"In Defense of Abraham
September 21, 2002
"Why defend Abraham Lincoln? It wouldn’t occur to most people that he needs defending. But, despite his opposition to slavery, he has been continually attacked, with considerable vitriol, by self-described libertarians, including Harry Browne, Walter Williams and Joe Sobran. The attacks have now, in a sense, culminated in a book length treatment by Thomas DiLorenzo, called “The Real Lincoln,” which has been as high as #2 on Amazon.com. In his forward to the book, Walter Williams says: “The Real Lincoln contains irrefutable evidence that a more appropriate title for Abraham Lincoln is not the Great Emancipator, but the Great Centralizer.” (TRL, p. xiii) Ralph Raico, a libertarian historian, calls it “a scholarly, lucidly written work…” (from “Praise for The Real Lincoln”)
DiLorenzo makes many controversial claims about Abraham Lincoln in the book, and in the article that the book was based on, “The Great Centralizer.” (The Independent Review, Fall 1998) I will focus on 6 of these claims: 1. that Lincoln’s primary purpose was to enact ‘The American System’ of Henry Clay; a system of protective tariffs, a national bank and internal improvements 2. that Lincoln was a racist who was not really very concerned about slavery 3. that emancipation could have been achieved peacefully 4. that secession was justified 5. that Lincoln waged war on civilians and 6. that Lincoln was more responsible than even FDR for centralizing power in the federal government. I believe that all of these claims are false, and I will deal with all of them, but first, because I think context is very important in this case, I want to briefly summarize the life of Abraham Lincoln.
Abraham Lincoln was born on 2.12.1809 in a log cabin in Kentucky to illiterate parents. When he was 7 years old, the family moved to Pigeon Creek, Indiana. This was a winter move. When they got there, they set up a lean to in which they spent the rest of the winter, with a fire going constantly at its open end. When Abe was 9 years old, his birth mother, Nancy Hanks, died, apparently of some kind of plant poisoning. By the time he was 10, his father had gotten him a new mother, Sarah Bush Johnston. There is not a lot of detail known about Abe’s early life, and in fact he said: “It is a great piece of folly to attempt to make anything out of my early life. It can all be condensed into a simple sentence, and that sentence you will find in Gray’s Elegy—‘the short and simple annals of the poor.’ That’s my life, and that’s all you or anyone else can make out of it.” (LAP, p.7) But we do know a few things.
His schooling was minimal; a week here, a month there, or as Lincoln said, he went to school ‘by littles.’ According to Lincoln, this all added up to less than 1 year. But, and this is a big but, he was always with a book.. He would plow with a book and read while giving the horse a rest at the end of a row. We know that he did a lot of farm work, and was considered good with an axe. Probably in part because of this, he was a very good wrestler. He is only known to have lost one wrestling match. When he was 16 years old and already 6’ tall, he read a book called “Lessons in Elocution” which may have contributed to his prowess as a storyteller. We know that when he was 19 years old, he went on a flatboat trip to New Orleans, where he must have, for the first time, seen large numbers of slaves.
When Lincoln was 21 years old , the family moved to Illinois, and Abe took a second flatboat trip to New Orleans. After this trip he moved on his own to New Salem, Illinois and worked in a general store. While there he became actively involved in the New Salem debating society. When he was 23 years old , the general store failed and he decided to run for the state legislature. But before that could happen, the Black Hawk war supervened. This was a war against the Sac and Fox Indians (the tribe of Jim Thorpe incidentally). Lincoln was elected Captain of his company. The war lasted 3 months, and he never saw any battle, but there is this vignette:
An Indian stumbled into the camp of his militia company with an official paper stating he is a “good and true man.” The men thought he was a spy and wanted to shoot him. Lincoln could have let them shoot him to retain his popularity. He could have put it to a vote and by voting against the shooting, kept himself morally clean. Lincoln put himself between the men and the Indian and said: “Men, this must not be done. He must not be shot and killed by us…. It must not be on our shirts.” When he was accused of cowardice he said: “If any man thinks I am a coward let him test it….”
In evaluating this episode, it should be noted that there was considerable prejudice in the west against Native Americans…. Lincoln’s own grandfather had been killed by Indians, as Lincoln said, “not in battle, but by stealth, when he was laboring to open a farm in the forest.” (Miller, p. 37)
Well, he did finally run for the state legislature in 1832 and lost. He was 8th out of 13, with the top 6 getting in; but he did get 227/300 votes in his own district. He then decided to start his own general store with one William Berry. The store failed quickly, and William Berry died. This left Lincoln with debts of $1100. It took him 15 years to pay it off, but he did it. So, how did he survive? He was made the New Salem postmaster, and among other things he did farm work and surveying. In 1834, at the age of 25, he ran for the Illinois state house again, and this time he won. In the legislature, he met John Stuart, who urged him to study law, which he did. He was elected again to the house in 1836, and on March 1, 1837 he was admitted to the practice of law.
In 1831, the Illinois Legislature had excluded free blacks by requiring a $1000 bond. Right after statehood, Illinois had enacted a harsh black code and narrowly defeated legalization of slavery. Now, in Jan 1837 the legislature is asked by several Southern states to do something about the menace of abolitionism. A joint committee of the legislature proposes a resolution: “…that the purposes of the abolitionists are highly reprehensible, and that their ends, even if peaceably attained, would be productive of the most deleterious consequences for every portion of the Union.” They had a roll call in the house: there were 32 straight ayes, then Mr. Lincoln? -Nay. The final vote in the house was 77-5; one aye was Stephen Douglas. The Senate supported it unanimously. There was no conceivable political benefit for Abraham Lincoln, but he voted no. (Miller, p.119)
Well, he became John Stuart’s junior partner in Springfield, Illinois. Lincoln boarded above Speed’s general store, …he was obviously comfortable around general stores, and this is where he first met Stephen Douglas. The general store was kind of a hang out for the town’s bachelors.
