Debating DiLorenzo: Three Lincoln Cultists

Returning once more to Dr. Thomas DiLorenzo’s 2008 interview with Brian Lamb on C-SPAN …here’s Dr. DiLorenzo on what he calls the Lincoln “cult”:

LAMB: If you could get everybody that you call the Lincoln cultists or people who are members of the church of Lincoln in front of you, and we don’t have a whole lot of time left, but if you were going to tell them what you think they ought to do, tell them what they ought to change, tell them – just tell them what you think about them, what would you say to them?

DILORENZO: I think they need to get back to pursuing the truth of history in their careers. One of the debates I was in with another Lincoln scholar, he said at one point in a debate that was printed – it was published, eventually – that, uh, well this debate ended over secession, states rights, with the war. And so what was the point of all of this, he was saying, what was the point of bringing this up again? And my answer was, well, the pursuit of truth in history is the point of it. Might doesn’t make rights. Yes, military might was use to prove, so to speak that secession is illegal and unconstitutional, but might doesn’t make right. And so, sort of pursue the truth is what I would tell them. And maybe, I might embarrass a few of them into changing their ways.

LAMB: How would you embarrass them do you think?

DILORENZO: Well, I think, some of the more thoughtful people might look at what they’ve been doing in terms of their work and maybe reevaluate because it is sort of a closed society, this whole Lincoln – what I call the Lincoln cult. And when you only are around other people who think alike, and not only that, who pressure you to think alike and punish you professionally if you don’t think like everyone else, then it’s sort of incestuous and that’s not good for the expansion of knowledge and for the generation of ideas and learning. And I think there are some thoughtful people in the history profession who would get away from that and start considering alternative ways of looking at Lincoln and the Civil War.

LAMB: Is there a leader of the cult?

DILORENZO: Well there are probably several people who like to think of themselves as cult leaders. Harry Jaffa is one person who seems to be the most cult leader-like. He has a number of arguments that he has come up with over the years and he has a number of followers who repeat all of these arguments, and they tend to attack, personally attack people who disagree with their arguments. And the arguments are all basically Lincoln’s arguments; the states were never sovereign, for example. It was Lincoln’s argument in his first inaugural address the union created the states, the states didn’t create the union, which I think is just historically untrue. But that was sort of the mantra of – actually it began with Alexander Hamilton. And so a person like Jaffa repeats these old Lincoln arguments, and he has a number of followers who do this.


LAMB: Who else on your list?

DILORENZO: Well, James McPherson would be up there. He always …

LAMB: Princeton.

DILORENZO: Princeton, yes. I was – this debate I mentioned with another historian, it was published in ”North and South” Magazine a few years ago. And I was told to meet him, back and forth, we want back and forth several times and I thought it was very good debate and I was confident that I did well in the debate. And when the magazine came out, we did the debate online, the magazine comes out and I open it and there’s a little article by James McPherson in the middle taking my opponent’s side. And I was not informed of that, and I was not invited to respond to McPherson on that. And so he seems to have his fingers poked in everything that has to do with Lincoln and the Civil War. And I thought this was a very dishonest way of conducting himself and the ”North and South” magazine, I think it was a discredit to them to do that as well.

LAMB: Is there one more? We’re going to …

DILORENZO: One more Lincoln cultist? I might as well throw Harold Holzer in there as far as that goes.

LAMB: And why him?

DILORENZO: Well, he’s no different, in my book, than Jaffa and the rest. I guess, I would – I would put him in there as someone who doesn’t seem to tolerate any dissent over – and no right to have a conversation on it is my impression about these things. He was invited to be on a radio show with me and he canceled. And so I think they’re not really willing to have a conversation about these things. They know the truth and anybody who challenges the truth, in capital letters, is not to be debated but criticized or attacked or ignored something like that.

Crossroads Comments:  I’m unaware of the existence of this so-called cult.  What I see here are a series of attacks upon people as well as a reference to two exchanges mentioned in Kevin Levin’s blog entry — the discussion with Jaffa and the discussion in North & South.  Somehow McPherson’s faulted for participating in a discussion on North & South; you can better place the DiLorenzo-Jaffa debate in context given what he says about Jaffa; and, as for Harold Holzer, well, if I say anything there, I’ll have someone complaining that I’m picking on him, so I’ll let that be.

That said, I think DiLorenzo has a point here.  In discussing the first exchange with an unnamed antagonist, he presents a good case as to why people still debate certain issues; moreover, I think that if anything he should not argue that the question of secession’s constitutionality was settled by force of arms, because, as he points out, might does not make right.  Otherwise he’s conceding that on that point he’s giving in to Lincoln.  In fact, I’m surprised at his rather muddled treatment of that issue in this interview.

