Debating DiLorenzo: On Cultism as a Career

In the exchange that follows, Dr. Thomas DiLorenzo explains to Brian Lamb what he believes motivates members of what he defines as a Lincoln “cult”:

LAMB: What do you think is driving most of the, and there depending on what trigger you use – Andrew Ferguson wrote about you in his book ”Land of Lincoln” where he said, ”There are some 14,000 books written about Abraham Lincoln” …


LAMB: What’s the motivation? And how much of it is making money?

DILORENZO: Of all of these books? Well, there’s a – you know, there’s a whole group in the academic world, you know, there are Lincoln book awards. If you want a career as a historian, as an academic historian and you want to write books and give book contracts from big publishers, whether it’s a big university publisher or commercial – you’ll get loads of recommendations to do that from all of the big shots in the Lincoln world, if you are a, what I call, a member of the church of Lincoln.

But if you’re a dissenter you cannot have a career – you cannot have a career as an academic historian if you’re a critic of Abraham Lincoln. You won’t get a job. No one will hire. Maybe you can teach high school somewhere but you can’t – if you get a Ph.D. in history doing research that is critical of Lincoln – you can write a dissertation that’s critical of Thomas Jefferson, of George Washington, of any other president but not Abraham Lincoln. And when my book first came out, rather than arguing with me a lot of academics started personally attacking me …

LAMB: What did they say about you?

DILORENZO: ”He’s lying.” ”He made this up, made this or that up.” I’m not that foolish that I know I’m publishing a book on Abraham Lincoln to get away with something like that, not that I would ever try to get away with fabricating these things.

But what they didn’t like was I – a lot of the facts of the Lincoln’s life and experience such as suspending habeas corpus and having the military mass arrest tends of thousands of northern citizens I just laid that out and left it there. I didn’t make any excuses for it. I didn’t say he was forced into it. The devil made him do it, I didn’t say any of that. And that really, really upset a lot of the Lincoln scholars.

One of the things I found out is the way to become a Lincoln scholar is to take something like this, this sort of atrocious attack on civil liberties in the northern states and make – and dream up some excuses for it, think of why he had to do it and if you do that you’re a Lincoln scholar, and I didn’t play that game. I just laid out there and either said nothing or said the obvious that this was an atrocious infringement on freedom. And of course, the Supreme Court even on this topic agreed with me. In 1866 there was a statement that the Supreme Court said about the suspension of habeas corpus, they said, essentially that it’s especially important to enforce the Constitution during war time because Lincoln and others have given – made the statements that, ”Well, we need to suspend constitutional liberty at war time and we’ll return it to normalcy after the war,” but even the courts disagreed with them after the Civil War was over.

And so I think that’s what sort of drew a lot of dislike of me. When my book first came out in ’02, ”The Real Lincoln”, I had an e-mail from a syndicated columnist Paul Craig Roberts who wrote a blurb for the back of the book. And he said, ”You’re destroying their human capital, that’s why they’re attacking you.” And what he meant – human capital is a word we economists use for sort of your body of knowledge, your education, your skills and so forth. And so you have a lot of people who have spent careers writing books and articles sort of deifying Abraham Lincoln and then the skunk at the garden party shows up, me.

Crossroads Comments:  As the old headline used to read, “important if true.”  Oh, sure, there are prizes named after Lincoln, including the Lincoln Prize, and over the last several years that prize has usually gone to books about Lincoln, although the winners do not always agree about Lincoln.  But it’s a rather big professional risk to shape your career around getting a shot at that prize, especially given what can happen in the selection process.  I should know: I was put on the Lincoln Prize Advisory Board as a young scholar, participated on one jury, and have never been asked to participate since.  I’ve heard enough gossip about deliberations for that prize to convince me that it’s a nice prize to win but not to worry too much if you don’t.

Actually, Lamb’s question about motivation seems to me to be out of bounds, as if he’s seeking a fight and opening the door for DiLorenzo to say something nasty about the people with whom he disagrees.  Moreover, as someone who teaches at a university, I have to tell you that one of the ways to hurt your chances of getting a position is by proclaiming that you are a Lincoln scholar.  There are historians who have written about Lincoln and who teach at reputable institutions, but usually those people chose to write about Lincoln after they arrived at those institutions.  Others have made more of career along that line, but they have tended to teach at four year liberal arts colleges, not major research universities.

The line about how you cannot have a career if you’re a “dissenter” is not borne out by the evidence.  Indeed, critics of Lincoln and his policies have done about as well professionally as have the supposed members of his so-called church.

And another point of historical fact: ex parte Milligan, decided in 1866, did not rule against Lincoln’s use of habeas corpus.  The Supreme Court ruled against the use of military commissions in areas where civil courts were open and operating.

Finally, it’s interesting how DiLorenzo criticizes his critics for getting personal and saying nasty things about them.  I’d observe he’s rather good at doing exactly that himself.

One thought on “Debating DiLorenzo: On Cultism as a Career

  1. David Rhoads March 2, 2011 / 7:32 am

    This strikes me as an odd turn of phrase: “if you get a Ph.D. in history doing research that is critical of Lincoln”. Could be just a matter of speaking awkwardly off the cuff, but it suggests that DiLorenzo’s historical research may be driven by predetermined conclusions.

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