In 1838 he was again elected to the Illinois House, and in 1839 he met Mary Todd. In 1840 he was elected to the Illinois House for the last time. His courtship of Mary Todd was rocky, in part because the Todd family was high society and objected to the match. They viewed Lincoln as a social climber. In 1841, now 32 years old, he broke off his engagement to Mary Todd and became very depressed. But, the next year, in November, he married her. Following this his law career flourished; he became junior partner to Stephen Logan and subsequently opened his own office with William Herndon as his junior partner.
In 1846 he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives for the only time. This would be his last elective office until he was elected President of the United States. This term was notable for his opposition to the Mexican War, but also because he supported an anti-slavery bill, and proposed, but later withdrew, a bill to end slavery in the District of Columbia. After his term in the U. S. House, he was disappointed at not getting the post he coveted, Commissioner of the General Land Office, despite having campaigned hard for Zachary Taylor for President. He decided to retire from politics and devote himself to the full time practice of law, which include riding the circuit for 6 months out of the year.
In 1854 Cyrus McCormick sued John Manny of Rockford Il for patent infringement on his reaper. Both sides retained nationally known attorneys, but the Manny people wanted a local lawyer. Their first choice, a Chicago lawyer couldn’t fit it in, so someone suggested A. Lincoln. Peter Watson, a Washington lawyer met Lincoln in Springfield and offered him a retainer and promised him a fee at the end of the case. Watson consulted with George Harding, a Phil. Lawyer on the case. They decided “it would be quite out of the question to have him take part in the argument.” They quietly hired another lawyer, and agreed to move the case to Cincinnati.
They ignored Lincoln. Lincoln wrote to Watson (7.25.55) that they hadn’t sent him the Bill and Answer. “However, I attended the US Circuit Court in Chicago, and while there, got copies of the Bill and Answer…. During August, and the remainder of this month, I can devote some time to the case; and of course, I want all the material that can be had. During my stay in Chicago, I went out to Rockford, and spent half a day, examining and studying Manny’s machine.” There was no answer. On 9.1.55 he wrote the Il clients that he has heard nothing. ‘Is it still the understanding that the case is to be heard at Cincinnati on the 20th?’ He made his way to Cincinnati and was greeted by his colleagues, Harding and the new lawyer, Edwin Stanton. Lincoln said: “Let’s go up in a gang.” Stanton said, in an aside to Harding “Let that fellow go up with his gang, …We [meaning Stanton and Harding] will walk together.” Which they did, leaving Lincoln, with his blue umbrella, to make his way as he might. They all stayed at the same hotel, but never asked Lincoln to dine, confer or walk to court with them. When opposing counsel, seeing 3 lawyers, Lincoln, Harding and Stanton, asked if their chief counsel could, because of that, make 2 arguments, Lincoln withdrew from the case. He stayed to watch and learn from the case. He sent them his written argument, but they sent it back to him unopened. They sent Lincoln the $1000 fee…he sent it back saying he made no argument. They returned it saying he should keep it since he had prepared an argument, and he did. He later made Stanton his Secretary of War. (Miller, 410-418)
So, what got Abe Lincoln back into politics? In 1854 the Kansas Nebraska Act was passed. Under the Missouri compromise, slavery would have been excluded from the Kansas and Nebraska territories. But the new act established “popular sovereignty”; the people of the territory could decide by vote if they would have slavery or not. In a speech in October 1854, Lincoln said: “I particularly object to the new position which the avowed principle of this Nebraska law gives to slavery in the body politic. I object to it because it assumes that there can be moral right in the enslaving of one man by another. I object to it as a dangerous dalliance for a free people—a sad evidence that, feeling prosperity we forget right—that liberty, as a principle, we have ceased to revere.” Also in 1854, he wrote the following fragment: “If A can prove, however conclusively, that he may, of right enslave B----why may not B snatch the same argument, and prove equally, that he may enslave A? You say A is white, and B is black. It is color, then; the lighter having the right to enslave the darker? Take care. By this rule you are to be slave to the first man you meet, with a fairer skin than your own. You do not mean color exactly? — You mean the whites are intellectually the superior of blacks, and therefore, have the right to enslave them? Take care again. By this rule, you are to be slave to the first man you meet, with an intellect superior to your own. But, say you, it is a question of interest; and, if you can make it your interest, you have the right to enslave another. Very well. And if he can make it his interest, he has the right to enslave you.”
In 1857, there came another blow to those who, like Lincoln, opposed the extension of slavery. Justice Taney’s ruling in the Dred Scott case was that the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional: Congress had no power to prohibit slavery in the territories. For Lincoln, this had a worrisome implication. If the right case came before it, mightn’t the same Supreme Court forbid states from prohibiting slavery. In 1858, at the age of 49, Lincoln ran against Stephen Douglas for his United States Senate seat. Early in the campaign he gave the famous “House Divided” speech in which he said: “Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction, or its advocates will push it forward until it shall become alike lawful in all the States, North as well as South.” Subsequently, Lincoln and Douglas had 7 debates, which were almost exclusively about the slavery question. Douglas won the Senate seat, but he made admissions that would later hurt him with Southern Democrats.
In 1860, the same 7 states that would be the first to secede from the Union seceded from the Democratic Party, which then nominated Stephen Douglas. This enabled the dark horse nominee of the relatively new Republican Party to win the election. Before the inauguration, South Carolina and 6 other Southern states seceded. During this time Lincoln conducted a correspondence with Alexander Stephens, who would become the Vice President of the Confederacy. Lincoln tried to assure him that there was no cause for the South’s fears. Stephens responded that it would be an aggressive act “to exclude us by an act of Congress, from the territories with our slave property.” Moreover, he said, the South was not afraid Lincoln would even indirectly attack slavery in the slave states themselves. Their fears arose, rather, “from the fact that the ‘central idea’ of the ‘triumphant [Republican] party…seems to be simply, and wantonly, if you please, to put the institutions of nearly half the states under the bar of public opinion and national condemnation.” (Miller, p. 431)
On April 12, 1861, to prevent the re-supply of Fort Sumter, the Confederates fired on the fort and began the Civil War.
