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Examining 'evidence' of Lincoln's tyranny

In a recent WND interview with Geoff Metcalf, Dr. Thomas DiLorenzo suggested that those who have found fault with his recent book, “The Real Lincoln,” and its thesis that Lincoln was a tyrant, have avoided the facts and arguments of that book:

“We academics pride ourselves in criticizing each other a lot, but criticizing on the basis of facts and logic and argument. But there has been a lot of name-calling and that sort of thing. That tells me I must be hitting a responsive chord, because if my arguments were weak, they could just shoot them down and not have to call me names.”

Accordingly, I have selected the following texts from the book and from Dr. DiLorenzo’s public writings in its defense. I believe that these texts accurately reflect the consistent quality of scholarship and argument throughout “The Real Lincoln.” (All emphasis added in the texts below.)

First, Dr. DiLorenzo has claimed, in “The Real Lincoln” and in his recent public writing, that Lincoln’s “real agenda” throughout his entire political career, was the pursuit of corrupt economic centralization. A colleague and I pointed out that, if this were true, it is remarkable that Lincoln said practically nothing about economics in the crucial years of his rise to national political prominence. In fact, the Lincoln of those years spoke almost exclusively of the evil of slavery and the threat it posed to the Union. In his WND column of Feb. 20, Dr. DiLorenzo responded thus:

“The claim by Ferrier and Quackenbush that Lincoln never talked about his career-long devotion to the Whig/mercantilist agenda of protectionist tariffs, corporate welfare for the railroad industry and government monopolization of the money supply from 1854 on belies their claim that they have read all of Lincoln’s post-1854 speeches. In virtually every one of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, Lincoln made it a point to champion this corrupt economic agenda.”

This claim is also presented in “The Real Lincoln” as a crucial piece of evidence revealing Lincoln’s mind in the 1850s. Please note that Dr. DiLorenzo chose this evidence as his direct reply to our claim that Lincoln was entirely silent on his supposed “economic agenda” over the seven years of his rise to the presidency. In his book and in his reply to Dr. Ferrier and me, the best evidence Dr. DiLorenzo could marshal in support of his thesis that Lincoln was motivated chiefly by an economic agenda was the claim, “In virtually every one of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, Lincoln made it a point to champion this corrupt economic agenda.”

Somehow, however, DiLorenzo failed to cite any of these acts of championship. It is not difficult to demonstrate why. They do not exist.

Consider the following quotation from Dr. James M. McPherson’s “Battle Cry of Freedom,” the Civil War volume of “The Oxford History of the United States.” Dr. McPherson introduces his treatment of the Lincoln Douglas debates by noting precisely the absence of any trace of the evidence Dr. DiLorenzo claims is found in them:

“Desiring to confront Douglas directly, Lincoln proposed a series of debates. … The stakes were higher than a senatorial election, higher even than the looming presidential contest of 1860, for the theme of the debates was nothing less than the future of slavery and the Union. Tariffs, banks, internal improvements, corruption, and other staples of American politics received not a word in these debates – the sole topic was slavery.”

Those who find it strange that Dr. DiLorenzo could find evidence of Lincoln’s economic fixation in precisely the debates which struck Dr. McPherson so strongly by their lack of any such evidence should read on. It gets stranger.

Turning to a second example from “The Real Lincoln,” we find DiLorenzo telling the reader:

“Roy Basler, the editor of Lincoln’s ‘Collected Works,’ commented that Lincoln barely mentioned slavery before 1854, and when he did, ‘his words lacked effectiveness.'”

In his WorldNetDaily column, DiLorenzo went further, saying Basler “wrote that Lincoln barely ever mentioned the topic prior to 1854 and even then, he did not seem at all sincere. ‘His words lacked effectiveness,’ writes Basler.”

One notes immediately Dr. DiLorenzo’s strange confidence that the reader will accept “lacked effectiveness” as equivalent to “not at all sincere.” Turning to the Basler text Dr. DiLorenzo cites, we discover that it occurs in a paragraph devoted not, as Dr. DiLorenzo falsely implies, to the general topic of Lincoln’s words on slavery after 1854, but to a single speech, the Dred Scott speech of 1857. Basler writes of the Dred Scott speech:

“Although the speech contains some of the most memorable passages in his writings, it lacks the unity of effect which marks his best. The truth is that Lincoln had no solution to the problem of slavery except the colonization idea which he had inherited from Henry Clay, and when he spoke beyond his points of limiting the extension of slavery, of preserving the essential central idea of human equality, and of respecting the Negro as a human being, his words lacked effectiveness.” (page 23: “Abraham Lincoln: His Speeches and Writings”)

According to Dr. DiLorenzo, Basler says Lincoln’s words on slavery after 1854 “lacked effectiveness” and “did not seem at all sincere.” But the actual quotation clearly implies that – even in this single speech, Basler’s only topic – Lincoln’s words on slavery were not ineffective on the crucial questions “of the extension of slavery, of preserving the essential central idea of human equality, and of respecting the Negro as a human being.” Regarding Lincoln’s insincerity, we find not the slightest trace of a comment.

