Debating DiLorenzo: Lincoln, Secession, and Sumter

Here’s what Dr. Thomas DiLorenzo told Brian Lamb in 2008 about Lincoln, secession, and the Sumter crisis:

LAMB: … I want to ask you something you said. Was he a great man?

DILORENZO: He was – when you consider that he had less than one year of formal education and he became one of the top lawyers in the United States self taught, he certainly had greatness. I think he was brilliant. I think he was a genius. And I think a great a tragedy for America, however, is that he uses genius to essentially manipulate the South Carolinians into firing the first shot at Fort Sumter and plunging the whole nation into a war. And then, invading his own country after, you know, at Fort Sumter, as you know, no one was killed or hurt, but the response was a full scale invasion of the entire southern states.

And so, I think, he used his genius in a way that – in my latest book ”Lincoln Unmasked” I write about how wouldn’t it had been great had he used this genius to be more statesmen like and end slavery peacefully like the British and the Spaniards did and then do other things for America, as opposed to a four year war that killed 650,000 Americans?

LAMB: How did he trick the South Carolinians?

DILORENZO: Well, he promised he would not send war ships to Fort Sumter, certainly, when he did. And then in my book, I quote him – a letter from Lincoln to his naval commander, Commander Fox, Gustavus Fox thanking him for his assistance in getting the outcome that they desired, and the outcome that they desired was getting the South Carolinians to fire on Fort Sumter because he guessed correctly that the people of the north would rally behind the flag and support the war that he wanted to get into.

And at the same time, you had the confederates had sent peace commissioners to Washington to offer to pay the south’s portion of the national debt and to pay for federal forts like Fort Sumter. Napoleon III of France offered to broker some sort of compromise, but Lincoln refused to speak to any of them. He wouldn’t see any of them. He was determined to go to war, which he did.

LAMB: Why was he determined to go to war?

DILORENZO: Well, I think, he came up with this idea of the mystical union. He – in one of his speeches he talked about the mystic cords of memory that – of the union. But up to that time, a great deal of Americans, I would argue most Americans understood that the union was voluntary and that it would be an atrocity if any state left to march an army into that state and kill some of inhabitants just to keep it back into the union.

In my book, ”The Real Lincoln”, I ran across a big two volume set of books called ”Northern Editorials on Secession” by a man named Howard Perkins and it’s just reprinted northern newspaper editorials in 1859, 1860, 1861 about this whole issue of secession and some other topics. And he concludes that the majority of the newspaper from New York to Cincinnati to Vermont, Wisconsin in the north were in favor of letting the south go peacefully because they believed in the old Jeffersonian dictum that the union was voluntary. In the declaration of independents when governments derived their just powers from the consent of the governed. And when the northerners saw the south saying, we no longer consent to be governed by Washington, D.C. most of them said, OK, well let them go. Horace Greeley, really the famous newspaper man, he’s often quoted as saying this, he might have thought they were mistaken or wrong headed, but let them go and maybe we can persuade them to come back into the union at some future date seemed to be the attitude of a lot of these newspaper people.

Crossroads comments:  My, but we have a lot of ground to cover here.  First, let’s note that DiLorenzo sees Lincooln as a tyrant, but then faults him for failing to end slavery on his own (which is something a tyrant would do, right?).  Of course, that’s what secessionists were afraid he would do, and so they seceded.  DiLorenzo seems unaware of the tensions in his own argument, tensions that soon turn into contradictions.

After all, I think we can agree that without secession, there is no war.  What guaranteed secession was Lincoln’s election, because secessionists saw him as the enemy of slavery.  Lincoln had said nothing about using violence to end slavery: indeed, he had repudiated John Brown.  But white southerners were willing to use violence to preserve slavery.  Lincoln can’t win in DiLorenzo’s eyes.  Any plan he would have proposed (as well as any plan he did propose) got no traction among secessionists (or, indeed, the vast majority of southern whites).  Somehow DiLorenzo overlooks that.  Any plan he did propose would have been greeted by secession.  In any case, secessionists in the Deep South decided to act before finding out what Lincoln would do, so that point’s moot.  So Lincoln’s blamed for bringing on the war as well as blamed for not proposing a policy guaranteed to bring on secession and most probably conflict.