The war was not going well for the Union, and on September 23, 1862, after a Union victory at Antietam, Lincoln announced the Emancipation Proclamation, which would take effect on Jan. 1, 1863. On that day Lincoln said: “If my name ever goes into history it will be for this act.” He signed the Proclamation with his full name instead of the usual A. Lincoln. After this the war went better for the Union, and on April 9, 1865, Lee surrendered to Grant at Appamatox Courthouse. Five days later Lincoln was assassinated. During the latter part of the war, Lincoln had several conversations with Frederick Douglass. Douglass often opposed Lincoln as not radical enough, but he also said this: “In all my interviews with Mr. Lincoln, I was impressed with his entire freedom from popular prejudice against the colored race. He was the first great man that I talked with in the United States freely, who in no single instance reminded me of the difference between himself and myself, of the difference of color, and I thought that all the more remarkable because he came from a state where there were black laws.”(LAP, p. 104)
Now let’s move on to the first charge, that Lincoln’s primary purpose was to enact the American System of Henry Clay. DiLorenzo puts it as follows: “….one must realize that during his twenty eight years in politics before becoming president, he was almost single-mindedly devoted to an economic agenda that Henry Clay labeled ‘The American System’.” (TRL, p. 2) What evidence does DiLorenzo give for this extreme claim? In Lincoln’s introductory speech when he first ran for the Illinois state house in 1832, he said: “My politics are short and sweet, like the old woman’s dance. I am in favor of a national bank…in favor of the internal improvements system and a high protective tariff.” (TRL, p. 54) DiLorenzo asserts that: “Most of the speech had to do with his advocacy of state subsidies for railroad- and canal-building corporations.” (TRL, p. 73) DiLorenzo also notes that, in 1840, “…he made numerous speeches in favor of establishing a national banking system.” (TRL, p. 68), that in Congress, “…Lincoln gave an impassioned speech on internal improvements…” (TRL, p. 73), and that in 1848, while stumping for Zachary Taylor, Lincoln “…promised that if Taylor was elected the country would once again have a national bank.” (TRL, p. 68) DiLorenzo gives several quotes, which he doesn’t date, which show that Lincoln didn’t understand the economics of trade. For example: “I…would continue [trade] where it is necessary, and discontinue it, where it is not. As instance: I would continue commerce so far as it is employed in bringing us coffee, and I would discontinue it so far as it is employed in bringing us cotton goods.” (TRL, p. 72)
According to DiLorenzo, “In virtually every one of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, Lincoln made it a point to champion the nationalization of money and to demonize Jackson and the Democrats for their opposition to it.” (TRL, p. 68) In 1859, Lincoln said that he was “always a Whig in politics.” (TRL, p. 55) Finally, DiLorenzo states that: “To Lincoln, slavery was just another political issue subject to compromise. But protectionist tariffs…were nonnegotiable. He promised to wage war on any state that refused to collect enough tariff revenue, a truly bizarre stance. What other American president…would have threatened a bloody war over the issue of tax collection.” (TRL, p. 237) He bases this on the following from Lincoln’s first inaugural: “The power confided to me, will be used to hold, occupy, and possess the property, and places belonging to the government, and to collect the duties and imposts; but beyond what may be necessary for these objects, there will be no invasion—no using of force against, or among the people anywhere.” (TRL, p. 236-7)
Now to answer the charge: First of all, I will stipulate that Lincoln was a supporter of the American System, but remember that DiLorenzo claims more than that. He claims that for the 28 years leading up to his presidency, Lincoln was “almost single-mindedly” devoted to the American System. I submit that, first of all, he has not met his burden of proof. He seems to have no sense that extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence. What he provides is a few fragmentary quotes and assertions about speeches made, without any quotes from those speeches. And almost all of this evidence is prior to 1854, when Lincoln was drawn back into politics over the issue of slavery. In an attempt to be a little more systematic than DiLorenzo, I looked at all 15 speeches by Lincoln that I could find on the web. Using the ‘Control F’ feature I did word counts on the following words: slavery, tariff, bank, money and improvement. (Figure 1) These speeches include his eulogy for Henry Clay and a speech on discoveries and inventions, where he would be especially likely to mention his support for the American System. As you can see on the chart, the overwhelming importance of the slavery issue is manifest; but it’s even worse than it looks because almost all the mentions of bank, money and improvement were unrelated to advocacy of the American System. Perhaps the chart would look better if some of those speeches that DiLorenzo alluded to were included, but all of those speeches were from prior to 1850, and so wouldn’t do much for his claim of 28 years of almost single-minded devotion to the American System.
But, wait, DiLorenzo did say that Lincoln championed the nationalization of money and demonized Jackson and the Democrats “in virtually every one” of the Lincoln-Douglas debates…and that was in 1858. The problem is that I have read every word of Lincoln’s in the 7 debates, and the claim is absolutely false. Not once in those debates did Lincoln do what DiLorenzo claims. His only mentions of the national bank and Jackson were by way of countering Douglas’ charge that it was wrong of Lincoln to oppose the Supreme Court decision in the Dred Scott case. Lincoln merely pointed out that Douglas was being inconsistent, as he himself had previously opposed a Supreme Court decision that a national bank was constitutional. I don’t see how anyone who had actually read the debates could make the claim that DiLorenzo makes. For the seven debates, I did word counts on slavery, tariff, bank and improvement. As you can see from the chart (Figure 2), and as anyone who had read the debates would know, there was one real issue: slavery; more specifically, the extension of slavery into the territories.
What about the claim that Lincoln “threatened a bloody war over the issue of tax collection?” I think merely having quoted the relevant part of the 1st Inaugural was probably enough to show that DiLorenzo’s claim is a misrepresentation. Clearly, Lincoln was saying that there would be no invasion unless the South initiated the use of force by attacking Federal property. And of course he would want to protect the ability of the Federal government to collect duties--90% of Federal revenue was from the tariff--but the duties could have been collected off shore; there would be no need to invade the South.