Would Roy Basler, editor of the collected works of Lincoln, think that it is accurate or honest for Dr. DiLorenzo to represent him as saying that Lincoln’s words on slavery “after 1854” were ineffective and “did not seem at all sincere”? Yet Dr. DiLorenzo cites four words from Basler’s paragraph to suggest, quite falsely, that the editor of Lincoln’s “Collected Works” dismissed Lincoln’s entire corpus of words on slavery after 1854 as ineffective and insincere.

It gets worse. Dr. DiLorenzo actually quoted this Basler text once before, in an article entitled, “The Great Centralizer: Abraham Lincoln and the War between the States” [July 1998 Independent Review]. In the acknowledgments to “The Real Lincoln,” Dr. DiLorenzo says that this article benefited from the “advice of two anonymous peer reviewers” and formed the “backbone” of the current book.

So much for “peer review.” Basler is the first authority DiLorenzo cites in his 1998 article, and on its second page we find the following attempt at a sentence, reproduced here verbatim as it appeared in The Independent Review:

“Basler writes that as of 1857 Lincoln ‘had no solution to the problem of slavery except the colonization idea which he had inherited from Henry Clay … when he spoke … of respecting the Negro as a human being, his words lacked effectiveness'” (23).

Compare the relevant part of this ungrammatical passage to Basler’s original and perfectly clear sentence from page 23, reproduced in full above. Dr. DiLorenzo used his handy snips to convert Basler’s clear implication that Lincoln’s 1857 words were effective on the point “of respecting the Negro as a human being” to the direct statement that Lincoln’s 1857 words were not effective on precisely that point.

This was in 1998. In the intervening four years, Dr. DiLorenzo has apparently decided that it is better to be more terse in his quotations, that he may be more expansive in his interpretation. In “The Real Lincoln,” as we have seen, he quotes only four words of Basler’s text. But in this second go round with the Basler text, it is Lincoln’s words on slavery, in general, after 1854 (not just those Lincoln spoke in 1857), that are dismissed as ineffective, with “not at all sincere” added for good measure. All of this, of course, DiLorenzo presents as Basler’s professional historical judgment.

DiLorenzo clearly considers the Basler text a crucial piece of evidence. He led off with Basler in 1998, includes it in his book and makes it his first point in his reply to Dr. Ferrier and me. Examining the weird sequence of DiLorenzo’s serial abuse of Basler’s text, one concludes that it is not Lincoln whose words “lack effectiveness” and do “not seem at all sincere.”

For another example of Dr. DiLorenzo’s meticulous use of secondary literature, we may turn to the following passages from “The Real Lincoln”:

“In ‘Fate of Liberty: Abraham Lincoln and Civil Rights,’ Mark E. Neely Jr. observed that as early as the 1840s Lincoln, one of the most ambitious politicians in American history, was seething with resentment over the fact that the Constitution stood in the way of the Whig economic program and his vaunted American System. At that time, writes Neely, ‘Lincoln appeared to be marching steadily toward a position of gruff and belittling impatience with constitutional arguments against the beleaguered Whig program.'”

DiLorenzo continues:

“The Federalist/Whig program of protectionist tariffs, nationalized banking and government subsidies for corporations was foiled for 60 years by strict constructionist interpretations of the Constitution. Once he and the old Whigs were finally in power, Lincoln was not about to let the Constitution stand in his way.”

As the highlighted portions make clear, Dr. DiLorenzo attributes to Neely the historical judgment that Lincoln was “seething with resentment” over “the fact that the Constitution stood in the way” of his economic program, and “was not about to let the Constitution stand in his way.”

But Neely says nothing of the kind. On the very page of Neely’s book that DiLorenzo cites we find the following two passages:

“Lincoln was satisfied that the U.S. Supreme Court had declared a national bank constitutional, as had a majority of the country’s famous founders.”

“Lincoln thought them both constitutional, of course.” (the bank and the “subtreasury,” the Democratic alternative, DQ)

Neely makes crystal clear that Lincoln’s frustration was not with the Constitution, but with what he considered to be obtuse and willful refusal by Democrats to admit (to Lincoln) the manifest constitutionality of the bank. Neely is also, it is true, developing the larger theme that Lincoln as a young politician was more practically than theoretically minded, but he says nothing to suggest that Lincoln would resist or resent what he thought a true interpretation of the Constitution. He even summarizes Lincoln’s argument for the constitutionality of the bank on the same page.

Can Dr. DiLorenzo not distinguish between frustration at the Constitution, and frustration at those whom Lincoln sincerely believed persisted willfully to misread the Constitution? Is it not clear that by “impatience with constitutional arguments against the beleaguered Whig program” Neely means the latter, and not the former?

Neely proceeds, still on the page Dr. DiLorenzo cited:

“A set of resolutions drafted by Lincoln and adopted at a Whig meeting in Springfield in 1843 reiterated his position on the proven constitutionality of a national bank, and followed with this abrupt dismissal of Democratic arguments against the distribution of the proceeds from the sale of the national lands: ‘Much incomprehensible jargon is often urged against the constitutionality of this measure. We forbear, in this place, attempting to answer it, simply because, in our opinion, those who urge it, are, through party zeal, resolved not to see or acknowledge the truth.'”

