In response to Dr. DiLorenzo’s renewed assault on Lincoln’s legacy, I want to do two things. First, to make three brief points regarding Lincoln’s actions at the level of statesmanship. Second, to point out, in two key instances from DiLorenzo’s reply to us, that his historical claims regarding what Lincoln said are breathtakingly false.
First, on Lincoln’s statesmanship. Principle and prudence dictated that Lincoln (a) condemn slavery and resist its expansion yet (b) promise to follow the Constitution and not interfere with the “peculiar institution” in states where it already existed. DiLorenzo argues as if the only defensible positions were complete and utter acquiescence in the evil of slavery or shredding the Constitution. Lincoln pursued the virtuous mean between these two vicious extremes.
DiLorenzo writes as if Lincoln’s embrace of tariffs were a greater betrayal of liberty than the Confederacy’s attempt to nullify the results of a free election and embrace of the “positive good” theory of slavery. Why does DiLorenzo concentrate his moral indignation on the man who emancipated slaves rather than on the Confederate leaders who fought to keep them on the plantation?
There is a natural right of revolution but no legal or constitutional right of secession. If any state can leave the Union any time it wants, without first obtaining the consent of all the other parties to the compact, then there is no Union, only a temporary alliance of convenience. This, however, was not what the founders envisioned when they framed the Articles of Confederation (“perpetual union between the states”) and, later, the Constitution (“a more perfect union”).
Now I will consider the historical accuracy of several of DiLorenzo’s claims about what Lincoln said. DiLorenzo claims that “In virtually every one of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, Lincoln made it a point to champion this corrupt economic agenda.” “This corrupt economic agenda,” we are told, was the “Whig/mercantilist agenda of protectionist tariffs, corporate welfare for the railroad industry, and government monopolization of the money supply.”
Here is a simple claim of fact which one can investigate, and upon which the reputation for veracity of a professional historian might well depend. Having reviewed the entire Lincoln-Douglas debates twice since DiLorenzo’s astonishing claim on WND, I can find not a single word, in any of the debates, that by any stretch of bad interpretation or misreading, refers in any way, to any economic agenda, corrupt or otherwise. Perhaps Dr. DiLorenzo would care to comment on this fact, having told us that in “virtually every one of the debates, Lincoln made it a point to champion [his] corrupt economic agenda.” Better, perhaps he would care to cite a text.
The second claim I will examine is DiLorenzo’s statement that, “when commenting on the Dred Scott decision on June 26, 1857, he bitterly denounced Andrew Jackson’s refusal, some 30 years earlier, to recharter the Second Bank of the United States.”
This is a different case. Lincoln’s Dred Scott speech does include a brief passage actually mentioning Andrew Jackson, which I reproduce below. But it is not remotely a “bitter denunciation” of anything, much less of General Jackson’s veto a quarter century before.
The topic of Lincoln’s speech, and the only reason for mentioning the Second Bank of the United States, is slavery. Judge Douglas has insisted that Lincoln abide by the Dred Scott decision simply because the Supreme Court issued it. Lincoln points out that President Jackson cited unconstitutionality as one of his reasons for vetoing the bill authorizing the Second Bank, even after the Supreme Court had ruled that a national bank was constitutional. Douglas, Lincoln says, approved of this instance of independent presidential judgment – Lincoln asks why Douglas now denies to the Republicans the right to pass their own judgment on the constitutionality of federal law banning slavery in the territories.
Here is the entire portion of the speech that mentions Jackson:
“Why this same Supreme court once decided a national bank to be constitutional; but Gen. Jackson, as President of the United States, disregarded the decision, and vetoed a bill for a re-charter, partly on constitutional ground, declaring that each public functionary must support the Constitution, “as he understands it.” But hear the general’s own words. Here they are, taken from his veto message:”
(I omit President Jackson’s words. They do not constitute a “bitter denunciation” of his own veto.)
“Again and again I have heard Judge Douglas denounce that bank decision, and applaud Gen. Jackson for disregarding it. It would be interesting for him to look over his recent speech, and see how exactly his fierce philippics against us for resisting Supreme Court decisions, fall upon his own head. It will call to his mind a long and fierce political war in this country, upon an issue which, in his own language, and, of course, in his own changeless estimation, was ‘a distinct and naked issue between the friends and the enemies of the Constitution,’ and in which war he fought in the ranks of the enemies of the Constitution.”
To summarize: Lincoln mentions Jackson’s veto simply to show Douglas is inconsistent in demanding obedience of all to Supreme Court decisions “as political rules.” He expresses not the slightest shadow of an opinion on the merits of the veto itself. The merits of the veto, and the wisdom of a national bank are utterly unrelated to Lincoln’s speech, in part or whole.
And yet Dr. DiLorenzo, professional economic historian, reports to us that Lincoln “bitterly denounced Andrew Jackson’s refusal, some 30 years earlier, to recharter the Second Bank of the United States.” I do not know what falsifying an historical record would look like, if this is not it.
DiLorenzo concludes his demonstration that Lincoln’s chief focus from 1854 to 1860 was the corrupt Republican economic agenda by claiming that Lincoln “repeated this complaint a month later in a debate with Douglas.” This too is simply false. There is no “debate with Douglas” until August of the following year. And Lincoln did not “bitterly denounce” Jackson’s veto then, either.
I hope that Dr. DiLorenzo would care to explain these apparent inaccuracies without claims that they are “ad hominem.” Perhaps then we can turn to a more reasonable discussion of the actual statesmanship of the actual Lincoln, and not the demon Lincoln of such wild imaginings.
David Quackenbush is a senior academic fellow with the Declaration Foundation.