Before leaving this issue, I want to point out that DiLorenzo does more than just misrepresent Lincoln’s views here, he tries to demonize him. That’s obvious with the claim about threatening a bloody war over tax collection. He also explicitly equates “internal improvements” with “corporate welfare,” by stating that “corporate welfare” is just modern terminology for “internal improvements.” (TRL, p. 73) But they are not the same. Corporate welfare implies subsidizing companies that couldn’t make it on their own. Hiring a company to build a bridge or dam is not necessarily corporate welfare. He never justifies this assertion of equality between the phrases. He, of course, never considers that Lincoln’s advocacy of internal improvements might have had something to do with the fact that he had some flat boat experience and lived in a town on the Sangamon River…a town that eventually died because the river wasn’t sufficiently navigable. To a self-educated man living on the frontier, even one as smart as Lincoln, it might have seemed just common sense that the government should be involved in providing infrastructure. He ridicules Lincoln for his views on trade and says he “ espoused a crude version of the long-discredited Marxian labour theory of value” (TRL, p. 72). But I have never found evidence that Lincoln ever read Smith, Cobden, Bright or other advocates of free trade. It’s entirely possible that Lincoln bought the ‘infant industry’ argument, which DiLorenzo doesn’t even mention. DiLorenzo just assumes Lincoln wanted to subsidize special interests.
Let’s move on to the second charge, that Lincoln was a racist and not particularly concerned with slavery. DiLorenzo says that Lincoln “…stated over and over again that he was opposed to political or social equality of the races; he was not an abolitionist…; and his primary means of dealing with racial problems was to attempt to colonize all American blacks…. —anywhere but in the United States.” (TRL, p. 4) DiLorenzo also asserts, “…many of Lincoln’s personal views on race relations can be described only as the views of a white supremacist.” (TGC, p.244) To support the charge, DiLorenzo quotes Lincoln several times from the first Lincoln-Douglas debate at Ottawa, IL. Quote #1: “ I have no purpose to introduce political and social equality between the white and the 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; and inasmuch as it becomes a necessity that there must be a difference, I, as well as Judge Douglas, am in favor of the race to which I belong having the superior position. I have never said anything to the contrary.” (1858, Ottawa debate) Quote #2: “Free them, and make them politically and socially our equals? My own feelings will not admit of this…We cannot, then, make them our equals.” (1858, Ottawa debate) Quote #3: “When they remind us of their constitutional rights [to own slaves], I acknowledge them, not grudgingly but fully and fairly; and I would give them any legislation for the reclaiming of their fugitives.” (1858, Ottawa debate) DiLorenzo also says that Lincoln mocked the Jeffersonian dictum that all men are created equal. According to DiLorenzo Lincoln said: “I am sorry to say that I have never seen two men of whom it is true. But I must admit I never saw the Siamese Twins, and therefore will not dogmatically say that no man ever saw a proof of this sage aphorism.” (TRL, p.12) To show how little importance freeing the slaves held for Lincoln, DiLorenzo of course quotes the famous 1862 letter to Horace Greeley: “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave 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.” (TRL, p.36) DiLorenzo further points out that Lincoln only opposed the extension of slavery, and had no intention of interfering with it where it already existed. And in opposing the extension of slavery, Lincoln argued that, “The whole nation is interested that the best use shall be made of these Territories. We want them for homes of free white people. This they can not be ….if slavery shall be planted within them” (Peoria, 1854) Lincoln also argued that the extension of slavery would exacerbate the imbalance in representation already present due to the 3/5 clause. And finally, DiLorenzo points out that Lincoln was a long time supporter of colonization.
To answer these charges, we need to provide some context. As noted previously, Illinois was a state with a harsh black code and prohibited blacks from immigrating into the state. Indeed DiLorenzo spends 8 pages detailing how much anti-black prejudice there was in the Northern states. (TRL, pp. 24-32) And Lincoln had the problem of appealing, within his own party, to both abolitionists and free soil Negrophobes. So, here is Lincoln, at the first debate at Ottawa, IL facing Douglas. Douglas spoke first. “Do you desire to strike out of our State Constitution that clause which keeps slaves and free Negroes out of the State, and allow the free Negroes to flow in, and cover your prairies with black settlements? Do you desire to turn this Beautiful state into a free Negro colony, in order that when Missouri abolishes slavery she can send 100,000 emancipated slaves into Illinois, to become citizens and voters, on an equality with yourselves, and to make them eligible to office, to serve on juries, and to adjudge your rights, then support Mr. Lincoln and the Black Republican party, who are in favor of the citizenship of the Negro. For one, I am opposed to Negro citizenship in any and every form. I believe this Government was made on the white basis.” (Ottawa, 1858) Now that gives you an idea of the broad context within which Lincoln was speaking. Given this context, I don’t think that it diminishes his moral opposition to slavery that he occasionally used other arguments, e.g. the 3/5 clause argument, and the keeping the territories open for free whites argument, that would appeal to a broader range of people. Now I’d like to look at some narrower contextual issues.
Remember the first quote from the Ottawa debate? Let’s read it again with the immediately following sentences included: “I have no purpose to introduce political and social equality between the white and the 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; and inasmuch as it becomes a necessity that there be a difference, I, as well as Judge Douglas, am in favor of the race to which I belong having the superior position. I have never said anything to the contrary, but I hold that, notwithstanding all this, there is no reason in the world why the Negro is not entitled to all the natural rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence, the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I hold that he is as much entitled to these as the white man. I agree with Judge Douglas he is not my equal in many respects—certainly not in color, perhaps not in moral or intellectual endowment. But in the right to eat the bread, without the leave of anybody else, which his own hand earns, he is my equal and the equal of Judge Douglas, and the equal of every living man.” (Ottawa, 1858) Notice some of the phrasing in this passage. When Lincoln expands on the ways in which the Negro is not the white mans equal, the only difference he is certain of is the difference in color. And he doesn’t say anything cutting him off from having a changed view in the future. He has no purpose now to introduce political equality, and inasmuch as it becomes a necessity that there be a difference, he would like his race to have the superior position.
Now let’s go on to quote #2 from the Ottawa debate, and here we add a segment that was left out: “Free them and make them politically and socially our equals? My own feelings will not admit of this; and if mine would, we well know that those of the great mass of white people will not. Whether this feeling accords with justice and sound judgment, is not the sole question, if, indeed, it is any part of it. A universal feeling, whether well or ill founded, cannot be safely disregarded. We cannot then, make them our equals.” (Ottawa, 1858) Again notice the phrasing. When I hear someone say “I don’t believe this, but even if I did…,” I am less than fully convinced that their belief is firm. And he raises the possibility that those feelings against social and political equality may not accord with justice and sound judgment.