Dr. DiLorenzo uses the one sentence he quotes from Neely to give the clear impression that Neely had written that Lincoln resented the restraint imposed on his political agenda by the Constitution. But Neely makes it absolutely clear that Lincoln was frustrated by partisan zealotry taking the form of constitutional argument, a very different matter.

I will preface the fourth, and most striking instance of Dr. DiLorenzo’s creative textual interpretations by noting that only in two chapters of the book, “Lincoln’s Opposition to Racial Equality” and “Why Not Peaceful Emancipation?,” does Dr. DiLorenzo quote so much as a full sentence of Abraham Lincoln’s words, with the single exception of a sentence from the first inaugural. This in itself is a fascinating demonstration of DiLorenzo’s method of scholarship. The vast majority of a book entitled “The Real Lincoln” contains precisely one quoted sentence from Lincoln. But it is filled with extensive quotations from other historical figures, scholars, etc., and above all with Dr. DiLorenzo’s confident narrative explaining to us how all these things reveal the real Lincoln. Lincoln himself, however, is muzzled.

Dr. DiLorenzo presumes throughout to speak for Lincoln, revealing to us Lincoln’s tyrannical motives and base purposes, his fallacious reasoning and duplicitous explanations – without quoting from him. Accordingly, much of a reader’s insight into the “real Lincoln” depends on Dr. DiLorenzo’s fidelity and accuracy in selecting and presenting evidence, and interpreting it. In this light, consider the following passage, my final example of the quality of Dr. DiLorenzo’s evidence:

DiLorenzo says:

“Lincoln even mocked the Jeffersonian dictum enshrined in the Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal. He admitted that it had become ‘a genuine coin in the political currency of our generation.’ But added, ‘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.'”

Dr. DiLorenzo finishes the paragraph by proving that the Gettysburg Address was insincere and manipulative, in view of the now established fact of Lincoln’s contempt for the Declaration principle of human equality.

Continuing to find a rich mine of imaginary evidence in the Lincoln Douglas debates, Dr. DiLorenzo inaccurately identifies the first debate as the source of Lincoln’s mocking words. They are actually snipped from Lincoln’s “Eulogy to Clay,” delivered in 1852. But no matter. More important is the question whether we can trust Dr. DiLorenzo to select quotations that reveal to us the real Lincoln.

How shall we answer this question? Perhaps some context will help. Here is a more complete quotation from Lincoln’s “Eulogy to Clay:”

“But I would also, if I could, array [Clay’s] name, opinions, and influence against the opposite extreme – against a few, but an increasing number of men, who, for the sake of perpetuating slavery, are beginning to assail and to ridicule the white-man’s charter of freedom – the declaration that ‘all men are created free and equal.’ So far as I have learned, the first American, of any note, to do or attempt this, was the late John C. Calhoun; and if I mistake not, it soon after found its way into some of the messages of the governors of South Carolina.

“We, however, look for, and are not much shocked by, political eccentricities and heresies in South Carolina. But, only last year, I saw with astonishment, what purported to be a letter of a very distinguished and influential clergyman of Virginia, copied, with apparent approbation, into a St. Louis newspaper, containing the following, to me, very extraordinary language –

‘I am fully aware that there is a text in some Bibles that is not in mine. Professional abolitionists have made more use of it, than of any passage in the Bible. It came, however, as I trace it, from Saint Voltaire, and was baptized by Thomas Jefferson, and since almost universally regarded as canonical authority “All men are born free and equal.”

‘This is a genuine coin in the political currency of our generation. 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.’

“This sounds strangely in republican America. The like was not heard in the fresher days of the Republic.”

Far from mocking our ancient Declaration creed, as DiLorenzo claims on his behalf, Lincoln laments the corruption of public sentiment that has occurred since Jefferson’s time. He calls the Virginia clergyman’s words, by clear implication, a “political heresy.” But DiLorenzo reports the clergyman’s words as Lincoln’s own.

How, might we be permitted to ask, was it possible for a scholar of good will and serious attention to have misread this text so completely? I invite the reader to consider the passage, and try to imagine committing the mistake of thinking that Lincoln is mocking the Declaration.

Dr. DiLorenzo’s method of giving us the real Lincoln is passing strange. It includes ascribing to Lincoln things Lincoln never said and, in fact, rejected as astonishing political heresy in the very passage our author cites. Truly a man might “prove” much with such methods.

To summarize:

Suppressed evidence, misquotation, misconstruction of context, incompetent citations, inaccurate implication – it’s all here. I have chosen these four examples from a much longer and ever-growing list. But these examples are utterly characteristic of the entire book. Dr. DiLorenzo wonders why the scholarly world has not responded with argument to his revelation of evidence that Lincoln was a tyrant. It may be because his “evidence” is such a cooked up mess.

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David Quackenbush is a senior academic fellow with the Declaration Foundation.