Thomas DiLorenzo: In the Shadow of Abraham Lincoln
A review of “The Real Lincoln,” by Thomas DiLorenzo
By Richard L. Lobb
Thomas DiLorenzo is a professor of economics at Loyola University Maryland. He is known not for any contribution to economics but for his historical writings, particularly two books on Abraham Lincoln. The books carry out DiLorenzo’s theme that Lincoln was not the benevolent Great Emancipator of historical memory but rather a Great Centralizer who waged an “unnecessary war” that destroyed much of the South and killed hundreds of thousands of people in the interest of an economic agenda that promoted internal improvements and a national bank.
Or something like that. DiLorenzo’s thesis is hard to summarize because he leaps from one rickety “fact” to another, makes claims that are easily disproven, and uses the work of mainstream historians the way a drunk uses a lamppost, more for momentary support than illumination.
DiLorenzo may think he is on to something new here, but in fact he is the latest in a long line of Southern nationalists, disgruntled former rebels, and latter-day “neo-Confederate” cranks that stretches back a long way. DiLorenzo could have written this: “I think he (Lincoln) was a bad man, a man who forced the country into an unnecessary war and conducted it with great inhumanity.” But that was written by Lyon Gardiner Tyler (son of President John Tyler) in 1931. The “anti-Lincoln tradition,” as the historian Don Fehrenbacher calls it, has been casting its spells for a long time. (See his essay at http://bit.ly/1b6uC8N)
DiLorenzo’s principal work is “The Real Lincoln: A New Look at Abraham Lincoln, his Agenda, and an Unnecessary War,” published in 2002. He later published “Lincoln Unmasked,” which is devoted mainly to bickering with academics and authors who disagree with him (which would be most of them). His essays are featured on various far-right-wing websites such as Lewrockwell.com (“anti-state; anti-war; pro-market”).
DiLorenzo makes a stab at originality by claiming that Lincoln’s real mark on history was in the expansion of the federal government. There is certainly some truth in this. But surely it was inevitable that the United States, a vast continental nation with a rapidly growing population and economy, would develop a more comprehensive government than the minimal structure that existed in 1860. Nations and their people change and grow. DiLorenzo may pine for the long-forgotten time of extremely limited government, but no one else really does.
Other elements of his interpretation of “Lincoln’s agenda” are too bizarre to merit very much discussion. His notion that Lincoln was driven to carry out the economic program of Alexander Hamilton is a figment of his imagination. Lincoln was a disciple of Henry Clay, the Kentucky statesman who called for an “American system” that included internal improvements and a tariff to protect domestic manufactures. Anyone who stayed awake in sixth-grade history class knows that. Lincoln was a progressive who strongly supported such measures. Many times he spoke of his admiration for Clay, his fellow Whig. But Hamilton, the Federalist? Lincoln did not speak of him. DiLorenzo has to torture the historical record to manufacture any connection between Hamilton and Lincoln.
DiLorenzo’s book includes too many egregious errors to be taken seriously as a work of history. He makes mistakes that anyone familiar with the history of the times would avoid. Other writers have already cataloged his mistakes and misstatements. See, for example, the treatment written by James Epperson, a mathematician and Civil War buff, at http://www.jfepperson.org/dilorenz.htm. He documents DiLorenzo’s careless handling of facts.
Let me deal with a few of the more astonishing errors in DiLorenzo’s work that, in my opinion, impeach his competence, objectivity and honesty. I think these demonstrate that he is writing a work of propaganda and not history.
My favorite specific factual error is his reference to a shadowy British “writer” named “Earl Russell,” who is listed in the index as “Russell, Earl,” as if “Earl” was his first name. In fact, DiLorenzo is referring to Lord John Russell, the British statesman who was foreign secretary in the cabinet of Lord Palmerston from 1859 to 1865. He was a key player in the Confederacy’s unsuccessful attempts to win foreign recognition. He succeeded to the family title and became the Earl Russell in 1861, but is generally known as Lord John Russell, and anyone who knows anything about the history of the time knows about him. DiLorenzo doesn’t know him.