20 thoughts on “Debating DiLorenzo: Three Lincoln Cultists

  1. James F. Epperson March 2, 2011 / 10:08 am

    DiLorenzo responded to McPherson’s sidebar in N&S with a column that was published on

  2. Frank March 2, 2011 / 10:14 am

    At least on Jaffa, I’d have to conclude that DiLorenzo is pretty close to the mark. The other two not so much. But Jaffa has a very vigorous following (including the recent book “Vindicating Lincoln” by Krannawitter) that exhibits a few too many cultish traits for comfort.

    Also note that DiLorenzo is not the only one to recognize this about the Jaffa crowd. Stewart Winger, a far more mainstream Lincoln scholar, made many of the same points about them in this devastating critique of Krannawitter’s book:

  3. Mark March 2, 2011 / 10:48 am

    Giving creedence to DeLorenzo is like saying Lee Harvey Oswald has a point, but he didn’t need to shoot Governor Connelly too.

    Since DeLorenzo is blantantly dishonest and cowardly, why on earth not show that? There is this knee jerk reaction to “split the difference” to look “liberal” by “giving credit where it’s due.

    DeLorenzo knows very well Lincoln’s full meanings — they are quite clear, not only by his full quotes and astonishing hatred for slavery (Do you know anyone else but Lincon who said those who see slaves as merchandise and not human should be kicked to death — not kicked to unsconsciousness, but kicked to DEATH?”)

    Really tell me, this is not rhetorical, WHO in US history ever uttered more astonishing declarations hating slavery? Lincoln is at the top of that list.

    And DeLorenzo KNOWS that. He knows Lincoln’s full speeches becasue he went through them line by line, with a highlighter, and a note book, for hours — days.

    De Lorenzo knows– better than you do — that Lincoln tacked one way in his speeches, then switched course, and tracked the other, at first seeming to validate the racists slave tolerate public he was trying to get votes from, and then deftly changing course, and obliterating the very sentiment he seemed to agree with. You may not grasp that, you may slightly grasp it, but that was Lincoln’s main weapon.

    This very technique was Lincoln’s verbal pry bar, the folcrum he used to push apart decency, humanity, and slavery. Although Dale Carnagie had not yet written “How to Win Friends” Lincoln used techniques listed there, to AGREE, or seem to agree, with the people you are talking too.

    Is this too hard to grasp? lincoln was trying to get elected– not get shot.

    DeLorenzo, and every LIncoln hater I’ve ever heard of, simply scour Lincoln’s quotes when he is validating the prejudices of the day. At the time, his enemies just guoted Lincoln’s bashing of those sentiments, the picked just the opposite quotes.

    And forget the quotes, if all that is over your head, If you just can not grasp that LIncoln was a linquist who was using very effective, very sophisticated verbal techniques to fight slavery. Forget all that.

    Look at what he did. Did any of these guys ever hear “actions speak louder than words”? Lincoln’s words are astonishingly strong against slavery, they advocate DEATH for those who see blacks as just merchandise. Not harm, not teaching them a lesson but D E A T H. Strong enough for you?

    But LIncoln’s actions were very much in accordances with his hatred of slavery.

    To those who claim LIncoln was too slow, or too timid, or too ambivilant — get a clue. Learn what he was up against. And go read Frederick Douglass explaination of LIncoln.

    Douglass claimed LIncoln was “swift, zealous and determined”. Do you see those three words — swift — zealous — determined. Douglass was THERE. Douglass was at least as brilliant as any Lincoln scholar breathing today, and he was THERE. He knew Lincoln. He knew what LIncoln was up against.

    If you want to trash Lincoln, you gotta get through two things

    1) Douglass
    2) The truth.

    Don’t expect DeLorenzo to go near either.

    • Frank March 2, 2011 / 10:54 am

      Speaking of Lincoln cultists…

    • Bob Pollock March 2, 2011 / 12:00 pm

      Have you ever actually read the speech from which that Douglass quote was taken? Douglass also had this to say:
      “…Abraham Lincoln was not, in the fullest sense of the word, either our man or our model. In his interests, in his associations, in his habits of thought, and in his prejudices, he was a white man.
      He was preeminently the white man’s President, entirely devoted to the welfare of white men. He was ready and willing at any time during the first years of his administration to deny, postpone, and sacrifice the rights of humanity in the colored people to promote the welfare of the white people of this country. In all his education and feeling he was an American of the Americans. He came into the Presidential chair upon one principle alone, namely, opposition to the extension of slavery. His arguments in furtherance of this policy had their motive and mainspring in his patriotic devotion to the interests of his own race. To protect, defend, and perpetuate slavery in the states where it existed Abraham Lincoln was not less ready than any other President to draw the sword of the nation. He was ready to execute all the supposed guarantees of the United States Constitution in favor of the slave system anywhere inside the slave states. He was willing to pursue, recapture, and send back the fugitive slave to his master, and to suppress a slave rising for liberty, though his guilty master were already in arms against the Government.”

