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DiLorenzo and His Critics on the Lincoln Myth

Essays in Political Economy

Tags Media and CultureU.S. HistoryWar and Foreign PolicyPolitical Theory

04/15/2003James Ostrowski
"Lincoln was a typical example of the humanitarian with the guillotine: a familiar modern 'reform liberal’ type whose heart bleeds for and yearns to 'uplift' remote mankind, while he lies to and treats abominably actual people whom he knew." ---Murray Rothbard1


Ken Masugi is partially right about Tom DiLorenzo’s book, The Real Lincoln: A New Look at Abraham Lincoln, His Agenda, and an Unnecessary War (2002). It is "awful"—"awful"ly good, even great. Tom DiLorenzo has completely and irrevocably destroyed the myth, the legend, the fable, the fairy tale--the tall tale of Abraham Lincoln, American’s first military dictator and its first Presidente after the violent regime change of 1861.

I predict that this book will sell more copies than there were troops at Gettysburg on both sides, and will cause a major transformation in American thought about Lincoln, which will ultimately redound to the benefit of the Republic for which Lincoln did not stand, the Lincoln myth being the cornerstone of the United State of Greater America—the world minus China--that replaced that Republic.

I predict that the attacks on DiLorenzo and his book will continue and increase in number and virulence. There is a strange entity out there which I call the Church of Lincoln, the church of one who had no church. Gone with the wind and the internet are the days when courageous revisionist historians and dissenters like DiLorenzo could be ignored to death. With two of the leading political websites in the world heralding his tome, and, and his book selling like statist intellectuals’ souls, the Church of Lincoln could not ignore DiLorenzo. When Ilana Mercer fired her starter’s pistol, the congregation raced to attack the book before it was even published.

Nevertheless, I am not without sympathy for the Church and its predicament. They are facing an enemy they haven’t faced before and like typical generals, they are fighting the last war. They continue to spar with the racial views of Douglas and Calhoun while being skewered by a potent new foe, the modern libertarian DiLorenzo. Imagine how General Meade would have felt if Lee had been able to attack the union army from the front, the rear, and both flanks simultaneously, and you will get a taste of the present consternation of the Church of Lincoln. For what DiLorenzo has done is attack the myth of Lincoln from 360 degrees all at once, with guns blazing. And these are guns they haven't seen before: a real Jeffersonian attacking the spurious Jeffersonianism of Lincoln; a sincere supporter of natural rights attacking the disingenuous lip service Lincoln paid to natural rights; Lincoln being attacked "from the left" on slavery by an opponent who is "to the right" of Jefferson Davis on secession! "Why, by God, I actually pity those poor [expletives deleted] we're going up against. By God, I do!" (General George S. Patton, Jr., June 5, 1944).


Before discussing the reviews and reaction, let’s review DiLorenzo’s findings. He makes about 71 discrete factual, legal, political, or moral accusations or allegations against or about Lincoln or his subordinates as follows:

  1. Saying contradictory things before different audiences.
  2. Opposing racial equality.
  3. Opposing giving blacks the right to vote, serve on juries or intermarry while allegedly supporting their natural rights.
  4. Being a racist.
  5. Supporting the legal rights of slaveholders.
  6. Supporting Clay’s American System or mercantilism as his primary political agenda: national bank, high tariff, and internal improvements.
  7. Supporting a political economy that encourages corruption and inefficiency.
  8. Supporting a political economy that became the blueprint for modern American.
  9. Being a wealthy railroad lawyer.
  10. Never defending a runaway slave.
  11. Defending a slaveholder against his runaway slave.
  12. Favoring returning ex-slaves to Africa or sending them to Central America and Haiti.
  13. Proposing to strengthen the Fugitive Slave law.
  14. Opposing the extension of slavery in the territories so that "free white people" can settle there and because allowing them to become slave states would dilute Republican influence in Congress because of the three-fifths rule.
  15. Opposing black citizenship in Illinois or their right to immigrate to that state.
  16. Failing to use his legendary political skills to achieve peaceful emancipation as was accomplished elsewhere--Lincoln's war was the only "war of emancipation" in the 19th century.
  17. Nullifying emancipation of slaves in Missouri and Georgia early in the war.
  18. Stating that his primary motive was saving the union and not ending slavery.
  19. Supporting a conscription law.
  20. Sending troops into New York City to quell draft riots related to his emancipation proclamation, resulting in 300 to 1,000 deaths.
  21. Starting a war that took the lives of 620,000 soldiers and 50,000 civilians and caused incalculable economic loss.
  22. Being an enemy of free market capitalism.
  23. Being an economic illiterate and espousing the labor theory of value.
  24. Supporting a disastrous public works project in Illinois and continuing to support the same policies oblivious of the consequences.
  25. Conjuring up a specious and deceptive argument against the historically-recognized right of state secession.
  26. Lying about re-supplying the fed’s tax collection office known as Fort Sumter.
  27. Refusing to see peace commissioners from the Confederacy offering to pay for all federal property in the South.
  28. Refusing to see Napoleon III of France who offered to mediate the dispute.
  29. Provoking Virginia to secede by taking military action against the Deep South.
  30. Supporting a tariff and other policies that systematically redistributed wealth from the South to the North, causing great consternation in the South.
  31. Invading the South without consulting Congress.
  32. Illegally declaring martial law.
  33. Illegally blockading ports.
  34. Illegally suspending habeas corpus.
  35. Illegally imprisoning thousands of Northern citizens.
  36. Tolerating their subjection to inhumane conditions in prison.
  37. Systematically attacking Northern newspapers and their employees, including by imprisonment.
  38. Deporting his chief political enemy in the North, Congressman Clement L. Vallandigham of Ohio.
  39. Confiscating private property and firearms.
  40. Ignoring the Ninth and Tenth Amendments.
  41. Tolerating the arrest of ministers who refused to pray for Lincoln.
  42. Arresting several duly elected members of the Maryland Legislature along with the mayor of Baltimore and Maryland Congressman Henry May.
  43. Placing Kansas and Kentucky under martial law.
  44. Supporting a law that indemnified public officials for unlawful acts.
  45. Laying the groundwork for the establishment of conscription and income taxation as permanent institutions.
  46. Interfering with and rigging elections in Maryland and elsewhere in the North.
  47. Censoring all telegraph communication.
  48. Preventing opposition newspapers from being delivered by the post office.
  49. Illegally creating the state of West Virginia out of the "indestructible" state of Virginia.
  50. Tolerating or supporting mistreatment of citizens in conquered territory.
  51. Taxing those citizens without their consent.
  52. Executing those who refused to take a loyalty oath.
  53. Closing churches and arresting ministers.
  54. Burning and plundering Southern cites.
  55. Quartering troops in private homes unlawfully.
  56. Creating an enormous political patronage system.
  57. Allowing an unjust mass execution of Sioux Indians in Minnesota.
  58. Engineering a constitutional revolution through military force which destroyed state sovereignty and replaced it with rule by the Supreme Court (and the United States Army).
  59. Laying the groundwork for the imperialist and militarist campaigns of the future as well as the welfare/warfare state.
  60. Creating the dangerous precedent of establishing a strong consolidated state out of a decentralized confederation.
  61. Effectively killing secession as a threat, thus encouraging the rise of our modern federal monolith.
  62. Waging war on civilians by bombing, destruction of homes, and confiscation of food and farm equipment.
  63. Tolerating an atmosphere which led to large numbers of rapes against Southern women, including slaves.
  64. Using civilians as hostages.
  65. Promoting a general because of his willingness to use his troops as cannon fodder.
  66. DiLorenzo blames Lincoln for the predictable aftermath of the war: the plundering of the South by Lincoln’s allies.
  67. Supporting government subsidies of the railroads leading to corruption and inefficiency.
  68. Supporting a nationalized paper currency which is inherently inflationary.
  69. Creating the federal tax bureaucracy and various taxes that are still with us.
  70. Establishing precedents for centralized powers and suppression of liberties that continue to be cited today.
  71. Ending slavery by means that created turbulence that continues to this day.


Thus, DiLorenzo makes over seventy separate allegations against or about Lincoln or as part of his overall case against Lincoln. (Perhaps I missed a few or possibly there is a little duplication in my list.) What do DiLorenzo's reviewers say about these allegations? Very little. Instead of dealing with these charges, his opponents spent most of their efforts attacking a few citations. The only such alleged error that is anything other than a technicality or difference of opinion concerns Lincoln’s racism. Yet, leaving that apparent misquote aside, DiLorenzo still gives us several other quotes and other evidence that makes the same point. For example,

"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. I . . . am in favor of the race to which I belong having the superior position." [p. 11]

And here’s some more that are not, I believe, in the book:

  • "What I would most desire would be the separation of the white and black races." (Springfield, July 17, 1858)
  • ". . . I will to the very last stand by the law of this State, which forbids the marrying of white people with negroes." (Charleston, Illinois, September 18, 1858)

Beyond these procedural points, the reviews are filled mostly with insults, misrepresentations, irrelevancies, generalized rhetoric and various lame excuses and justifications for Lincoln’s actions. Tom Krannawitter compares DiLorenzo to John Wilkes Booth without the aim. His "message is old hat" but the messenger is "incompetent." "They have sent a giddy, careless, half-educated boy to do a man’s job."

