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Confronting the Lincoln Cult

June 3, 2002

Tags Big GovernmentThe Police StateOther Schools of ThoughtPolitical Theory

Mises.org: Your book The Real Lincoln came out, it was a huge seller, and then this mad controversy broke loose.

DiLorenzo: The controversy began even before the book came out. Illana Mercer of WorldNet Daily wrote a column about the book, praising it to the skies. That pleased me very much. But then the critics started blasting away, without ever having seen the book. One even recommended that people not read my book. They were extremely crude, denouncing Illana’s “comprehensive ignorance.” These Lincoln people were outraged that there was a book out that was less-than hagiographic toward the great man.

Once the book appeared, the critics became ever more vehement. But instead of addressing  my argument and evidence, they seized on a couple of errors in the book that were carried over from errors in secondary sources. Both of these are changed in the new printing. These errors shouldn’t have been there but they were not by any means essential to the thesis.

Mises.org: One of the misquotations concerns Lincoln’s view of racial equality.

DiLorenzo: Yes, I ran across it among the 60 or so Lincoln books in my office, and it sounded quintessentially Lincolnian. Lincoln is on record opposing equality for blacks, and was a lifetime proponent recolonizing slaves back to Africa. This is beyond dispute, even if the Lincoln partisans don’t like to talk about it.

In the passage I quoted, he was making fun of the idea of racial equality. It turned out that the context of this quote, among so many making essentially the same point, had Lincoln attributing the view to someone else.

The misattribution made no difference to the thesis, but these critics began writing 20-page essays flaming me for this, suggesting I had done this deliberately. It is all disingenuous because Lincoln is on record time after time rejecting the idea of racial equality. But whenever anyone brings this up, the Lincoln partisans go to the extreme to smear the bearer of bad news. One critic called me both a Marxist and a libertarian, and probably a member of the White Citizens Council.

Meanwhile, my missteps pale in comparison with the inaccuracies that my critics have introduced. David Quackenbush, for example, claims that there is only one quote from Lincoln in my entire book. This is just a kooky assertion that is easy to disprove in about 15 seconds of flipping through my book.

Mises.org: And yet, as you say, none of this touches on your central thesis.

DiLorenzo: Right, and my thesis is that Lincoln devoted twenty-eight years of his life to an economic agenda of mercantilist high tariffs, pork in the form of internal improvements, and the promotion of a central bank. The basic strategy of this economic agenda was to allow the Republican Party to buy votes from protectionist manufacturers, mining and timber companies that wanted cheap federal land, subsidy-seeking railroad companies, and white laborers who did not want competition from freed blacks or slaves.

Mises.org: You have written that Lincoln was the political son of Alexander Hamilton.

DiLorenzo: Yes, the founding father who represented the mercantilist, big-government brand of Americanism in contrast to the Jeffersonian spirit of freedom. The long-time debate between Jefferson and Hamilton was settled at gunpoint. That’s what the War for Southern Independence was all about.

After the election and just before Lincoln’s inauguration, the House passed the Morrill tariff which elevated the rate to 47.06 percent--an extortionist rate. Remember that the tariff was the primary source of federal revenue in those days and the South, which wanted free trade with the world, was paying 80 percent of the total federal revenue, according to Frank Taussig’s authoritative history.

Lincoln’s inaugural address underscored the point that he wasn’t going to back down against demands from the South that tariffs be lowered, as Andrew Jackson had done. Lincoln said it was his duty to “collect the duties and imposts and so long as the South paid, “there will be no invasion.” Northern newspapers were calling for a bombardment of Southern ports, a first strike to prevent the threat that the South would ignore the new tariffs and institute free trade.

You cannot understand Lincoln’s place in the constellation of American history without understanding the economics of mercantilism and the need for government coercion to enforce it. To show this, I quote David Donald, the Pulitzer Prize winning historian, as saying that this was the reason that Lincoln was elected. Contemporary political figures such as Republican Senator John Sherman went on record to say that as well.

Mises.org: Then there are all the Constitutional issues that arise during the war. 

DiLorenzo: Lincoln suspended habeas corpus, he jailed political opponents and newspapers writers, and violated the letter and spirit of the Constitution at every turn. I document all this, as does Jeffrey Rogers Hummel. It is amazing how the Lincoln cartel goes to such lengths to justify these activities. The difference with my book is not so much in the facts themselves, though I bring out many that Lincoln partisans would rather forget, but that I don’t go to enormous lengths to provided twisted rationales for Lincoln’s behavior. 

Hermann Belz, for example, says that Lincoln was not a dictator because he allowed the election of 1864 to take place. But Belz doesn’t mention how Lincoln rigged this election. Federal soldiers had the opposition jailed. His confiscation acts covered everyone who would dare dissent from the Lincoln line. He patrolled the voting booths to kick out Democrat voters. He also orchestrated the secession of West Virginia just to gain a few electoral votes. In short, this was Mugabe-style democracy. 

Mises.org: Were you previously aware that the Lincoln partisans were so vehement?

