To get an idea of how truly awful this book is, consider that its author sneers at what he calls some "pledge of allegiance to the central government." (He means, of course, the pledge of allegiance to the flag and "to the republic for which it stands.") This offhand remark epitomizes Thomas DiLorenzo's feckless treatment of his subject, Abraham Lincoln and his place in the American political tradition. We should, nevertheless, treat this shabby work seriously, because it offers an occasion for reflection on the place of Lincoln and the Declaration of Independence in contemporary conservatism — which has been wary of both.
DiLorenzo, a professor of economics at Loyola College in Baltimore, claims to offer "a new look" at Lincoln, in contrast to the prevalent "myths" about him; but what he actually does is recycle the articulate pro-Confederate views of Jefferson Davis, Alexander Stephens, Edgar Lee Masters, and Claude Bowers. He charges Lincoln with being a racist, a war criminal, and the decisive centralizer of the constitutional order and destroyer of American liberties.
In making the charge of racism, DiLorenzo sounds like an especially nasty liberal. He frequently distorts the meaning of the primary sources he cites, Lincoln most of all. Consider this inflammatory assertion: "Eliminating every last black person from American soil, Lincoln proclaimed, would be 'a glorious consummation.'" Compare the nuances and qualifications in what Lincoln actually said: "If as the friends of colonization hope, the present and coming generations of our countrymen shall by any means, succeed in freeing our land from the dangerous presence of slavery; and, at the same time, in restoring a captive people to their long-lost father-land, with bright prospects for the future; and this too, so gradually, that neither races nor individuals shall have suffered by the change, it will indeed be a glorious consummation." One need not be a Lincoln admirer to recognize that DiLorenzo is making an unfair characterization. DiLorenzo actually gets so overwrought that at one point he attributes to Lincoln racist views Lincoln was attacking.
DiLorenzo adopts as his own the fundamental mistake of leftist
multiculturalist historians: confusing the issue of race with the much more fundamental one, which was slavery. Pulitzer prize-winning historian Don
Fehrenbacher has carefully explicated the dilemma of principled statesmen of the antebellum era: Lincoln's Illinois was anti-slavery, but it also passed laws discriminating against blacks. This was not a paradox. The anti-slavery forces actually joined with racists to keep their state free of slavery, and also free of blacks.
These were treacherous waters for politicians to swim in. For Lincoln, a "universal feeling, whether well or ill-founded, can not be safely disregarded"; to do so would be to violate the principle of the consent of the governed. In disregarding the sentiments of the time and the anti-black rhetoric of Lincoln's opponents, such as Stephen Douglas, DiLorenzo ignores the political context of Lincoln's speeches. Lincoln promised only to put slavery "in the course of ultimate extinction," not to abolish it. He wanted a constitutional amendment to end slavery and would have compensated slaveholders; DiLorenzo obfuscates Lincoln's principled position, which left him scorned by abolitionists and slaveholders alike.
Fortunately, we are not dependent on DiLorenzo for an understanding of
Lincoln's political philosophy; Lincoln himself summarized it in his Gettysburg Address and Second Inaugural. For Lincoln, the preservation of the equality of natural rights demands a strong government, but one limited in its powers. This founding principle leads politically to the need for consent of the governed, the basis of our republican government. But DiLorenzo maintains that the Declaration of Independence — the key text on these questions — was merely concerned with the independence of the several states, and that the states could therefore withdraw their initial consent to be governed under the 1787 Constitution. Citing the New England Federalists of the early 1800s, he argues that secession was always recognized as a legitimate, constitutional procedure.
Indeed, for the Founders, "the most fundamental principle of political philosophy was the right of secession." But DiLorenzo is proposing a logical absurdity. Secession is the same as revolution, as secessionists must admit when pressed, and therefore no legal right of secession can exist. There is indeed a moral duty to rebel against an illegitimate government; the test of legitimacy is whether a government protects natural rights.
DiLorenzo then complains of the war measures Lincoln took after secession: military tribunals, restrictions on civil liberties, and the suppression of newspapers. But he doesn't mention the South's suppression of discussion about abolition, or the fact that Lincoln could not appear on the ballots of ten of the eleven states that were to make up the Confederacy. With such restrictions on liberties and elections, the South was basically a banana republic. As Forrest McDonald has noted, both North and South "found it necessary to suppress states' rights for the nonce and to centralize power."
DiLorenzo also contends that Lincoln violated international law in his
"savage" conduct of the war. Not once does DiLorenzo entertain the thought that a disunited America might have become prey for the designs of European imperial powers, which would have put an end to the experiment in self-government. And as for the destruction caused by Sherman's march through Georgia, historian Victor Davis Hanson has observed: "It is a hard thing for contemporary liberalism to envision war as not always evil, but as sometimes very necessary — and very necessarily brutal if great evil is to disappear."
But why would Lincoln indulge in these criminal actions? Since he was a racist and had no great interest in freeing slaves, DiLorenzo concludes, his "real agenda" must have been the imposition of a "mercantilist/Whig" high-tariff economic system: "This is why both the federalist system and the Constitution created by the Founding Fathers had to be destroyed — so that Lincoln and the Republican Party could lord over the largest political patronage system ever created by any government on earth." The South's call for low tariffs became a demand for preserving an agricultural economy based on slavery. To view the conflict between North and South as primarily one of two incompatible economic systems obscures the central place of slavery.
The true target of DiLorenzo's anti-national fulminations is George Washington, the original unifier of America. When — well before the federal Constitution — Washington resigned his commission as general, he was already speaking of America as one country, one free nation. And, in this, he was simply echoing the Declaration of Independence, which speaks of "one people" and "our constitution."
Demagoguery like The Real Lincoln distracts us from understanding the origins of today's real enemy: the centralized bureaucracy, which is intimately connected with the nihilistic universities and interest factions. It was not Lincoln but the Progressives — Woodrow Wilson, John Dewey, Charles Beard — who created the real break with the Founders' limited government, by rejecting natural rights. Progressivism was based on the same historical-evolutionary brand of thought, dating back to Rousseau, that justified black slavery as the cornerstone of Confederate civilization. And Progressivism begat modern megastate liberalism.
For all its crudity, DiLorenzo's attack on Lincoln is at one with powerful and far more sophisticated influences on contemporary conservatism. Libertarians and traditionalists have desperately sought a weapon to fight the political and cultural outrages around us. In their opportunism they have chosen as their enemy a man who was, in fact, the greatest friend of the Founders' Constitution — which after all left future generations with slavery to confront. Some libertarians would not see a paradox in a liberty to own slaves and thus to enslave oneself: This is precisely DiLorenzo's position stripped of all its pretensions. Others on the right, such as Russell Kirk, Robert Bork, and Robert Kraynak, have criticized the Declaration for being French, nihilistic, or irreligious. But in two magnificent works, Crisis of the House Divided and A New Birth of Freedom, Harry V. Jaffa captured Lincoln's teaching about our founding principles. Jaffa demonstrated how tradition, majoritarianism, revelation, and latter-day states'-rights arguments cannot provide for liberty, human excellence, and republican limited government as well as the natural-rights teaching of the Declaration as sublimely articulated by Abraham Lincoln.