Thursday, October 23, 2014

DiLorenzo's Fake Lincoln

Some weeks back I was in an online discussion about good Lincoln biographies. The book that received the most mentions was The Real Lincoln: A New Look at Abraham Lincoln, His Agenda, and an Unnecessary War, by Thomas DiLorenzo. Some brief internet searching revealed that the book is quite controversial and has been charged with gross distortion of history. Nevertheless, I was morbidly curious enough to read it myself.

DiLorenzo's stated goal is to get past the "myths" of Lincoln that he believes is all too common and reveal the truth about the man. (p. 1-2) Yet despite his claims, DiLorenzo actually fails to uncover anything particularly novel about our sixteenth president. Instead, he does the opposite, and in so doing becomes the very type of historian he decries. He presents an abridged history, selectively using events, quotes, and supporting scholars to further his thesis driven work. In fact, DiLorenzo identifies nothing about Lincoln's views of  race, southern succession, national unity, or methods of emancipation that is not addressed with greater care and context in Doris Kearns Goodwin's much superior Team of Rivals. In comparison, The Real Lincoln reminds me of a rushed college paper where all facts must be squeezed into the neatly predetermined premise and no argument should be examined too closely.

The thesis is quite simple. Too simple. Abraham Lincoln began the Civil War to further the centralized "American System," which he identifies as the combination of a protective tariff, internal improvements (subsidies, particularly for railroads), and a national bank. Addressing the issue of slavery was merely a means to that end. In fact, DiLorenzo goes so far as to conclude that subsidizing railroads "seems more and more like the sole reason the Republican Party was created in the first place." (p. 222-23)

DiLorenzo's historical errors have been addressed elsewhere and elsewhere. They could, and did, fill an entire book. Even a sympathetic reviewer concluded: "The Real Lincoln is a travesty of historical method and documentation. Exasperating, maddening, and deeply disappointing." These reviewers have quite adequately pointed out the worst errors concerning Lincoln. I want to focus on the errors concerning Lincoln's world.

First of all, DiLorenzo repeatedly accuses Lincoln of subverting or ignoring the Constitution. Yet his constitutional reasoning makes me wonder if  he has ever carefully read the document or if he simply uses the term "unconstitutional" for anything he doesn't like.For example, DiLorenzo faults Lincoln for:
ignor[ing] the economic logic of the commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution, which--in order to guarantee free interstate commerce--made it illegal for one state to impose a tariff on goods imported from another state. If free trade among states is a good idea--and it is--it is just as good an idea with regard to international trade. This was the thinking of the framers of the idea as well. Jefferson and Washington, for example, were staunch advocates of free international commerce as well as interstate commerce. (p. 69-70)
Yet he fails to mention that tariffs on international commerce are explicitly permitted by the Constitution (Article 1, section 1, clause 1) and one of the first major acts passed by the new Congress was the Tariff Act of 1789, which was signed into law by President Washington.

Likewise, DiLorenzo labels the whole "American System" (tariffs, banking, and subsidies) "mercantilist" (p. 56) and favorably references the "constitutional arguments" made against such a system by "Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Jackson, Tyler and others." (p. 234). Yet he never informs his readers that John Marshal, himself a member of the founding generation and delegate to the Virginia ratification convention, wrote a unanimous opinion for the Supreme Court finding that chartering a national bank was a proper exercise of the power to regulate interstate commerce. Instead, DiLorenzo leaves the reader with the distinct impression that both tariffs and the bank are obvious unconstitutional overreaches of federal power.

Much ink is also shed over Lincoln's suspension of habeas corpus, but despite that ink the reader would not know that the Constitution says: "The Privilege of the Writ of Habeas Corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public Safety may require it." (Article 1, section 9, clause 2.) Nor is the reader told that despite this same phrase's appearance in the Confederate Constitution, Jefferson Davis also suspended habeas corpus and other civil liberties. Failure to even engage the constitution text does not make for a strong constitutional argument. For those truly interested in a serious discussion of the habeas corpus suspension, as well as other constitutional questions from the era, see Mark Neely's Lincoln and the Triumph of the Nation: Constitutional Conflict in the American Civil War.

DiLorenzo's Constitutional double standard is further on show in his discussion of internal improvement subsidies. Somehow, after railing against the corruption that invariably accompanies internal improvement subsidies (not to mention his skepticism of their constitutionality),  DiLorenzo faults Lincoln for not adopting a method of compensated emancipation. Apart from the fact that Lincoln and the Republicans had initially pursued that avenue with no cooperation from the states, such a measure would be subject to the exact same criticisms that DiLorenzo had for other subsidy systems. Yet for DiLorenzo, no stick seems too poor to beat Lincoln. By this point, he looks less like lady justice blindly weighing the facts and more like a blindfolded child wildly waving a stick at a piƱata.

