Thomas J. DiLorenzo’s book “The Real Lincoln” claims to provide a “new look” at Abraham Lincoln. It does no such thing. It is instead a rehash of Confederate propaganda spiced up with touches of Marxist economic analysis.
The book’s thesis can be summed up by a passage from a speech delivered by the archsecessionist Roger Atkison Pryor in Charleston, S.C., just before the attack on Fort Sumter. He thanked South Carolina for annihilating “this accursed Union, reeking with corruption and insolent with excess of tyranny.”
Indeed, to paraphrase what Harry V. Jaffa once said about the anti-Lincoln screeds of one of my former professors, the late Mel Bradford, everything in this book has its antecedents in Southern editorials during and after the Civil War. As Mr. Jaffa also said about Mr. Bradford, Mr. DiLorenzo writes as if the war were still going on, as in his mind it apparently is.
The story line of “The Real Lincoln” goes something like this:
Lincoln’s aim was not to end slavery but to implement a neo-Hamiltonian Whig-Republican economic system. Unfortunately for him, he was blocked by the Constitution and the South, which favored states’ rights and unfettered free trade. That slavery had nothing to do with the onset of the war is proved by the fact that Lincoln himself was a racist who was opposed to the political or social equality of the races and who favored colonization of blacks outside of the United States.
Fearing that the election of Lincoln, a sectional candidate, would further weaken the position of the South in the Union, seven states peaceably exercised their “right” to secede from the Union. Lincoln invented a fraudulent theory of government that held that the Union had created the states rather than the other way around. Moreover, the crafty fox then maneuvered the Confederacy into firing the first shots.
Lincoln then launched an unnecessary and cruel war against the South designed to yoke the region to the Whig-Republican economic model, during which time he repeatedly violated the Constitution. He abandoned “international law and the accepted moral code of civilized societies and wage war on civilians.”
His legacy was Reconstruction, a 12-year period in which the Republican Party plundered the South, exterminated the Plains Indians and centralized the economy, and that resulted in the death of federalism. “The war,” Mr. DiLorenzo writes, “was not necessary to free the slaves, but it was necessary to destroy the most significant check on the powers of the central government: the right of secession.”
So many things are wrong with “The Real Lincoln” that it is hard to know where to start.
Was Lincoln a racist? Mr. DiLorenzo joins Ebony magazine publisher Lerone Bennett and Southern 1950s- and 1960s-era White Citizens Councils in portraying him as such. Lincoln’s statements on race, however, must be placed in historical context. Though Lincoln certainly was no abolitionist and shared the prejudices of most whites of his time, he nonetheless believed slavery was a moral evil.
During the first debate with Stephen Douglas, he argued that although a black may not be the equal of a white in terms of color, and perhaps moral or intellectual endowment, “in the right to eat the bread, without the leave of anybody else, which his own hand earns, he is the equal of every living man.” In addition, his attitude changed during the war as blacks swelled the ranks of the Union army and fought bravely in numerous engagements.
Mr. DiLorenzo claims that Lincoln could have achieved peaceful emancipation rather than plunging the country into a destructive war. The problem with such an assertion, of course, is that it ignores the fact that the South did not want to end slavery.
As Alexander Stephens, a U.S. senator from Georgia who became vice president of the Confederacy, said in Savannah on March 21, 1861: “Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas [from the claim that ‘all men are created equal’]; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the Negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and moral condition.”
That peaceful emancipation was not a viable option also is illustrated by the fact that even loyal slave states refused to accept Lincoln’s repeated proposals for compensated emancipation. It was the failure of this idea that led Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation and to propose the 13th Amendment banning slavery.
According to Mr. DiLorenzo, Lincoln plunged the nation into war to centralize the U.S. government on behalf of the Whig-Republican economic system based on protectionist tariffs; “internal improvements,” i.e., subsidies for what we would now call “economic infrastructure”; a national bank; and other forms of government intervention in the market.
Mr. DiLorenzo, identified as an economic historian, makes the extraordinary claim that the economic aspect of the “War Between the States” has “always been downplayed or even ignored because of the emphasis that has been given to the important issue of slavery.” He apparently has forgotten Charles and Mary Beard, whose neo-Marxist economic interpretation of American history, including the Civil War, dominated academia for decades.
The central theme of “The Real Lincoln” is that the Civil War was about states’ rights and the supposed right of peaceful secession from the Union. Mr. DiLorenzo asserts that “until 1861 most commentators took it for granted that states had a right to secede.” Like Stephens before him, Mr. DiLorenzo invokes none other than Abraham Lincoln in support of the idea that there is a right to secession.
