that General Cornwallis did not surrender to Washington at Yorktown, because he knew damned well that it was the French, and not Washington, who were responsible for his defeat), was nonetheless a great and venerable leader who led by example and honoured his nation through his years of service. He had the opportunity to become a king, and flatly refused, seeking instead nothing more than the soft comforts of his wife and his beloved home in Virginia. John Adams, though an ardent proponent of government action to improve the lives of his people, is revealed to be a man of unbending and absolute principle, a man worthy of admiration for his discipline, his piousness, and his incredible commitment to his people and his country. Jefferson is revealed to have been better at writing about freedom than actually practising what he preached, yet is still judged to be very close to the model of a libertarian President- and indeed, the nation flourished under his Administration, as the coffers of the public fisc swelled due to his insistence on keeping the military small and under control, and his refusal to go abroad seeking demons to slay. James Madison, a small man in physical stature and yet a giant in intellectual terms, is revealed to be fairly inept at negotiating foreign politics- he did, after all, get the country knee-deep in the war of 1812- and yet remarkably astute at domestic politics.

Having dealt with the first generation of American founders and leaders, MDL moves on to subsequent generations, sticking to his previous method of examining America's history by looking at the terms of each President in turn and then looking at the events that defined their time in office. In this regard the book is particularly good at looking at the terms of Presidents that history has quite literally forgotten or written off- Presidents like Martin Van Buren, Franklin Pierce, and James Buchanan. The book ends with a (what I thought was rather perfunctory) examination of the term of one President Abraham Lincoln- perhaps the most hated and reviled President among libertarians, and yet one of the most worshipped and revered by everyone else. The conclusions that MDL comes to regarding "Honest" Abe are... interesting, to say the least.

That, I think, is the greatest value of Ledbetter's writing- he forces you to rethink what you believed you knew about American history. What you have learned thus far probably comes from what you learned in mainstream schools, from various movies and documentaries that everyone else has watched, and from whatever individual reading you have done. I would like to believe that the readers of this blog are rather more intelligent than the average bear- and the comments that I have seen thus far have been gratifyingly supportive of this view- but the fact is that America's history and traditions of freedom have been subsumed and traduced by over 150 years of government-designed propaganda and brainwashing. MDL's books are a most welcome antidote to this poison, but even then, some of the conclusions that he comes to may be hard to digest at first.

For instance, among Misean libertarians, President Andrew Jackson scores very high marks for his insistence on paying off the national debt- indeed, under Old Hickory, for the first and almost surely the last time in American history, the national debt went to basically zero- and for his unyielding refusal to kowtow to the perennially fashionable idea of central, government-run banking. Yet how many among us libertarians are aware that President Jackson, the epitome of libertarian politics and thinking, also refused to countenance the idea that South Carolina might be peacefully allowed to leave the Union? Jackson was so incensed by the idea of one of the Southern states leaving the Union, in fact, that he was willing to use force to preserve the very Union that he fought so long and hard to keep free.

As ever with politics, the players of the game themselves are complex and difficult to understand. MDL does a great job of untangling the complex threads of the various characters behind America's history and presents a refreshing alternative take that will challenge many of your assumptions. And you will be exposed to new ideas that you will never have encountered before. For instance, it is fashionable today- as it was 200 years ago- to claim that the banking system is so riddled with flaws and dangers that the government needs to step in and centrally manage it all, somehow. Yet MDL looks at a little-known firm in American history that, if you studied the subject in school, you would never have heard of- Suffolk Bank. This name is completely unknown outside of hard-money Austrolibertarian circles; in fact the only reason I know anything about it is because I read about it on the Mises.org website over two years ago. MDL uses this, and many other examples, to prove repeatedly the superiority of the decentralised, free-market, hands-free approach to creating wealth and spreading human happiness over any other possible method. Time and again, the central assumption of mainstream history- that government is somehow and everywhere necessary to maintain order and create prosperity- is challenged and found wanting by presenting the simple facts and realities of America's explosive growth during the time period leading up to the War Between the States.

And this ultimately leads to the central question that this volume attempts to answer: if freedom was so good at creating prosperity, why then did America surrender it so readily? The answer is complex and difficult, and the book's attempts to get to that answer will probably surprise you.

To answer this question, the book looks at the differing perspectives between the Northern and Southern states about how to achieve prosperity. From the beginning of the Union, the Northern states were quick to industrialise, and as industrialists always do, they quickly came to believe that a strong central government was vital to maintaining strong industrial interests. This is not surprising, given that politicians love big, highly visible projects that generate a lot of noise and fury- which is precisely what railroads and factories do. From the beginning, the Northern states valued hard work and the pursuit of material wealth over all else, which is precisely why it was so easy for them to fall prey to the siren song of big government.