After all, if Lincoln allowed the Deep South’s secession to go uncontested, how does that contribute to the abolition of slavery?  DiLorenzo does not say.  And what measures could Lincoln had secured that would not have led to his being called the tyrant DiLorenzo claims he is?  DiLorenzo does not say.

Of course, it’s amusing to hear that Lincoln was invading his own country.  That’s how far DiLorenzo will go to whitewash the history books of Confederate complicity.  Secession’s okay, because it’s a voluntary union, yet South Carolina’s still Lincoln’s own country.  It’s an interesting argument to try to follow.  Try to follow this … if it’s Lincoln’s own country, then secession’s unconstitutional, and a state cannot simply leave the Union.

Now, who fired the first shot at Fort Sumter?  Jefferson Davis authorized it.  Yet he does not seem to exist, either, in DiLorenzo’s narrative.

As for Fort Sumter, perhaps DiLorenzo needs to refresh his understanding of the facts.  Lincoln sent an expedition to reprovision the fort.  Given that South Carolinians had fired on a United States vessel in January, it was only understandable that warships might well accompany the expedition.  However, if Lincoln was hell-bent on starting a war, why notify Governor Pickens in the first place?  Why couldn’t Jefferson Davis have let the garrison be resupplied, and continue negotiations?  Why did he choose war?  Oh, that’s right, the Confederacy exercises no agency and bears no responsibility for what happened in April 1861.  It’s all Lincoln’s fault.

The Fox letter (dated May 1, 1861) that DiLorenzo cites reads as follows:

I sincerely regret that the failure of the late attempt to provision Fort-Sumpter, should be the source of any annoyance to you. The practicability of your plan was not, in fact, brought to a test. By reason of a gale, well known in advance to be possible, and not improbable, the tugs, an essential part of the plan, never reached the ground; while, by an accident, for which you were in no wise responsible, and possibly I, to some extent was, you were deprived of a war vessel with her men, which you deemed of great importance to the enterprize.

I most cheerfully and truly declare that the failure of the undertaking has not lowered you a particle, while the qualities you developed in the effort, have greatly heightened you, in my estimation.  For a daring and dangerous enterprize, of a similar character, you would, to-day, be the man, of all my acquaintances, whom I would select.

You and I both anticipated that the cause of the country would be advanced by making the attempt to provision Fort-Sumpter, even if it should fail; and it is no small consolation now to feel that our anticipation is justified by the result.

Most of the letter deals with a mishap to Fox’s original plan.  Clearly it is the last sentence that draws our attention, and all it suggests is that Lincoln saw the effort to relief Sumter as a win-win situation: either the fort would have been resupplied, prolonging the stalemate, or the Confederates would initiate hostilities.  That’s different than saying he wanted war: he left that decision in Davis’s hands.  Nor does DiLorenzo mention Davis’s interest in initiating hostilities at Fort Pickens, a sign of Confederate intent.

Most studies of the Sumter crisis show a growing determination not to allow the secessionists to get their way: the idea that most northerners thought secession was legitimate is simply wrong-headed.  Indeed, DiLorenzo returns time and again to that notion that the Union was voluntary precisely because he does not want to wrestle with the vocabulary of secession or address its constitutionality.

I’m surprised DiLorenzo doesn’t know more about Napoleon III and how his efforts to broker a settlement recognizing CSA independence were tied to his own interests in restoring French power in the western hemisphere.  Apparently tyranny’s okay, so long as it’s French.  Oh, and by the way … the French first conveyed their willingness to mediate to an American representative on May 12, 1861.  That’s a month after the Confederates fired upon Fort Sumter.  See Lynn Case and Warren Spencer, The United States and France: Civil War Diplomacy (1970), p. 31.

Of course Lincoln would not meet with Confederate representatives, for doing so would grant legitimacy to the Confederacy.  That is something of a sticking point, after all.

