Debating Lincoln

I see where my posting of a short exchange of views in three part harmony on Fox has sparked a discussion at Kevin Levin’s Civil War Memory over exactly how to engage such folks in debate.  Kevin asserts:

While those of us familiar with this Lincoln scholarship might enjoy a good laugh, we would do well to keep in mind that DiLorenzo and Woods are probably influencing the general public more through their publications and activism than all of the recent scholarly studies combined.

I’m unaware of any empirical data supporting that assertion.  Indeed, I don’t think that people who watch Fox or who have conservative leanings necessarily hew to the party line expressed in the roundtable in question.  Some may in fact watch out of amusement: someone once remarked to me that it looked as if Judge Napolitano’s head looked to be on the point of exploding.  Imagine how he might react if there was someone there to question his views or engage in debate?

Kevin then posts with approval a comment made by Dr. Daniel Feller in the pages of a professional journal about the work of several writers, including Dr. DiLorenzo:

The popularity of these books reminds us that academics live in a cocoon, which we mistake at our peril for the world.  It is a comfortable cocoon, filled with people and ideas we feel at ease with. But outside that cocoon, convictions are being shaped that will affect us all. The inclination to ignore ersatz scholarship and go about our business is strong, for the costs of engaging are high. But if we believe what we say we do – that knowing history is important, for such knowledge has consequences – then the costs of neglect may be higher.

These sound like wise words, but an appreciation of context should inform them.  I say this knowing Dan Feller quite well, for Dan, David Blight, and I were all students of Dr. Richard H. Sewell at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the early 1980s.  Dan was known as someone who criticized freely and harshly, but I’ve not seen him follow his own advice when it comes to the people he discusses in his essay.  I’d argue that David Blight’s work has had a lot more influence than Feller claims: Kevin’s own blog is testimony to that.  Moreover, Feller’s call to engage leaves unanswered the question of how to do so.

Folks, if Judge Napolitano, Dr. DiLorenzo, or Thomas Woods wanted to engage me on television, they need only pick up the phone.  The judge has a show: you might want to ask him why he finds himself contact-challenged.  However, anyone who watches MSNBC or Fox News/Business knows how this goes: shows on both networks prefer sham debates that look like professional wrestling matches or seek academics who simply confirm the prejudices of the host.  That’s true of both networks.  Nor is C-SPAN necessarily the place to go.  Brian Lamb’s interview with DiLorenzo on C-SPAN allowed DiLorenzo to go on unchecked, and he made statements which were simply amusing because they were so easy to challenge (but Lamb chose not to do that, and generally does not see that as his role; for those of you who want to read the transcript, here it is).  For example, if there was a conspiracy of Lincoln scholars led by organizations such as the Abraham Lincoln Association (where I serve on the board of directors) to sanctify the Lincoln image and reputation, then why would the journal of that association publish Phillip Magness’s article on Lincoln and colonization … part of a larger work that DiLorenzo praises?  Why would that association invite Lerone Bennett to speak at its annual symposium?  I know, because I was one of the other two panelists, and I have some idea from that experience how these things turn out.  In the end, Allen Guelzo and Bennett got into a heated exchange, while it was left to me to suggest that we need to replace “who freed the slaves?” with “how did freedom come? How was slavery destroyed?” as a superior way to understand the destruction of slavery and the advent of emancipation.  Note: upon listening to what I had to say, Bennett leaned over and told me that he agreed with much of it.

So selecting a forum and a format is key.  I’ve heard there’s something called the History Channel, but I’ve never seen much history on it, and that’s being polite.

Kevin concludes by saying:

What I will say, however, is that it would be nice to see DiLorenzo and Woods have to present these arguments among historians who have actually published scholarly studies about Lincoln.  Let’s see how well their arguments hold up.  Of course, first, they have to be engaged.

Again, at first glance this sounds fine.  But the devil’s in the details.  What’s the best way to do this?  Who hosts?  How is the discussion made available?  Is any of this a guarantee that the result will reach the audience intended?  Indeed, would someone define the audience(s) in question?

