Lincoln: Tyrant or champion … or both?

By Geoff Metcalf

I have now interviewed both Dr. Tom DiLorenzo and Dr. Richard Ferrier regarding our 16th president, Abraham Lincoln. I entered the controversy intrigued, but really without a dog in the fight. As I have too often said, “It is not a question of who is right or wrong but what is right or wrong that counts.”

I am not a Lincoln hater and I don’t idolize the man. Like most of you, I am an interested student.

As usual, both sides have merits and shortfalls. However, in the wake of the two interviews, myriad e-mails and having read, “The Real Lincoln” and the Lincoln-Douglas debates, I have reached personal conclusions.

But, frankly, my conclusions are tainted. I have a few pet peeves. Honesty, to me, is important both in content and in character. I consider “Duty, Honor, Country” as more than a cute phrase, but a credo. Oaths are important, significant, and not to be entered into or broken cavalierly.

When any person swears a sacred oath to “preserve and protect the Constitution,” they have made a lifelong commitment. I am routinely annoyed and offended by people who take the oath and subsequently (by thought, deed and action) undermine, abrogate or attempt to alter the very document that they have sworn to “preserve and protect.”

I consider those who violate that oath as being guilty of fraud, perjury and treason.

When I interviewed DiLorenzo I told him he had provided me with an epiphany. I have frequently noted that when the framers were forming the republic, Jefferson and Hamilton had a long series of debates. Jefferson was arguing for states’ rights, and Hamilton wanted a big federal bureaucracy – like we have now. Historically, Jefferson won the debate.

I have been trying to figure out at what point in our history Jefferson lost. I used to think it was inertia building until 1913, and then FDR. But actually, Lincoln should get the credit for defeating Jefferson for Hamilton.

DiLorenzo said, “One of the main themes of my book is that Abraham Lincoln was the political son of Alexander Hamilton … Lincoln took up the Hamiltonian mantle of big, centralized government, centralized planning, autocratic leadership. The great debates between the Jeffersonians and the Hamiltonians were ended at gunpoint under the directorship of Abraham Lincoln, in my view. And I think that debate was ended by 1865.”

I am more convinced than ever that DiLorenzo is right about that.

Ferrier told me his complaints with DiLorenzo were “falsehood in details, sloppiness of scholarship and a fundamentally wrong-headed view of the role of Lincoln and the Declaration of Independence, and American history and our political philosophy.”

I’ll get to the “falsehood” charge, but “a fundamentally wrong-headed view of the role of Lincoln” is really a kinda high-handed and pretentious way of saying, “I’m right and he’s wrong.” Although DiLorenzo didn’t say so, I suspect he probably feels the same way about Ferrier and his other critics. By extension and association, Ferrier also must feel Professor Walter Williams has a “fundamentally wrong-headed view of the role of Lincoln.”

Ferrier made some good points. However, in my view, in one defense, he further diminishes his idol as disingenuous, calculating and adroit at parsing “weasel words.”

In discussing slavery, he confirmed Lincoln said, “I have no purpose to introduce political and social equality between white and black races, and I have never said anything to the contrary.” He corrected the DiLorenzo citation, but said, “Lincoln, who was a lawyer and was careful with his words, did not say ‘I do not believe in that equality. I do not think it is a good thing.’ He said, ‘I have no purpose to introduce it.’ Those are the words of a careful lawyerly politician …”

In other words Lincoln was using Clintonian verbiage carefully qualifying the definition of what “is” is. So, when Lincoln said, “I have no purpose,” Ferrier says he meant, “I don’t at the moment intend to bring about such equality.” And if he had said anything else in Illinois in the 1850s, he couldn’t have been elected to dogcatcher. So Lincoln (according to Dr. Ferrier) was being duplicitous – in other words, dishonest.

Both these professors score points in the debate. DiLorenzo apparently misstates citations and uses quotes to support his position and ignores quotes that undercut it. By the way, Ferrier likewise seems comfortable ignoring facts that contradict his preconceived opinion.

DiLorenzo and Ferrier are academics and scholars. I am not. However, a lot of the things Lincoln did were specifically designed to abrogate, eviscerate and destroy the very document to which he swore an oath. For Ferrier and company to say, “Well, gosh, the other guys were doing it too,” is not an adequate defense.

Karen DeCoster has been accused of excess in her criticism of Lincoln. However, in my view, she is right when she says he was, “A conniving and manipulative man … he was nowhere near what old guard historians would have us believe.”