“Slavery was on its way out”
One of DiLorenzo’s favorite theses is the suggestion that slavery was dying a natural death by mid-century. The trouble with his assertion is that the slaveholders did not believe it and were not acting as if it were true.
He quotes “Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery,” by Robert William Fogel and Stanley L. Engerman, on the subject of the compensated emancipation of slaves elsewhere in the Western Hemisphere and goes on to claim that in the United States, “slavery was on its way out.”
However, Fogel and Engerman come to the opposite conclusion. On the very next page to the one cited by DiLorenzo, they say:
“But in the southern United States, slavery continued with undiminished vigor. Indeed, in this region it became more and more deeply entrenched during the last three decades of the antebellum era. With servitude crumbling all around them, and with their peculiar institution under increasing attack from abolitionists in the North, southern politicians moved to strengthen the legal bulwarks of their system.”
” . . . There was little to encourage the view that southern slavery was on the brink of its own dissolution.”
(from “Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery,” by Robert William Fogel and Stanley L. Engerman. New York: W.W. Norton & Co, 1989.)
So whom do you believe? DiLorenzo, making up his own interpretation, or the scholars he cites? DiLorenzo’s fans sometimes cite the fact that the book has a lot of footnotes. But you can’t really claim that his book is supported by extensive footnotes if the sources cited in the footnotes contradict him, can you?
DiLorenzo points out that other countries, such as Great Britain, achieved compensated emancipation of slaves. This is true, and it is a great pity that the United States did not manage to do the same. But slavery was a large part of the basis of the entire Southern social and economic system. This is very different from Great Britain, in which slavery existed in the overseas possessions (specifically Jamaica and other Caribbean islands) but not to any extent in the home country. In the United States, compensated emancipation would have cost billions of dollars. The federal government did not have that kind of money, and the slaveholders had absolutely no interest in emancipating their slaves in any case. No one in the antebellum period made any serious proposal for compensated emancipation across the South.
There was one brilliant and visionary statesman who made a serious proposal for compensated emancipation when he was in position to do so. That man was Abraham Lincoln. In November 1861, Lincoln proposed a plan for compensated emancipation in Delaware. He followed that with a similar plan for the border states and the loyal counties of Virginia (soon to be West Virginia). The slaveholders thought about it and rejected his proposal, apparently thinking they would be allowed to keep their slaves no matter how the war turned out. Of course they were wrong, but they didn’t know that in 1861-62 and made a bad bet.
Right of Secession
DiLorenzo goes to great lengths to claim that the Southern states had a right to secede. But this was (obviously) a matter of great controversy at the time. There is no mechanism for secession in the Constitution, which indicates that legal secession did not exist. DiLorenzo cites a book by William Rawle, a Philadelphia legal scholar (and abolitionist), who argued that there was a natural right of secession even though it was not mentioned in the Constitution. He makes much of the fact that the book was used in a law course at West Point. He fails to mention that it was used for only a year or two in the 1830s, and was replaced by a book that did not claim a right of secession. He also fails to mention that the Rawle book apparently had no impact on the thinking of Confederate leaders, since none of them mentioned it during the secession crisis of 1860-61.