Here’s the problem: Napolitano, DiLorenzo, and Woods offer sound-bite assertions that a scholar could not responsibly answer with a similar sound bite without becoming just another ranting head.  Yet that is exactly what is required on these shows.  So let’s set that aside if we are really interested in thoughtful, responsible scholarship or a meaningful discussion.  Indeed, some of the comments on Kevin’s blog can be reduced to “Fight! Fight! Fight!”

So, do we have C-SPAN host a discussion?  And if so, are we going to frame it as Kevin has, with scholars responding to an indictment offered by a three-headed prosecutor?  Or would such a discussion proceed with more open-ended questions, such as “Will you tell us your views on Lincoln and colonization?”  Format’s critical here: placing scholars in the position of having to respond to some sort of factually-flawed indictment in an adversarial format akin to a trial or debate simply promotes confrontation and theatrics at the expense of understanding.  Again, some of the comments in response to Kevin’s post suggest that’s what some people want, and I invite those people to proceed on their own, perhaps by asking Dr. Feller to step forward and volunteer to assail the tremendous trio directly, much as Dr. Feller has at times engaged his professional peers.  Of course some people will pay to see that circus.  But, make no mistake about it, it will be a circus, in part because the protagonists will show no respect for each other (I advise you to listen to/read the DiLorenzo C-SPAN interview again for evidence of that).

Now, one can use the internet to challenge arguments.  After all, this has been an approach used by both sides in the debate over black Confederates, although that’s in part because so much of that debate occurs online.  Indeed, James Epperson has done just that with DiLorenzo, in the website he cited.  I invite your attention to the website constructed in response to that website.  I’ll leave it to the readers to judge how that turned out.

There are ways to engage in thoughtful, responsible discussion on a civil level.  Of course, even then you’ll encounter an idiot with his own agenda among the listeners/readers, and I’ve already offered my views on that.  However, given DiLorenzo’s portrayal of Lincoln scholars (and the vast misrepresentation involved), I’d wager that things are a bit more complicated than some people suspect.  Suffice it to say that people who study Lincoln often disagree with each other.  You’ve seen it on this blog, for goodness’ sake.

DiLorenzo’s construction of the community of Lincoln scholars is a strawman, a construction of an “other” essential to his moving his case from Lincoln to those who write about him and who do not share his views.  It also poisons the well for civil discussion.  And, folks, you can’t tell me to drop what I’m doing and respond to someone else’s agenda while at the same time you’re asking me about the progress of this project or that project.  Yet, as the Epperson example shows, these discussions are a little harder to construct than one thinks.

Taking people on always seems to be the simple answer: it is in how one conducts the discussion and what one expects that things get far more complicated.

16 thoughts on “Debating Lincoln

  1. Kevin February 26, 2011 / 1:26 pm

    I don’t know of any empirical studies that might back up my claim either. I base it entirely on my own perceptions of things and nothing more. Please do not interpret it as anything more.

    • Brooks D. Simpson February 26, 2011 / 1:41 pm

      Lots of books are bought and sold that are never read. So book sales don’t help us determine much. I’d argue that Blight’s approach to history has had a wider influence on how history is taught than Feller thinks. Before Feller chides the profession (something he’s very good at doing), he ought to practice what he preaches.

      • Kevin February 26, 2011 / 3:26 pm

        OK, but what empirical research would you bring to bear to show it? You obviously much more familiar with Feller. The passage in question was pulled from an address delivered to the SCWH a few years ago.

      • Brooks D. Simpson February 26, 2011 / 3:51 pm

        Civil War memory studies have been quite the thing in the last fifteen or so years: Blight’s book is often cited by educators and he’s brought forward to speak here and there. Your own blog, Kevin, is evidence of that influence. Feller asserts that DiLorenzo and co. have influence in colleges and universities. Really? Do they take part in Teaching American History grants, for example? And, if Feller thinks it’s time to go face-to-face with these folks, he’s welcome to do just that. Otherwise he does not practice what he preaches. I don’t see him reaching out, blogging, etc. He’s quite vulnerable as a prime target of his own criticism.

