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The Real Lincoln, by Thomas J. DiLorenzo: A Review

March 21, 2007

Governor, if I had foreseen the use those people designed to make of their victory, there would have been no surrender at Appomattox Courthouse; no sir, not by me. Had I foreseen these results of subjugation, I would have preferred to die at Appomattox with my brave men, my sword in my right hand.”–General Robert E. Lee to former Texas Governor Fletcher Stockdale (The Real Lincoln, p. 201)

The Real Lincoln: A New Look at Abraham Lincoln, His Agenda, and an Unnecessary War, by Thomas J. DiLorenzo (Prima Publishing, 2002) competently shatters the illusion of the president lionized as “Father Abraham” and the liberator of the slaves. DiLorenzo documents the political motives behind the Civil War, tracking the agenda of the uncompromising sixteenth president– whom DiLorenzo styles as a rhetorical genius and white supremacist– as he led America irretrievably from Constitutional republic to empire.

“It was Lincoln who let the genie out of the bottle with regard to the transformation of the states into mere subsidiaries of the federal government,” writes DiLorenzo (p. 37).

DiLorenzo documents his claim that the abolition of slavery as the leading motive behind Union aggression against the South is sheer revisionism. Lincoln’s motives were economic and political and in no way altruistic. His own speeches and journals reveal his disaffection for the idea of black enfranchisement, as well as black people generally.

National banks and South-crippling tariffs to subsidize national railroads and other “internal improvements” that would benefit Northern industry at the expense of the South and the Constitution were Lincoln’s expressed goals.

“He stated 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; and 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.” (p. 4)

“…sending all blacks back to Africa would supposedly be a ‘signal blessing to that most unfortunate portion of the globe.'” (p. 17)

“Eliminating every last black person from American soil, Lincoln proclaimed, would be ‘a glorious consummation.'” (p. 18)

“Lyman Trumbull, a U.S. Senator from Illinois and Lincoln confidant, explained that ‘we, the Republican Party, are the white man’s party. We are for the free white man, and for making white labor acceptable and honorable, which it can never be when Negro slave labor is brought into competition with it….When we say that all men are created equal…we do not mean that every man in organized society has the same rights. We don’t tolerate that in Illinois.'” (p. 22)

Lincoln opposed slavery, but his opposition did not stem from any altruistic or moral motive. He wished to preserve white labor, and to avoid artificial inflation of Southern representation in Congress under the three-fifths clause of the Constitution, under which every five slaves counted as three persons for purposes of determining the proportionally allotted number of congressional seats.  Evidently, Lincoln never contemplated freed blacks voting, or he would have realized that three-fifths was less unsettling than one. Far from it: the xenophobic Lincoln contemplated deportation of all American blacks and preserving a purely white republic.

Lincoln actually had no Constitutional authority to demand release of any slaves. The Emancipation Proclamation freed no slaves; it applied only to rebel territory. (p. 35)

“Lincoln’s own secretary of state, William Seward, mocked the Emancipation Proclamation by saying, ‘We show our sympathy with slavery by emancipating slaves where we cannot reach them and holding them in bondage where we can set them free.'” (p. 36)

“It was not to end slavery that Lincoln initiated an invasion of the South. He stated over and over again that his main purpose was to ‘save the Union,’ which is another way of saying that he wanted to abolish states’ rights once and for all. He could have ended slavery just as dozens of other countries in the world did during the first sixty years of the nineteenth century, through compensated emancipation, but he never seriously attempted to do so. A war 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.” (pp. 8-9)

Slavery wasn’t overwhelmingly prevalent in the American South:

“Less than one-fourth of Southern adults owned slaves; most existed on large plantations. The average Southerner was not a slaveowner but a yeoman farmer or merchant who had no special interest in slavery. Slavery could have been ended peacefully and at much less cost and toil [than the war].” (p. 52)

Moreover, slavery was self-obsolescing in the South:

“With the development of capitalism, slavery all over the world became uneconomical, with the result being manumission–the willingness of slave owners to allow their slaves to purchase their freedom–and other forms of peaceful emancipation.” (p. 48)

Other countries compensated slaveholders and brought about emancipation, but not the United States.

“Even though [Lincoln] assumed dictatorial powers to raise armies and wage war during the first year of his administration, he did not use them to spend tax dollars on compensated emancipation in even a few states.” (p. 52)

The greatest obstacle to Lincoln’s imperial vision for America was the states’ right of secession. DiLorenzo does an exhaustive job of documenting the traditional and express right of states to secede. Massachusetts effectively seceded from the Union when the state refused to send troops for the War of 1812. No one had ever seriously disputed the right of a state to secede. But secession would have thwarted Lincoln’s aspiration of imperial nationalism and had to be quashed for all time.

DiLorenzo quotes Lincoln scholar Mark Neely, Jr.:

“Lincoln seethed in frustration for many years over how the Constitution stood in the way of his political ambitions.” (p. 3)

DiLorenzo holds that Lincoln’s campaign to preserve the Union was a pretext for subsidized empire-building and was destructive to the essence of the Constitutional republic.

“Ever the master of rhetoric, Lincoln sugarcoated the centralization of governmental power by repeatedly referring to it as ‘saving the Union.’ But the union could only be ‘saved,’ according to Lincoln’s definition, by destroying the highly decentralized, voluntary union of states that was established by the founding fathers at the constitutional convention and replacing it with a coercive union that was kept in place, literally, at gunpoint.” (p. 53)

Lincoln’s revisionism of the right of secession was quite creative. The right never inhered in the states, he argued, because the federal government had, in fact, created the states. He fashioned this position from whole cloth, and the warp of that cloth was quite stretched on the bias.