In a brief review for, a history professor states that (Pennsylvania-born) DiLorenzo quotes southern-born authors who tried to prove their ancestors "could not be fighting for slavery." Granted that apologists for Lincoln are congenitally incapable of distinguishing between seceding and fighting, not recalling that thrust, I pulled the book out and found this statement: "’Slavery’ was the main reason why the seven states of the deep South were the first to secede." [p. 123] I guess you have to read the book and not trust those who have obviously conspired to see that you don’t. (The ten or so critics--obscure figures except for Harry Jaffa--all seem to know each other.) DiLorenzo does argue that the four states of the upper South did not secede over slavery but because the Union was going to force the Deep South states to rejoin the union. No reviewer or critic to my knowledge has challenged that critical point. This history professor, by the way, who has publicly decried the lack of "civility" in political discourse, today, had some very uncivil things to say about DiLorenzo’s book.

Critic Affiliation Conspiratorial Act(s) 
Harry Jaffa Claremont Institute Guru 
Tom Krannawitter Claremont Institute Parrots Jaffa’s arguments 
Ken Masugi Claremont Institute Quotes Jaffa 
Richard Ferrier Declaration Foundation* Co-wrote with Quackenbush; praised Owens article in letter 
David Quackenbush Declaration Foundation Co-wrote with Ferrier; praised Owens article in letter 
Erik Root Declaration Foundation Worships Jaffa; cites Ferrier & Quackenbush 
Mackubin T. Owens Ashbrook Center Colleague of Masugi, worships Jaffa 

*According to, people who visit the Declaration Foundation web site also frequently visit the Claremont Institute site.


Another critic, Eric Root, takes issue with DiLorenzo’s point that Lincoln did not discuss slavery much prior to 1854. Mr. Root would do well to read his Lincoln: "I have always hated [slavery], but I have always been quiet about it until this new era of the introduction of the Nebraska bill began." (Chicago, July 10, 1858 (emphasis added)). Why so quiet, Mr. Lincoln, when others were screaming? He was too busy pushing the slave master Henry Clay’s agenda, I suppose: "Henry Clay, beau ideal of a stateman, the man for whom I fought all my humble life. . . " (Ottawa, August 21, 1958 (emphasis added)). Clay devoted his career to an agenda of allowing some people to use the state to steal other people’s money and property by means of inflation, protectionism, patronage and pork: the natural right of the majority to steal. Lincoln talked anti-slavery, but practiced legalized graft, as DiLorenzo amply documents.

And what’s with all that false modesty that Lincoln continually feigned? Was Jefferson pretentious? Was Adams? Franklin? Lee? Davis? Why do some people need to project a false image? "The world will little note nor long remember what we say here. . ." Does anyone really believe Lincoln meant that? Face it. The guy was an extremely ambitious political, legal and literary genius masquerading as a backwoods lawyer. Abe was slicker than Johnnie Cochran summing up for O. J., pushing an agenda that killed way more than two people. Thanks to his incomparable rhetorical skills, Lincoln has heretofore been found not guilty of killing 670,000 people and one constitution.

DiLorenzo is accused of failing to precisely divine the real intent of Lincoln’s writings and speeches, as if his critics know what Lincoln really meant. Yet, one of his prime indictments of Lincoln is that he cleverly made statements that could be construed more than one way, that is, he double-talked, and he did so to deceive people into voting for him so he could gain political power. DiLorenzo's critics respond essentially by saying that Lincoln needed to be vague so he could get elected. That is, however, precisely DiLorenzo's charge! Lincoln was a "masterful, gifted, fence-straddling politician wanting to have it both ways. . . " [page 13] He claimed, in 1848, to support a right of secession and/or revolution, but qualified it by adding the proviso that the secessionists must have the "power" to do so. However, the purpose of rights is to regulate or restrain power. Also, if you have the power, why bother with rights-talk? His whole statement is confusing, perhaps intentionally so.

Ken Masugi writes that DiLorenzo merely recycles the views of Jefferson Davis and Alexander Stephens. Even if true, which it is not, this "argument" begs the question. If Lincoln was wrong on secession, then Davis and Stephens were to a certain extent right and vice versa; thus, if we assume that Davis and Stephens were wrong, then we assume as true that which is in dispute. Masugi commits another logical fallacy here, the argument ad Hitlerum. According to this silly argument, if some unpopular person such as Hitler or Davis, said "X", then "X" must be false. Talk about sending a boy to do a man’s job.

Lincoln’s modern defenders cannot extricate themselves from the dilemma created by their hero’s racist remarks. Masugi implies that Lincoln’s racist remarks were mere pandering to the audience to get elected. And he’s defending Lincoln! However, Masugi offers no evidence to suggest that Lincoln’s racial remarks were insincere. Yet, if they were sincere, he wasn’t pandering at all. If, on the other hand, they were insincere, given how often they were repeated, that makes Lincoln a damned liar, a man who lied about being a racist! Also, why pander? Why not put aside personal ambition, speak the truth and use his undeniable genius to move society along much faster toward true justice?


Continuing in the tradition of forensic sleight of hand Lincoln made famous, the critics of DiLorenzo have a clever answer for everything. If Lincoln was for high tariffs, this was because he hated slavery! I always thought people were for high tariffs because of greed. Now they say it was altruism. This altruism consisted of Northerners transferring to the North wealth created partly by slaves in the South.

If Illinois had racist laws, this was actually because they hated slavery! Masugi writes: "The anti-slavery forces actually joined with racists to keep their state free of slavery, and also free of blacks." Illinois did have a law that forbade bringing slaves into the state to free them. See, Owens v. People, 13 Ill. 59 (1851). Why opponents of slavery would support such a law is known only to Masugi. As for other laws that discriminate against blacks, again, opponents of slavery would have no reason to support them. Let me quote Lincoln in support of DiLorenzo: ""We want [the new territories] for the homes of free white people." (Peoria, Oct. 16, 1854).

If we have big government now, it is the fault, not of "our greatest president", but of the "centralized bureaucracy, which is intimately connected with the nihilistic universities and interest factions. . . " (Masugi). These, however, are precisely what you get when you raise majority rule to the level of a religious principle and you prevent exploited minorities from escaping.


The critics do discuss DiLorenzo's claim that Lincoln is the originator of the modern, all-powerful federal American state. They blame the Progressives. Similarly, I suppose, if a person had lung cancer that metastasized to the brain, and the person thereby died, we could blame the brain cancer and not the lung cancer. Rather, as DiLorenzo clearly spells out, Lincoln created the philosophical and political framework for the Progressives. The Progressives merely intensified Lincolnian trends and mechanisms and increased his militarism, imperialism, and centralization of government power in Washington, aided by one of their favorite judges, Oliver Wendell Holmes, who fought for Lincoln in the Civil War.

Holmes, appointed to the Supreme Court by Progressive Teddy Roosevelt, had nothing but scorn for the man DiLorenzo’s critics say was Lincoln’s hero: Thomas Jefferson. On the one hundredth anniversary of John Marshall taking the bench as chief judge of the Supreme Court, 1901, Holmes made reference to Jefferson's political enemy and cousin. He spoke of:

"the fortunate circumstance that the appointment of Chief Justice fell to John Adams, instead of to Jefferson a month later, and so gave it to a Federalist and loose constructionist to start the working of the Constitution."

Then he obliquely noted that:

"Time has been on Marshall's side, and the theory which Hamilton argued, and [Marshall] decided, and Webster spoke, and Grant fought, and Lincoln died, is now our corner-stone." (Emphasis added)

I say "obliquely" because Holmes never states just what that "theory" is that is now our corner-stone. Whatever that "corner-stone" is, however, it is safe to assume that Holmes thought Jefferson's philosophy was now buried under it. A reviewer of a biography of Holmes writes: "The only area in which Holmes was at all inclined to limit the power of the state was in questions of freedom of speech and the press." Rejecting natural law, Holmes gives us his own theory of law: "the majority will of that nation that could lick all others,"2 a legal philosophy that is not surprising coming from an officer in the Union army in the Civil War. Thus, not only did Lincolnism impact on the Progressive era ideologically, but one of the Progressives major heroes was a philosophically committed soldier for Lincoln. Holmes famously said, "Taxation is the price we pay for civilization." On the contrary, in the last century, war, imperialism, and barbarism were the price the world paid for taxation.

If we merely open our eyes to the world around us, we will see that Lincoln, not the progressives, is the icon of the modern American state. We are besieged by images of Lincoln, paintings of Lincoln, statues of Lincoln, speeches about Lincoln, movies about Lincoln, including one by John Ford. Where have you gone, Woodrow Wilson?

The only "progressive" whose memory lives on in popular culture today is Republican Theodore Roosevelt. They did manage to squeeze his wide face into that narrow gulch at Mount Rushmore. I have no doubt Teddy would have preferred to occupy the mountain all by himself rather than share it with those lesser lights. If TR remains alive for us today, it more because of his larger than life persona and that charge up San Juan Hill (and Kettle Hill), not his progressive philosophy. Remember, that was no photo op; real bullets were flying and he didn’t care. On second thought, there is something Lincolnesque about fighting an imperialistic war on foreign soil for the sake of "democracy". Just a few years later, Roosevelt, according to Edmund Morris in Theodore Rex, would later cite Lincoln’s war to justify the American war against the Philippines.

