Debating DiLorenzo: A Lincoln Above Criticism?

To date I’ve discussed several statements made by Dr. Thomas DiLorenzo in a 2008 interview with Brian Lamb on C-SPAN.  To me, one of the most interesting characteristics of the interview is that both Lamb and DiLorenzo strayed often from the subject of DiLorenzo on Lincoln and entered the world of DiLorenzo and Lincoln scholarship.  Dr. DiLorenzo doesn’t think too much of most Lincoln scholars: he even denies that they are real scholars, with the exception of the late David Herbert Donald.  Sometimes he names names, sometimes he does not.

Over the years Brian Lamb has taken an interest in squabbles among scholars, even as he appears to find them distasteful.  I’d say that’s also true of his audience.  I find it more interesting that DiLorenzo took this opportunity to talk more about Lincoln scholarship and scholars than about his understanding of Lincoln.  And, as we’ll see over the next several days, his sense of grievance runs deep.

LAMB: Who attacks you?

DILORENZO: Well, I’ve had quite a few debates with the academics who have had careers in sort of deifying Lincoln in their writings. And so, I’m an economist and I’m used to a lot of back and forth debates and criticisms. For 20 years before I wrote the Lincoln book, I was an economics professor and I would go to meetings, academic meetings and that’s what we do, we criticize each other, and it’s usually constructive criticism. It’s not just show boating or trying to attack somebody.

But then I found that this part of the history profession when it comes to Lincoln you can criticize. Thomas Jefferson, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Franklin Roosevelt, but you can’t criticize Lincoln, apparently, in the history profession. And I thought that was very unscholarly and unprofessional and close minded of a sort of an attitude on the part of some segments of the history profession, which is a big part of the history profession. And so I see no reason why you can’t take a look at Lincoln just was you’d look at any other president and look at the good and the bad as far as that’s concerned.

And there’s plenty of bad. You know, Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus and the mass arrest of tens of thousands of northern civilians and his shutting down of hundreds of opposition newspapers. These are things that most Americans never heard of. I’ve given public speeches about this. People are dumbfounded. They accuse me of being a liar because they were never taught this in school. And, of course, it’s all documented, it’s not a secret. But it’s just one of these things that the historians know about all of this, but the average American doesn’t seem to know unless he reads my books, I guess, and the books of a few others.

Crossroads Comments: I find this hard to believe as an accurate or dispassionate description of either discipline.  I’ve seen economists argue with each other, and it isn’t nice.  And I’ve seen Thomas DiLorenzo argue, and he’s pretty good at engaging in the back-and-forth exchanges he claims to deplore (are you going to tell me that he learned none of this from his interaction with fellow economists?  Then perhaps his contentiousness comes naturally). You’ll see more of that in the days to come.

Lincoln scholars often debate back and forth about all sorts of issues, and many of them are critical of their subject.  I’ve been critical of some of Lincoln’s actions as commander-in-chief, and I’ve long held him responsible for the selection of Andrew Johnson as his running mate, a decision that had serious consequences for the republic (the idea that such a crafty and subtle politician as Lincoln was helpless when it came to Johnson’s selection as his running mate strikes me as ludicrous, and he had already indicated prior to the convention that Johnson was an acceptable choice).  Other historians, including Ira Berlin and Barbara Fields, have been critical of the credit given Lincoln as the Great Emancipator.  So I am at a loss as to how to respond to such an inaccurate characterization of professional historians.  It’s an accusation without merit.

That DiLorenzo seems not to have read Mark Neely’s book on Lincoln and civil liberties seems apparent, because you would think that if he had, he’d take specific issue with it, much as he names other historians with whom he disagrees.  Otherwise one would have to conclude that he’s deliberately concealing contrary views by capable scholars in his characterization of the field of Lincoln scholarship.  That would be very unscholarly and unprofessional and close minded, now, wouldn’t it?

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22 thoughts on “Debating DiLorenzo: A Lincoln Above Criticism?

  1. Of course DeLorenzo knows much more than he lets on. He knows most of all that Lincon’s quotes can easily be edited to make him look like a racists who could care less about blacks.

