The Real Lincoln: A New Look at Abraham Lincoln, His Agenda, and an Unnecessary War

by: Thomas Dilorenzo

A couple of, as they say, items of full disclosure: I am sort of a secessionist. Before I get pelted with angry messages, I'm not saying I'm in favor of slavery, but then, my next item of full disclosure: I never was convinced the Civil War was over slavery, anyway.

As I always try to do when reading any non-fiction, I did a little research into who this Thomas Dilorenzo guy is. According to that preeminent mine of fact, Wikipedia, "Thomas James DiLorenzo (born August 8, 1954) is an American economics professor at Loyola University Maryland. He identifies himself as an adherent of the Austrian School of economics. He is a senior fellow of the Ludwig von Mises Institute and an associated scholar of the Abbeville Institute. He holds a Ph.D. in Economics from Virginia Tech.

Ludwig von Mises was a libertarian, who espoused "defense of the market economy, private property, sound money, and peaceful international relations, while opposing government intervention."

So while there will be some who classify Dilorenzo as a "neo-conservative," it's very likely that he'd be the first to disagree.

Still, all that taken care of, the book is fascinating in that it presents a new and highly researched view of Lincoln, who has become almost iconic, idealized as our notion of a perfect president. In this book, he is presented as an opportunist, a devotee of "the American System," ("a devotion to the cause of protectionist tariffs, taxpayer subsidies for railroads and other corporations, and the nationalization of the money supply to help pay for subsidies"), a bigot if not a racist, and a man willing, in spite of his oath to uphold the Constitution, to do "whatever it took" to attain his objectives.

In effect, says Dilorenzo, "Before the war, government in America was the highly decentralized, limited government established by the founding fathers. The war created the highly centralized state that Americans labor under today. The purpose of the American government was transformed from the defense of individual liberty to a quest for empire."

This, claims Dilorenzo, was the purpose of the war - the centralization of power in Washington - not the issue of slavery. "Roy Basler, the editor of Lincoln's Collected Works, has written that Lincoln barely ever mentioned the issue of slavery before 1854, and even then, he did not seem sincere... The average American...will be surprised or even shocked by some of his words and actions. He state over and over again that he was opposed to political or social equality of the races; he was not an abolitionist but denigrated them and distanced himself from them; his primary means of dealing with racial problems was to attempt to colonize all American blacks in Africa, Haiti, Central America - anywhere but in the United States." Said Lincoln:

"I have no purpose to introduce political and social equality between the white and black races. There is a physical difference between the two, which, in my judgment, will probably forever forbid their living together upon the footing of perfect equality; and inasmuch as it becomes a necessity that there must be a difference, I, as well as Judge Douglas, am in favor of the race to which I belong having the superior position. I have never said anything to the contrary."

A question Dilorenzo investigates, and one which I had never known was in play prior to the war: "Why didn't Lincoln do what much of the rest of the world did in the nineteenth century and end slavery peacefully through compensated emancipation? Between 1800 and 1860, dozens of countries, including the entire British Empire, ended slavery peacefully; only in the United States was war involved." He skirts the issue a bit, in my opinion, by suggesting that "most Americans... would have gladly supported compensated emancipation," though he offers no proof that that was the case.

However, it is Lincoln's own words that make it clear that slavery was not the issue for him. As he wrote to Horace Greeley (editor of the New York Tribune) in 1862:

"My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union."

One issue Dilorenzo raises will, oddly, strike a chord with many today: the right to secede. Dilorenzo reminds us that our own Declaration of Independence can be read as a "Declaration of Secession" from England. New England, he tells us, under the New England Federalists, "attempted for more than a decade to secede from the Union after Thomas Jefferson was elected president in 1800. Until 1861 most commentators, North and South, took it for granted that states had a right to secede. This doctrine was even taught at West Point..."

Lincoln, writes Delorenzo, turned the facts as I remember them from grade and high school American history on their ear. Rather than a group of states, each sovereign - much the way Austria is one state and Italy another - agreed to come together to form the "United States." Lincoln declared the theory that the federal government - which, remember, didn't even exist before it existed, if that makes sense - created the states, granting them certain powers. Any reading of the Constitution makes it pretty clear that it is the Federal Government which was created by the states, who granted to it certain "enumerated powers," that is to say limited powers, and that all other powers were left to the states and/or individual people.

In order to "save the Union," Lincoln resorted to creating the income tax (which was later abolished), launched a military invasion without the consent of Congress, suspended habeas corpus, imprisioned thousands of Northern citizens without trial for opposing his policies, censored all telegraph communications and imprisoned dozens of opposition newspaper publishers, nationalized the railroads, used Federal trips to interfere with elections, confiscated firearms, and deported a member of Congress (Clement L. Vallandingham) for opposing his income tax proposal.

Moreover, Delorenzo explains, approved (again, in order to save the union) General Sherman's methods of warfare, which included killing women and children, burning Southern homes, farms, and towns to the ground, confiscating all food and means of self-support in the process, declaring that for secessionist, whether man, woman or child, "death is mercy." Lincoln spent a great deal of his time in the war room, "micromanaging the war effort," and in fact overseeing and approving many of these methods which utterly ignored heretofore respected "rules of war."

Oddly, Lincoln did not grant to the Plains Indians the same concern he apparently had for the slaves. Wiping out tribes - using many of the same generals (Grant, Sherman, and Sheridan) who had burned the south - was evidently all right as it was necessary to clear the way for the "government-subsidized transcontinental railroads."

It is difficult for us, now, to imagine the United States as a group of independent states - even two large independent unions. The point of decision was reached, and, for better or worse, the United States headed down the path of a huge - now unimaginably huge - federal government. From this perspective, we can only see what might happen if the United States were to break into small individual units now. It would seem like chaos, presenting all manner of crazy problems, redundancies, and costs. Yet we only have to look across the ocean at Europe to see that not only can small states live side by side, with their own laws and (until recently) currency, government, even languages, and survive.

Whether you agree with Dilorenzo's assessment or not - and of course, if you're like me you'll check his history! -  the book is one worth reading if only to give you something to ponder, and great fuel for an argument with a Lincoln lover if you're in the mood!


mik ste said…
DiLorenzo only makes sense if you are profoundly ignorant about the history, as this reviewer clearly is. For example, the letter to Greeley cited here was written AFTER Lincoln had decided to issue the Emancipation Proclamation! So your argument is pointless.
Nancy Roberts said…
Thanks for your profoundly insightful comment. Actually, it isn't my argument at all, but DeLorenzo's, whose book I was reviewing. It was his point that Lincoln (who did write the letter, whether before or after the Emancipation Proclamation)was interested in saving the Union, not in slavery. Lincoln's point in the letter quoted and published was that what was important to him was the Union, not the slaves. The point stands.

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