I strongly disagree with ALLEN C. GUELZO in the conservative Weekly Standard that the American Civil War was “revolutionary” because it freed 3.9 million slaves without compensating their owners. The civil war didn’t fully free the slaves — it took the Civil Rights Act of 1964, one hundred years later, to give former slaves full legal rights. But he makes an interesting point that slavery
represented a step away from a democratic political order, and its replacement with the kind of Romantic aristocracy that reestablished itself in Europe after the French Revolution. What Lincoln hated in slavery was not just its racial injustice, but the reemergence in America of the old demon of monarchy, where some people were born with uncalloused hands, booted and spurred and ready to ride on the backs of everyone else, who had to work. Owning slaves, Lincoln complained, “betokened not only the possession of wealth but indicated the gentleman of leisure who was above and scorned labour,” and it appealed to “thoughtless and giddy headed young men who looked upon work as vulgar and ungentlemanly.” Slavery’s tendency to promote aristocratic habits and attitudes made Lincoln regard it as “the one retrograde institution in America”—not because it was racially unenlightened, but because it was “fatally violating the noblest political system the world ever saw.”
That raises the question of whether America today, with so much economic inequality between the wealthiest and the poorest, is creating a new aristocracy.