It is altogether fitting that Teddy Roosevelt managed to use "Abraham Lincoln" as the last two words of his Inaugural Address. So much for there being a sharp break between Lincoln and the Progressives. The connection is so obvious, even a schoolboy could see it:

"[Roosevelt] harbored a desire to return the party to the progressive attitudes it had had under the leadership of Lincoln. * * * 'I [Roosevelt] did not usurp power, but I did greatly broaden the use of executive power. In other words, I acted for the public welfare…regarding the Executive as subject only to the people, and, under the Constitution, bound to serve the people affirmatively in cases where the Constitution does not explicitly forbid him to render the service, was substantially the course followed by both Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln. . . '" "Theodore Roosevelt: President and Progressive," by Christopher Vena (grade 12, City Honors High School, Buffalo, New York)

Liberal, pro-Lincoln historian James MacPherson believed that Lincoln wrote the "blueprint for modern America." That’s why we are having this debate in the first place. If DiLorenzo had written a book trashing James Buchanan or Millard Fillmore, who would have cared?

Let me call as my final witness on Lincoln’s influence on the Progressives, the great man himself, Theodore Roosevelt. What say you, Sir?

"[I]n the days of Abraham Lincoln [the Republican party] was founded as the radical progressive party of the Nation. * * * It remained the Nationalist as against the particularist or State rights party, and in so far it remained absolutely sound; for little permanent good can be done by any party which worships the State’s rights fetish or which fails to regard the State, like the county or the municipality as merely a convenient unit for local self-government, while in all National matters, of importance to the whole people, the Nation is to be supreme over State, county, and town alike.

"As to all action of this kind there have long been two schools of political thought, upheld with equal sincerity. . . The course I followed, of regarding the executive as subject only to the people, and, under the Constitution, bound to serve the people affirmatively in cases where the Constitution does not explicitly forbid him to render service, was substantially the course followed by both Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln.


"When I was inaugurated on March 4, 1905, I wore a ring [Lincoln’s secretary, John Hay] sent me the evening before, containing the hair of Abraham Lincoln.. . . I often thereafter told John Hay that when I wore such a ring on such an occasion I bound myself more than ever to treat the Constitution, after the manner of Abraham Lincoln, as a document which put human rights above property rights when the two conflicted.. . . . I believed in invoking the National power with absolute freedom for every National need. . . "3


DiLorenzo’s critics say he exaggerated Lincoln’s commitment to installing Henry Clay’s American System. Preventing the extension of slavery in the territories was Lincoln’s sole obsession in the years leading up to his election. The Republican Party Platform resolves the issue:



Resolved, That we, the delegated representatives of the Republican electors of the United States, in Convention assembled, in discharge of the duty we owe to our constituents and our country, unite in the following declarations:

3. That to the Union of the States this nation owes its unprecedented increase in population, its surprising development of material resources, its rapid augmentation of wealth, its happiness at home and its honor abroad. . .


12. That, while providing revenue for the support of the General Government by duties upon imports, sound policy requires such an adjustment of these imposts as to encourage the development of the industrial interest of the whole country; and we commend that policy of national exchanges which secures to the working men liberal wages, to agriculture renumerative prices, to mechanics and manufactures an adequate reward for their skill, labor, and enterprise, and to the nation commercial prosperity and independence.


15. That appropriations by Congress for River and Harbor improvements of a National character, required for the accommodation and security of an existing commerce, are authorized by the Constitution, and justified by the obligations of Government to protect the lives and property of its citizens.

16. That a Railroad to the Pacific Ocean is imperatively demanded by the interest of the whole country; that the Federal Government ought to render immediate and efficient aid in its construction; and that, as preliminary thereto, a daily Overland Mail should be promptly established.

Here we see explicitly stated Lincoln’s economic agenda emphasized by DiLorenzo and essentially ignored by his critics: high tariff, internal improvements, and the transcontinental railroad. Paragraph three also lends support to the view that the opponents of secession had an explicitly economic agenda. To the union are attributed wealth, population, and power. There is indeed a connection between supporting a high tariff and opposing secession, as DiLorenzo states. An empire is needed to enforce a high tariff. Compare paragraph three with these analyses of why the war was fought:

"[The North] fought . . . for all those delicious dreams of national predominance in future ages, which she must relinquish as soon as the union is severed."4

"We love the Union because . . . it renders us now the equal of the greatest European Power, and in another half century, will make us the greatest, richest, and most powerful people on the face of the earth.5

It is remarkable that the first journal, which was British, pro-South, and post-War, saw the war in the same nationalistic and imperialistic terms as did the second journal, which was American, pro-North, and pre-War.

Economic interests tend to find their way into legal arguments. Hence, the numerous contortions and distortions needed to deny the right of secession such as "the union is older than the states", an argument that historian Forrest McDonald calls "untenable."


A main theme of the Church of Lincoln is to defend Lincoln’s claim that he was merely a follower of Jefferson. Let’s compare the two on some of the more important issues of their times:

First Amendment. The First Amendment was virtually a Jeffersonian creation. Jefferson, away in France, chastised his protégé Madison for failing to include a bill of rights in the Constitution containing, among others provisions, "freedom of the press." Madison’s First Amendment, modified in various ways of no great importance to us now, became the law of the land in 1791. It did not, however, stop the Federalists from enacting the Alien and Sedition laws in 1798 which outlawed speech critical of the government. Thus, in ten short years, the wily Federalists went from arguing that no First Amendment was necessary because the federal government had not been delegated power over the press, to arguing that the federal government could regulate political speech even after the passage of the first amendment.

Jefferson, typically, saw the contradiction. He wrote to the naive Madison, who had seen no need for a first amendment:

"Among other enormities, [the Sedition act] undertakes to make certain matters criminal tho' one of the amendments to the Constitution has expressly taken printing presses, etc., out of their coercion."

No one challenged the Sedition law in the Supreme Court, but Jefferson, the ever-vigilant libertarian, took action which was to have consequences far beyond the narrow issue of free speech. He authored--anonymously--the Kentucky Resolution. Jefferson wrote:

"[T]he several states composing the United States of America are not united on the principle of unlimited submission to their general government; but that, by compact, under the style and title of the Constitution of the United States, and of certain amendments thereto, they constituted a general government for general purposes, delegated to that government certain powers, reserving, each state to itself, the residuary mass of right to their own self-government; and that whensoever the general government assumes undelegated powers, its acts are unauthoritative, void and of no effect."

Thus, Jefferson developed the controversial theory of state nullification of unconstitutional federal laws in order to deal with the free speech crisis caused by passage of the Sedition act.

In contrast, Lincoln was the First Amendment’s greatest enemy. In 1839, Alexis de Tocqueville had written: "Among the twelve million people living in the United States, there is not one single man who has dared to suggest restricting the freedom of the press." Just twenty-five years later, Lincoln, true to his Federalist and Hamiltonian roots, felt no compunction whatever about jailing during the Civil War a total of thirteen thousand Northern civilians who had expressed views critical of Lincoln or his war. According to historian Arthur Ekirch, this was often done "without any sort of trial or after only cursory hearings before a military tribunal."

The deeper implications of Lincoln’s suppression of free speech are rarely noticed. The need for widespread suppression suggests that Lincoln’s war was not part of the electoral majority mandate that he claimed to be vindicating by invading the South. Historian Paul Johnson said the only Northern state that initially favored war was Massachusetts. If true, that means that Lincoln paradoxically had to drag the rest into a war for the benefit of that same majority. Lincoln pointed out in his First Inaugural Address that, on key constitutional questions, the nation divides into majorities and minorities. However, on the key constitutional question of secession, he prevented a true consensus from emerging in the North by declaring martial law.

Secession. Lincoln opposed secession and started a bloody war to stop it. Jefferson never explicitly said, "I believe states have the legal right to secede." However, everything he ever said that touched on the subject was consistent with that right. He authored the greatest secessionist document in history, the Declaration of Independence. The core principles of the Declaration were arguably ensconced in the constitution at the Ninth and Tenth Amendments. Jefferson supported state nullification of federal laws, a doctrine which, if not identical to secession, implied it, and which was seen as identical by opponents of both. If there is a right to nullify, this must be solely up to the discretion of the states, else it is not a right. If it is a right, it must include the right to withdraw from the union if the union attempts to nullify the nullification, that attempt being yet another and more serious act of usurpation by the federal government whose only appropriate remedy is secession.

Hannis Taylor called Jefferson's compact doctrine the "Pandora's Box" out of which flew the "closely related doctrines of nullification and secession," which he notes, with less than perfect foresight, "were extinguished once and forever by the Civil War." Jefferson's biographer, Willard Sterne Randall agrees:

"[Jefferson] forthrightly held that where the national government exercised powers not specifically delegated to it, each state 'has an equal right to judge . . . the mode and measure of redress.' . . . He was, he assured Madison, 'confident in the good sense of the American people,' but if they did not rally round 'the true principles of our federal compact,' he was 'determined . . . to sever [Virginia] from that union we so much value rather than give up the rights of self-government . . . in which alone we see liberty, safety and happiness.'" (Emphasis added)

Standing armies. Jefferson thought large standing armies were a threat to liberty and an invitation to tyranny; Lincoln proved he was right.