  2. James F. Epperson February 26, 2011 / 1:45 pm

    Back in the day, (1980s?) PBS did a series of semi-formal debates on public issues between teams of advocates. There was a formal structure of presentation and rebuttal, plus questions and answers. Michael Kinsley was the moderator I believe. I thought they worked well, much better than the formalized joint interview/shouting matches we see today.

    • Al Mackey February 26, 2011 / 9:51 pm

      Jim, those were the “Firing Line” debates sponsored by Bill Buckley with a team of debators on each side. They were about 2 hours in length (no commercials) with a question being debated in standard competitive debate format: “Resolved: That … ” with an affirmative side and a negative side. While they would alleviate the “sound bite” problem it is still a confrontational setting. And we would have the question of who would sponsor it.

  3. R. B. Bernstein February 26, 2011 / 2:17 pm

    I fear, though based on nothing more than a gut sense of things fueled by my experience with public perceptions of the founding era, that Woods, DiLorenzo, and Napolitano do indeed reach more people that all the serious modern scholarship put together. But the question is not really about who reaches more folks. The question here is really about how we deal with spurious and fraudulent history that flies in the face of what we can and do seen to know about the past.

    In this connection, I cite the problem of Holocaust deniers. Deborah Lipstadt, author of a leading expose of Holocaust denial, now refuses to engage in debates or panels with Holocaust deniers. She explains that to do so would be to confer legitimacy on what passes for scholarship but does not deserve the label of legitimacy. And I find her case convincing.

    • Kevin February 26, 2011 / 3:28 pm

      I certainly sympathize with not wanting to share a platform with Holocaust Deniers, but the alternative is to allow such nonsense to go unchallenged. Serious historians in these crucial areas of interest have an obligation to speak up when the historical record is being abused and when the public is being misinformed.

      • Brooks D. Simpson February 26, 2011 / 3:52 pm

        Saying that such commentary ought not to go unchallenged really doesn’t address the issue of how best to go about challenging it.

  4. Kevin February 26, 2011 / 4:18 pm


    First, is there a way for you to adjust your setting to allow threading beyond four comments?

    Like I said, I don’t know anything about Feller. The author of the SCWH – someone I have a great deal of respect in the field of public history/museum studies – pulled that passage from RAH. He has similar concerns. He also has reached out to folks like DiLorenzo so his experience and POV has merit.

    As to my other point, I don’t have all the answers re: how to go about challenging folks like DiLorenzo and Woods. I can only do my little part with CWM.

    • Brooks D. Simpson February 26, 2011 / 4:29 pm

      1. As of yet, I haven’t found any. I have been investigating it.
      2. I’m sure some people have reached out (recall who invited Bennett to Springfield; recall which journal published Magness’s article). I’m singling out Feller because he issued the call you cited. It seemed to me to have merit, but not nearly as much as it would have had he practiced what he preached.
      3. I’m simply pointing out that these folks are being challenged. But I think some readers issue a call to arms before checking which weapons are available and which would be of service. I think the Epperson website and the response to that suggests that when you go in that direction, you had better play to win. Moreover, the “play to win” attitude masks the “discuss to understand” approach I prefer. It would be easy to beat DiLorenzo and company at their own game, but does one really want to go there? Look at how the exchanges between DiLorenzo and Jaffa degenerated several times. Does that advance historical understanding?

      • Kevin February 26, 2011 / 5:45 pm

        Fair enough. You make a good point.

        Go into your Settings Option and click on Discussion. You should see a box that says, “Enable threaded ‘nested’ comments…” At least that is what I use with

      • Christopher Shelley July 2, 2014 / 10:55 pm

        My preference is to play to win. I get your point, but if “winning” means DiLorenzo and his ilk are publicly discredited, then it’s worth going there. At least, for me.

