Mises Daily Articles

Home | Mises Library | Who was this "Great Liberator"?

Who was this "Great Liberator"?

Tags BiographiesMedia and CultureU.S. History

07/12/2007David Gordon

[Lincoln Unmasked: What You're Not Supposed to Know About Dishonest Abe. By Thomas J. DiLorenzo. Crown Forum, 2006. 223 pgs.]

Thomas DiLorenzo calls attention to a vital fact that demolishes the popular view that one of Lincoln's primary motives for opposing secession in 1861 was his distaste for slavery. Precisely the opposite was the case.

It is well known that, in an effort to promote compromise, a constitutional amendment was proposed in Congress that forever forbade interference with slavery in states where it already existed. Lincoln referred to the proposal, the Corwin Amendment, in his First Inaugural, stating that he was not opposed to the amendment, since it merely made explicit the existing constitutional arrangement regarding slavery. Of course, Lincoln was here characteristically mendacious; nothing in the constitution prior to the amendment prohibited amendments to end slavery. 1

So much is well established, but DiLorenzo adds a surprising touch. Far from viewing the Corwin Amendment with grudging consent, Lincoln was in fact its behind-the-scenes promoter. "As soon as he was elected, but before his inauguration, Lincoln 'instructed Seward to introduce [the amendment] in the Senate Committee of Thirteen without indicating they issued from Springfield.' … In addition, Lincoln instructed Seward to get through Congress a law that would make the various 'personal liberty laws' that existed in some Northern states illegal. (Such state laws nullified the Federal Fugitive Slave Act, which required Northerners to apprehend runaway slaves)" (p. 54, quoting Dorothy Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals).

Extension of slavery was of course an entirely different matter, and here Lincoln refused all compromise. Here we confront a paradox. If Lincoln thought it more important to preserve the union than oppose slavery, why was he unwilling to compromise over slavery in the territories? If he thought slavery's extension was too high a price to pay to preserve the union, why was he willing permanently to entrench slavery wherever it already existed? It is hard to detect a moral difference between slavery in the states and the territories.

DiLorenzo readily resolves the paradox. Lincoln opposed extension of slavery because this would interfere with the prospects of white workers. Lincoln, following his mentor Henry Clay, favored a nationalist economic program of which high tariffs, a national bank, and governmentally financed "internal improvements" were key elements. This program, he thought, would promote not only the interests of the wealthy industrial and financial powers he always faithfully served but would benefit white labor as well. Blacks, in his opinion, would be better off outside the United States; and, throughout his life, Lincoln supported schemes for repatriation of blacks to Africa and elsewhere. If blacks left the country, they could not compete with whites, the primary objects of Lincoln's concern. (Lincoln, by the way, did not see this program as in any way in contradiction to his professed belief that all men are created equal. Blacks, he thought, have human rights but not political rights). 2

DiLorenzo's interpretation of Lincoln resolves our paradox, and he finds additional support for it in the views of a leading abolitionist, none other than the great libertarian theorist Lysander Spooner. To Spooner, the primary motive of Lincoln and the war party was to preserve and consolidate Northern control of the Southern economy. The Southern states could not be allowed to evade the tariff, a key element of the mercantilist American system that Lincoln favored. "He wrote that the war 'erupted for a purely pecuniary consideration,' and not for any moral reason. He labeled the economic lifeblood of the Republican Party, Northern bankers, manufacturers, and railroad corporations, 'lenders of blood money' … To Spooner the Northern financiers of the war who had lent money to the Lincoln government did so not for 'any love of liberty or justice,' but for the control of [Southern] markets' through 'tariff extortion.' … Spooner interpreted the crushing of the Southern secessionists … as suggesting that Southerners should 'Submit quietly to all the robbery and slavery we have arranged for you, and you can have your peace'" (pp. 57–59).

But the theory of Spooner and DiLorenzo faces an objection. Even if the abolition of slavery was not uppermost in Lincoln's mind when the war began, did he not eventually issue the Emancipation Proclamation? Was Lincoln at that point not a sincere opponent of slavery? To this objection, Spooner replied with a sharp rejoinder. The Republicans did not end slavery 'as an act of justice to the black man himself, but only as a 'war measure,' he [Spooner] wrote, using the exact words … that Lincoln himself used in the Emancipation Proclamation" (p. 59).

DiLorenzo, like Spooner, makes skilled use of quotations from Lincoln to support his analysis of Lincoln's policies. "In his first inaugural address Lincoln shockingly threw down the gauntlet over the tariff issue, literally threatening the invasion of any state that failed to collect the newly doubled tariff … '[T]here needs to be no bloodshed or violence, and there shall be none unless it is forced upon the national authority.' What was he [Lincoln] talking about? What might ignite bloodshed and violence? Failure to collect the tariff, that's what … he further stated that it was his duty 'to collect the duties and imposts; but beyond what may be necessary for these objects, there will be no invasion…' In other words, Pay Up or Die" (p. 126).

Lincoln for once spoke with complete truth. He did indeed resort to any means necessary, however brutal, to crush the Southern secessionists. The result of Lincoln's aggressive prosecution of the war was "the killing of one out of four males of military age while maiming for life more than double that number" (p. 28).