Trial by jury. Jefferson was one of the leading advocates of trial by jury as early as the Declaration where it is mentioned. Lincoln was America’s greatest violator of this right.

National Bank. Lincoln supported a national bank; Jefferson opposed it.

Constitutional interpretation. Jefferson strictly construed the powers of the federal government; Lincoln’s Constitution was made of rubber.

Slavery. Jefferson has been unfairly maligned on this issue. Yes, he owned slaves. No, he did not free them. Jefferson was born into a world in which slavery was commonplace. Yet, Jefferson was arguably one of the greatest opponents of slavery of his time! He tried to condemn it in the Declaration of Independence, but his clause was deleted:

"[The King] has waged cruel war on human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery. . . "

This passage "echoed seven years of his determined attempts to curtail the slave trade in Virginia and the spread of this murderous institution."6

Lincoln’s record is well-known. Personally, he opposed it—one of the few libertarian sentiments he ever expressed--but officially, he promised to safeguard it where it existed. (What libertarian would do that?) And let’s not forget, he was president of a slave federation: the United States, which held five slave states and one slave capital even after secession.

Habeas Corpus. Jefferson was his era’s greatest defender of habeas corpus; Lincoln its greatest enemy. Jefferson complained that the "eternal and unremitting force of the habeas corpus laws" was not protected in the new Constitution.7 Lincoln in contrast, illegally suspended habeas corpus during the Civil War and simply ignored an order by the Chief Judge of the Supreme Court to release a political prisoner. Jefferson listed "freedom of the person under the protection of the habeas corpus" one of the "essential principles of our government." (1st Inaugural Address, 1801) Jefferson went so far as to criticize sham suspensions of the writ: "Why suspend the habeas corpus in insurrections and rebellions? . . . Examine the history of England. See how few of the cases of the suspension of the habeas corpus law have been worthy of that suspension." (Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1788)

Second Amendment. Jefferson was a strong supporter of the right to bear arms: "The constitutions of most of our States assert that all power is inherent in the people; that... it is their right and duty to be at all times armed." (Thomas Jefferson to John Cartwright, 1824, emphasis added) Lincoln not only ignored the Second Amendment, he perverted its intent--and undercut the premise of Madison’s argument in Federalist No. 46--by calling out the militias of the northern states to fight against the militias of the Confederate States. His agents violated the Second Amendment rights of citizens in border states by systematically seizing their firearms.37

The attempt to portray Lincoln as Jefferson’s fulfillment is foolish. Lincoln was a Lincoln in Jefferson’s clothing.


Now, let’s continue to turn the tables around and look more at the quality of the critics’ scholarship. Tom Krannawitter writes:

"Calhoun divorced the idea of states' rights from natural rights, and invented the doctrine of legal or constitutional "secession" to replace the natural right of revolution as the ground for independence. The South understood that to appeal to the right of revolution, as Jefferson had in the Declaration, was necessarily to appeal to the idea of individual natural rights. Southern leaders balked at such an appeal, because they understood that natural rights flew in the face of their fantastic justifications for slavery. All this is lost on DiLorenzo."

Apparently, Krannawitter has not read Jefferson Davis’ first inaugural address, wherein he cites the natural right to alter or abolish government, "a right which the Declaration of Independence of 1776 had defined to be inalienable." Davis continues:

"Our present condition, achieved in a manner unprecedented in the history of nations, illustrates the American idea that governments rest upon the consent of the governed, and that it is the right of the people to alter or abolish governments whenever they become destructive of the ends for which they were established ."

I suppose Krannawitter will respond by saying he meant "Southern leaders" other than Davis. Strictly speaking, Davis does not mention "revolution"; in fact he denies the South revolted. However, Jefferson does not refer to "revolution" either. The events of 1776 can best be described as a secession, which, being resisted by a foreign power, led to a revolutionary war. Similarly, the South did not seek control over union states and wanted to leave in peace. They fought when they were invaded by an enormous union army. Nevertheless, Davis did refer to the passage that Krannawitter cited. Perhaps he believes that Calhoun, who died in 1850, is a better spokesman for the Confederacy than Jefferson Davis.

Why do they distort the situation in this way? Apparently, they wish to characterize the secession as an illegal attempt at revolution. Though revolution can be a moral or political right, it is not a legal right, they believe. Further, since they claim the Confederates’ prime motive was to preserve and protect slavery, this wrongful motive destroys the Confederates’ moral claim to revolution.

Alas, there are problems with this reasoning. First, there is confusion between the contexts of 1776 and 1861. In 1776, there was no established legal right to secede. There was merely a moral or political right as announced in the Declaration. The secession was resisted and because it was resisted, war broke out which we call a revolution. After the revolution was concluded, a Constitution was enacted which, many believed, incorporated the core philosophy of the Declaration, particularly in the Ninth and Tenth Amendments.

Thus, while England could be expected to fight in opposition to this new principle of secession, the situation in 1861 was entirely different. The South’s secession occurred in a nation that recognized secession as a moral or political right, and a large body of opinion going back many years also concluded it was a legal right as well. This explains why the Confederates did not feel the need to talk about "revolution". Also, the term revolution usually conjures up war. Yet, the acts of secession did not necessarily produce war.

Fort Sumter did not mean war; it merely served to supply Lincoln with political support for a war he had already desired. Before becoming president, Lincoln had been more honest. He had simply said "we won’t let you" secede. (July 23, 1856, Galena). Granted that Fort Sumter was a sideshow, let us be clear on who started the war and how, because such has been almost hopelessly obscured. The war started when Lincoln ordered a large army into Virginia. Had he not done so, that would have been the end of it. Only because history is written by the victors do most people believe the South started the war. Those who control the present control the past.

Thus, Confederate leaders did justify their actions by resort to natural rights principles, principles which they believed had become of the law of the land. The use of the term "revolution" would have been pointless, provocative and premature. There was no "revolution" until Lincoln made it so.


Of course, it is in the nature of legal argument that there are usually two sides to be argued. Language is ambiguous and vague. The precise purposes behind the use of certain language is often unknown. There is an old story that Lincoln won a case in the morning and returned in the afternoon to argue the exact opposite of what he had argued in the morning. The judge was skeptical but Lincoln replied, "I was wrong this morning. I am right now." Jonathan Swift said, there is "a society of men among us, bred up from their youth in the art of proving by words multiplied for the purpose, that white is black and black is white, according as they are paid." (IV:5) Personally, having written one of the few modern essays on the subject (cited by DiLorenzo), I believe that secession was a reserved state power under the Constitution, a power without which all the other reserved powers cease to exist. I find particularly persuasive the following points:

1. Secession was not expressly addressed in the Constitution, almost certainly because dealing with the issue would have prevented ratification. Three states, New York, Rhode Island, and Virginia, expressly reserved their right to "reassume" the powers delegated to the federal government. Obviously, they would not have ratified a document that prevented them from doing so.

2. The Constitutional Convention considered and rejected a provision that would have authorized the use of Union force against a recalcitrant state. On May 31, 1787, the Convention considered adding to the powers of Congress the right: "to call forth the force of the union against any member of the union, failing to fulfill its duty under the articles thereof."8 The clause was rejected after James Madison spoke against it:

"A Union of the States containing such an ingredient seemed to provide for its own destruction. The use of force against a State, would look more like a declaration of war, than an infliction of punishment, and would probably be considered by the party attacked as a dissolution of all previous compacts by which it might be bound."9

3. The notion that the union was a voluntary one among the states is born out by various duties assigned to the states that cannot be effectively compelled.

4. Thus, it cannot be denied that prevention of secession by force completely altered the nature of the union in a way that is contrary to the original structure and meaning of the Constitution.

Yet, many others disagree and hold that secession was unconstitutional. Let’s get beyond the contentious legal dispute. Two questions arise. How do we deal with scenarios where reasonable minds can differ? Lincoln dealt with this scenario by starting a war that killed over 600,000 people. Here is one instance where the well-known liberal credo that certainty of conviction leads to violence is perfectly exemplified. Lincoln’s certainty of his position is seen in his overblown rhetoric. In his July 4, 1861 address to Congress, he called the doctrine of the secessionists "an insidious debauching of the public mind" and "an ingenious sophism."

Second, what core values animated Lincoln and animate his modern critics? It is, after all, by reference to underlying values that we ultimately resolve complex legal issues. Here is how I see it:

Lincoln His Modern Libertarian Critics 
Willing to use war to advance policy Opposition to aggressive force and war 
The will of the federal majority Natural rights, including secession. 
Centralization and consolidation Decentralization; secession even by small political units 
Politics and law as preferred methods of social change Persuasion, culture and economy as the preferred methods of social change 
Mercantilism Free trade and free markets 
Imperialism Local control 
Moderate opposition to chattel slavery and its spread Opposition to all forms of slavery: chattel, tax, regulatory and conscription 





Lincoln’s disciples will no doubt chafe at the suggestion that Lincoln valued majority rule over natural rights. "No, Jim, you’re all mixed up. Lincoln supported majority rule because he believed in natural rights." There may be kernel of truth in that wheat field. On its best day, majority rule was a convenient tool for deciding who would staff a minimal state republic whose purpose was set by the natural rights creed set forth in the Declaration: protection of the individual right to life, liberty, and property. However, over time, the conceptual hierarchy got "all mixed up."