So much for Dr. DiLorenzo’s arguments on these points.

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20 thoughts on “Debating DiLorenzo: Lincoln, Secession, and Sumter

  1. “And I think a great a tragedy for America, however, is that he uses genius to essentially manipulate the South Carolinians into firing the first shot at Fort Sumter and plunging the whole nation into a war.” I shake my head over this line of reasoning: do these Confederate Romantics not realize that they are essentially arguing that the Rebels, including Davis, were such idiots that AL was able to play them like a violin to do his will?

    • Actually, that line of reasoning is not out of character for Confederate Romantics. It’s long been a staple of Lost Cause mythology, for example, that Longstreet was able to dominate and manipulate his commanding officer, Robert E. Lee, to the detriment of the Confederate war effort but not, somehow, to the detriment of Lee’s reputation. D.S. Freeman made the case explicitly in his biography of Lee (here writing about 2nd Bull Run/Manassas):

      “For the third time Lee declared himself for an attack. He believed that a drive along the Gainesville-Centreville turnpike would certainly dislodge the force on the right at the same time that it would relieve Jackson, whose troops were now furiously engaged on the extreme left. Longstreet was obdurate. The day was nearly done, ‘Old Pete’ argued. An advance would get nowhere and might prove disastrous. It would be far better to make a reconnaissance later in the evening. Then, if an opening were found, the whole army could be thrown against the enemy. Lee hesitated. Judgment and consideration for the opinion of his subordinate were at odds. At length, though unconvinced, he assented. His decision was reached after far too little deliberation and probably was expressed in a very few words, but the moment was an important one in the military career of Lee, important less in its effect on the outcome of the battle than in its bearing on Lee’s future relations with Longstreet. In all the operations since Lee had taken command of the Army of Northern Virginia he had not shown any of the excessive consideration for the feelings of others that he had exhibited in West Virginia in his dealings with General Loring; now it appeared again. The seeds of much of the disaster at Gettysburg were sown in that instant — when Lee yielded to Longstreet and Longstreet discovered that he would.” (Freeman, R. E. Lee, Vol. II, pp. 324, 325.)

  2. Another problem here is DiLorenzo’s assertion that many, if not most, Northern newspapers were in favor of allowing secession. He cites Horace Greeley as an example of this. However, if he were familiar with the literature on secession and the Northern reaction, he would know that Kenneth Stampp addresses this point, stating that when Greeley took this position he wasn’t advocating allowing unilateral secession as it was occurring, but only through a Constitutional Convention or a direct vote of the people. As Stampp writes in _And the War Came_, “Peaceful secession as envisioned by these northern nationalists hardly fitted the pattern of the states-rights concept… Southerners must make formal application for permission to secede… Meanwhile the South must wait quietly until the Federal government and the northern people had time for careful deliberation… Secession, then, must be slow and painless, a product of negotiation which would respect the authority of the Federal government and protect the interest of the nonseceding states.” [22-24] Stampp goes on to observe that “the scheme of peaceful separation had nearly evaporated by the end of December.”

    DiLorenzo’s characterization of Greeley and other Northerners as advocating “letting the south go peacefully because they believed in the old Jeffersonian dictum that the union was voluntary” is false. Now, I don’t know if Lincoln would have supported such a process had it gained momentum, but there was no danger of that since secessionists were presenting secession as a fait accompli, and insisting the Lincoln administration negotiate separation terms on that basis, which Lincoln and most Northerners saw as unconstitutional.

    • And if we look at Perkins’ book, we see that DiLorenzo misstates Perkins’ conclusion. “With many editors, however, changing tempers later produced a willingness to oppose the southern course with whatever arguments were available, and of those the denial of secession as a constitutional right ranked first among a people with a stubborn faith in legal processes. The southern program, editors then asserted, actually invoked not a right of secession but the right of revolution. To this doctrine northern editors without exception gave lip service, but almost unanimously they declared that it could be exerised only for proper cause.” [pp. 10-11]

  3. There is also the point that, by the time that Lincoln took the oath of office, the initial rebel states had a provisional constitution, inaugurated a president and vice-president, and had an army. It wasn’t the South Carolinians who were “manipulated”, essentially or totally, into firing the first shot. It was a conscious decision by the Confederate cabinet conveyed to General Beauregard.