Now for the third quote. Here we add the rest of the sentence: “When they remind us of their constitutional rights [to own slaves], I acknowledge them, not grudgingly but fully and fairly; and I would give them any legislation for the reclaiming of their fugitives, which should not, in its stringency, be more likely to carry a free man into slavery, than our ordinary criminal laws are to hang an innocent one.” (Ottawa, 1858) This is an important change. The law in effect at the time gave judges twice as much money for deciding in favor of the slaveholder on their claim that a particular Negro was a slave. Lincoln believed that, because of the fugitive slave clause in the Constitution, Southerners couldn’t constitutionally be denied a fugitive slave law. But he was clearly distancing himself from the very unfair one that was in effect at this time. Now that we’ve put these three quotes in context, I think it is clear that there is a lot less force in Lincoln’s statements against the social and political equality of blacks. And when you add the broader context, it is clear that if you were someone who wanted to keep slavery from spreading and put it in the course of ultimate extinction, you had to say you were opposed to social and political equality for blacks. Without doing that, you had no chance of getting elected. Lincoln may have been stating his views on social and political equality truthfully, but I suspect it was a truth he wasn’t very sure of. And it should be noted that by the end of the war he was arguing that black soldiers and intelligent blacks should be given the vote.
Now, what about that famous quote from his letter to Horace Greeley purportedly showing that the slavery issue wasn’t that important to Lincoln? I have heard that quote many times, but it never includes the last line which reads: “I have here stated my purpose according to my view of official duty; and I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men everywhere could be free.” (1862 letter to Horace Greeley) And the quote where Lincoln mocks “all men are created equal?” Well, the words did come out of Lincoln’s mouth. He said them in the Clay eulogy, but he was quoting a Virginia clergyman. About the statement he said: “This sounds strangely in Republican America. The like was not heard in the fresher days of the Republic.”
On the issue of colonization, it is certainly true that Lincoln favored it for a long time. And I have not found anyplace where he gives an extended justification for it. But it is certainly possible to defend it on other than racist grounds. This is what Thomas Jefferson said in his Notes on the State of Virginia: “Why not retain and incorporate the blacks into the state, and thus save the expense of supplying, by importation of white settlers, the vacancies they will leave? Deep rooted prejudices entertained by the whites; ten thousand recollections, by the blacks, of the injuries they have sustained; new provocations; the real distinctions which nature has made; and many other circumstances, will divide us into parties, and produce convulsions which will probably never end but in the extermination of the one or the other race.” (notes on the State of Virginia)
The 3rd charge against Lincoln is that he should have been able to achieve emancipation peacefully. DiLorenzo asks: “Why didn’t Lincoln do what much of the rest of the world did in the nineteenth century and end slavery peacefully through compensated emancipation? Between 1800 and 1860, dozens of countries…ended slavery peacefully; only in the United States was a war involved.” (TRL, p. 4) The main evidence that DiLorenzo gives is the names of 15 places that eliminated slavery between 1813 and 1886. He also argues that slavery was already on the way out. To buttress this position, he notes that the proportion of slaves was declining in Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, Missouri and much of Virginia. As evidence of growing support for gradual emancipation in the border states, he states that: “As early as 1849, 10% of the participants in a Kentucky political convention expressed support for gradual emancipation in that state..” (TRL, p. 51) To explain why Lincoln did not try gradual emancipation, he brings back the charge that he really had little interest in freeing the slaves. He reminds us that in August 1861, when General Fremont proclaimed that slaves of resisters in Missouri would be freed, Lincoln countermanded the order. And then he makes the now commonplace charge that the Emancipation Proclamation didn’t actually free any slaves, since it only applied to areas controlled by the Confederacy. Finally, he again demonizes Lincoln: “Lincoln could have put in motion a process to end slavery much more expeditiously –and peacefully—as more than twenty slaveowning societies had done in the previous sixty years. But he chose instead to wage a long and devastating war in which the victims were not just slaveowners but every Southern citizen.” (TRL, p. 51)
The first problem with this charge is that Lincoln’s policy was, in fact, a very mild and gradual form of emancipation. As he said over and over again, he wanted to put slavery in the course of ultimate extinction by stopping its spread. He also made it abundantly clear that he would not interfere with slavery where it already existed. So, does DiLorenzo suggest that if Lincoln had actually proposed an emancipation plan, the South would not have seceded and fired on Fort Sumter? I don’t see how he could believe this. The next problem is his evidence that lots of other countries emancipated their slaves peacefully. I think it is pretty obvious that listing them is inadequate. For this evidence to have any probative value, you would have to show some similarity of circumstances between the United States and some of these other countries. DiLorenzo doesn’t lift a finger in that direction, and looking at the list (see Table 1, TGC, p. 253), it is certainly not obvious that any of these countries were similar to the U.S. at that time. Another problem: Does the fact that 10% of the participants in a Kentucky political convention expressed support for gradual emancipation tend to show that the South would likely accept a gradual emancipation plan? Does the fact that there was a decreasing proportion of slaves in some states mean that slavery was on the way out? I don’t think so, and I would note here that DiLorenzo has several quotes in this section from Time On The Cross by Fogel and Engerman, but doesn’t mention their well-known view that slavery was thriving and growing stronger than ever before 1861. And, Lincoln actually did propose a gradual emancipation plan to the border states early in the war, but they rejected it. DiLorenzo admits this, but says Lincoln “failed to use his legendary political skills and his rhetorical gifts…” (TRL, p. 52)
What about Lincoln’s lack of interest in emancipating slaves? What Fremont did was early in the war, and at the time, Lincoln did not want to push the border states that were still in the Union over to the Confederacy. Now, about the oft repeated claim about the Emancipation Proclamation. Like a lot of advice from the Microsoft help desk, it is technically true but irrelevant. The proclamation says: “That on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free….” (Emancipation Proclamation) At the time the Proclamation took effect, the slaves under Confederate control were not de facto free, BUT they were de jure free. And they would become de facto free as soon as the Union took control of the territory they were in. In addition, the Proclamation changed the war aims of the North, energized many in the North and helped keep England and France from recognizing the Confederacy.
