Debating DiLorenzo: Lincoln and Emancipation

In this excerpt from a 2008 interview with Brian Lamb, Dr. Thomas DiLorenzo addresses Lincoln and emancipation:

LAMB: Did Lincoln free the slaves?

DILORENZO: Well, the 13th amendment freed the slaves, to be sure. Lincoln late in his term did support the 13th amendment. And so when the states ratified the 13th amendment, that’s what freed the slaves. During the war, a lot of slaves freed themselves as two huge armies went through and created anarchy and chaos, a lot of them freed themselves. And of course, the Emancipation Proclamation, who anyone could read online or off-line, specifically exempted all of the areas of the United States that were in control of the union at the time. It was even so specific as to mention each parish in Lewisiana where the Union Army was in charge at the time of the Emancipation Proclamation. And so it didn’t apply to what was called ”rebel territory,” and so it literally didn’t have the ability to free anybody. And besides that, the president at this time didn’t have the ability to end slavery. There would have been a constitutional amendment, which is what happened eventually. But that’s one of the great myths of American history, I think. And I was surprised, by the way, I went to the new Lincoln presidential museum in Springfield, Illinois which is really a remarkable technological feat. It’s a beautiful museum. And they have the face of an ex-slave on a big screen and a voice-over saying what I just said to you saying that, you know, calling Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation a sham because it didn’t free anybody. And I was frankly shocked that they would put this up in the Lincoln museum because I’ve gotten all kind of criticism from merely stating the obvious. And at the time, there were newspapers in Europe and America that were saying this. There were abolitionists in the north who were condemning Lincoln because they thought this was a fraud. They thought, you know, he says he wants to emancipate the slaves, but look at the document, it doesn’t emancipate anybody. It just – it only applies to rebel territory where they had no ability to emancipate anyone.

Crossroads Comments: DiLorenzo downplays Lincoln’s role in pushing forward the Thirteenth Amendment, which was the final blow to slavery.  However, he overlooks Lincoln’s role in freeing slaves earlier.  Lincoln supported state initiatives for emancipation in Louisiana, Tennessee, Arkansas, West Virginia, Maryland, and Missouri; he went so far as to frame an unsuccessful proposal in Kentucky; and, of course, he worked for emancipation in the District of Columbia.  Moreover, contrary to his claim, the Emancipation freed slaves at the time and later, in the wake of Union military advances.  DiLorenzo would have been on stronger ground had he also discussed congressional initiatives in this regard, but by simply focusing on two measures, he offers a misleading understanding of how freedom came from Lincoln’s perspective.  That said, DiLorenzo does credit enslaved blacks and antislavery whites with playing a role in the process as well, and that is a welcome corrective to assumptions that it was all Lincoln’s doing.

DiLorenzo argues that Lincoln really didn’t have the power to free the slaves.  It is useful to recall that when one returns to his arguments about Lincoln, peaceful abolition, and the beginning of the war, where Lincoln is blamed for not doing more to secure peaceful abolition (although he’s also criticized for opposing secession).  It’s hard to reconcile these three positions:

1.  Lincoln should have sought a peaceful path to emancipation.

2.  As president Lincoln didn’t really have the power to free anyone.

3.  Lincoln should have let the southern states go, thus perpetuating slavery in those states.

When you add to this DiLorenzo’s portrayal of Lincoln as a tyrant, things become even more confusing.

Finally, read carefully: DiLorenzo states that the Emancipation Proclamation “specifically exempted all of the areas of the United States that were in control of the union at the time.”  At first, you may wonder why I’m drawing attention to that wording.  After all, the four border states that did not secede were not affected by the Emancipation Proclamation.  Then again, neither were portions of the so-called Confederate States of America, right?  Yes, yet again, the Confederacy turns invisible when DiLorenzo speaks of the Civil War.  Nor does DiLorenzo offer the notion of military necessity as both expanding Lincoln’s presidential powers while at the same time defining where he could not employ that doctrine (thus limiting his power).  Lincoln himself explained as much to Salmon P. Chase on September 2, 1863:

