Debating DiLorenzo: Doris Kearns Goodwin

In an interview with C-SPAN’s Brian Lamb, Dr. Thomas DiLorenzo offered his observations on fellow historian Doris Kearns Goodwin:

LAMB: Let me read something that you wrote just a couple of years ago “A Plagiarist’s Contribution to the Lincoln Idolatry.”



LAMB: You say, ”Doris Kearns Goodwin is a museum quality specimen of a court historian. An intellectual or pseudo-intellectual who is devoted to pulling the wool over the public’s eyes by portraying even the most immoral, corrupt and sleazy politicians as great, wise, and altruistic men.” What’s behind that statement?

DILORENZO: Well, well as you know, if read my article, you know, I went through all of the research from the Internet on how Doris Kearns Goodwin essentially admitted plagiarism. And she was taken off the air. You know, she was the usual commentator on the presidency on network television for years. And she was taken off the Pulitzer Prize Committee because of the plagiarism. And she laid low for a couple of months and then she’s back on television telling us who we should vote for president and pontificating about all of these sorts of issues.

And so, that’s one of the reasons why I thought this was sort of odd. And she had just written this big book on Lincoln called ”Team of Rivals” I think it’s a 960 page book. You probably have interviewed her. But I’ll give you one example of what I mean there.

When Lincoln was inaugurated, in his first inaugural address, he pledged to support for a constitutional amendment that it all ready passed the House and the Senate that would have forbidden the federal government from ever interfering in southern slavery. And not only did he support that, it’s right there in his first inaugural address. But he orchestrated the whole thing. After he was elected he got William Seward who would become his Secretary of State to get this through the Senate. And Doris Kearns Goodwin writes about this as I do.

I look at these facts that Lincoln was willing to see slavery exist, enshrine it in the Constitution and it had never been explicitly in the Constitution, long after his own lifetime as far as he knew and I thought that was an immoral act. I think that’s – not only is it an amoral act, but it’s one of the things where it’s been kept from Americans. I still get e-mails from people challenging me to show them where this amendment is. It’s called the Corwin Amendment named after a member of Congress.

Doris Kearns Goodwin writes about the same thing and praises Lincoln for it because he – she claims it helped him keep the republican party together by doing this. And the theme of her whole book is what a clever, political manipulator Lincoln was and it kept the party together.

My view of that is that a clever political manipulator can be a horribly dangerous thing. How do you get to be a clever political manipulator? Well, you’re an expert liar and conniver, that’s my view of it. And so people who write books about liars and connivers and politics and praises them I’m a little dubious of their reputations. I don’t think they deserve the respect that they sometimes get in their profession or in the public.

LAMB: Were there other people that wrote about you felt that he has …

DILORENZO: Well, she’s written about Lyndon Johnson who she worked and you can say a lot of good things about Lyndon Johnson and of course he’s had his share of criticism too. But, I thought she kind of pulled her punches. And all of the things she wrote about Lyndon Johnson and the Kennedys seemed to me to be idol worship as opposed to analysis. And she claims that part of her expertise is in a field that I discovered when I started becoming more interdisciplinary in writing on Lincoln, it’s called psychohistory and not psycho in a crazy psycho but sort of a – it seems to be people who study history and gain enough knowledge maybe in their graduate training like Doris Kearns Goodwin did at Harvard about psychology to claim to be sort of amateur psychologists in analyzing the motives of man like Abraham Lincoln or Franklin Roosevelt or the Kennedys.

And I’ve read a good bit of this psychohistory. And it seems to me that they take actions by a lot of these politicians and just dream up excuses. There’s sort of armchair psychology that they use, and they dream up excuses or rationales for things that they did. And the whole enterprise sounds very dubious to me in psychohistory and that’s what Doris Kearns Goodwin claims her Ph.D. was in at Harvard and is the basis of her books on the Kennedys and Roosevelt and – or Lyndon Johnson, rather and other people.

Croossroads Comments: This is a rather severe indictment of Doris Kearns Goodwin.  It also seems to be an uneven one.  Yes, Goodwin was pilloried (and justifiably so) for plagiarism, including what seemed to be a slow response by her publisher to remedy the passages in question.  That said, she admitted to the act, paid a substantial price for it, and then continued with her work, this time painstakingly footnoting everything in her next book, Team of Rivals.  DiLorenzo has very little to say about the substance of that work, although he has a problem with how she treated the Corwin Amendment.  They clearly disagree over Lincoln’s actions in that instance.

I have trouble with DiLorenzo’s analysis of the Lincoln and the Corwin Amendment.  Let’s set aside for the moment the question of Lincoln’s role in the drafting of the amendment.  It’s already known that he offered no opposition to it in his inauguration.  What strikes me as odd is that DiLorenzo launches a moral indictment of Goodwin for approving an act of which he does not approve … even though the act in question was designed to avoid what DiLorenzo deems an unnecessary war and that it would have limited the power of a man DiLorenzo deems a tyrant.  Ratification of the Corwin Amendment would not have stopped efforts at ending slavery … it would have ended efforts to force abolition in the states where it existed by congressional fiat.  Read the amendment:

No amendment shall be made to the Constitution which will authorize or give to Congress the power to abolish or interfere, within any State, with the domestic institutions thereof, including that of persons held to labor or service by the laws of said State.

That doesn’t enshrine slavery in the Constitution.  It denies Congress the power to abolish it where it already exists.

As for the rest of DiLorenzo’s commentary on Goodwin, it’s clear that he doesn’t like her or her politics, but it really doesn’t bear upon her work on Lincoln.  Indeed, very little of his commentary actually bears on the subject of her treatment of Lincoln.  Moreover, a check of Goodwin’s brief treatment of the amendment (pages 296-97) does not correspond with his description of what she said.