DiLorenzo also fails to mention that leaders at the very top of the Confederate movement understood perfectly well that what their states were doing was not lawful. My authority for this is none other than the greatest Confederate of them all, Robert E. Lee, who was anguished by the secession crisis and was under no illusions what it meant. In a long letter to his son, William Henry Fitzhugh Lee, known as Rooney, in January 1861, concerned mainly with family matters, Lee lamented the secession crisis and wrote (emphasis added):
“The South in my opinion has been aggrieved by the acts of the North as you say. I feel the aggression, & am willing to take every proper step for redress. It is the principle I contend for, not individual or private benefit. As an American citizen I take great pride in my country, her prosperity & institutions & would defend any State if her rights were invaded. But I can anticipate no greater calamity for the country than a dissolution of the Union. It would be an accumulation of all the evils we complain of, & I am willing to sacrifice every thing but honour for its preservation. I hope therefore that all Constitutional means will be exhausted, before there is a resort to force. Secession is nothing but revolution. The framers of our Constitution never exhausted so much labour, wisdom & forbearance in its formation & surrounded it with so many guards & securities, if it was intended to be broken by every member of the confederacy at will. It was intended for pepetual [sic] union, so expressed in the preamble, & for the establishment of a government, not a compact, which can only be dissolved by revolution or the consent of all the people in convention assembled. It is idle to talk of secession. Anarchy would have been established & not a government, by Washington, Hamilton, Jefferson, Madison & the other patriots of the Revolution. In 1808 when the New England States resisted Mr Jeffersons Imbargo law & the Hartford Convention assembled secession was termed treason by Virga (Virginia) statesmen. What can it be now? Still a union that can only be maintained by swords & bayonets, & in which strife & civil war are to take the place of brotherly love & kindness, has no charm for me. I shall mourn for my country, & for the welfare & progress of mankind. If the Union is dissolved & the government disrupted, I shall return to my native State & share the miseries of my people & save in her defence will draw my sword on none.”
No one has ever written a clearer statement of the case against secession. Robert E. Lee knew there was no simple right of secession, regardless of what DiLorenzo thinks that Lee and others ought to have thought. In the end, of course, the matter was “settled at Appomattox,” and no one today thinks there is any legal right of secession. No one except Tom DiLorenzo, that is.
Roots of the War
DiLorenzo claims that the war was caused by many factors, such as the Tariff of Abominations, whatever that was. Balderdash. The war was caused by the insistence of the South that it could not only keep its slaves but take them into the new territories to the west. Lincoln was against slavery on moral grounds. He maintained that the federal government could not interfere where slavery existed legally, but was firmly opposed to any extension to the territories. That was enough for hotheads in South Carolina. The published manifesto for secession said nothing about tariffs. It was all about Lincoln and his position on slavery. That was it. Slavery was the only cause mentioned in the manifesto. (Read it at http://bit.ly/HGVCS5) If secession had many causes, nobody told the secessionists.
DiLorenzo consistently claims that the North fought the war to free the slaves. He makes the remarkable claim that “Northerners elected Lincoln in a fit of moral outrage spawned by their deep-seated concern for the welfare of black slaves in the deep South.” But this is simply and obviously untrue. Northerners opposed the extension of slavery into the territories but had little concern for the welfare of slaves in the Deep South. Maybe they should have, but they didn’t.
Lincoln’s objective was to put down the rebellion and preserve the Union. Not until late 1862 did freeing slaves become a war aim for the North, and then only in connection with the advancement of the armies. In claiming otherwise, DiLorenzo is merely setting up a strawman, since that is the only kind of opponent he can easily defeat.
In making his case that Lincoln was an evil tyrant, DiLorenzo leans heavily on his suspension of the writ of habeas corpus. He misstates the historical record and claims that the violation of civil liberties was more severe than it was. Most of all, he ignores the fact that Lincoln was faced with very active seditious activity that needed to be suppressed in the interest of winning the war.
To begin with, Lincoln was on sound legal ground in suspending habeas corpus so that the government could hold suspects without charge. His authority is plainly stated in the Constitution, Article I, Section 9: “The Privilege of the Writ of Habeas Corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public Safety may require it.”
Lincoln’s position, supported by Congress and the states, was that the Civil War was a rebellion. Therefore, he reasoned, he had the powers granted to him to help suppress the rebellion. Congress later passed a law supporting Lincoln’s position on habeas corpus and authorizing him to continue the suspension. In the Milligan case, the Supreme Court ruled that the suspension was lawful but that civilians could not be charged and tried in military courts in places where the civilian courts were still operating (i.e., throughout the Northern states). By then, the war was over.