      You can read the full text here:

      • Mark March 2, 2011 / 1:04 pm

        Yes, and I read all of it— why don’t you try it. Seriously, don’t edit out the summation, where Douglass said Lincoln was swift, zealous and dedicated.

        Oh — and RADICAL. SO you leave out Douglass saying Lincoln was swift zealous, radical and determined. Hmm. I wonder why? Any particular reason you left out the total and clear message?

        Being politically correct are we? Don’t want to upset the Lincon haters, do we?

        If you pick out a slice, don’t pretend that’s the full and intended meaning. Too complicated ?

        Douglass said Lincoln was swift, zealous and determined and radical. That was his summation, that was his main message. Read full speech and pretend otherwise.

        You have taken the part of Douglas where he was placating those who admonished Lincoln. But he doesn’t stop there. His summary, his clear answer to the LIncoln question, is that Lincoln was SWIFT, that he was ZEALOUS, that he was RADICAL that he was DETERMINED.

        You can pretend all you want that Douglass was admonishing Lincoln – join those who love to be politically correct and distort things. Free country.

        Lincoln is easier to know, because he kicked slavery, and personally made sure it was dead. Douglass was a speaker, Lincoln was a speaker and a doer. Lincoln personally issued the EP — then he personally got the 13th AMendment passed, then he personally refused to allow the war to end, despite pleas from everyone from his advisors to Jeff Davis.

        It depends if you want the truth, or you want to cherry pick quotes and ignore the full clear meaning.

        • Bob Pollock March 2, 2011 / 1:41 pm

          Maybe you didn’t read my reply to your comment on this post:

          As I stated in that reply, I’m an admirer of Lincoln. And you’ll notice that I specifically used the very quote you claim I am ignoring. I worked at Lincoln Home National Historic Site for six months giving tours of his home and extolling his virtues. If you read my blog, you’ll quickly see that I could be accused of being biased towards the Union side. It’s actually rather amusing that I am having this discussion. But, as a graduate student in history, I was taught that a historian should strive for objectivity. If anyone is “cherry-picking” Douglass’ speech, it is you. Furthermore, I have no use for the concept of “political correctness” so I also find it amusing that you accuse me of being politically correct. Again, check out my blog. You don’t have to be a “Lincoln hater” to admit that Lincoln was human and in many ways a product if his time. As great as he was and as much as he did to end slavery, he did not do it all on his own as you suggest. No one man could have.

    • Robert Pentangelo January 28, 2012 / 3:01 pm

      Well, since you believe in the Warren Commission version of the JFK assassination, that causes me to question your statements on DiLorenzo and Lincoln.

    • Robert May 25, 2013 / 6:00 pm

      I hope you know more about the Civil War and Lincoln than you do about the JFK assassination which appears to be ZERO. Neither you, Gerald Posner, Vincent Bugliosi, or anyone else in 50 years have proven LHO was either a shooter or the shooter. Just stick to lionizing war criminals like Gen. Sherman and enemies of the Constitution like Lincoln.

    • Robert March 16, 2014 / 12:12 pm

      Anyone who starts off any argument with the absurd assumption that Lee Harvey Oswald was an assassin demonstrates 1) gross ignorance of the most important event in the last half century, the JFK assassination and 2) proves that court history extends far beyond Lincoln and the Civil War.

  4. Marc Ferguson March 2, 2011 / 11:17 am

    Hmmm, yeah, I wonder why some historians take exception to DiLorenzo, aside of course from his mangling of history. After all, I’m sure that “thoughtful people in the history profession” would respond very well to being told “they need to get back to pursuing the truth of history in their careers”!


  5. Riley March 2, 2011 / 11:27 am

    DiLorenzo has provided us with an amusing example of projection; he is a leading figure in a ‘movement’ which celebrates slavery, turns slave owners and terrorists into victims; stuff that cannot honestly be described as ‘non-fiction’ neo-Confederate revisionism is its own cult. You can even join ‘lodges’ (scv and so on, groups that are not secretive but really should be) where you can get together and engage in ghoulish ancestor worship. Are there excessive Lincoln fans? Of course, but it pales in comparison to the cult of Lee; at least Lincoln fans can name achievements, Lee fans talk about vague (“he was chivalrous”) or mythical (“he hated slavery”) reasons to justify their admiration. In other words Lincolnphiles admire a genuinely great man, the Lee fanboys admire someone because of a successful myth making campaign.