15 thoughts on “Debating DiLorenzo: Doris Kearns Goodwin

  1. James F. Epperson March 3, 2011 / 5:35 am

    Also, wasn’t there a discussion on AWCU in which you demonstrated that Goodwin’s take (apparently also DiLorenzo’s take) on the amendment was wrong?

    • Brooks D. Simpson March 3, 2011 / 7:54 am

      A check of that newsgroup’s archives reveals that the discussion you may be recalling involved Mike Griffith, who was in the habit of offering DiLorenzo’s columns as his own work. The discussion was not about Goodwin: it was about Griffith’s presentation of DiLorenzo’s position on Goodwin (as his own). Best to read what Goodwin says if you want to know what she says.

      • James F. Epperson March 3, 2011 / 9:24 am

        Thanks; I guess my memory garbled things a bit.


  2. Tony Gunter March 3, 2011 / 9:02 am

    Brooks, you have mentioned that your piece on the Lincoln-McClellan relationship may be the most balanced, but it is no longer publicly available to my knowledge. Would it be possible to pu rchase it from you?

    My biggest beef with Lincoln is that he often seemed to do more harm than good as commander-in-chief. What book would you recommend for a balanced assessment of Lincoln’s role as CIC?

    • Brooks D. Simpson March 3, 2011 / 9:09 am

      I don’t have copies for sale. However. that relationship will be part of a book coming out this summer, so patience.

      I don’t think there’s a book-length treatment on this subject that really integrates various perspectives. I prefer Hattaway and Jones, How the North Won, but that’s a book with a larger scope. Jim McPherson’s recent work elaborates on the arguments offered by T. Harry Williams in 1952, and I don’t always share those views.

  3. Chuck Brown March 3, 2011 / 10:15 am

    Lincoln’s failure to offer opposition to the Corwin Amendment isn’t surprising. What is surprising is that DiLorenzo seems unaware that an amendment can be overturned by another amendment. Isn’t that why some Republicans are currently making an issue of the Fourteenth Amendment?

    • Brooks D. Simpson March 3, 2011 / 11:00 am

      I literally just got off the phone with a reporter who wanted to know more about this issue. Ironic that foes of the amendment seek judicial activism to overturn what they can’t get overturned through the normal amendment process. Also interesting that concern about the amendment’s constitutionality seems to surface whenever those concerned are also concerned about non-white people.

      • Chuck Brown March 3, 2011 / 2:34 pm

        They would, of course, deny that race is involved in their efforts to overturn the Fourteenth Amendment, but they’re the same crowd that is desperate to find some way to disqualify Obama as our president.

    • Frank March 3, 2011 / 4:03 pm

      “What is surprising is that DiLorenzo seems unaware that an amendment can be overturned by another amendment.”

      This isn’t entirely clear from a constitutional perspective. The Corwin Amendment was conceived under the entrenchment doctrine, which purports to make certain sections of the Constitution unamendable. Article V contains two such entrenched clauses – one prohibiting interference in the slave trade by amendment until 1808 and the other prohibiting any amendment that would alter equal representation for each state in the Senate. Assuming that these clauses are indeed unamendable, it follows that Congress could subsequently add other entrenched clauses to the Constitution. Of course it’s never been tested in court since the Corwin amendment was never ratified.

  4. Bob Pollock March 3, 2011 / 4:27 pm

    While I disagree with DiLorenzo’s interpretations of Lincoln, I must say that I am also very skeptical of the uses of psychology in history. I’ve written about this on my blog.
    I have not read Goodwin’s books on Kennedy and LBJ though. Do they qualify as psychobiography?

    • Brooks D. Simpson March 3, 2011 / 4:56 pm

      Not really. Goodwin’s book on LBJ took advantage of her personal relationship with him after he left the presidency. It’s not all that different from Monica Crowley’s book on Nixon.

  5. Salvador Litvak March 3, 2011 / 7:24 pm

    Maybe this is too simplistic but wasn’t Lincoln’s non-opposition to the amendment consistent with his position in the 1858 debates, as well as Cooper Union and the Republican platform in 1860? The point was to leave slavery alone where it already existed while halting its spread to the new territories. Offering an amendment was really no more than an assurance to the South that Lincoln meant what he said. Judged in 2011, such a position may be “immoral” but back then it was progressive enough to split the country in two!

    • Brooks D. Simpson March 3, 2011 / 11:30 pm

      The reason Lincoln had no problem with the amendment was that it simply codified what he had always believed to be true from a constitutional point of view.

  6. JMommsen July 17, 2013 / 4:12 am

    It is typical of people like Dilorenzo, who see the speck in another’s eye but not the log in their own. If one goes through all the evidencec here, Brooks, one can draw but one conclusion: Dilorenzo is no historian; in fact, he’s not a reasonable man at all, but rather a sophist, as Plato would have called him. He lies, twists facts, omits facts, or mis-reads (obvious) facts. Why? Because he’s a far-right nut–a Tea Party storm-trooper for whom Truth means absolutely nothing, only power. Lincoln, by extreme contrast, was haunted in his search for Truth.

  7. Christopher Shelley April 9, 2014 / 10:20 pm

    What caught my eye is where DiLo said that slavery “had never been explicitly in the Constitution.” Of course, “explicit” here is technically true, but what struck me is that I’ve seen this argument from Libertarians in other places: that slavery wasn’t really in the Constitution because they never used the term “slavery.” We all know that they used euphemisms for slavery; but my question is: what do Libertarians get if they win? What is the point of pursuing this avenue of argument? What’s their ultimate point?

    They baffle me at times, those crazy Libertarians.

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