    But Lincoln almost ALWAYS spoke in a way that first validated the intense feellings of his adversaries. He SEEMED to agree, but then did a complete change of direction and obliterated the sentiiment, often in the next sentence.

    For example, in his Peoria speech, if you just read part of it, you think LIncoln was for deportation (voluntary). But what you DON’T know is

    1) Southerner leaders spoke openly about GENOCIDE of blacks, if they had to free them. GENOCIDE- killing. Lincoln was operating in this kind of environment. He was saying — we can free slaves, there is no need to kill them.

    2) Lincoln then went on to say — in that same speech — that deportation was unfair and unworkable.

    In that same speech, LIncoln said slave owners deserved to be KICKED TO DEATH. TO DEATH. Not kicked to unconsciouness, not kicked to stop slavery, but kicked to DEATH. People who say blacks as merchandise, he said, deserved to be kicked to death.

    Lorenze knows that. He scoured these speeches for the most distorted quotes he could find. He read these speeches line by line.

    So why do you think he left out the parts where Lincoln shows fantastic hatred for slavery and slave owners? Why?

    Why do you think DeLorenzo left out where LIncoln said deportation was unfair and unworkable?

    Because DeLorenzo is a liar, and coward. That is why. There is no other reason.

    If he wanted to be accurate, he would show what Lincoln said in total.

    Plus, of course, who does Lorenzo think kicked slavery to death? It was LINCOLN personally — personally – that did the EP, and that also got the 13th Amendment passed. Lincoln personally kept the pressure on and on and on, until slavery was no more. There wasn’t anyone else that made sure it ended. If anyone else had be POTUS, the Civil War would have ended, and slavery would have continued.

    LIncoln’s advisors begged him — in writings we still have — to let the slave issue drop, to let it be decided later. DeLorenzo knows that.

    There were Northern Congressmen calling for the arrest and execution of anyone (including LIncoln) that even said slavery had to end for the war to end.

    DeLorenzo knows that. He knows Lincoln stood up to these men, made sure slavery ended. Lincoln said slave owners should be kicked to death, and when he got in a position, he kicked, kicked, and kicked, till slavery died

    • “Plus, of course, who does Lorenzo think kicked slavery to death? It was LINCOLN personally — personally – that did the EP, and that also got the 13th Amendment passed. Lincoln personally kept the pressure on and on and on, until slavery was no more. There wasn’t anyone else that made sure it ended. If anyone else had be POTUS, the Civil War would have ended, and slavery would have continued.”

      I’m an admirer of Lincoln, but I think you overstate your case here. There were many people who were pushing Lincoln for emancipation early on.

      There have been some comments about Lincoln offering compensation to border state slave holders which they rejected. This is true, however, in Missouri, Unionists were bitterly divided over emancipation. While Unionist slave-holders like Hamilton Gamble resisted emancipation, other Missourians like Gratz Brown begged Lincoln to act. Remember, Fremont issued an emancipation order in Missouri which Lincoln rescinded.

      When Lincoln did issue his EP, Gratz Brown was ecstatic, and sent Lincoln a letter filled with glowing praise. When he found out the EP did not cover Missouri he was furious and promptly sent Lincoln another letter bitterly complaining. And he didn’t buy the argument that Lincoln was constrained on Constitutional grounds. He pointed out that Lincoln had found it necessary to ignore the Constitution in other cases, habeus corpus, shutting down newspapers, etc., so why not in regards to emancipation?

      This is also why there was a movement in 1864 to replace Lincoln. It is often said that it was because the war was going badly, but that is only part of the reason. Look at who was being offered to replace Lincoln. One of the most prominent was Fremont, and Gratz Brown was a one of Fremont’s biggest supporters . These people believed the war was going badly precisely because slavery was at the core of the conflict, and Lincoln was dragging his feet in dealing with it.