Thanks in large part to Lincoln, majority rule was elevated to an end in itself, the highest end, an end the pursuit of which justified the wholesale violation of natural rights by war, suppression of civil liberties, conscription, invasion, and occupation. The pursuit of government "by the people" led to government by martial law enforced by a foreign army. Very strange indeed coming from a man who got 39.82 percent of the vote (no votes in the deep South) and who had mocked President Buchanan’s 45.28 percent.

If we understand that the only value of majority rule is its efficacy in protecting natural rights, we can see the key to the problem. There is another political tool designed to protect natural rights that outranks majority rule: secession! When a majority in one region concludes that the overall majority is not running the government in a manner conducive to their interests, they can separate and hence create two happy majorities. Those left behind cannot complain that they have been deprived of government by the majority; they still have that. All they lost is power over the previously unhappy minority. Thus, secession is not the enemy of majority rule, but a way to create multiple, satisfied majorities. At the same time, the option of secession serves to deter electoral majorities from exploiting electorally weak minorities, lest they seek a political divorce.

Now, of course, the objection to this is obvious. What’s to stop an infinite regress of secessions leading to anarchy? This is not a good argument, though Jaffa describes it as "descending from the heavens". [page 280] It assumes as a premise that people are unable to govern themselves, which, if true, moots the whole discussion. If people are unable to know when to quit seceding, what makes anyone think they have the wisdom to govern themselves in the first place? Let’s just call in the dictators.


More interesting than the merits of the argument, is its nature. It was, as of 1861, purely theoretical. As Lincoln suggests in his famous poem, self-government was a new idea; secessionist movements were even newer and the infinite regress hypothesis was untested. Thus, Lincoln was willing to launch a continent into war for the sake of a floating abstraction. To avoid anarchy in theory, he created anarchy in fact: four brutal years of war in the South; four years of military dictatorship, suppression of liberties and rioting in the North. This irony mirrors the whole debate between the Church of Lincoln and its blasphemers: what the Church says seems to make sense in theory, but in practice, it all worked out badly, as DiLorenzo documents. Maybe there was something wrong with the theory in the first place.

Lincoln therefore fits the profile, more familiar in the 20th century, of the ideological fanatic, "the humanitarian with the guillotine"[10], a leader willing to sacrifice lives, liberty, and property for a spurious ideology, in his case the ideology of an indivisible union serving the neogod of majority rule. In contrast, the bulk of the Confederates fought (not seceded, fought) for something more real. To quote Shelby Foote:

"Early on in the war, a Union squad closed in on a single ragged Confederate. He didn't own any slaves, and he obviously didn't have much interest in the Constitution or anything else. And they asked him, What are you fighting for? And he said, 'I'm fighting because you're down here.' "

To summarize, reasonable minds can differ about whether there was a legal right to secession since it was not directly addressed in the Constitution, however, the argument in favor of secession is very strong, historically, logically, and textually. In terms of moral and historical judgment and evaluation, however, it is more fruitful to focus, not on legal technicalities, but on how Lincoln acted in the face of a debate over those technicalities and on the core values that underlay those technical legal arguments.

Faced with a complex legal dispute over the legality of the South’s secession, Lincoln acted not with restraint, moderation, or a willingness to compromise or negotiate, but rather with inflammatory rhetoric, Machiavellian manipulation and dishonesty at Fort Sumter, an absurd and disingenuous promise not to use force as long as the South paid its taxes, and, finally, with massive and ruthless military force in the South and the ruthless and unprecedented suppression of civil liberties in the North.

Retrospectively, Lincoln’s core values went against the predominant trends of American political thought. Prospectively, those values gave way to the modern American welfare/warfare state with its corrupt redistributionist political system. Before Lincoln, there was always a tension between Hamiltonian and Jeffersonian principles, with Jefferson usually prevailing. After Lincoln, Jeffersonianism would be in steady decline to this very day. Its last stronghold would be in the country’s continuing respect for freedom of speech, religion, and the press. Lincoln himself was of course a virulent enemy of free speech and a free press and his present-day descendents, using his tools, continue his assault with increasing success.

"Come on boys! Give them the cold [FACTS]!"

Having moved the debate from legal metaphysics to the more solidly grounded dispute over core values, let us move onto firmer ground still with a summary of hardly debatable facts and reasonable inferences. There are facts our opponents are stuck with regardless of their fancy theoretical footwork. Professors, you can meditate upon your sacred texts and theorize till your next sabbatical, but don’t forget there is a real world out there, beyond your skulls. There are facts. Here they are:

  • Lincoln started the most destructive war in the history of the Western Hemisphere.
  • He did this for the sake of an abstraction which converted majority rule from a tool to secure natural rights to a rationalization for their destruction.
  • Slavery was ended but the slaves were not made free.

They were not free under Reconstruction. They were not free under the Northern or Southern versions of Jim Crow, each enacted pursuant to Lincoln’s sacred principle of majority rule. Nor are their descendents free now in the inner-city slums where many of them live, slums which are in many ways the result of numerous majoritarian federal policies imposed on the residents: war on drugs, welfare, "the projects", urban "renewal", and the like. The number of black men in prison or on probation or parole today is comparable to the number of adult male slaves in 1860. Blacks are hindered in their efforts to raise themselves up by heavy taxation and burdensome regulations, including occupational licensure. Their children are "educated" in government schools run mainly for the benefit of the mostly middle class white staff. Blacks have been drafted to fight and die in foreign wars by the same federal government that, having protected slavery for eighty-five years, boasted of freeing them from slavery. Slavery ended, but blacks were not freed.

  • Secession as a check on the power of the federal government was destroyed.
  • The federal government has been growing ever since with no apparent stopping point, not even the Euphrates river.
  • Lincoln, not Jefferson or Washington, is the icon of the modern American State.
  • Lincoln created the framework for the modern American state as follows:
  1. He ended the threat of secession as a check on federal power;
  2. He established war as an efficacious means for improving the world;
  3. He created precedents for the growth of federal power such as conscription, income taxes, and paper money;
  4. He replaced individual rights and limited government with majority rule as the prevailing political philosophy.
  • We are not free and we are not free to leave.
  • Without the freedom to leave a state which, like virtually all the ones that have ever existed, ignores our natural rights and acts like an organized criminal gang bent on expropriating our lives, liberty, and property, we are all slaves.

The Church of Lincoln can’t figure out why we "keep re-fighting the Civil War" all these years later. It’s because you and the hyper-state you worship keep ramming the results of that war down our throats on a daily basis!


DiLorenzo informs us that Lincoln wanted freed slaves to be sent "back" to Africa. The critical reviewers say nothing about this. As a trial lawyer, I always get suspicious when my opponents do not want to talk about something relevant to the case. I sense vulnerability. First, it is true: Lincoln said he wanted to send the slaves back to Africa. "My first impulse would be to free all the slaves and send them to Liberia." (Ottawa, August 21, 1858) Granted, he issued all sorts of qualifications and doubts about that idea, but that is vintage Lincoln as DiLorenzo asserts. Keep people guessing; keep them off balance. Maybe you’ll get votes from both sides. On other occasions, however, he was less equivocal about his support for colonization.

Thus, Lincoln wanted to send "back to Africa" people who had never lived there, did not know the language, did not know the manner of life there to any extent, and who were unlikely to end up where their ancestors lived in any event. The whole idea is preposterous. Also, we can say, with a perspective on history that Lincoln could not have—that is, from the perspective of the last 130 years, that the politically-orchestrated mass movement of peoples is tantamount to murder. I do not hold Lincoln to that charge, but it is true nevertheless.

Rather, I do not believe that Lincoln really favored colonization! I think he was lying. He was either a liar or a fool and we know he was nobody’s fool. Why did he lie? Because Lincoln had no realistic solution to the problem of slavery in the South. Yet, colonization gave people the vague notion that he did. It also made politically palatable his bizarre distinction between the natural rights of slaves under the Declaration and his politically-correct rejection of citizenship and full legal rights for freed slaves. If the freed slaves are in Africa, they can’t vote or marry white women in Illinois, right?

Compare my trial lawyer’s intuition with the generous interpretation of noted historian David Herbert Donald:

"Though reality sometimes broke in, Lincoln persisted in his colonization fantasy until well into his presidency. For a man who prided himself on his rationality, his adherence to such an unworkable scheme is puzzling, but not inexplicable. His failure to take account of the overwhelming opposition of blacks to colonization stemmed from his lack of acquaintances among African-Americans." Lincoln, p. 167.

The reader can judge whose analysis makes more sense of the facts. Donald does agree with me that Lincoln’s colonization "fantasy" was politically expedient. [p. 368]

So Lincoln had no plan for what to do with the slaves upon emancipation and his colonization scheme was a fantasy or a fraud. We approach here the heart of the controversy over Lincoln, slavery and the war. We are led to believe that the war was "all about" slavery and either not at all or only tangentially about secession. Yet, Lincoln had no plan for what was to happen to the slaves after their presumed emancipation. They would not be going to Africa; they were not wanted in the North; he disfavored giving them the rights of citizenship; apparently, he had no plan at all.