  4. That’s the big recurring question…where, in all this, is Jeff Davis, the Confederate Congress, P.G.T. Beauregard, et al? It’s as if they don’t exist in the equation at all, and Lincoln is 100% responsible for every action and reaction on both sides — even those that occurred before he was inaugurated.

  5. As for DiLorenzo’s claim, “Well, I think, he came up with this idea of the mystical union. He – in one of his speeches he talked about the mystic cords of memory that – of the union. But up to that time, a great deal of Americans, I would argue most Americans understood that the union was voluntary and that it would be an atrocity if any state left to march an army into that state and kill some of inhabitants just to keep it back into the union.”

    He either has not bothered to read, or deliberately ignored material such as (1) Daniel Webster’s 1830 response during the Nullification Crisis, that concludes “Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable!”http://www.usa-patriotism.com/speeches/dwebster1.htm, (2) Madison’s letters during the Nullification Crisis including his December 1832 letter to Nicholas Trist in which he states, “It is remarkable how closely the nullifiers who make the name of Mr. Jefferson the pedestal for their colossal heresy, shut their eyes and lips, whenever his authority is ever so clearly and emphatically against them.” http://www.constitution.org/jm/18321223_trist.txt. and (3) President Andrew Jackson’s December 10, 1832 “Proclamation Regarding Nullification” including the call, “Fellow-citizens! the momentous case is before you. On your undivided support of your government depends the decision of the great question it involves, whether your sacred Union will be preserved, and the blessing it secures to us as one people shall be perpetuated.” http://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/index.asp?document=67. Jackson threatened to personally lead troops into South Carolina and hang the ringleaders of nullification if South Carolina persisted in its claims that it had the right to nullify a federal law.

    • You’ve touched on something I’ve discussed elsewhere. Many Confederate partisans seem to feel that Lincoln’s actions in opposition to secession/disunion were unprecedented. This is hardly the case. In the Jackson proclamation you mention, he says somewhat near the end:

      “They (SC politicians) know that a forcible opposition could alone prevent the execution of the laws, and they know that such opposition must be repelled. Their object is disunion, hut be not deceived by names; disunion, by armed force, is TREASON. Are you really ready to incur its guilt?”

      The infrequency with which Jackson’s comments were cited at the time of war once struck me as odd. But then, it’s no wonder that Confederates wouldn’t quote their Southern Democrat, who decried disunionist talk. And Jackson was probably no hero of many Republicans either.

      Jackson not only articulated a strong challenge to nullification, but to secession too, which was an implied threat of SC during the Nullification Crisis.

      • The odd thing, as Russell McClintock recently pointed out, is that in the secession crisis of 1860-61 Lincoln was much more Jackson and much less Clay, his hero. His efforts at compromise once in office concerned the upper South.

  6. One aspect of this controversy that hasn’t received enough attention is the essentially contested nature of the Union. Though I tilt to the Washington-Hamilton-Marshall-Story-Clay-Webster-Lincoln side of the analysis, I am willing to acknowledge that there was another side that regarded the Union as much more fragile and much more state-centered and much more open to interposition, nullification, and maybe even secession. And yet Brian Steele has a fine recent article arguing that Jefferson, though he proposed nullification in the Kentucky Resolutions of 1798, was not in favor of secession and wanted the Union to be preserved.

    Even so, those who seek to rehabilitate the Confederacy as something other than a treasonous conspiracy agaisnt the Union ought to acknowledge that there’s a long and honorable tradition that cuts against their position. But, insisting that they have the only right answer, they never will acknowledge that view.

  7. Secessionists talk about “Liberty” and “Freedom” and “the right to depose tyrants” when speaking upon the “concept” of the Constitution, but seem to disregard the Preamble as being some vague source for the existence of the Constitution. However, when it comes to the 10th amendment and the “Right to Secede”, then the Constitution becomes a binding document having a specific purpose of unquestionable intent.