      Again, I’m an admirer of Lincoln, and I agree with Frederick Douglass’ assessment of him, but there is a reason Douglass felt he had to defend Lincoln’s approach to emancipation in that famous quote:

      “Viewed from the genuine abolition ground, Mr. Lincoln seemed tardy, cold, dull, and indifferent; but measuring him by the sentiment of his country, a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult, he was swift, zealous, radical, and determined.”

      The “genuine abolitionist ground” was not limited to African Americans by any means.

    • DiLorenzo states that Lincoln did not help get the thirteenth amendment passed, did not lift a finger, and he even states more than that. He states that the Republicans asked him for his help, and he affirmatively told them “no”.

  2. Point taken on DiLorenzo overstating the institutional biases against criticism of Lincoln. But we also shouldn’t discount his point entirely. There may not be a “Church of Lincoln” out there that ensures all said about him is approved and kept holy, but there are times when the historical profession comes across as a less-than-impartial advocate for his reputation.

    Just look at how Sean Wilentz savaged Henry Louis Gates’ book on Lincoln in the New Republic about a year ago. Gates certainly didn’t pull a DiLorenzo in his book or anything close. He just asked some biting but factually grounded questions about Lincoln’s shortcomings on matters of race, and couched them in a broader discussion that was very generous to Lincoln and generally positive about his legacy. And for that Wilentz gave Gates a treatment that alternated between brushing aside the points he made and open derision for even making them.

    That may not be an in-your-face version of the “Lincoln’s above criticism” argument, but it is a much more subtle one that can be just as insidious.

    • I think you have to distinguish between “some historians” and “the historical profession.” Are there folks who defend Lincoln? Sure … and not all of them are professional historians/academics. But there are also academics who are critical of Lincoln. I wouldn’t want to offer generalizations about any profession based upon the actions of a single person.

  3. Obviously there is no single consensus position that represents and holds true about all historians, but the original post was about whether this broadly designated category exhibits the pro-Lincoln bias that DiLorenzo alleges, or anything similar.

    My contention is it’s not the aggressive bias he alleges, but there are signs of something similar and more subtle. I don’t mean to ascribe a rigid consensus view of Lincoln to the history profession, but I’d contend three observations are true of it:

    (1) It does generally view Lincoln in positive, even heroic terms. Nothing inherently wrong with that, but there are FAR more historians who not only like but love and adore Lincoln as the “Greatest President” than those who hold him in a critical light.

    (2) It still permits and even encourages dissenting criticism of Lincoln through the normal processes of peer review and academic discussions, in which case DiLorenzo’s point is wrong in suggesting there’s a hard and fast rule that Lincoln is off limits.

    (3) It isn’t especially friendly or welcoming about those criticisms when they are made, even in terms far milder than DiLorenzo or Lerone Bennett.

    • Let’s take these one at the time.

      First, do most historians view Lincoln favorably? Judging from what we see, yes. Uncritically? No. There’s quite a division there, and given what I’ve seen, there’s as much disagreement as agreement among scholars (and one thing that distinguishes this “community” from most scholarly is that there are many non-academics in it).

      Second, there’s criticism of all sorts of things when it comes to Lincoln, whose image has always been contested in some quarters. My old ASU colleague Waziyata Win doesn’t particularly care for him, for example.

      Third, I don’t see a unified response to DiLorenzo, Bennett, or anyone else; what I do see is a back-and-forth about the arguments presented, the use of evidence, and so on. I’ve never met Dr. DiLorenzo, but I do sense that he gives as good as he gets, as we’ll see, and that might help to account for some of the hostility. My own experience with Bennett was fine, and I think we appreciated each other’s work, even when we disagreed (as we surely did). I think Dr. DiLorenzo would have done better in his interview with Brian Lamb to press his argument forward rather than to detail his disagreements with people. In contrast, Jeffrey Rogers Hummel (who happens to be a libertarian) seems better able to keep his eye on the argument, and if you take a look at his book, you’ll see that I blurbed it precisely because I thought it was a good idea to hear what he had to say.

      • Okay – I see your point about the positive view of Lincoln not being an uncritical one. I also think that’s what separates the the very best scholars out there from the rest (hence David Donald, a very positive yet critical biographer of Lincoln, apparently being acceptable even to DiLorenzo).