Lincoln turned aside all opposition to his ruthless conduct of the war, and he did not hesitate to act against judges who insisted on the rule of law. "In October 1861 Lincoln ordered the District of Columbia provost marshal to place armed sentries around the home of a Washington, D.C. circuit court judge and place him under house arrest … the judge had carried out his constitutional duty to issue a writ of habeas corpus to a young man being detained by the provost marshal, allowing the man to have due process … By placing the judge under house arrest Lincoln prevented him from attending the hearing in the case" (pp. 94–95).

But what is a lowly circuit court judge, compared with the Chief Justice of the United States? Lincoln ordered an arrest warrant prepared for the aged Roger Taney, who had ruled that Lincoln had no authority to suspend the writ of habeas corpus. The warrant was fortunately never served, and Taney escaped imprisonment. Some have doubted the story, but DiLorenzo finds confirmation in several sources, including the memoirs of Benjamin Curtis, no friend of Taney's. When he served on the Supreme Court, Curtis wrote a strongly worded dissent from Taney's opinion in the Dred Scott case. "Nevertheless, in his memoirs he praises the propriety of Justice Taney in upholding the Constitution by opposing Lincoln's unilateral suspension of habeas corpus. He refers to the arrest warrant for the chief justice, accusing him of treason, as a 'great crime'" (p. 94).

By his insistence upon the unpalatable truth about Lincoln, DiLorenzo defies the acolytes of what he aptly terms the "Lincoln cult." The "Lincolnite Totalitarians" find in Lincoln a precedent for their own assaults on liberty. Harry Jaffa, often a target in these pages, is Lincoln's foremost academic defender. Jaffa, a disciple of Leo Strauss, views Lincoln as the principal exponent of the Declaration of Independence. How can Jaffa think this, given Lincoln's brutal policies of suppression? In large part, the answer lies in the fact that Jaffa has his own agenda: "in my [DiLorenzo's] 2002 debate with Jaffa … he declared at one point that 9/11 proved that 'we need a strong central government.' It was not just a coincidence that he made this declaration in the context of a debate over Lincoln's legacy" (p. 14).

Another influential admirer of Lincoln shared Jaffa's centralizing goals. Frank Meyer, an editor of National Review, criticized Lincoln for his centralizing policies, warmongering, and repression of civil liberties. William F. Buckley disagreed, as usual without any arguments supporting his own position. Rather than respond to the obvious truths to which Meyer had called attention, Buckley airily remarked that some people "have a thing" about Lincoln.

DiLorenzo maintains that Buckley adopted this view because Lincoln's policies were a precedent for the statist and belligerent Cold War policies he favored. As usual, Murray Rothbard saw to the heart of the issue. Rothbard "quoted Buckley … 'we have got to accept Big Government for the duration [of the cold war] — for neither an offensive nor a defensive war can be waged … except through the instrumentality of a totalitarian bureaucracy within our shores' … The founder of National Review was a 'totalitarian socialist,' Rothbard wrote, 'and what is more admits it'" (pp. 151–52).

Equally as bad, if not worse, is another Lincoln totalitarian whom DiLorenzo discusses in a chapter aptly called "Making Cannon Fodder." Walter Berns, in Making Patriots, seeks a means to inspire America's youth to be willing to sacrifice their lives in war at the state's behest. "To inspire 'patriotism' in the nation's youth, a national poet must mesmerize them in a cause, says Berns … Fortunately, Berns informs us, such a national poet is at hand. That person is Abraham Lincoln, whom he describes as 'statesman, poet, and … the martyred Christ of democracy's passion play'" (pp. 144–45). Worship of Lincoln is the linchpin of the "civil religion" that Berns favors. 3

Supporters of Lincoln are of course not confined to those, like Jaffa and Buckley, who claim to be conservatives. Eric Foner, a leading academic defender of Lincoln, "was such an apologist for Soviet communism that he opposed the breakup of the Soviet Union and, naturally invoked the Lincoln legend as the reason for his opposition." He urged Mikhail Gorbachev to deal with Soviet secession movements "in the same brutal manner that Lincoln dealt with the Southern secessionists" (pp. 153–54).

DiLorenzo's well-argued and forcefully written book shows that the struggle against the "Lincoln cult" is a vital part of the case for liberty. The book is fittingly dedicated to the memory of Mel Bradford, who paid a heavy price for his devastating analysis of Lincoln, in A Better Guide Than Reason and numerous other books and essays. Ronald Reagan had Bradford under consideration to head the National Endowment for the Humanities, but a coalition of neoconservatives and leftists launched a smear campaign against him. The campaign stressed Bradford's opposition to Lincoln and unfortunately succeeded in derailing the nomination. Bradford would have very much enjoyed DiLorenzo's excellent book.

  • 1. If the Corwin Amendment had been adopted, what would have happened had a national consensus developed that slavery should be abolished? To accomplish this, two amendments would have been required: one to repeal the Corwin Amendment and another to abolish slavery.
  • 2. See on this the important book of Lerone Bennett, Forced Into Glory: Abraham Lincoln's White Dream and my review in The Mises Review, Winter 2000.
  • 3. See on Berns my review of Making Patriots in The Mises Review, Fall 2001.

Contact David Gordon

David Gordon is Senior Fellow at the Mises Institute and editor of the Mises Review.

Shield icon library