A review of The Real Lincoln: A New Look at Abraham Lincoln, His Agenda, and an Unnecessary War, by Thomas DiLorenzo

With malice towards all and charity towards none of Abraham Lincoln's principles and actions, The Real Lincoln is the latest attempt to finish the job so ignobly begun by John Wilkes Booth in April 1865. Although Lincoln breathed no more after that, his character and reputation lived on, to be sniped at ever since. The Lincoln haters are an increasingly diverse lot, with strange and not always compatible purposes. The alleged purpose of Thomas DiLorenzo's invective is to defend constitutionalism and free market economics. He claims to demonstrate that Lincoln was an enemy of both, as well as a hypocrite on the subject of "racial equality." What he mainly demonstrates, however, is that his aim is not nearly as good as Booth's. 

As the title suggests, The Real Lincoln purports to go beyond the mountains of revisionist historiography to reveal Lincoln's genuine principles and purposes. According to DiLorenzo, these had nothing to do with the perpetuation of free government and the problem of slavery: The "real" Lincoln did not care a whit about the "peculiar institution." At the core of the "real" Lincoln's ambition was an unqualified and unwavering commitment to mercantilism, or socialism as DiLorenzo sometimes intimates. Lincoln would stop at nothing to impose the "Whig economic system" upon America, and any opinion he voiced regarding slavery was merely instrumental in advancing this end. Lincoln's "cause," in the words of DiLorenzo, was "centralized government and the pursuit of empire." According to DiLorenzo, Lincoln said this "over and over again," although DiLorenzo does not trouble himself to produce a shred of evidence for this assertion. 

If the "real" Lincoln needed to resort to war to advance his cause, he was happy to do it: "Lincoln decided that he had to wage war on the South," because only military might would destroy "the constitutional logjam behind which the old Whig economic policy agenda had languished." In the end, writes DiLorenzo, "[Lincoln] wanted war" and "was not about to let the Constitution stand in his way." Lincoln was devoted to undermining the Constitution in the name of tariffs and internal improvement schemes. In its place Lincoln hoped to build a centralized mercantilist-socialist state, with himself at the helm.

Of course Lincoln and his Republican party supported tariffs, as had many Federalists, Democrats, and Whigs before them. They understood, as DiLorenzo does not, that all economics is political economics, and that in a world dominated by monarchs it made sense to encourage the expansion of American manufacturing power through tariffs. According to DiLorenzo's libertarian-public choice analysis, Alexander Hamilton and his Whig followers — Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, and Lincoln above all — were arch-villain "statists" for supporting tariffs, while Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and John C. Calhoun were defenders of "free trade." DiLorenzo seems not to know that the first protective tariff in American history (1816) was introduced by Calhoun and supported by Madison and Jefferson, and opposed by Webster. DiLorenzo is so blinded by his commitment to purely theoretical free trade that he is oblivious to the real growing division between pro-slavery and pro-freedom forces in America in the 1850s. He cannot see that tariffs were in the service of free trade because they were in the service of freedom: tariffs advantaged free labor and put the squeeze on slave-labor economies.

In fact, DiLorenzo's "new look" shows us nothing new. From the time of Jefferson Davis's The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government and Alexander Stephens's A Constitutional View of the Late War Between the States, the anti-Lincoln columns have marched over and over the same tired ground. Edgar Lee Masters's Lincoln the Man, which DiLorenzo quotes approvingly, was a breathless compilation of every slander ever made against Lincoln. But if DiLorenzo's message is old hat, the incompetence of the messenger is surely unprecedented. The book is a compendium of misquotations, out-of-context quotations, and wrongly attributed quotations — one howler after another, yet none of it funny. 

For example, DiLorenzo repeatedly asserts that Lincoln did not believe in human equality and shared the widely held prejudices of his time that blacks were inferior. Here is DiLorenzo:


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" So, with the possible exception of Siamese Twins, the idea of equality, according to Lincoln, was a sheer absurdity. This is in stark contrast to the seductive words of the Gettysburg Address, eleven years later, in which he purported to rededicate the nation to the notion that all men are created equal.

DiLorenzo cites the first joint debate between Lincoln and Stephen Douglas, held in Ottawa, Illinois, in 1858, as the source of the quotation. The language actually comes from Lincoln's eulogy of his longtime friend and colleague Henry Clay, delivered in July 1852. But that is the least of DiLorenzo's problems. He uses this quotation, and a few other excerpted phrases, to "prove" that Lincoln's professed belief in human equality was disingenuous. Here are Lincoln's actual words:


[There are] 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 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 equal and free.'