Now, on to the fourth charge: DiLorenzo argues that the Southern states were within their rights to secede. He says: “In the eyes of the founding fathers, the most fundamental principle of political philosophy was the right of secession. The Declaration of Independence was the cornerstone of the states’ rights doctrine embraced by the Southern secessionists of 1861…” (TRL, p. 86) DiLorenzo maintains that this was the commonly held view up to the time of the Civil War. He supports this with quotes from a number of luminaries, including Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, John Quincy Adams, John Marshall and Daniel Webster. William Rawle, whose textbook on the Constitution was used at West Point, thought there was an implied right of secession in the Constitution: “To deny this right would be inconsistent with the principle on which all our political systems are founded, which is, that the people have in all cases a right to determine how they will be governed.” (TRL, p.93) DiLorenzo also quotes numerous Northern newspaper editorials in support of peaceful secession. He asserts that 3 states reserved the right to secede in their ordinances of ratification. He quotes from the Virginia ordinance: “…the powers granted under the Constitution being derived from the people of the United States may be resumed by them whensoever the same shall be perverted to their injury or oppression.” (TRL, p. 91)
In the Kentucky Resolution, which was written by Thomas Jefferson in response to the Alien and Sedition Acts, Jefferson wrote that “the several states composing the United States of America, are not united on the principle of unlimited submission to their general government; but that by a compact…they…delegated to [that government] certain definite powers, reserving…the residuary mass of right to their own self-government.” (TRL, p. 111) Finally, DiLorenzo recalls for us the secession movement in New England from 1800-1814 and says: “Throughout this whole ordeal no one ever made a principled argument against a state’s right of secession.” (TRL, p. 101) According to DiLorenzo: “There can be no doubt that the states created the Constitution and delegated certain powers to the federal government as their agent, while reserving the right to withdraw from the compact…” (TRL, p. 112)
You will note that I did not give you any quotes from the luminaries. There are several reasons for that. For one thing, it should be clear by now, that without examining the context of each quote, you can’t be sure that its meaning has been accurately represented. Second, even taking the quotes at face value, it is, in most cases, not clear that they argue for secession, as opposed to revolution. And finally, some are clearly irrelevant. For an example of that, he quotes Jefferson in his first inaugural address: “If there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this Union or to change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.” (TRL, p.86) DiLorenzo follows this with: “some have argued that it is merely an expression of Jefferson’s devotion to free speech, but this is clearly wrong.” (TRL, p. 86) Well, I think it’s DiLorenzo who is clearly wrong. This is more obviously true when you recall that this speech is in the immediate aftermath of the Alien and Sedition crisis, when many people were jailed for voicing the wrong opinion. The quotes from the Kentucky Resolution and the Virginia ratifying convention don’t necessarily imply anything about secession, and, despite DiLorenzo’s claim, there is nothing about states rights in the Declaration of Independence. I have grave doubts about the claim that, during the New England secession movement, no one made a principled argument against secession. I have not had time to research it, but I certainly wouldn’t take DiLorenzo’s word for it. He gives no reference for that assertion.
A fundamental problem with DiLorenzo’s argument is that he does not distinguish between secession and revolution. In fact, he says: “The revolution of 1776 was, after all, a war of secession.” (TRL, p.261) But the revolutionary war was justified on the basis of individual rights, not states rights. You will recall that in the Declaration of Independence, after stating that men have the rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” it gave a long list of the violations of those rights. That was important because it also noted that, “Prudence, indeed will dictate, that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient Causes….” So, revolution is justified when individual rights are violated, and violated extensively. Some of the quotes that I didn’t give you may well have been referring to the right of revolution. To argue, as DiLorenzo seems to be doing, that State Rights are primary, means that states can violate individual rights with impunity. And that is, of course, what the Southern states were doing. But individual rights are the basis for any state rights and as Ayn Rand has said: “Whether a slave society was conquered or chose to be enslaved, it can claim no national rights, and no recognition of such ‘rights’ by civilized countries—just as a mob of gangsters cannot demand a recognition of its ‘rights’ and a legal equality with an industrial concern or a university, on the ground that the gangsters chose by unanimous vote to engage in that particular kind of activity.” (quoted in Sandefur, Liberty, July 2002, p. 38))
But what about the argument that the Federal Government was formed by a compact among the states, and, therefore any state can withdraw at will? This implies that the states did not give up any of their sovereignty when the Constitution was ratified. That is what John C. Calhoun argued at the time of the 1830’s nullification crisis. Why isn’t this the case? First, I would note that the Constitution begins, “We the people,” not “We the states.” Secondly, Madison had insisted on special conventions for ratifying the constitution…. It wasn’t ratified by the State legislatures (Sandefur, p. 40). And in answer to Calhoun, Madison said: “It [the United States Constitution] was formed by the States—that is by the people in each of the States, acting in their highest sovereign capacity; and formed, consequently, by the same authority which formed the State Constitutions. Being thus derived from the same source as the Constitutions of the States, it has within each State, the same authority as the [State] Constitution, and is as much a Constitution, in the strict sense of the term, within its prescribed sphere, as the Constitutions of the States are within their respective spheres, but with this obvious & essential difference, that being a compact among the States in their highest sovereign capacity, and constituting the people thereof one people for certain purposes, it cannot be altered or annulled at the will of the States individually, as the Constitution of a State may be at its individual will.” (letter to Edward Everett, 8-28-30, quoted in Sandefur, p. 40) In other words, we have a system of divided sovereignty; the States do not have full sovereignty and cannot unilaterally withdraw from the Union. And even if, for the sake of argument, you assume that the States retained full sovereignty, contracts cannot generally be voided unilaterally. Lincoln argues this in his 1st inaugural address. And if a state could do that, what sense would Article IV, section 4 of the Constitution make: “The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican form of Government.” It would be meaningless. Finally, Lincoln, again in the 1st inaugural address, argues that constitutional government cannot survive, if a region can secede when it doesn’t like the results of an election: “Plainly, the central idea of secession, is the essence of anarchy. 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. Whoever rejects it, does, of necessity, fly to anarchy or to despotism. Unanimity is impossible; the rule of a minority, as a permanent arrangement, is wholly inadmissible; so that, rejecting the majority principle, anarchy, or despotism in some form, is all that is left.” I submit that DiLorenzo has not made his case that secession is any kind of a right; it is not a moral right superseding individual rights, and it is not a legal right.