    Fairly, we should allow President Lincoln to have the same freedom of what is “meant” and what is “written”, without having to rationalize his actions beyond Constitutional limits. President Lincoln execution of his powers was not an adventure in idealism, but was a duty of his to perserve Soverein power over land; that power granted by the Presidential Oath, and interpreted upon “….a more perfect Union” as written in the Preamble (though the Preamble does not grant powers, it shows scope, purpose, and intent).

    Surely, what is “perfect” and what is a “Union” (written with a capital U) is debatable. But, defining “Union” as being void of any “concept of land” is a hard agruement to win.

    As for the question of Sovereinty: Was the United States acting as a Soverein Nation during the Louisianna Purchase from France in 1803? What about other events the United States was acting as a Soverein Nation before secession? When, then, did the United States stop acting as a Soverein Nation in 1861?

    • The preamble’s “We the People” is enough–I don’t think one need read through all the way to “more perfect Union” to find secession unconstitutional. The ratification conventions in 1787 and 1788 were organized state by state, but were not an expression of state sovereignty. They were conceived by the Framers as an expression of The People of the United States, thereby vesting sovereignty directly into the new federal government. This meant that the new government would not be a creature of the states, which all admitted sucked. (I don’t believe they used that term, though.)

      And in letters that went back and form during these ratification debates, Madison and Hamilton–two guys who would know what the Constitution meant if anyone did–stated that the Union was perpetual.

  8. Peoplewho argue for war assume that secession mandated war. The truth is that Lincoln could not go to war over either secession or slavery. He made no attempt to reconcile with the Southern states. He meant to have war and he needed some act that would get tehNorthern peopple to go. There were three forts Lincoln was looking at as a catalist. The reeason he did not wait for congress o give him the legal means to call up the army was because they would most likely not give it. If Lincoln wanted to aviod war, why did he not leave it in the hands of congress, which is how the constitution syas i should be?

    • Why did he not leave it the hands of Congress? First, because Congress had already given him the authority he needed to issue the call for troops. The Militia Act of 1795 provided, “Sec. 2 And be it further enacted, that whenever the laws of the United States shall be opposed, or the execution thereof obstructed, in any state, by combinations too powerful to be suppressed by the ordinary course of judicial proceedings, or by the powers vested in the marshals by this act, it shall be lawful for the President of the United States, to call forth the militia of such state, or of any other state or states, as may be necessary to suppress such combinations, and to cause the laws to be duly executed; and the use of militia shall so to be called forth may be continued, if necessary, until the expiration of thirty days of the then next session of Congress”

      President Lincoln, after Ft. Sumter fell, used his Article II, Section 3 constitutional authority to call Congress into special session beginning on July 4, 1861. The 37th Congress was not due to have its first session until the first Monday in December 1861 (December 2, 1861) as provided Article I, Section 4 of the Constitution before it was amended by the 20th Amendment (In fact, some states were still having Congressional elections in the Spring of 1861, which was before a single federal election day was set. Furthermore, rail transit through Maryland to DC was not truly secure from sabotage or mob attack until around late June).

      There was no Congress in April 1861, because the 36th Congress (1859-1861) was concluded, having finished its lame duck session in March. The House adjourned on March 3, 1861, the day before Inauguration Day. The Senate was in special session from March 4 to March 28 to deal with executive business (including cabinet confirmations). The Confederates didn’t move against Ft. Sumter until Congress was gone.

      The US Supreme Court upheld many of the President’s actions during the period between the fall of Ft. Sumter and the beginning of the special session of Congress and held no declaration of war was needed to take action to suppress a rebellion/civil war within the United States in the 1862 decision in Prize Cases http://laws.findlaw.com/us/67/635.html (Chief Justice Taney participated in the case and dissented from the ruling). The case dealt with the validity of the blockade of the rebel states declared by President Lincoln.