The South, by contrast, was always more laid-back, but was also always founded on a gigantic internal contradiction. Its agrarian economy could only thrive under a decentralised, low-tariff, free-market environment; yet, that same economy was sustained on the backs of slaves, and was simply incapable of competing on a free-market basis with the vastly more productive Northern states. Southerners valued leisure and spiritual wealth far more than Northerners did, and this fundamental clash of values led inevitably to a great and terrible rupture that expressed itself most violently in the War Between the States.

MDL uses these conflicting visions of society and the facts of American history to come to some rather unorthodox conclusions, by asking what might have happened if the South had simply left the Union peacefully and the War Between the States had never happened. The answer is very much in line with mainstream libertarian thinking- the South's free-market, low-tariff policies would have forced the North to adopt similar measures in order to prevent the complete and wholesale loss of their cotton and steel trade to the much freer and less bureaucratic Southern ports, while the North's far greater productivity would have eventually forced the South to give up slavery, for as Ludwig von Mises proved beyond any doubt in numerous logical arguments on the subject, slavery is not only a human abomination and a violation of God's Law, but is a spectacularly unproductive economic system. A convergence would have resulted that may well have led to a reunion of the two nations in the future; instead, we got the single bloodiest war in American history, a war in which more than 10% of the population of the nation was slaughtered, most of them by disease and hunger, and in which the South was left so badly crippled economically that it literally did not recover for over a century.

There is much more to this particular book than just an examination of the War Between the States- for instance, there is considerable attention devoted to the plight of the Indians, and quite a bit of scholarship on the Mexican-American War, all of which is great reading and will give you some surprising insights into the nature of both conflicts. What I want to focus on, however, is MDL's examination of President Lincoln.

For libertarians, Lincoln is very often portrayed in language similar to that used to describe the Antichrist. Libertarians like Vox Day hate him with a fiery passion- and the reason is very simple. It was Lincoln who destroyed America's traditions of free enterprise, small government, and individual liberty, by imposing upon them every last stricture of tyranny, in pursuit of a bloody and completely unnecessary war. Anyone who has ever read Thomas DiLorenzo's The Real Lincoln- and if you haven't you very much owe it to yourself to do so- will know what I'm talking about when I say that Lincoln was a tyrant, a dictator without equal in American history until the time of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and the greatest betrayer of the founding principles of the nation in all of its long and storied history. Yet MDL's treatment of Lincoln is surprisingly reverential, even though he has clearly read all of the same books that other libertarians have- The Real Lincoln and The South Was Right!, among many others. He concludes that Lincoln was in fact a man of great human decency, even though he waged the most indecent war in this nation's history, and he asserts that Lincoln knew full well the human price of the war that he was waging. He argues, right at the very end of the book, that the knowledge of what Lincoln had forced upon his people was too much for him to endure and remain sane.

I am not sure I agree with these conclusions. Thanks in part to this book I have actually started reading the Kennedy brothers' book, The South Was Right!, and as far as I can tell, Lincoln truly was a megalomaniacal tyrant, without principle or human decency, but with a tremendous talent for uplifting and powerful prose used to disguise the fundamentally immoral nature of his administration. It is entirely appropriate to lay the blame for America's transformation from a free-enterprise champion of human liberty to the globe-spanning, bloody-handed colossus that it is today upon the head of President Lincoln, whose reign of terror and outright tyranny has come to be bizarrely admired and revered even though his own hagiographers admit that he was a tyrant (but a "benevolent" one, or so we are told). I used to be one of those who believed that President Lincoln was responsible for freeing the slaves; of course, he did absolutely nothing of the sort, and his war against the South remains a classic testament to the power of human stupidity and hubris. In this, at least, MDL and I are in complete agreement, even if our opinions about the nature of the man himself differ significantly.

In conclusion, the true value of this book is that, like its predecessor, it will teach you things about America's history that you could never really hope to find out from conventional histories in any way. It will force you to reexamine some of your most closely cherished beliefs about American history. It will require you to rethink some of the more simplistic notions that underpin traditional interpretations of American Presidents and their time in office- I highly recommend the chapter on the Presidency of Martin Van Buren as a classic example of a President that history has written off almost completely, yet was actually worthy of remembrance as a good man and a good President. And like its predecessor, this book is dirt cheap yet contains incredible information and lore that make it an absolute bargain.

Didact's Verdict: 5/5, I may not agree with everything that MDL says, but the price combined with the outstanding prose style and the sheer depth and breadth of the content make this an absolute must-read for any historically aware libertarian.

Buy America's Forgotten History, Part 2 here.

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