O.K., let’s move on to the fifth charge, that Lincoln waged war on civilians. In DiLorenzo’s words: “It is not an exaggeration to say that Lincoln’s entire battle plan, from the very beginning, was to wage war on civilians as well as the armed rebels.” (TRL, p. 180) What’s his evidence for this? The overall strategy, the “Anaconda Plan,” devised at the beginning of the war by Winfield Scott, involved strangling the Southern economy with a blockade. The Union armies, especially under Sherman and Sheridan, pillaged and plundered, burned crops, killed animals and raped women. Quoting DiLorenzo: “Another way in which war was waged on civilians was the policy almost from the very beginning, of retaliating against Confederate attacks by holding randomly chosen civilians as hostages, sometimes shooting them and sometimes burning their houses or their entire towns to the ground.” (TRL, p. 178) Of course, bad things tend to happen in wars, especially civil wars. How is it that DiLorenzo can hold Lincoln personally responsible? He says: “It is hard to believe that Lincoln, whom some historians celebrate as a skilled micromanager of the war effort who maintained almost constant contact with his field commanders, did not know about these atrocities.” (TRL, p. 178) As evidence of “micromanagement,” DiLorenzo offers the following. According to the historian James McPherson, “he [Lincoln] spent more time in the war department telegraph office than anywhere else except the White House itself.” (TRL, p. 172) McPherson called Lincoln’s management of the war effort “brilliant” and the work of a “genius.” DiLorenzo says: “Lincoln’s military commanders frequently complained of his intimate involvement with management of the war….” (TRL, p.172) And, he notes, there is a famous photo with McClellan outside his field tent, “…presumably giving the general his instructions.” (TRL, p. 172)
As evidence that Lincoln approved the actions of his generals in making war on civilians, DiLorenzo notes that, “Lincoln conveyed his personal thanks and ‘the thanks of the nation’ to Sheridan after his destruction of the valley [Shenandoah] was completed.” (TRL, p. 197) He also states that, in his memoirs, Sherman wrote “that Lincoln wanted to know all about his marches, particularly enjoying stories about the bummers [as the looters were called] and their foraging activities.” (TRL, p. 194)
I see some problem here. First, DiLorenzo is using a modern term, ‘micromanage,’ which conjures up a degree of detailed oversight that just wasn’t possible in the 1860’s. Communications depended on the telegraph and messengers. Telegraph lines were easily broken and messengers were slow and could be intercepted. I have recently read Grant’s memoirs and there is not a hint of micromanagement there. As an example of how good communications were, there is this from Grants memoirs. He is writing after he has taken Fort Henry. “The order of the 10th of February directing me to fortify Fort Henry strongly, particularly to the land side, and saying that intrenching tools had been sent for that purpose, reached me after Donelson was invested.” (Grant’s memoirs, p. 174) Early in the Vicksburg campaign, Grant wanted to do something that he knew Halleck wouldn’t approve of. He wrote: “The time it would take to communicate with Washington and get a reply would be so great that I could not be interfered with until it was demonstrated whether my plan was practicable.” (Grant’s memoirs, p. 268) I don’t want to give the impression that Lincoln didn’t occasionally order troops moved, especially when he thought Washington needed more defense. But, the term micromanagement, and the impression it gives, is wholly inappropriate. DiLorenzo also gives the wrong impression by talking about waging war on civilians. This would tend to make one think that the Union armies were intentionally trying to kill civilians. But of course, that’s not what they were doing. They were living off the land, and they were trying to eliminate the supplies that, otherwise, would benefit the Confederate army. Of course, civilians suffered because of this, but they weren’t being intentionally killed. Victor Davis Hanson, speaking of Sherman, has opined that his method of warfare probably shortened the war and ended up saving many lives.
As for DiLorenzo’s evidence of micromanagement, I think it is extremely weak, even laughable. Though he hasn’t shown it, I have little doubt that Lincoln would have approved of Sherman’s basic approach, but as far as I can see, he has provided no evidence at all that Lincoln personally intended or approved any atrocities.
So let’s go on to the 6th charge, that Lincoln was more responsible than anyone for centralizing power in the Federal Government. According to DiLorenzo: “Many historians consider President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal a point of demarcation with respect to the role of government in America, whereby the political economy was transformed from a limited constitutional government to a highly centralized welfare-warfare state…. But a clearer breaking point in the relationship between American citizens and the state was the South’s defeat in its war for independence.” (TGC, p. 243) What did Lincoln do to evoke this charge? In 1857, the maximum duty on imports was 24%. By 1862, according to DiLorenzo, “the average tariff rate had crept up to 47.06%.” (TGC, p.258) Lincoln signed into law the first income tax in American history. It had a top rate of 10% on incomes over $10,000. A system of nationally chartered banks was created, and Lincoln signed into law a Legal Tender Act that empowered the Sec. of the Treasury to issue paper money. Now, according to DiLorenzo, this was all done by way of enacting The American System, and in order to benefit special interests.
It just does not seem to have occurred to DiLorenzo that these things were done BECAUSE THERE WAS A WAR ON!!! 90% of government revenue was from the tariff, and before the war, according to DiLorenzo, most of that had been collected from the South. Clearly the cost of the war is sufficient to explain all of the above. It seems that, because DiLorenzo has so demonized Lincoln in his own mind, he is blinded to the overwhelmingly obvious explanation. But, at any rate, what really matters vis a vis the charge of being the great centralizer is, did those actions have a lasting effect? Here, I think a graph (Figure 3) is worth a thousand words. This graph shows government spending as a % of GNP. As a result of the Civil War, it goes from about 2% to about 2.5%. An exceedingly small ratchet effect. Now look at what happens as a result of the New Deal and WWII. It goes from about 3% to around 20%. Why such a dramatic difference. I think, because ideology is important. The Civil War was fought to extend individual rights. Some of the drafters and sponsors of the 14th amendment explicitly stated that the intent of the privileges and immunities clause was to apply the first 8 amendments of the Bill of Rights to the states. So the constitutional change was in the direction of greater individual freedom, not greater Federal Government power. It was a different story in the 1930’s. By the time the economy collapsed, the ideologies of progressivism, socialism, Marxism and Freudianism had already made considerable headway. Now their purveyors were able to gain influence and power. The accompanying constitutional changes, misinterpreting the general welfare and commerce clauses, facilitated a much-expanded paternalistic Federal Government. I think it is pretty clear that the Civil War and Abraham Lincoln are NOT responsible for our current welfare state.