This is what we find in Lincoln-defenders generally. They have everything figured out until Appomattox. You can’t secede; we’ll whip you if you do; then leave the slaves to be governed by the embittered foe we just defeated, eking out a meager existence in an economy we just destroyed. In one of Lincoln’s last statements, he refused to say whether the Southern states were in or out of the union. As the last 135 years have shown, this lack of a plan turned out rather badly for the slaves and their descendants, the alleged beneficiaries of the war. Perhaps, though, there was a plan. Perhaps there was a plan for an ambitious politician to achieve fame, power and glory by means of rhetorical chicanery, political manipulation, and cannon foddery.


The high priest of the Church of Lincoln is Harry V. Jaffa. He calls Lincoln "Father Abraham" and compares him to Moses. (I never heard a Jeffersonian call him Father Thomas.) He is considered by some to be the greatest living scholar of Lincoln. Which only proves that sometimes when you get too close to your subject, you lose your objectivity.

Jaffa’s major work on Lincoln is A New Birth of Freedom: Abraham Lincoln and the Coming of the Civil War (2000). The book is filled with profound insights and silly arguments. Jaffa tries very hard to give the reader the impression of something that isn’t so: that there is some necessary or logical connection between the right of secession and a pro-slavery attitude. All the effort is in vain because this is obviously false. One could in 1861 or today have the following views:

  1. anti-slavery; anti-secession
  2. anti-slavery; pro-secession
  3. pro-slavery; anti-secession
  4. pro-slavery; pro-secession

Now, if we further confound the analysis by adding the variable of legal versus moral opinion, and also add the variable of secession by the South versus secession by the North, it gets even more complicated. In any event, the point is made. There is no logical connection between the issues of slavery and secession.

A few examples will make the point even clearer. Stonewall Jackson was anti-slavery and pro-union initially. Alexander Stephens was pro-slavery but was opposed to secession initially, though he believed it was a right. Thoreau, genius that he was, wanted the non-slave states to secede from the slave states because he believed, correctly, that the union, by protecting the South from invasion and insurrection, by returning slaves to the South, and by fostering a national economy that benefited from slavery, supported slavery! Horace Greeley was against slavery but urged the union to let the South go in peace. Lincoln himself, in a famous letter to Greeley said:

"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 all the slaves 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; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union."

To take Thoreau’s argument even further, what if the slave states had had the power to force the Northern states to adopt slavery? In that case, only secession by the North could have thwarted that result.

The effort to make the connection between secession and slavery a necessary one, is disingenuous and cynical. Let’s imagine that the South abolished slavery but decided to secede because of the high tariff. Would Lincoln and his followers have conceded their right to do so? Obviously not. Their arguments against secession are issue-neutral. They oppose secession per se. What if New York decided to secede from the union today because its residents disagreed with the union’s foreign policy and feared further terrorist attacks? Would Lincoln’s arguments allow them to do so? Obviously not. The truth is, Lincoln and his modern Church oppose secession per se and their attempt to graft onto secession for all time the historically dead issue of chattel slavery is demagogic. I can just see them now, standing in front of the former World Trade Center, and telling the pro-secession residents rallying there that the only reason for secession is to protect chattel slavery in the Deep South. Huh? Calling Bellevue.

Jaffa’s arguments against secession would make a sophist blush.

  • Jaffa says the union creates the states. This reminds me of the scene where Superman catches Lois Lane in midair. He says, "Don't worry Miss Lane, I've got you." Lois replies: "You've got me - who's got you?" If the union created the states, who created the union?
  • Jaffa argues that the bloody Civil War paved the way for 135 years of "peaceful succession" of power thereafter. His definition of "peace" is somewhat generous, including submission at gunpoint. Whether "the use of force to uphold the law" (his term) is "peaceful" all depends on what laws you are talking about and how you define peace. It is difficult to take a man seriously whose definition of primary concepts is so Orwellian.
  • Jaffa agrees with Lincoln that bullets were necessary to ensure that ballots could not be overruled by bullets, neither realizing that ballots were backed up by bullets in the first place. Thanks in large part to Lincoln, ballots have become the great rationalizer of democratic bullets, which hurt just as much as any other kind of bullet.
  • Jaffa argues that the South’s secession was illegitimate because "they could not consistently demand the benefit of being ruled only by their consent" while denying that same right to slaves. [page 38] Yet, he proves too much. If the South’s citizens cannot make legitimate political decisions because they had slaves, then the entire slave republic called the United States, whose Constitution was cited as justification for war, must also be condemned as illegitimate. Also, while Lincoln’s election did not depend on the South’s electoral votes, Jaffa now informs us that those votes were a sham and a fraud in the first place. According to his logic, Lincoln should have announced in advance that he would ignore these electoral votes because slaves were not allowed to vote. That action, however, would have negated the other part of their argument: that the South lost fair and square and must now accept Lincoln as their President. So many contradictions; so little time.
  • Jaffa argues that the Confederacy’s pro-slavery motives undercut its moral and legal arguments for secession, apparently oblivious to the fact that, if the promotion, preservation or protection of slavery undercut a government’s moral and legal status, then the government of 1776 was thereby nullified, as was the federal government in 1861, making the whole discussion moot as it would then involve two illegitimate entities arguing about whether an illegitimate constitution authorized one of the illegitimate entities to leave an illegitimate federation. Here, Jaffa strangely metamorphoses into Lysander Spooner. (No offense intended, Lysander.)
  • Jaffa must deal with the secession of the states in 1788—discussed in detail in my essay published in 1998. The first nine states that ratified the constitution seceded from the union, an embarrassing fact noted long ago by Jefferson Davis. Jaffa calls this a "revolution"! This reminds me of James Pratt’s comment that we often attack an argument by reducing it to the absurd, but we are at a loss when the argument is already absurd. This "revolution" is one Jaffa approves of, yet elsewhere in his book, he writes that "rebellions . . can be met only by armed force." [page 271] To say it was a revolution is to say it was illegal, a claim I have never heard before. Suppose they gave a revolution but nobody noticed? Let’s apply Ostrowski’s Razor—it’s a lot easier to say it was a lawful secession. More problems: why call it a revolution when it was not resisted? By the same token, why call the South’s secession a "revolution" prior to the Union’s invasion of the South? It is the resistance that makes it a revolution. That’s why it is Lincoln’s revolution. Also, on Jaffa’s own principles, this "revolution" was illegitimate: it was based on natural rights (self-government) but it violated what Jaffa views as an even more fundamental natural right: self-ownership. It put slavery on an even stronger footing. Thus, Jaffa gets entangled by his own principles here and his whole argument comes tumbling down.

Speaking as one who has been intimately involved in electoral politics for thirty-five years, I can say that Jaffa is incredibly naïve about how democratic politics actually operates. He worships the theory of democracy and majority rule, but doesn’t seem to have a clue about what it means in practice. He does not mention the Public Choice analysis of politics. He does not mention rational ignorance or rational apathy, from which vantage points it becomes clear that majority rule actually means minority rule, rule by special interests. He seems to have no notion that democratic politics is dominated by ethnic and religious sentiments. Years ago, in a race for state legislature against an Irish candidate, I received all fifty votes in a Polish district I had never visited. Jaffa writes that proper majority rule is impossible where people vote based on "sectarian religious grounds." [p. 149] That he is seemingly unaware of the impact of religious affiliation in current voting patterns is amazing.

Jaffa’s ignorance is specifically important in this sense. He exculpates Lincoln for his racist remarks, his opposition to citizenship for blacks, and his overall lack of any plan for freed slaves. Yet, it was predictable that freed slaves would, even after gaining the right to vote, be at the mercy of a hostile racial majority that Lincoln did nothing but inflame with his continual and self-serving claims of racial inequality. These majorities were further inflamed in the South by a murderous war and in the North by the sudden shift in the theme of the war from union to emancipation. See, the New York City Draft riots. Lincoln, Jaffa would have us believe, is the greatest human being since Socrates, yet Lincoln apparently thought of none of this. Or, maybe he did and just wanted to be elected President, the future be damned. Which is more plausible? Or to put the same question differently, are you a member of the Church of Lincoln or a heretic?

Jaffa’s evaluation of Lincoln’s views on colonization is remarkable. It reminds me of the guy charged with murder who said he wasn’t there, but if he was, it was self-defense. Jaffa first says Lincoln was "sincere" about this. Who said he wasn’t, prior to this article? Then, Jaffa writes, "Even if he wasn’t, it would have been an almost indispensable position for him to adopt. . . " Since Jaffa believes that lying is acceptable in politics, I wonder what Jaffa is lying about.

Jaffa places heavy reliance in a sort of immaculate conception theory of the American founding. He repeatedly says, presumably referring to the founding, that a proper government rests on the "unanimous consent" of the people. Obviously, no known government, including ours, was formed by the unanimous consent of all adult human beings nearby. I think the women, slaves, Loyalists and Anti-federalists of the time would agree with me about that. Thus, this critical premise is either childish nonsense or some esoteric and ineffable Straussian-type argument that a mere trial lawyer from could not be expected to understand.