        But for every David Donald, there’s also Wilentz savaging Gates for poking at Lincoln’s racial shortcomings in the mildest of mild ways. Or worse, there’s one of these, which is every bit as worshipful of Lincoln as the title sounds and is written in one of those haughty tones that screams out “how dare you criticize Lincoln’s greatness?” from every page. And some very prominent Lincoln scholars gave it glowing reviews.

        That’s where I think there’s a problem in Lincoln scholarship that extends beyond a few isolated examples. You’re right – the best of the rare few are indeed measured and critical in their pro-Lincoln slant. But there are also quite a few who are considered to be “greats” of the topic yet have very little patience for even moderately probing questions about Lincoln.

        • Well, there are all sorts of scholars, including Lincoln scholars who have come under criticism in this blog. I wouldn’t place Sean Wilentz quite in that group, because his interests are different, and I suspect his unhappiness with Gates is not to be understood simply as pro- versus anti-Lincoln (and I don’t think Gates was anti-Lincoln). I have crossed metaphorical swords with a few folks who in my opinion see Lincoln in a much more positive light than I do, and I would not say that I saw him in a negative light.

          However, when I have spoken before the Abraham Lincoln Association, I’ve always raised questions about Lincoln, and they still think I’m good enough to be on the board of directors, even though I’m one of the fellows who urged that an invitation be extended to Bennett. I don’t think I’m a member of the Lincoln establishment.

          But I can see where someone could see things differently … just not to the extreme that DiLorenzo asserts is the case. Oddly enough, that’s also the complaint I made recently about Harold Holzer, who is seen in many circles as a Lincoln booster … that he painted with too broad a brush and used far too intense colors.

          It’s a little bit like many of the writings on Robert E. Lee, who also tends to be a polarizing figure, with extreme admirers and harsh critics. But my guess is that for whatever reason DiLorenzo’s language grates on the nerves of certain people, and so they may grow harsher in return. There’s doubtless a chicken and the egg problem there that I don’t quite know how to address.

      • Per Waziyata Win… it can’t be denied, I think, that Lincoln had a good bit of Nathan Bedford Forrest in him when it came to confronting America’s Aborigines during his lifetime. :)

        • Lyle,

          This has nothing to do with Nathan Bedford Forrest. It is the usage of the narratives of other races to privilege one white narrative over another white narrative that keeps us from truthfully examining our past and that leads to the rage that Waziyata Win justifiably feels. If you are genuinely in favor of Waziyata Win’s position, then you will not bring up Forrest. You will, instead, address her arguments concerning Lincoln’s actions.

          • Sherree,

            You’re missing my point, I think. I am not addressing Waziyata Win’s arguments about Lincoln. I am making a comparison of character between Abraham Lincoln and Nathan Bedford Forrest based on facts she articulated in her article. That’s what I mean to say by, “Per Waziyata Win”.

            As a contemporary of Nathan Bedford Forrest, Abraham Lincoln in some ways wasn’t so much different than Forrest. Massacres of people happened under the authority of both men. Neither man was anti-violence. One of my more vivid childhood memories of Lincoln iconography is of him holding a hatchet as a militia member during the Black Hawk War. Professor Simpson made an astute point about Lincoln a couple of days ago about Lincoln having a lot of Andrew Jackson in him and not so much Henry Clay. Which is to say Lincoln was less interested in compromise and more interested in belligerency. Not only did Lincoln have a lot of Andrew Jackson in him when it came to dealing with a rebellious South, but he had a lot of Jackson in him when dealing with native Americans, i.e., an unleash the dogs war kind of an attitude.

            I think that’s a similar character trait to Nathan Bedford Forrest. What happened at Ft. Pillow isn’t any different than what happened in Minnesota or at Sand Creek, Colorado. You disagree?

            • As for as Waziyata Win’s arguments about Lincoln, I can’t say I really disagree. What happened happened. America nearly committed genocide against native Americans and Abraham Lincoln was a participant in this.