DiLorenzo: What you have here are several very well-funded neoconservative foundations that are using Lincoln mythology to advance their current political agenda of strong national and executive power. In my debate with Harry Jaffa recently, one of the last things he said, which drew a lot of boos from the audience, was that September 11 proves that we need a strong central government. This is very revealing. Essentially, these neoconservatives want big government just like Lincoln did.  

So here I am, this one professor at a liberal arts college and I have these dozens of people on the payroll of foundations ganging up to call me names and otherwise smearing anyone who questions the mythology of Lincoln as a great liberator. I’ve noticed over the years that anytime anyone questions this they swing into action. But I suppose I’ve been taken aback at their tone and tactics. 

Mises.org: When the Soviet Union was breaking up, didn’t Gorbachev cite the Lincoln precedent to justify that empire?

DiLorenzo: Certainly, which shows that he knew something about the role that Lincoln played. The Baltic states wanted to secede, so Gorbachev said that by trying to prevent it, he was doing no more or less than Lincoln did. In fact, despots ever since Lincoln’s time have cited his actions as a moral precedent to crack down on political dissenters. All the great tyrants of the 20th century were consolidationists, including Adolf Hitler. 

Mises.org: What did Hitler have to say about the American Civil War?

DiLorenzo: During my debate with Jaffa [see complete transcript], he cited some source where Hitler supposedly said that it was too bad that the Confederacy lost the war. But no one ever heard Hitler say that. And we have Hitler’s own book, Mein Kampf, which makes a case for the German union in the same terms that Lincoln made the case for American union. 

Hitler writes that “individual states of the American Union . . . could not have possessed any state sovereignty of their own. For it was not these states that formed the Union, on the contrary it was the Union which formed a great part of such so-called states." This was also Lincoln’s view. 

Hitler goes on to say: “Certainly all the states in the world are moving toward a certain unification in their inner organization. And in this Germany will be no exception. Today it is an absurdity to speak of a ‘state sovereignty’ of individual provinces.” And further: “In particular we cannot grant to any individual state within the nation and the state representing it state sovereignty and sovereignty in point of political power." Finally: "National Socialism as a matter of principle, must lay claim to the right to force its principles on the whole German nation without consideration of previous federated state boundaries.”

Mises.org: It makes sense because centralized government is essential to central planning. 

DiLorenzo: Right, you can’t allow people to leave a coercive union if you have an agenda to impose on an entire country. In the American context, the tariff system relies on consolidated power. The Republican platform emphasized the need for corporate welfare and the tariff was the only way to fund it. You couldn’t have states that refuse to pay. That would make big government impossible. 

Decentralized government is essential to individual liberty. There has to be a check on the centralized state. This is why the American founders put so much emphasis on federalism and the rights of the individual political units. Yes, the states can be abusive of liberty, but because there are many states, you can vote with your feet. Also, the ability to leave the union provides an out for people when the center becomes tyrannical. 

Mises.org: It doesn’t seem like libertarians have been as focused on this point as they might have been.

DiLorenzo: They have been too willing to go along with the idea of Chief Justice John Marshall, who did defend property rights. At the same time, he didn’t understand the tendency of power, once again, to be used against property and liberty. St. George Tucker, in his book A View of the Constitution, said that whenever the federal government gains the ability to be the judge of its own limits of power, you no longer have freedom; you have tyranny. That’s the theme of his book. It was the theme of the Constitution until Lincoln came along. 

In this century, libertarian legal theorists have tended to look to federal courts as the means to implement a pro-property rights agenda. They have tended to ignore the ways that the states have checked the center. One of the few to have understood the dangers of this is Gottfried Dietze, who clearly lays out why the founders wanted political power to be decentralized. 

Mises.org: How many articles have you written in response to your critics. 

DiLorenzo: Probably 15 or 20, on Lewrockwell.com, WorldNet Daily, and Mises.org, among other venues. Thank goodness for technology. It has made it possible to respond to these people on a day-by-day basis. For this reason, the Lincoln cartel is breaking up. Previously, these people would write books for university presses, and they would be reviewed by each other. Their views would be propounded in the classroom, where the textbooks reflected the official line. It was a closed system. But now, you can write responses to these people and your views can be out in the open. They can’t get away with misquoting you or otherwise covering up the truth. 

For example, during my debate with Jaffa, he said three things that struck me as wrong. He said that the King of England never recognized the states as states, that Virginia never reserved the right to withdraw from the union, and finally that Lincoln never did anything that was unconstitutional. Now, the last point was easy to answer, but I had a response out within days to the other two points, and Jaffa turns out to be completely wrong. 

Mises.org: Your book is selling well?

DiLorenzo: Very. At the national meeting of sales representatives of Random House, they were sizing up the current hot sellers and my book was close to the top of the list. I’m very pleased by this. The myth of Lincoln cannot stand up under scrutiny, and after all these years, the word is finally getting out.


Thomas DiLorenzo is a professor of economics in the Sellinger School of Business and Management at Loyola College in Baltimore, and is senior fellow of the Mises Institute.  See his Mises.org Articles Archive, and send him MAIL. Also, listen to Dr. DiLorenzo's recent book discussion on The Real Lincoln (in MP3 format). His article "The Great Centralizer," written for a Mises Institute conference, was published in the Independent Review and is available online. His book is also available from Amazon.com.


Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.

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