  6. Riley March 2, 2011 / 11:46 am

    Also why the dickens do people treat DiLorenzo as if he’s Ferdinand Gregorovius? An elementary google search shows that Thomas has:

    *Written sympathetically about the klan. He argues that if there hadn’t been any carpet baggers (cue the gone with the windesque whining) the klan wouldn’t have existed, a repulsive argument that erases the reality of racism and attempts to blame “northerners.” It’s also similar to people who argue that Al-Qaeda was responding “Western imperialism.”
    *Presented African-Americans as a degenerate and crime ridden people, blatant racism on his part. If someone portrayed southerners as alcoholic lowlifes prone to incest I doubt Thomas would approve.
    *Compared critics of the confederate flag to the USSR.
    *Compared neo-Confederates to persecuted Jews.

    I just wish these people could actually check on “experts” before giving them a forum, it reminds me of the expert truck from Mr. Show.

  7. Mark March 2, 2011 / 1:18 pm

    Oh, so Lincoln was ready to do WHAT? TO “use the sword” to defend slavery?

    What utter nonsense. Here is a guy that said slave owners — the PEOPLE who thought slaves were property — should be KICKED TO DEATH. Forget that already?

    Here is a guy who kicked the living bejesus out of slavery. Here is a guy who refused the war ultimatums of the South to spread slavery.

    You said Lincoln was ready to use the sword to defend slavery? Perhaps you missed Lincoln’s reaction to the Southern Ultimatums — I suggest you brush up on history.

    The South issued Ultimatums that Lincoln (the US Congress) must spread slavery into Kansas. Do you recall Lincon sending the Army to Kansas to obey this Ultimatum? Or did I miss that?

    Lincoln refused to obey Southern Ultimatums. If he was ready to use violence to defend slavery, he sure had a funny way of showing it. He kicked the living poo of out slavery, killed the Southern God of slavery, and discredited forever the goofy notion that God ordained slavery.

    Not bad job for a guy you said was willing to kill to DEFEND slavery.

    Strange actions indeed for a guy who was will ing to kill to protect slavery.

    Here is a clue — you can twist the words any way you want to, this was an art of Lincoln haters and slavers, They could take the bible and claim it meant they were ordained of God to enslave, punish, even torture slaves, even to death. All done with the tricky use of perverting language. We know now Lee, one of the best wordsmith going, had young women tortured while he screamed at them. His excuse was that God intended slavery had to be “painful” because pain “was necessary for their instruction”

    WEll, Lincoln adopted Lee’s method of teaching, only he delivered a little of the medicine back to the South. They have been ccrying about it ever since.

    Lincoln fought with words too — and when he refused to obey the Southern ULtimatums, they attacked. Lincoln fought back. The good guys won. The bad guys are still crying about it.

    • Frank March 2, 2011 / 1:37 pm

      Serious question: do you really expect to convince anybody of anything by cutting and pasting clips from the same typo-ridden screed all over the internet, including twice now on the same thread?

    • apollonian September 4, 2016 / 1:46 am

      Good gravy, but u’re just simply LYING, buddy. And u’re obviously psychotic–what’s this “good guys” crap, anyway? Hoh o ho ho–u’re a joke. And look, u poor ignoramus, if u give a quote, supposedly fm Lincoln, about kicking people to death, then give something of a citation, eh?

  8. Chuck Brown March 2, 2011 / 4:24 pm

    Can he possibly be serious when he says he was involved in a debate “with another Lincoln scholar?” Also, what “alternative ways of looking at Lincoln” is he referring to? A secessionist’s way? A slaveholder’s way? A libertarian’s way?

  9. mark May 13, 2012 / 1:03 am

    So Lincoln was a saint who was martyred on the altar of cruelty and inhumanity? The object in history is to pursue the truth. Not my truth, not your truth, but THE truth. I am a medieval scholar, not a Civil War scholar; but the methods of debate do not vary. This DiLorenzo has presented an argument. It is up to the defender’s of Lincoln to show his errors, not call him names. In the end it doesn’t matter what you believe. Belief is not proof. You must do the hard work and break his argument. If at the end of the day you have only what other’s have told you and believe it uncritically, well that smacks of faith; the basis of all religions.

    • Brooks D. Simpson May 13, 2012 / 5:27 am

      The professor must first do the hard work of making an argument. That would include the proper handling of evidence. We await that step.

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