            • Lyle,

              My point is somewhat illustrated by your response. Now we are discussing which was worse: the massacre of African American men and women or the massacre of Indigenous men and women, and further, if those massacres are equal in nature, rather than discussing why Waziyata Win challenges this history. This will inevitably lead the conversation back to who was right, the North or the South, when the answer is neither.

              To answer your question, nevertheless: no, I do not think of Lincoln and Forrest in the same thought. And yes, I do think that Fort Pillow and Sand Creek were equal in the brutal nature of the atrocities committed.

              Waziyata Win’s anger is completely justified. The white narrative that she describes in the article is the equivalent of the pro Confederate narrative of some. The expansion west never stopped. And that westward expansion was brutal.

              • Sherree,

                I’m definitely not trying to argue that one act was worse than the other… my point is that there is equality between the acts, equality in the methods used, and an equality in the character of the people involved.

                My snarky point about Forrest is an attempt, possibly ineffectually, to soften peoples’ views of him… those who might would call him a monster or a “homicidal bully”. Mainly because we don’t really think of Abraham Lincoln as a “homicidal bully” (yes, I know, Lincoln didn’t ever literally kill anyone). Hardly anyone even knows about the Dakota War of 1862; most people know about Ft. Pillow though.

                • Lyle,

                  This is your most important point, in my opinion: “Hardly anyone even knows about the Dakota War of 1862; most people know about Ft. Pillow though.”

                  Most people who are knowledgeable about the Civil War know about Fort Pillow. As far as the general public goes….I don’t know. Very few people indeed know about the Dakota War of 1862. Softening views of Nathan Bedford Forrest, a slave trader and founder of the klan, is not a way to introduce people to that war, however, if your aim is to educate people about what happened to the Dakota.

                  I live in the Deep South. The men who collect the garbage are African American. The men who make the money are white. I know a woman whose mother fed her ten reservation children from a garbage dump, because she had no other choice. Fine words and interesting theories mean nothing when you are starving. That is the legacy of the Civil War–and of American history–for many African American and Indigenous men and women. I am not picking on you, Lyle. And most of this is not meant for you or for anyone else. I guess I am just angry, too, in many ways. Thanks for being open to discussion. Sherree

                  • Sheree,

                    That’s cool. I’m from the Deep South as well. I even have a smidgen of aboriginal ancestry. A great-grandmother was from the Coushatta tribe of Louisiana (originally part of the Muskogee people in present day Alabama). This doesn’t have any bearing on my views though. I might as well be French if I’m Muskogee.

                    Anyway, I’m not really angered by the past as I am by the present. That’s why I don’t have problem seeing the Forrests and Custer sof history as they were… Americans of their time. They weren’t perfect (far from it perhaps), but I wouldn’t say they were evil. I have a problem looking at these people with hate or being angry with them.

                    Native American history is hard to comport with any kind of positive view of American history, I think. If your proud of America, you more or less implicitly condone what happened to the indigenous people of North America, because I’d argue America just couldn’t be what it is today without more or less obliterating the indigenous way of life. That’s probably why Lincoln won’t ever get too much flack for having presided over the Dakota War or the massacre at Sand Creek, or even for his almost participation in the Black Hawk War as young man. He was just part a process that had to happen, or was going to happen, for the ideal America to come to fruition. The same might could be said for his ultimate vanquishing of slavery.

  4. Except that the Confederacy closed newspapers, jailed civilians and carried out massacres of Unionists (the Gainesville hangings for example), it was worse than Lincoln’s actions and we need to remember that Lincoln had emergency powers in times of crisis. Of course it’s not surprising that DiLorenzo who has written sympathetically about the klan distorts this topic.

  5. DiLorenzo is correct about the “court” historian, who makes a career out of writing books. The “court” historians are politically correct historians. They would never dare do anything or write anything that could get them in trouble with the “establishment”. The most controversial issues (and not controversially enough, in my opinion) are written about by people who may be scholars in some other field, but who are not typically known as “historians.” Today, if you go too far afield of “established” history, you can not only find yourself unable anymore to publish via “established” publishers, but you may also wind up in jail.

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