Jefferson Davis → Franklin Roosevelt → Barack Obama

Glad to see that everyone had some fun with the Clyde Wilson quiz.  While the list as a whole serves as a case study of how not to frame historical questions, the one I have the most trouble with comes at the very end.  Of course, it is true that President Obama is most commonly compared with Abraham Lincoln.  Obama himself encouraged these comparisons from the beginning when he announced his candidacy for the presidency on the steps of the old statehouse in Springfield, Illinois.  However, if I were a libertarian, paleoconservative, or just plain old neo-conservative I would object to such a comparison.  If it’s the amount of government oversight and intrusiveness that is being measured than I would argue that the proper comparison is with Jefferson Davis.

I just came across a wonderful passage in Stephanie McCurry’s new book that I thought I might share with you.  I’ve made similar points in the past:

The ensuing expansion of state capacity and intrusiveness of the policies adopted by the C.S.A. can hardly be exaggerated.  Historians have been consistently struck, by the irony for sure–this was a republic erected on the principles of states rights, after all–but also by the sheer scale of the state-building project undertaken.  It has been called a “revolutionary experience,” even an example of “state socialism.”  In terms of central state structure and policies, and especially mobilization of national material and human resources, the C.S.A. was far more statist and modern than their counterpart in the Union, almost futuristic” in its assumption of central state power.  Indeed, so “well organized and powerful” was the Confederacy, one historian has argued, that the United States would not see a central government with comparable authority until the emergence of the New Deal. (p. 153)

Those of you familiar with the historiography will identify the passing quotes from Emory Thomas, Raimondo Luraghi, and Franklin Bensel.  I believe Bensel is responsible for the reference to “state socialism” and I remember hearing that he self-identifies as conservative.  Shouldn’t conservatives like Wilson, DiLorenzo, and others be pushing for a comparison between Obama and Davis to emphasize how the Civil War ushered in the era of abusive federal government?

9 comments… add one
  • Nat Turners Son May 24, 2010 @ 11:05

    I bet you could make up one of these about John Brown and Nat Turner.

  • Matt McKeon May 21, 2010 @ 11:44

    IMO, Lincoln and Davis both greatly expanded national government power during the war and curtailed some civil liberties because that’s what happens in war time. Both are American in that the president is allowed enormous latitude in time of war, and the public accepts it as a necessary, but temporary expedient. What is troubling about the current situation is that wartime is forever and the enemy is everyone. One assumes the cycle will repeat, but its still worrisome.

    Doesn’t slavery itself require a great deal of centralization to function?

    • Kevin Levin May 21, 2010 @ 11:49


      I agree entirely. It is interesting, however, that it is Lincoln who is typically demonized by conservatives when Davis has just as much a claim to the title.

      • Dan Wright May 22, 2010 @ 0:18

        Comparing Obama to Davis does not fit the contemporary conservative agenda. And that’s what the Wilson Quiz was all about – mythmaking to advance an agenda, not history.
        A month or so ago, this blog had a video of David Blight who said “The memory of the American Civil War is always about the present.” I thought that was a light-bulb moment.

  • jh May 21, 2010 @ 9:37

    “I don’t think it is accurate to say that the United States government scaled down the size of government after the war.”

    Well those Govt workers did not just transfer to new jobs on the whole. The military as we saw was vastly scaled back over the decades so much so that after the episode dealing the lynching of Italians in New Orleans in the late 1800’s we honesty thought that the Italian Navy might make good on their threats and there was nothing we could do about it. Looking at the Judicial History of that period you don’t see the Courts granting a lot of expansion of Federal Power. In fact just the opposite it seems.

    True the Federal Govt was busy out West with various projects but that had to deal with Western expansion. I suppose the Land Grant College system would be an exception to that

    As to the growth of Govt and lets say the State taking a more active role in Citizens lives I have thought the theory that the Pension benefits given to Union Veterans and widows and that the fact that the South was doing the same thing via their State Govt did more to set in motion in decades to come thinks Social Security, Old age Pensions , and many of the things we see today. Thus this hisotry of the State caring for it citizens like we see today had by the time things today was widely accepted in all regions. They had a good tradition of it already.

    • Larry Hartzell May 21, 2010 @ 17:21

      With all due respect, JH, I think you’re missing the forest for the trees. Of course the American military was drastically smaller after 1865 than before–but the vast increase in postwar federal government power extended far beyond the Morrill Act (and despite the Supreme Court’s consistent attempts to limit that power). Just during Reconstruction we saw three constitutional amendments that put the federal government in the role of defining citizenship, expanding the electorate to include black men, and firmly placing federal law above state law in many (if not most) cases relating to the rights of citizens. Reconstruction also gave us the first federal “welfare agency” in American history, the Freedmen’s Bureau–admittedly a half-hearted, short-term effort to provide tangible relief to former slaves, but pathbreaking nevertheless. We also saw multiple Civil Rights Acts, a federal banking act, a transcontinental railroad bill, massive federal spending to deal with the “Indian problem” in the West, the Homestead Act–in short, a massive growth in the idea that the federal government should play an active role in shaping the economy of postwar America and the lives of American citizens. Better historians than I have argued that the immediate postwar activity of the Republican party paved the way for future continued federal power as put forward by the Progressives and New Dealers.

      • jh May 22, 2010 @ 6:51

        There is no doubt that Western expansion caused more Fedferal Involvement. I mean that makes a certain amount of sense since these were Federal Lands and the Govt wanted this land settled. And yes the act you describe are indeed attempts to expand Federal power.

        In a sense of course Federal Power has been slowly increasing since 1781 bit by bit. Howver in many quarters especially among certain “State Rights” advocates it is very common to say that The Civil War destroyed Federalism or Lincoln brought us big Governement. I think that is very incorrect and way overblown.

        I just see other factors espcally facotrs dealing with the Industrial Revolution and other things in the wind in the late 1800’s as playing a much bigger role.

  • Jh May 21, 2010 @ 9:15

    I guess I am tad skeptical. This was war time and of course I expect a lot of heavy handed movement by the Confederacy in order to survive.

    In a sense it is the same arguemnt that I think some make against Lincoln and the Union. LOOK THEY BROUGHT ON BIG GOVERNEMENT look what they were doing. Except after the Civil War the Federal Govt went back to Pre Civil war levels

    I was often curious about the lack of the Judicial History of the CSA. I then found out there was none because despite the CSA Congress being mandated to make a Federal Judiciary and urged by Jeff Davis to do it they never did to any real extent. Even though it was creating havoc as State Judges were ignoring each other Judgments. In affect even when they were in danger and needed it you had the Represenatives afraid of the power of the Judicary of the States. This does not sound like the makings of vast powerful central Govt to me. Of course no doubt they would have been jealous of powers to make sure Slavery was protected

    • Kevin Levin May 21, 2010 @ 9:21

      Well, if the history of the Confederacy does not tell us something significant about the evolution of a modern centralized state than I don’t know what does. I don’t think it is accurate to say that the United States government scaled down the size of government after the war.

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