Knowing your great anxiety that the emancipation proclamation shall now be applied to certain parts of Virginia and Louisiana which were exempted from it last January, I state briefly what appear to me to be difficulties in the way of such a step. The original proclamation has no constitutional or legal justification, except as a military measure. The exemptions were made because the military necessity did not apply to the exempted localities. Nor does that necessity apply to them now any more than it did then. If I take the step must I not do so, without the argument of military necessity, and so, without any argument, except the one that I think the measure politically expedient, and morally right? Would I not thus give up all footing upon constitution or law? Would I not thus be in the boundless field of absolutism? Could this pass unnoticed, or unresisted? Could it fail to be perceived that without any further stretch, I might do the same in Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Missouri; and even change any law in any state? Would not many of our own friends shrink away appalled? Would it not lose us the elections, and with them, the very cause we seek to advance?

(Emphasis added.)

Stay tuned for dinner and dessert.

13 thoughts on “Debating DiLorenzo: Lincoln and Emancipation

  1. Mark February 27, 2011 / 3:08 pm

    1) Lincoln sought a peaceful way to allow slavery to CONTINUE where it existed.
    2) Southern Ultimatums demanded– under promise of war — that the North spread slavery for the South.
    3) When Lincoln and the North refused to obey Southern ULtimatums, the South attacked.
    4) Lincoln brought up compensation to the Southern slave owners repeatedly
    4) DeLorenzo doesn’t have a clue about what happened.

  2. James F. Epperson February 27, 2011 / 7:15 pm

    The notion that the EP freed no one is kind of undermined by the work of men like John Eaton, managing all those contraband camps in northern Mississippi.

    The fact that DiLorenzo is more of a political polemicist than historian becomes more and more clear as we look at these exchanges. Good job, Brooks!

  3. Bob Huddleston February 27, 2011 / 7:38 pm

    The Emancipation Proclamation freed slaves in areas considered to be in rebellion, many of which were controlled by the United States on January 1, 1863.
    The Declaration of Independence did not make the US a “free and independent nation.” That took seven more years to accomplish. And, had the British prevailed, the Declaration would be of interest only to students of failed revolutions. All of the slaves in the areas delineated were free de facto with thirty months of the Emancipation Proclamation and a large number were freed immediately. The Emancipation Proclamation was prospective, i.e., it would free slaves as the United States Army marched south, and they were on the advance.
    Reading the Emancipation Proclamation, and comparing the areas included and excluded, shows that the immediate effect of the Emancipation Proclamation was to free a large number of slaves, in areas under United States’ control, but still considered to be in rebellion. The Emancipation Proclamation preserved slavery only those areas *not in rebellion,* not those areas under United States’ control on January 1, 1863. And that is a huge difference.
    Note that in Louisiana, the excluded areas are New Orleans, the Mississippi Delta and the area immediately west of the Delta (county lines were a little different in 1863 than now, but close enough to use Rand-McNally). However, the US Army had occupied more of the state to the North, heading, as they were, towards Port Hudson. So all of those slaves were freed.
    The excluded areas of Virginia included West Virginia (small slave population anyway), and Berkeley County, which is the start of the strip of West Virginia which today takes in both Berkeley and Jefferson (Harpers Ferry) counties. But Jefferson County was not excluded.
    The only other parts of Virginia excluded were the Eastern Shore (the peninsula that stretches South from Eastern Maryland towards Cape Charles), and the area around Norfolk-Hampton-Fortress Monroe.
    However, the United States controlled *all* of Virginia north of the Rappahannock, including, obviously, Alexandria County, which then consisted of Arlington and Alexandria. They also had a presence in the Shenandoah. Now “control” is a relative word: John Mosby would have disputed the above paragraph! But, nevertheless, the Confederacy did not control most of Northern Virginia. So there are two big areas, and, in the case of Virginia, important areas, where the slaves *were* freed on January 1, 1863.
    In addition, the Emancipation Proclamation freed slaves in Arkansas, Georgia and the Carolinas. On Emancipation Day, the United States controlled much of tidewater and the barrier islands of Georgia and North and South Carolina. The Union also controlled the Ozarks of Arkansas (not many slaves) but also the heavily slave areas of the extreme northeastern counties of Arkansas. The blue coats were in possession of major portions of North Mississippi and Alabama, and they would, within a few months, liberate the densely slave occupied areas of the Mississippi black belt between the Mississippi and the Yazoo.
    Quite a large number – probably hundreds of thousands, maybe even a million or more, of the slaves *were* freed – and freed immediately – by the Emancipation Proclamation.
    And the balance of the four million would be de facto free within thirty months.

