Thomas DiLorenzo is upset. No, it’s not because Barack Obama won reelection (although who knows what he may think about that). It’s because of Abraham Lincoln … or, more specifically, the release of a new movie on Lincoln directed by Stephen Spielberg, which is now in general release. If anything, DiLorenzo is more bitter than I’ve ever seen him, although his material is getting old.
First, DiLorenzo reminds us of the work of Lerone Bennett, especially Forced Into Glory (2000). Nothing new here. DiLorenzo is incorrect that Bennett’s work was “mostly ignored” by what he calls “the Lincoln cult”; indeed, Bennett and I shared the platform (along with Allen Guelzo) at the Abraham Lincoln Association Symposium in Springfield, Illinois, in 2002. But DiLorenzo has never allowed facts to interfere with his ranting, so why should he change now? He seems utterly unaware of the passing of David Donald, but he’s not unwilling to misrepresent what Donald had to say about Lincoln’s involvement in the passage by Congress of the Thirteenth Amendment. “Not since 1862, when he tried hard to persuade border-state congressmen to support his gradual emancipation plan, had the president been so deeply involved in the legislative process,” Donald wrote in his 1995 biography, Lincoln (page 554). Donald simply questioned the claims of some historians who said that Lincoln went so far as to engage in some clever and perhaps even unsavory dealings with several Democrats to secure passage of the amendment. As DiLorenzo says that Donald was (well, he says “is”) “the preeminent Lincoln scholar of our day,” one wonders why he failed to read what Donald had to say. Is DiLorenzo ignorant, or does he prefer willful distortion?
The remainder of DiLorenzo’s first outburst simply echoes Bennett’s argument. I was hoping for something a little more original.
DiLorenzo’s second rant chides Lincoln for not ending slavery on his own. He’s wonderfully oblivious to the fact that Lincoln understood that he was constrained by the Constitution in his efforts to end slavery, and that only the actions of the Confederates (who showed no interest in cooperating with emancipation) opened up the opportunity to Lincoln to act. Once more he revives Donald, only to distort what Donald said; once more he accepts Bennett at his word as an excuse to avoid doing any research on his own. My undergraduates know that they have to do better than that, but then DiLorenzo’s trained in economics, not history. DiLorenzo declares that in acting to end slavery Lincoln did “something he refused to do for fifty-four of his fifty-six years”; one wonders why Lincoln as an infant, child, or teenager didn’t act sooner, since DiLorenzo thinks he should have acted from the cradle.
But DiLorenzo’s not finished. After trashing Doris Kearns Goodwin (one of his favorite targets), DiLorenzo wanders back into saying that if Lincoln had really wanted to end slavery, he would have done so peacefully. Apparently he overlooks the fact that there was a war brought on by people who wanted to preserve and protect slavery and who saw in Lincoln a threat to that very institution If only they had listened to Thomas DiLorenzo, they would have learned that they had nothing to worry about on that score.
I’m sure that those people who deplore the Lincoln movie or anything else about the sixteenth president will cite DiLorenzo as the ultimate authority on such matters. Maybe some of them are signing on to those secession petitions as we speak (one wonders whether DiLorenzo realizes that this is his moment to shine). For the rest of us, however, one is left to wonder whether DiLorenzo knows what he’s talking about or whether in his desperation to make a point he’s not above distorting the historical record. As I’ve argued before, he’s capable of either act, having committed both in the past.