However, Mr. DiLorenzo, like Stephens, is being disingenuous. In a speech on Jan. 12, 1848, Lincoln did not invoke a constitutional right to destroy the Union, but the natural right of revolution, an inalienable right clearly expressed in the Declaration of Independence. Lincoln never denied this right.
As he said in his first inaugural address, “This country, with its institutions, belongs to the people who inhabit it. Whenever they shall grow weary of the existing government, they can exercise their constitutional right of amending it, or their revolutionary right to dismember or overthrow it.” The right of revolution, however, is in tension with the president’s constitutional “duty to administer the present government, as it came into his hands, and to transmit it, unimpaired by him, to his successor.” In this, Lincoln was merely reiterating the commonly accepted political opinions of his predecessors.
Despite claiming to be the true heirs of the American founding, the seceding states never invoked the right of revolution that Andrew Jackson, Daniel Webster, Lincoln and others acknowledged. Why not?
The main reason was that while the founders understood the right of revolution to be an inalienable natural right of individuals antecedent to the establishment of political society, John C. Calhoun, the architect of the theory of state sovereignty used to justify secession, expressly repudiated the idea of individual inalienable natural rights.
Calhoun dismissed the fundamental idea of the American founding that “all men are created equal” as the “most false and dangerous of all political errors.” Given the large slave population of the South, this denial of the inalienable natural rights of individuals, including the right of revolution, was no doubt prudent.
In his brief for secession, Mr. DiLorenzo ridicules Lincoln’s argument that the Union created the states, rather than the other way around and that the states had no other legal status than that which they held in the Union. Yet, as professor Jaffa has demonstrated beyond a reasonable doubt, the generation of the American Revolution universally understood that the separation of the 13 Colonies from Great Britain and the union among them were accomplished simultaneously. Colonial resolutions called for both independence and union. According to Thomas Jefferson and James Madison in 1825, the Declaration of Independence constituted an “act of Union of the States.”
Mr. DiLorenzo uncritically asserts the postwar “Lost Cause” argument that the war was not about slavery. The clearest illustration that this claim is a shibboleth is that the event that triggered the election of Lincoln and the subsequent breakup of the Union was the demand by the delegates from the Deep South at the Democratic convention in Charleston, held in April 1860, for an unprecedented expansion of federal power to enforce slavery in the federal territories.
The majority of Democratic delegates refused such a federal guarantee. The Deep South delegates then walked out, splitting the Democratic Party and ensuring that Lincoln would be elected by a plurality of votes. The South’s demand at Charleston, far from having anything to do with states’ rights, was instead a call for an unprecedented expansion of federal power in defense of the institution of slavery.
Finally, Mr. DiLorenzo ridicules the eminent Civil War historian Gary Gallagher for the latter’s critique of what has come to be called the “Myth of the Lost Cause.” Mr. Gallagher and others have argued persuasively that Southerners were much more likely to advance the states’ rights argument after the war than before it.
Unlike Mr. DiLorenzo, Mr. Gallagher compares what the Southerners wrote before the war with what they said after it. Thus, while Southern writers such as Jefferson Davis in “The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government” and Alexander Stephens in “A Constitutional View of the Late War Between the States” placed the emphasis on states’ rights and the right of secession after the war, these same authors were arguing before the war that the South had to leave the Union because the institution of slavery was threatened.
“The Real Lincoln” constitutes little more than a raid on history, selectively culling facts and interpretations to advance a fatuous thesis. Mr. DiLorenzo is not above pulling a fast one. The best example of this is his claim that Mr. Jaffa has argued “that Lincoln literally redefined the purpose of American government as the pursuit of equality rather than individual liberty.” Mr. Jaffa has argued no such thing.
According to Mr. Jaffa, Lincoln believed that equality and individual rights were inseparable. For Mr. Jaffa’s Lincoln, equality meant simply that no one has the natural right to rule over another without the latter’s consent.
Mr. DiLorenzo writes from a libertarian perspective, and this school is properly concerned about the growing power of the federal government. However, today’s leviathan has less to do with Lincoln and the outcome of the Civil War than it does with the triumph of progressivism, the 19th-century science of politics that rejects the political thought of the American founders based on equal natural rights and substitutes “progress” for nature and justifies unlimited governmental power to direct and promote that progress. Given what I always have believed to be the affinity of libertarians for Lockean liberalism, a book like this one is hard to fathom.
Mackubin Thomas Owens is professor of defense economics at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I.
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