  4. M.D. Blough February 27, 2011 / 8:04 pm

    DiLorenzo dismisses Lincoln’s support for the 13th Amendment as coming late in his term. That is misleading. Lincoln supported the first, unsuccessful effort to get the 13th Amendment through Congress and that occurred before the bitterly contested 1864 Presidential election. The provisional EP was announced as the 1862/1863 Congressional & state elections were beginning and hurt the Republican Party in those elections. Lincoln renewed the push for the amendment in the lame duck session of Congress that began in December 1864 because, since the Republicans had done well in that election, he took advantage of the fact that lame duck Democrats could vote their conscience and give the amendment bipartisan support. Lincoln pushed through the 13th Amendment because he was not sure how the federal courts would treat the status of freed slaves once the war ended. He made it clear that he would not do anything as president to jeopardize that freedom, but he also knew that, short of a constitutional amendment, he could not ensure what would happen once he was no longer president.

    The Emancipation Proclamation was understood by both friends and foes as changing the war objectives of the US government to include the end of slavery as a non-negotiable objective along with preservation of the Union. Slaves didn’t just flee pell mell; they fled to Union forces as Union forces advanced into rebel states, knowing that they would not face the risk of being returned into slavery.

  5. R., B. Bernstein February 28, 2011 / 11:22 am

    Thanks to Brooks and to all the commenters for these thoughtful and sensible analyses. My one point of disagreement is with Mark’s comment that “DeLorenzo doesn’t have a clue about what happened.” I respectfully disagree. Only someone who knows what happened could have done so skillful a job of misrepresenting what happened.

  6. Zach mcphee December 12, 2012 / 8:54 pm

    I don’t really care to comment in great detail but I studied under dilorenzo at loyola and none of you understand his positions correctly. Pat yourselves on the back with your limited knowledge but ignore him at your own peril.

    • Brooks D. Simpson December 12, 2012 / 9:42 pm

      Hard to believe that when one is quoting what he said. Are you saying that he didn’t say these things, or that he doesn’t mean what he says?

      • dha December 13, 2012 / 8:04 am

        Brooks, masterful job of distortion and contextual disjointedness with respect to DiLorenzo’s views on Lincoln. If you’re going to attempt a ‘debate,’ you might try actually speaking with the man and challenging his views in person. You definitely have circular logic on your side. DiLorenzo doesn’t opine on the efficacy (or lack therein) of 13th in a vacuum; instead of blinding yourself with your own brilliance, try researching the works David Donald, Lerone Bennett, Jim Powell, Ella Lonn, Dean Sprague and Phillip Magness. Plenty of info out there, from scholars, professors, and Pulitzer Prize-winning authors to help navigate you through your fog.

        • Brooks D. Simpson December 13, 2012 / 8:33 am

          You talk a lot, but you don’t say anything … and you seem scared to identify yourself. Guess you can’t support your assertions. Is this the best you can do? So much for challenging one’s views in person … you set a rather poor example.

          DiLorenzo needs a better class of defenders. This current crop is easier to dismiss than is DiLorenzo’s own work.

    • John Foskett December 13, 2012 / 8:14 am

      You must have a storehouse of those footnotes and endnotes that he withholds from his published articles. Unfortunately it appears that he’s not competently communicating his “positions” because we can only go on what he says in print.For example, I’ve read what he’s written about the party platforms in 1860. I’ve read the platforms themselves. Suffice it to sday that he must have gotten the wrong year. “Ignore him at your own peril”? Sounds like some sort of cult…

      • Brooks D. Simpson December 13, 2012 / 9:02 am

        Yes, it is the DiLorenzo cult, reciting the infallibility of their peerless leader, but somehow unable to demonstrate a single instance when I’m in error.

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