Now, I would like to briefly consider some other problems with the book. In his chapter, The Costs of Lincoln’s War, DiLorenzo points out that the war “killed some 620,000 young men, including one-fourth of all the white males in the South between twenty and forty years of age…. An even larger hidden cost, however, is all the foregone contributions to society that all those men (and their never to be born offspring) would have made had they lived. Such things are incalculable.” I certainly agree that the cost of the civil war was extreme. In fact, I doubt that if Lincoln could have known in advance what it would cost, that he would have fought the war. But I don’t believe that using the “retrospectoscope” is the right way to judge historical actors. In the law, there are two kinds of causation, “but for” causation and legal causation. ‘But for’ causation takes the form, but for Klara Polzl marrying Alois Hitler, there would not have been a holocaust. Does this make them legally culpable for the holocaust? Of course not. Legal causation includes ‘but for’ causation, but adds the criterion of foresee-ability. Thus only if Klara could have reasonably foreseen that the holocaust would result from her marrying Alois, would she be legally responsible…and I think this same approach applies to moral responsibility. DiLorenzo himself says that, “Lincoln believed that the war would last only a few months…,” (TRL, p. 259) and this was a very common view. So, I think it is wrong to hold Lincoln responsible for events he couldn’t have reasonably foreseen. In addition, of course, he was not solely responsible for starting the war, or for its continuation. Particularly, after Gettysburg and Vicksburg, you could argue that the handwriting was on the wall…the South couldn’t win…and yet they persisted in order to create a society founded “…upon the great truth that the Negro is not the equal to the white man. That slavery…the subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.” That was Alexander Stephens, vice president of the Confederacy.
DiLorenzo spends a whole chapter on reconstruction, decrying the horrible devastation wrought on the South by the Republicans. His means of attributing this to Lincoln is to refer to the Republicans as “the party of Lincoln” and assert that they were following his example. I would just like to point out that Lincoln died in 1865, and it is widely accepted by historians that he would have been much more lenient with the South than the Radical Republicans were. His explicit statements support that view and his history shows he was not a vindictive man.
He also calls Lincoln an Imperialist, apparently for preventing the South from seceding. The dictionary definition of Imperialism is “belief in the desirability of acquiring colonies and dependencies.” (Oxford American Dictonary1980), so this is a pretty strange use of the word. But it’s especially strange, because Lincoln was opposed to the Mexican war while it was mostly southerners who supported the war as a means of expanding slave territory. In fact many southerners wanted to go after Cuba and Central America.
I think that history can be an objective science, but of course you can’t do historical experiments… the best you can hope for is to find natural experiments, and they are not likely to be decisive. Being able to do experiments is a powerful advantage for the physical sciences, because you can isolate variables…so history starts out with a big disadvantage. Nevertheless, you can still form hypotheses, and see if you can find historical evidence to support or refute them. In any scientific field, it is an advantage to have multiple lines of evidence supporting your hypothesis, but it is nowhere more important than in the historical sciences. This has been variously called consilience or the convergence of evidence. Another problem with history is that only a limited amount of evidence survives. Because of this, in history, it is vitally important to look at all the evidence available to search for that convergence of evidence.
In his book, DiLorenzo repeatedly ignores evidence that supplies relevant context. This, I think, counts as historical malpractice. Of course, DiLorenzo is an economist, but economics is in part a historical science and so that does not excuse him. He also commits non-sequiturs, e.g. claiming Lincoln could have tried gradual compensated emancipation, when the war started though Lincoln expressly opposed any emancipation. He attributes the actions of others to Lincoln on the flimsiest of evidence or no evidence, e.g. atrocities by Sherman’s army. He uses name-calling, which I think counts as ad hominem, e.g. calling Lincoln a mercantilist and an imperialist. All in all, I have to say that this book is a massive misrepresentation of the life and views of Abraham Lincoln. The best that can be said of the author is that he is unscholarly. I do think that the book has value, in that it can be used as an example of how not to do history…. I can even imagine it being used in college courses on historical method.
To sum up: If Lincoln was single-mindedly devoted to anything, it was after 1854, when he was devoted to stopping the extension of slavery. Lincoln voiced opposition to social and political equality only when he had to; he was under no great political pressure to vigorously oppose slavery on moral grounds. That he could have peacefully emancipated the slaves is simply a fantastic charge with no grounding in fact. The idea that secession was justified is based on the idea that state’s rights have priority over individual rights, but state’s rights, as embodied in the idea of federalism, are actually just a procedural protection for individual rights. Lincoln did not “micromanage” the war, or condone atrocities against civilians. And one need only look at the graph to see that he was not the Great Centralizer.
TRL: DiLorenzo, Thomas. “The Real Lincoln,” Prima Publishing, Roseville, California, 2002.
LAP: Freedman, Russell. “Lincoln A Photobiography,” Clarion Books, New York, NY, 1987.
Miller: Miller, William Lee. “Lincoln’s Virtues,” Alfred A. Knopf, New York, NY, 2002.
TGC: DiLorenzo, Thomas. “The Great Centralizer,” The Independent Review, Fall, 1998.
Sandefur: Sandefur, Timothy. “Liberty and Union, Now and Forever,” Liberty Magazine, July, 2002.
Grant’s memoirs: Penguin Classics edition, 1999.
|Country/Region||Year of Peaceful Emancipation|
|French and Danish colonies||1848|
Source: Fogel and Engerman 1974, 33-34. (TGC, p. 253)