  5. Mark February 27, 2011 / 8:02 am

    As to the point about Brian Lamb not asking DeLorenzo fundamental or informed questions — he isn’t the only one. Tim Russert let Ron Paul totally distort fundmental facts with impunity.

    Lamb and Russert should have known – along with every child in America, the truth about the antebellum South. Yet the harsh truths are never, and I mean never, taught.

    Do you think Lamb and Russert had any idea of the following?

    1) Southern governments from 1820’s on violently and officially suppressed free speech — subjecting even preachers who professed anti-slavery sentiment to physical torture, deportation, and intimidation.

    2) Because there was no free speech in the South — even to pastors — there was no real elections possible, any more than there were real elections in Iraq under Saddam.

    If speaking out, or even reading or writing against slavery was punishable by torture — there weren’t any real elections, PERIOD.

    You can find very good articles about the violent GOVERNMENTAL suppression of free speech– entire books have been written about it, such as “The Other South” by Degler. But this truth is too horrible to teach our kids. Most people – including people who read this blog, have no idea about it. If smart people like YOU don’t know, how would this be part of our historical awareness?

    Just this morning I was reading Southern newspapers from before the Civil War. It’s merely and example of things commonly in Southern papers, and not meant to be exhaustive explantion.

    MARSHALL] TEXAS REPUBLICAN, January 14, 1860, p. 2, c. 7
    On the 5th inst., an abolitionist was arrested at Jefferson by the name of Fory R. Arnold. He had been heard to say that “he was born upon freesoil—that he was proud of it, and that he was an abolitionist and expected to be one as long as he lived.” He had also been tampering with slaves. The citizens of Jefferson passed the following resolutions:
    “Resolved, That we as a committee appointed to investigate the conduct of Fory R. Arnold, have unanimously concluded that the words and expressions used by him are of such a character as to deserve immediate action on the part of a southern community.
    “Resolved, That we therefore require the said Fory R. Arnold to leave this country within 24 hours in search of a region more congenial to his abominable sentiments.
    Resolved, That the day has at length arrived when the south must take decided action, and use the most cogent means to put a stop to every thing that has the least tendency to abolitionism.
    “Therefore, we recommend to the legislature to repeal the laws authorising peddling, and affix a penalty for the violation of the same.
    “Whereas this meeting is informed that the postmaster-general has declared that in States where incendiary publications are inhibited, postmasters may refuse to distribute such documents and destroy the same, that they be requested to do it.”

    Arnold was lucky – he was just deported for his “abomidable sentiments”. He had spoken out that he was against slavery. He had dared to utter those words. Daring to SPEAK against slavery was “abomination!” So serious was it, that he had to be deported. But this was Texas, the same state that hung 14 men for voting against secession. They had a trial for 14 accused of voting that way, and found 7 guilty, and hung them. They let the other 7 go.

    But they had so much fun hanging the first 7, then retrieved the other 7, and hung them too. Again – their crime? They admitted they voted against secession. So Arnold was lucky to escape with his life.

    Do we teach these and other truths to our children? No. But we should.

    Others were subjected to torture — notably, preachers who dared to utter anti-slavery sermons.

    Notice that the hate and violence was GOVERNMENTAL. This wasn’t some mob doing these things, it was GOVERNMENTAL action, governmental supression of speech, governmental lynchings.

    So Lamb and Russert had no clue– none. It should have been automatic. But if you have no clue how totalitarian the South was against free speech and real elections, then you can’t respond to distortions by DeLorenzo or others, exactly as happens over and over even now.

  6. Simon Hawthorne April 12, 2011 / 7:53 pm

    In the end you must confront these liars (that is what they are) they cannot abe allowed to continue their lies and the best way is to unmask them on video. Do not be afraid to call them out when they lie, in fact also suggest that they have slandered you with their accusations of conspiracy. Make fools of these horrible human beings.

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