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.

DiLorenzo thus attributes to Lincoln the words of a Virginia clergyman whom Lincoln quoted and then went on to criticize. In the course of his eulogy of Clay, Lincoln defended the proposition of human equality and equal natural rights, as he did in all his major addresses. His argument is precisely the opposite of what DiLorenzo claims it to be. 

Perhaps even more distorting than the false statements and misrepresentations in the book are the omissions. For a book intended to reveal the "real" Lincoln, it is astounding how little of Lincoln's political universe DiLorenzo discusses or seems to understand. For example:

  • DiLorenzo never attempts to explain or account for the natural rights foundation of American constitutional government, and hence the fundamental problem of slavery, as articulated by nearly all the Founding Fathers. He seems oblivious to the central problem with which Lincoln's statesmanship had to struggle: the problem of combining government by the consent of the governed with the protection of the equal rights of all, when a growing number of the governed denied the rights of others.
  • Wholly absent is any mention of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the event that propelled Lincoln back into national politics and signaled a turning point in public opinion regarding slavery: from understanding slavery as an evil to be tolerated out of necessity where it existed in the South, to viewing slavery as a morally neutral institution that should be allowed to spread into the territories.
  • DiLorenzo characterizes John C. Calhoun as a great defender of freedom and constitutional government, based solely on Calhoun's later opposition to tariffs and support for secession. But he never so much as hints at Calhoun's supposedly "scientific" theory of racial hierarchy, which would come to drive the secessionists. According to no less an authority than Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens, "the great truth that the Negro is not equal to the white man," and that "slavery…is his natural and normal condition" was the "cornerstone" of the Confederate constitution. Calhoun and his Southern followers explicitly rejected the idea of individual natural rights because they explicitly rejected the core teaching of the Declaration of Independence, that all men are created equal. (This is the racism Lincoln was countering in his eulogy of Henry Clay.)
  • Calhoun divorced the idea of states' rights from natural rights, and invented the doctrine of legal or constitutional "secession" to replace the natural right of revolution as the ground for independence. The South understood that to appeal to the right of revolution, as Jefferson had in the Declaration, was necessarily to appeal to the idea of individual natural rights. Southern leaders balked at such an appeal, because they understood that natural rights flew in the face of their fantastic justifications for slavery. All this is lost on DiLorenzo. (It was also apparently lost on Walter Williams, who wrote the foreword to DiLorenzo's book. It is shameful that Williams, a black libertarian economist and frequent guest host for Rush Limbaugh, would endorse a book that celebrates John C. Calhoun, who more than anyone in American history made the case for the subjugation of blacks by whites.)
  • The Dred Scott case, which more than any other event divided the Democratic Party and led to Lincoln's election in 1860, is mentioned in precisely two sentences. One incorrectly summarizes the Supreme Court's opinion in the case; the other feebly asserts that Lincoln wanted to talk about Dred Scott only as an avenue for championing the nationalization of money. 
  • There is no mention of the Democratic Convention in April 1860, from which the seven states of the Deep South walked out (the first real act of secession) because they refused to accept Stephen Douglas as their candidate for president. Douglas was the champion of the "popular sovereignty" doctrine of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which held that the people of the territories could accept or prohibit slavery as they chose. This was in direct opposition to the Supreme Court's ruling in Dred Scott, that a slave owner had a constitutional right to take his slave property into any U.S. territory and that the people of a territory could not violate that right. Standing upon the Dred Scott decision, the South demanded federal protection of slave property in the territories, which was nothing less than a demand for the largest expansion of federal government power up to that time in American history. As the historian Don Fehrenbacher (whom DiLorenzo never mentions) has pointed out, the 1860 Democratic Convention in Charleston was the prelude to the "secession winter" of 1860-61: Any Southerner who would not accept Stephen Douglas as the Democratic candidate would never accept Abraham Lincoln as President of the United States.

These examples barely begin to sketch the real political world in which Abraham Lincoln exercised his statesmanship. It is a world of which DiLorenzo appears to be almost wholly ignorant. His unreal Lincoln inhabits an unreal world, so crudely and tendentiously drawn as to beggar belief. One wonders if the libertarian neo-Confederates have run out of front-line troops. In this screed, at any rate, they have sent a giddy, careless, half-educated boy to do a man's job. And it shows.