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?