Apart from his stilted view of the Constitution, DiLorenzo also repeatedly demonstrates that he has little knowledge of pre-Lincoln American history. In an odd twist, the author who claims to be giving a closer look than anyone else to one of our most famous Presidents has failed to look closely at anyone else. DiLorenzo paints the American founding as a libertarian happy place marred only by the existence of Alexander Hamilton and his ilk.  In his portrayal, all the founding fathers (except Hamilton) believed in right of succession/revolt against oppression (except for slaves), in freedom and liberty (except for slaves), in free markets (with slave labor), and in strong restrictions on the use of state authority (except for runaway slaves). Lurking in the shadows were Alexander Hamilton, Daniel Webster, and Henry Clay, held at bay by Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Andrew Jackson, and John Calhoun. Lincoln finally accomplished what Hamilton etc. could only dream about, the destruction of the federalist system.

That the loose confederation model of voluntary enforcement did not work under the Articles of Confederation is apparently an irrelevant detail. As is Jefferson's complete absence from the Constitutional Convention. As is the passage of tariffs and chartering of national bank by the very first Congress. As is the early passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts (DiLorenzo calls their "quick[]" abandonment a demonstration of how the foundation generation "jealously protected rights," (p. 131) but does does not bother to enlighten us what their initial adoption a mere 11 years after the Constitution was ratified means). Lincoln is even blamed for the ill treatment of Native Americans that took place in the wars after his death (and some during his administration), while Andrew Jackson is somehow lionized for his proper view of government with no mention made of his awful Indian policies.

Lincoln is routinely weighed against those who DiLorenzo believes are the truly great presidents, Jefferson, Madison, and Jackson, and found wanting. But it takes little more than a basic knowledge of these other presidents to realize that DiLorenzo's standard is one of convenience, not history. Madison's co-authorship of the Federalist Papers with Hamilton is hardly mentioned. Lincoln is chastised for his eagerness for war, but Madison's War of 1812 (pushed for by Calhoun) is also not mentioned. And there is not even attempt to reconcile Jefferson's Louisiana Purchase with DiLorenzo's version of Jefferson as a strict adherent to limited spending and executive power.

But the oddest historical oversight is DiLorenzo's treatment of Andrew Jackson. DiLorenzo holds up Jackson as one of the strongest supports of states rights, including the right of states to nullify federal laws and secede from the Union. Apparently, he has either never heard of or didn't think it worthwhile to mention the Nullification Crisis in 1832--the incident where Jackson was on the verge of ordering federal troops into South Carolina to enforce federal laws. Madison likewise stated during this time that South Carolina was in the wrong. In the lead up to the Civil War, Lincoln looked to Jackson for guidance on how to respond to rogue states. Jon Meacham addresses this in detail in American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House. Yet ignoring all this, DiLorenzo tells his readers that "Thomas Jefferson was perhaps the most articulate defender of states' rights, followed by Andrew Jackson..."(p. 261) Yet for all DiLorenzo's rhetoric, I'd put $5.01 on Lincoln in any debate between him and DiLorenzo over a proper understanding of Jackson's legacy.

Towards the end of the book, we get a fascinating glimpse of DiLorenzo's dizzying intellect, which I will quote in its entirety to avoid any accusations of tampering. He speculates that had Lincoln allowed the southern states to peacefully leave,
[a]fter a number of years, the same reasons that led the colonists to form a Union in the first place would likely have become more appealing to both sections, and the Union would probably have been reunited. 
After that, knowing that secession was a real threat, the federal government would have stuck closer to its constitutional bearings. The mere threat of peaceful secession would have had that effect on it. Its imperialistic tendencies and the large tax increases necessary to finance such adventures would have been checked. We may never have had a Spanish-American War. We may also have never had a president like Woodrow Wilson, who was so eager to involve Americans in a foreign war. Economist Han-Hermann Hoppe argues in a recent book that if America had not intervened in World War I, the European monarchies would have eventually worked out a peace agreement that was not so punishing on Germany, and that may have even precluded the rise of the Nazi Party, which itself was partly a reaction to the Versailles treaty of World War I. (p. 272-73)
Yes, DiLorenzo traces the Holocaust back to Abraham Lincoln. But why stop with Lincoln? This sort of reasoning can trace infinitely back to any person. Which only demonstrates how malleable and faulty this sort of historical analysis is.

DiLorenzo opened his book claiming that "much of what has been written about Lincoln is a myth." (p. 1) Whether true or not of others, DiLorenzo ensures that it is a self-fulfilling prophecy for his own work, not only for Lincoln but also for the Constitution, the founding generation, and Andrew Jackson. His premise is simply too neat and tidy to be considered a serious history.
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