      President Lincoln offered multiple olive branches to the rebels but would not betray the principles of platform on which he and his party had been elected (especially no action against slavery where it was established, but opposition to expansion of slavery into the territories). The choice for war was made by the Confederate cabinet and Jefferson Davis when they decided to fire on the relief expedition to Ft. Sumter and fire on the Fort, which was already being starved out.

      • “The choice for war was made by the Confederate cabinet and Jefferson Davis when they decided to fire on the relief expedition to Ft. Sumter and fire on the Fort, which was already being starved out.”

        Absolutely true. And Virginia and Tennessee chose the Confederacy over the Union. Sad, because had these two states simply chose neutrality – NC would’ve followed suit – and the war would’ve been over within a year. This of course, is why Davis chose war, war meant the rest of the south joining the Confederacy. And of course, Davis was 99% certain the South would win.

    • You are correct Lynn, it is perfectly true that Lincoln had no authority to interfere with the events taking place in the Southern States. It is also a fact that the Militia Act of 1795 gave Lincoln no authority at all in the matter. That act would have been applicable ONLY if the seceded States had requested federal help. More specifically, Article 4, section 4, of the U.S. Constitution plainly states:

      “The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government, and shall protect each of them against Invasion; and on Application of the Legislature, or of the Executive (when the Legislature cannot be convened) against domestic Violence”

      Obviously, not a single seceded State made an application for federal intervention. And then there is the simple truth that the seceded States were no longer subject to U.S. law on any level; they had seceded. Either way, Lincoln and the U.S. acted lawlessly.

      • As the clause says “in this Union,” and as the seceded states said they were not in the union, you might have your explanation as to why a Confederate state would not have appealed to Lincoln to stop them from seceding. What an odd piece of logic you offer.

      • You do realize. don’t you, that the Militia Act of 1795 was passed by a Congress of the Framer’s generation and that the Constitutionality of President Lincoln’s actions in the post-Ft. Sumter period was upheld by the US Supreme Court in the Prize Cases decision in 1862, including expressly upholding his invocation of the Militia Act? Article IV deals with a state dealing with domestic violence within its border. It says nothing about a state being able to prevent the Federal government from enforcing FEDERAL law within a state’s borders and it does not deal with a state’s officials violating their oath of office, mandated under Article VI, to support the US Constitution. You do remember Article VI which also includes this provision: “This Constitution, and the laws of the United States which shall be made in pursuance thereof; and all treaties made, or which shall be made, under the authority of the United States, shall be the supreme law of the land; and the judges in every state shall be bound thereby, anything in the Constitution or laws of any State to the contrary notwithstanding” The debates of the Constitutional Convention on July 18, 1787 are instructive on this point. http://teachingamericanhistory.org/convention/debates/0718.html. There is nothing in it to support the rather bizarre idea that a Constitution created to prevent a feared risk of disunion would include a section that would mandate that, if a state attempted to unilaterally break up the Union by engaging in rebellion, particularly armed rebellion, against the US government, the US government would be powerless to act unless the rebellious state invited it to come in to it to suppress its own rebellion.

        The issue of the right of the Federal Government to enforce federal law against a recalcitrant state was not a novel one. The Militia Act of 1795 codified what the federal government had already done during the Whiskey Rebellion when the government of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania was unwilling to act to enforce federal tax law and protect the collectors against its own citizens. Washington personally led troops into Pennsylvania. Both Presidents Madison and Jackson were prepared, when faced with threats of secession to use military force to suppress such rebellion.

        You take it as a given that there was a legal right to secession. That was never accepted by any U.S. president or federal court. Both Madison and Jackson expressly denounced the argument that secession was constitutional.

      • And then there is the simple truth that the seceded States were no longer subject to U.S. law on any level; they had seceded.

        Then they have zero protection under the U.S. Constitution.

        Either they had seceded, and the United States invaded a foreign nation, or they hadn’t, and Lincoln was putting down an insurrection as authorized under Article I, Section 8, Paragraph 15 of the Constitution.

        The Confederacy: Wanting it Both Ways Since 1861

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