Query: can "democracies" be based on obscure arguments that only a few PhD’s in political thought can understand? Or let’s put the question this way: if the million man union army had been given a copy of Jaffa’s book and been told "This is why we fight.", how many after reading it would have marched into a breeze of bullets for this dense, arcane and tendentious book? I suspect their reading would have ended at page 83 where Jaffa says the Civil War was in the "service" of "friendship". Which is too bad because if they read just another 31 pages, they would find Jaffa explaining that aggressive force in human affairs is destructive of "friendship."

Speaking of bullets, it is amazing how bloodless the book is. There are no young conscripts forced on pain of a firing squad to march into near-certain death at Cold Harbor. (Jaffa does not mention conscription at all, but does note that the great conscriptor believed in the Lockean right of self-ownership and ownership of the fruits of one’s labor.) No towns are bombarded or burned. No women raped. No editors thrown into dungeons. No draft riots in New York. Jaffa’s world is the life of the mind, the classroom, the college library. It’s a safe, comfortable world. But bloodless. Throughout history and currently, there are men whose job it is to meet the troops at the train station, fill them up with philosophical rationalizations for war and wave goodbye to them as the troop train carries them off to kill or be killed. Old men are adept at proving with geometric logic that young men should kill each other for mere abstractions that cannot be seen, heard, or touched. Jaffa urges in his last sentence: "go forth to battle once again" for "Father Abraham". Which kind of armies "go forth to battle"?


The paradox of history is that we look backwards at human action that occurred forwards with knowledge the participants lacked about how it all turned out. We must look backwards but be careful that we don’t do our history backwards. The deification of Lincoln results from doing history backwards. They start at the end, with the grotesque body count and physical and economic destruction. All this over a legal argument understood by only a few then and now? No, it was a glorious moral crusade to end slavery in the South. It can’t be about secession because saving the union is not worth 670,000 lives.

But it was about secession, not slavery. Lincoln said so and had previously stated that preserving the union was the higher value. Who else would know?—"Much as I hate slavery, I would consent to the extension of it rather than see the Union dissolved, just as I would consent to any GREAT evil, to avoid a GREATER one." (Peoria, 1854) (Query: If Lincoln didn’t really mean what he said, how do we know he really meant what he didn’t say?) Even after Manassas, Congress passed a resolution stating that "this war is not waged . . . for any purpose of . . . overthrowing established institutions [meaning slavery] . . . but to defend . . . the Constitution and to preserve the Union." (Cited by David Herbert Donald at page 307).

Now, however, we have to show that secession and slavery are inseparable. If they were ever to be separated, the announced legal purpose of the war would be severed from its post hoc rationalized moral purpose. All that death and destruction would be on our conscience again. To show that the right of secession was only made up to keep slavery alive, we then go back with our historian’s whiteout and erase all the words and deeds in American history that argued for a right of secession. You end up arguing, as Jaffa does, that the greatest secessionist document in history, the Declaration of Independence, which declares the states "Free and Independent", was designed to announce a permanent and irrevocable ban on state secession.


Defenders of Lincoln want us to believe that Lincoln had to hide his real agenda from his ignorant white racist audience. If he told them what he really thought—which members of the Church of Lincoln know because they are able to channel the real Lincoln—he would have lost the election and the whole world would have disintegrated. So far so good, but there are, alas, a few small problems. Lincoln said he started the Civil War to vindicate the principle of majority rule expressed in his election by an electoral vote majority. If, however, those who voted for Lincoln were misled about what they were voting for, then the sacred principle of majority rule has been destroyed. Government "by the people" expired even before the Gettysburg Address.

I argue below that the war was not primarily or essentially a crusade to end slavery. Rather, it was a war for union, for empire, for economic power, all with a light seasoning of opposition to extending slavery to the territories, and was never explicitly a moral campaign to end slavery in the South. See, both inaugural addresses, Gettysburg Address, Emancipation Proclamation. However, let’s assume for the sake of argument that it was such a campaign. If Lincoln started the war or fought the war to end slavery in the South ("a new birth of freedom"?), protected as it was by the Constitution, then the sanctity of the Constitution was destroyed by the war. However, Lincoln’s rationale for invading and occupying the South and his successors' rationale for ruling the South in the post-war years and today is that very same Constitution. If we are scrapping the Constitution insofar as it protected Southern slavery, then we can and must also scrap it insofar as it allegedly banned secession. Operating then on the level of pure moral or political theory only, we must recognize the right of the people of the South (and North, East, and West) to form their own governments without outside interference. Thus, the post hoc rationalization of the war as a crusade against slavery comes at a huge cost for the Church of Lincoln. If slavery—forced association--is wrong, so is forced union, for the same reason. (Hint: it’s the force, stupid.)


DiLorenzo’s critics decry his scholarship and the scholars he relies on, and the prospect that his naïve readers will not have read from the approved list of Lincoln scholars. Yet, DiLorenzo’s book is buttressed by another published about the same time and by a writer who could be expected to otherwise have no sympathy for The Real Lincoln. Louis Menand, who has a PhD. from Columbia in English, is author of The Metaphysical Club (2001), which is treats the Civil War’s impact on various key members of the Progressive Movement: especially Holmes, James, Peirce and Dewey. Menand writes:

"Secession allowed the North, for four years to set the terms for national expansion without interference from the South, and the wartime Congress did not let the opportunity slip. That Congress was one of the most active in American history. It supported scientific training and research; it established the first system of national taxation and created the first significant national currency; it made possible the construction of public universities and the completion of the transcontinental railway. It turned the federal government into a legislative engine of social and economic progress." (Emphasis added)

Compare what DiLorenzo wrote:

"Once the Southerners had left the U.S. Congress and the Republican Party was firmly in control of the federal government, Alexander Hamilton’s old mercantilist coalition was finally in charge. Now that the coalition dominated Congress as well, its members were not about to be stopped in their seventy-year quest to bring British-style mercantilism to America."

Menand and DiLorenzo agree on what happened though Menand thinks it was a good thing, apparently. What is striking is how callously opportunistic the Republicans were. Here they were in the midst of a war for union and, allegedly, against slavery, and they cared not a whit about pushing their corrupt agenda of patronage, pork and inflation down the throats of the absent Southerners who would presumably be stuck with all these economic atrocities once their young men were slaughtered in the field by much larger armies. It is hard to think of any explanation for all this other than DiLorenzo is right.

Menand is not done with his unwitting assistance to our present project. He sums up his findings this way:

"Democracy . . . is about giving space to minority and dissenting views so that, at the end of the day, the interests of the majority may prevail. Democracy means that everybody is equally in the game, but it also means that no one can opt out. Modern American thought, the thought associated with Holmes, James, Peirce, and Dewey, represents the intellectual triumph of unionism. * * * democracy is the value that validates all other values. Democratic participation isn’t the means to an end, in this way of thinking; it is the end." (Emphasis added)

Thus, Menand recognizes that out of the Civil War and its immediate intellectual aftermath came the notion of majority rule as an end in itself, as in effect the great rationalizer of all the follies of the modern state. He thinks this is good, I think. I think it stinks.

Let me cite one more authority on Lincoln, albeit one who lacks a PhD, lest the reader think I am exaggerating Lincoln’s contribution to the apotheosis of majority rule:

"From questions of this class spring all our constitutional controversies, and we divide upon them into majorities and minorities. If the minority will not acquiesce, the majority must, or the Government must cease. There is no other alternative, for continuing the Government is acquiescence on one side or the other. . . . . A majority, held in restraint by constitutional checks and limitations, and always changing easily, with deliberate changes of popular opinions and sentiments, is the only true sovereign of a free people."

Be assured that this passage accurately reflects Lincoln’s views as it was written by Lincoln himself. Here, Lincoln bluntly states that "constitutional controversies" are decided by "majorities". So much for the constitutional limitations on majority rule. As for the restraint on majority rule provided by "constitutional checks and limitations", after Lincoln’s conduct of the Civil War, we can justly ask: what the hell was he talking about?

Lincoln’s disregard of constitutional checks and limitations was predictable. The whole theory is senseless: constitutional limitations on majority rule will be enforced by officials elected by majorities or appointed by those so elected. Makes you sleep well at night, doesn’t it? Moreover, Lincoln had already made clear his views about that branch of government one would think would be most responsible for ensuring majoritarian compliance with constitutional checks and limitations: the Supreme Court. On June 17, 1858, at Springfield, discussing the Dred Scott decision, Lincoln all but said the political fix was in:

"Why was the court decision held up? Why even a Senator’s individual opinion withheld, till after the Presidential election? Plainly enough now: the speaking out then would have damaged the perfectly free argument upon which the election was to be carried. Why the outgoing President’s felicitation on the indorsement? Why the delay of a re-argument? Why the incoming President’s advance exhortation in favor of the decision?" (Springfield, June 17, 1858)

In the same speech, Lincoln sets forth his theory that Supreme Court decisions are not necessarily binding on the political branches of government: the legislature and executive. Thus, again, his 1858 speech vitiates the "held in restraint" element of his view of majority rule. So what we got with Lincoln and what we have had in American government since 1865 is federal supremacy over states and persons and a federal government that can do pretty much what it wants because its officials were democratically elected. Federal majority might makes right is the legacy of the Civil War.