“The Union” was code for Lincoln’s obsession with “the American System,” or mercantilism. Economist Murray Rothbard defines mercantilism as “a system of statism which employed economic fallacy to build up a structure of imperial state power, as well as special subsidy and monopolistic privilege to individuals or groups favored by the state.” (p. 56)  The American System was Lincoln’s proposed road to empire.

“Nationalized banking was always part and parcel of the mercantilist agenda as well, for mercantilists have always advocated having the government simply print paper money in order to finance their special-interest subsidies.” ( p. 57)

To “save the Union,” Lincoln “discovered” unconstitutional presidential powers, claiming,

“that the commander-in-chief clause of the Constitution, when combined with the duty of the president to ‘take care that the laws be faithfully executed,’ gave him carte blanche in ignoring any and all laws, and the Constitution itself, in the name of presidential ‘war powers.’ (p. 134)

These discovered powers included the suspension of the Bill of Rights and the writ of habeas corpus.  Many Southerners, and Northerners as well, were unlawfully seized and imprisoned without any due process whatsoever. Fort Lafayette, where many civilians suffered privation with no hope of trial, arguably set the tone for Guantanamo Bay.

“Habeas corpus was abandoned in the North; civil rights were even more precarious in the federally occupied South. At times during the war, Southern men were executed for refusing to take a loyalty oath to the Lincoln government. Many others were imprisoned.” (p. 152)

“Lincoln declared all secessionists and peace advocates to be ‘traitors’ who were undeserving of the protection of federal laws. This definition also applied to virtually anyone in the North who opposed Lincoln on matters of policy….” (p. 153)

Among those often imprisoned were ministers and priests who failed to pray for President Lincoln during their services.

Lincoln destroyed opposition in the press by destroying the newspapers themselves. He denied the use of the mail service to newspapers critical of his administration. Newspapers delivered by private couriers were confiscated by Federal marshals throughout the North. The newspapers went into bankruptcy. (p. 146)

The War between the States that forever changed America’s nationhood exacted horrific human casualties:

“The war killed some 620,000 young men, including one-fourth of all the white males in the South between twenty and forty years of age. Standardizing for today’s population of some 280 million (compared to 30 million in 1861), that would be the equivalent of about 5 million American deaths in four years–nearly a hundred times the number of Americans who died in Vietnam over a ten-year period.” (p. 259)

“General Sherman boasted that his army alone, while passing through Georgia and South Carolina, destroyed $100 million in private property and stole another $20 million worth.” (p. 260)

The Civil War was fought as “total war:” Lincoln and his generals abolished all distinction between military and civilian persons. 

Unfortunately, the book’s final chapter is largely meritless. DiLorenzo credits the Enlightenment, not Christianity, with turning “the American mind” away from slavery. I remain unpersuaded that Wilburforce and Newton were agents of the Enlightenment.

Throughout most of the chapter, “The Costs of Lincoln’s War,” DiLorenzo proffers various speculative scenarios as to alternative outcomes and global consequences had the South been permitted to peacefully secede. The Union, he posits, would likely have been restored, just as it was established in the first place.  World Wars I and II might not have happened, because America would not have  become an imperial power; Germany would not have been so severely punished after World War I, and Hitler might never have risen to power.  These propositions are neither original nor verifiable, but nor are they implausible. The logic of DiLorenzo’s propositions does not, however, validate his speculation in the absence of evidence and the presence of many variables in Europe that likely brought about the World Wars as much as any antecedent events in America.

  1. March 21, 2007 8:42 pm

    Good review.

    I wonder if Mr. DiLorenzo has contemplated the influence of the Enlightenment on some other catastrophes leading to centralized statism. The French Revolution comes to mind.

  2. Sam Waddell permalink
    September 13, 2008 12:36 am

    I enjoyed this book because I see that we in the USA are finally being honest about our past. Slavery was evil but any real student of history knows that the South didn’t get in that mess alone and that all salves weren’t even in the South. The North had industry to reinvest it’s slavery money in so they had an escape. Hugh Thomas, The Atlantic Slave Trade, shows through much research that the Yankees of New England and other areas shipped around 3oo,000 African slaves into maninly South Carolina after we became a nation mainly up until around 1830. So it is hypocracy to blame Slavery completely on the South. Another 300,000 slaves were shipped globally in American ships from the North. This money served as a basis for the beginning of Northern industry and also the protective tarriffs which cause the South to pay around 85% of all Federal Tax before the civil war. These things in themselves pushed the South economically deeper into Slavery and allowed the North to escape. Compensated emancipation was not supported by the Northern Congressmen and was denied the South. Slavery was not allowed to move west which I can agree with but with all the other economic things going on it helped keep the South in slavery as Charles Dickens said. I read one Virginia who said after the war,” We could have probably gotten slavery abolished if we hadn’t been so busy keeping the wolf away from the door. Virginia only ned afew more votes in her congress to finally abolish slavery but the violent nature of Northern abolition kept the slave holders from moving toward abolition because they feared a race war according to R.E. Lee. There is no doubt that slavery would have ended in the South if they had been left alone but ofcourse it would have taken time for racial equality as it has in all parts od America. Compensated emancipation should have been presented and we would not have all the wounds of war!

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