The administration did not act merely to suppress free speech. The threats from disloyal activities were very real. Milligan, for example, was trying to raise and arm a disloyal militia. Places like Missouri were riven by bands of guerillas. As one historian writes, “Union soldiers and supporters faced men with weapons, not speeches, in their hands; barns, crops, livestock, and bridges were being destroyed. Civilians were murdered frequently and soldiers’ lives were often in danger,” according to by Phillip Shaw Paludan of the University of Kansas. (“The Presidency of Abraham Lincoln,” Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 1994)
Paludan goes on to state that even when military tribunals were used, they followed constitutional procedures such as allowing the accused to confront the witnesses against him. But the government left no doubt that it could “legally fight a war for survival,” Paludan says. I think this, and not any real concern for civil liberties, is the true source of DiLorenzo’s objection; he objects simply because he wishes the South had won the war.
DiLorenzo repeats all the standard Southern folklore about the evils of reconstruction, most of which stem from the sheer horror that white people felt at being governed by blacks. And do you know what those freedmen and their rascally white co-conspirators, the carpetbaggers and the scalawags, did when they were in charge of the government of my home state of Virginia? Why, they established universal male suffrage, reformed the tax system, and established a system of free public schools! How dare they!
DiLorenzo will have to do better than to repeat the vicious calumnies that were used to overthrow the postwar governments, strip the blacks and poor whites of the vote, and substitute the peonage of sharecropping for slavery. The ultimate failure of reconstruction and re-establishment of backwards-looking government and Jim Crow in the South is one of the great tragedies of American history. DiLorenzo doesn’t comment on that.
The real question is, what does that have to do with Lincoln? He was dead by then. No one knows how Reconstruction would have progressed had Lincoln been in charge. It is entirely possible, if not likely, that white Southerners would have been better off. But we will never know, and DiLorenzo’s bitter and vicious chapter is entirely out of place in a book that is supposed to be about Abraham Lincoln.
Tom DiLorenzo, himself
As an economist, DiLorenzo is a proponent of a philosophy called the “Austrian School,” and I confess that I cannot tell exactly what that is. He is obviously an ultra-conservative thinker, and I have no problem with that, but I must demand some familiarity with, and fidelity to, the facts, if I am to regard him as anything but a polemicist. Instead he turns in an unsavory and mendacious performance. It is perfectly obvious that he is trying to make a point rather than conduct an historical analysis.
It is a measure of his intellectual laziness, however, that his point is not really clear. He claims Lincoln was the “great centralizer,” but ignores the simple fact that war always drives change in a government. It was inevitable that the Civil War would accelerate the development of the modern state. Nevertheless, even after the war, the United States had a relatively weak national government until further developments (such as the depression and the world war) drove the development of the state we see today. Blaming all that on Lincoln is just tendentious and rather silly.
DiLorenzo claims that Lincoln had some kind of evil agenda. But he doesn’t reveal his own agenda. As far as I can tell, DiLorenzo believes in an extremely weak national government that has no central bank and few other functions, and can be ripped apart by the secession of member states whenever they choose. That sounds more like Somalia than the modern United States. Very few Americans would support such a national plan, which is probably why DiLorenzo doesn’t have the nerve to express it. He should really write a book on his own vision for America before condemning Lincoln’s.
I can’t help but think of DiLorenzo as just a fellow with a sandwich board standing outside the Lincoln Memorial, badgering the tourists to listen to him and take his handouts. But instead they climb the steps to gaze in awe at the majestic statue of the Great Emancipator and read the timeless words he spoke at Gettysburg and at his second inauguration, which are literally carved in stone around him. The great frieze encircling the monument has it right: “In this temple, as in the hearts of the people for whom he saved the Union, the memory of Abraham Lincoln is enshrined forever.” That won’t be changed by Tom DiLorenzo’s nasty little book.