Now for the really bad news. Majority rule is nothing of the kind. Modern democracies are dominated by small, cohesive groups--political machines--out for graft, whose superior organization, discipline, greed and ruthlessness allow them to seize control of the state and use it for their own confiscatory purposes. This was true in Lincoln’s day—as DiLorenzo demonstrates—and it is true in ours as exemplified in burlesque fashion by the Clinton Administration. Republican administrations do likewise, but with more stealth and aplomb. Thus, the truth is precisely what DiLorenzo asserts: Lincoln is the prophet and progenitor of the thoroughly corrupt modern American political system, a democratic kleptocracy.


Yet another liberal, academic writer who unwittingly backs DiLorenzo's historical analysis is Mark Goldman in High Hopes: the Rise and Decline of Buffalo, New York. As I was reading his history of my hometown, Buffalo, for another project, I was pleased to stumble upon Goldman’s discussion of the Civil War’s impact on Buffalo, then the ninth largest city in the North. First, let’s see what DiLorenzo wrote:

"The foregoing discussion calls into question the standard account that Northerners elected Lincoln in a fit of moral outrage spawned by their deep-seated concern for the welfare of black slaves in the deep South." [page 32]

Mark Goldman is a liberal whose second book, City on the Lake: The Challenge of Change in Buffalo, New York, is about official racial discrimination against blacks in the 20th century. About Civil War-era Buffalo, he writes:

"Like most Americans in the middle of the nineteenth century, Buffalonians were distinctly racist, and while many may well have abhorred slavery (no working man in his right mind would want to compete with slave labor), the overwhelming majority had no desire to live among blacks. This was true of the reform-minded WASP community who supported colonization of America’s blacks in Africa as well as for the German and Irish immigrant community who for racial as well as economic reasons wasted little love on the black race." [p. 90]

Goldman quotes from a German-language newspaper: "’We want no negroes in the northern states because we anticipate nothing good from the mixing of the black and white races. We want the region of Kansas to be reserved for honest white workers.’" [p. 90] Almost sounds like Lincoln! Goldman continues:

"race relations in the city. . . were further poisoned during the Civil War years by the imposition of a federal draft * * * were the Irish really expected to offer their lives to free people who offered them thanks by breaking their strikes?" [pp. 92-93]

Goldman asserts of Buffalo what DiLorenzo wrote about the North generally: There was "a lack of enthusiasm for the Union effort, particularly following the announcement of the Emancipation Proclamation. . . " [p. 122]


Can Lincoln be defended on libertarian grounds? Surprisingly, there is among some libertarians nostalgia for a Lincoln who never existed. These libertarians engage in retroactive wishful thinking. They imagine that Lincoln was a minimal state libertarian who was merely invading the South to vindicate the slaves’ natural right to liberty. Lincoln was not a minimal state libertarian or any other kind of libertarian. He was a statist, a Henry Clay man. He said so. He was a centralizer, a consolidator, a conscriptor, an inflator, a blockader, an economic ignoramus, a jailor of legislators and publishers, a mercantilist, a heavy taxer, a military dictator; in short, a tyrant! Nor was his war a crusade to free the slaves. He never said it was and he didn’t act like it was. He never said this even in the Emancipation Proclamation.

The pro-Civil War libertarians argue that the South’s secession was wrong because it involved kidnapping the slaves As I pointed out in a prior essay, since the Founders also "kidnapped" slaves in their act of secession, this line of argument is also a repudiation of the American Revolution.

The contradiction between secession and emancipation that these libertarians perceive is only apparent. Emancipation is nothing but a micro-secession. Slavery is a union forced upon the weaker party by the stronger for the latter’s benefit. Sound familiar? The Civil War did not free the slaves; it merely gave them a new master: the federal government. The fact that some descendents of slaves have fallen in love with their new master is not surprising. It’s called Stockholm Syndrome.

As for what to do when a state violates individual rights, these libertarians say, call in the feds. And when I ask, what do we do when the feds violate our rights, I hear nothing but silence. I will answer for those libertarians who would hate to say, "create a world state.", knowing how loathsome that idea is, and knowing what my next question would be. I say, with Thoreau, go the other way. When a state violates rights, decentralize even further until that rogue state’s power to do evil whithers away.

Let’s imagine that, contrary to all evidence and common sense, Lincoln was on this mission, a moral crusade, legalities be damned. First, this would have involved tossing out the constitution—the union!--which ensconced slavery in its text. That would have pulled the rug right out from under Lincoln as he was acting as President pursuant to a constitution he would then be repudiating. Since natural rights would now be the constitution, sure the slaves would be freed but the South’s right to alter or abolish government would also be in play—precisely the result that the real Lincoln fought so hard to avoid! DiLorenzo’s critics argue--incorrectly—see above—that the South did not refer to this "revolutionary" right as they were worried this would also justify emancipation, while never considering that Lincoln did not justify his war by reference to natural rights because he was worried that such reference would also justify secession. Next, Lincoln would have had to attack several Union slave states as well. Then, he would have to attack his own slave capital. Next, he would have realized that he had no political support for this abolitionist war. It wouldn’t be prudent.

Let’s assume Lincoln did have support for his revolution. Since he claimed to favor colonization, he would first have issued an ultimatum to the South to let the slaves leave, perhaps with a proviso for compensation. If no agreement was reached which satisfactorily ended slavery, Lincoln would have invaded the South, but making it clear that his only purpose was emancipation and that he would interfere with no person or institution unless the same resisted emancipation. As we can see, this hypothetical begins to sound like time-warp, parallel-universe science fiction. It’s pure fantasy. It never happened. Why pretend it did? Any attempt to pretend that the Union’s invasion of the South was a moral cause to end slavery and did not have numerous other and evil goals, the accomplishment of which plagues us today, is an absurd exercise involving the libertarian endorsement of illibertarian means and ends then and continuing.

Abraham Lincoln had one of the finest minds of the Nineteenth Century. It is a tragedy that he used that brilliance to advance the age-old agenda of centralizing power in a distant capital by means of massive aggressive force.


Near the completion of this essay, I took another look at the Foreword to The Real Lincoln, written by Professor Walter E. Williams, which summarizes DiLorenzo’s appraisal of Lincoln and the Civil War. I was struck by the accuracy of that appraisal, particularly in light of the previously quoted views of Theodore Roosevelt and Louis Menand. It is remarkable that Roosevelt and Menand, writing from two different perspectives in two different eras, and disagreeing with DiLorenzo’s political philosophy, nevertheless, agree with his historical analysis. Professor Williams writes:

"In 1831, long before the War between the States, South Carolina Senator John C. Calhoun said, 'Stripped of all its covering, the naked question is, whether ours is a federal or consolidated government; a constitutional or absolute one; a government resting solidly on the basis of the sovereignty of the States, or on the unrestrained will of a majority; a form of government, as in all other unlimited ones, in which injustice, violence, and force must ultimately prevail.’ The War between the States answered that question and produced the foundation for the kind of government we have today: consolidated and absolute, based on the unrestrained will of the majority, with force, threats, and intimidation being the order of the day."

The Real Lincoln is a triumph for Tom DiLorenzo, for the Mises Institute which held the first modern academic conference on secession in 1995, and for which has led the world in Lincoln revisionism. It is a triumph for reason as well. Does might make right or is the pen mightier than the sword? Bunford Samuel wrote these profound words in 1920:

"Throughout history, force appears as the arbiter of the moment. . . Reason, organically slow – reacting against force only when the ill effects of the latter become so general as to be inevitably obvious – finally confirms or annuls its judgement."

Can a few courageous writers like Tom DiLorenzo and his colleagues, using logic, evidence, and moral suasion, negate what their opponents thought they had won with over a million troops on battlefields 138 years ago? Yes! That is why, to protect a victory apparently won by bullets, today’s "Northern aggressors" are firing words at Tom DiLorenzo. Those words, unlike yesteryear’s bullets, are missing their mark. The "cold steel" of truth is winning this war.

  • 1. Murray Rothbard, "America’s Two Just Wars: 1775 and 1861”, in The Costs of War: America’s Pyrrhic Victories, John V. Denson, ed (2nd ed. 1999).
  • 2. Emphasis added.
  • 3. Theodore Roosevelt: an Autobiography (New York: Macmillan Company, 1913) pp. 381-382, 394-395, 420 (emphasis added).
  • 4. The Athenaeum (6 May 1865), quoted in C. Adams, "The Second American Revolution: A British View of the War Between the States,” Southern Partisan (1st Quarter 1994), p. 19 (emphasis added).
  • 5. New York Courier and Enquirer (1 December 1860), quoted in The Causes of the Civil War, rev. ed., Kenneth Stampp, ed. (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1974), p. 55 (emphasis added).
  • 6. Randall at 277.
  • 7. Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1787.
  • 8. Max Farrand, ed., The Records of the Federal Convention, Vol. I (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1911). p. 47.
  • 9. Id. at 54.
Note: The views expressed on are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.

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James Ostrowski practices law in Buffalo, New York.