Civil War Blog

A project of PA Historian

The Real Abraham Lincoln

Posted By on February 12, 2012

The Real Abraham Lincoln, by Thomas J. DiLorenzo, was published in 2002 by Three Rivers Press of New York and promised to give “a new look at Abraham Lincoln, his agenda, and an unnecessary war.”  In the book, DiLorenzo primarily challenged the conventional view of Lincoln – the one most taught in schools and colleges – that the Civil War was fought to end slavery.  In addition, DiLorenzo challenges the makers of this myth and other myths of Abraham Lincoln – a group he calls the “Industry of Lincoln Scholars”- a self-anointed group of individuals who come forward to criticize any interpretation of the Civil War or of Lincoln that does not fit their contrived notions.

The thesis of this book appears to be that Lincoln’s primary goal was the the centralization of power in Washington – which he euphemistically called “Union.”  Lincoln, according to DiLorenzo, used the Civil War to consolidate power – a movement that had its roots in Federalist and Whig tradition and was continued as a goal of the Republican Party.  Lincoln emerged triumphant, but at great cost to the country and its people – in material and lives.  After Lincoln, secession was a dead issue (“one nation indivisible”) and the power of the national government was firmly established over the states.  DiLorenzo also connects what Lincoln did to nationalistic movements in other parts of the world that occurred at about the same time – in Germany, in Italy, and in Russia – small states uniting to form a strong central government and a unified national purpose.

Lincoln’s views on slavery and the African American are presented but there is little that is new here.  The evolution of Lincoln’s attitudes  including his belief in the inherent inequality of the races, his support for colonization, and his political maneuvering to have emancipation at just the right time, for military reasons, and for his own purposes – are presented.  Lerone Bennett, author of Forced Into Glory, does a much better job in exploring Lincoln’s racial attitudes.

Nevertheless, DiLorenzo concedes that a positive result of the Civil War was the passage of the 13th Amendment forever abolishing slavery in the United States.  His lament is that slavery could have been abolished peacefully, perhaps by compensating the owners for their emancipated property – something that would have been far less costly than a war. After all, wasn’t slavery abolished peacefully in the British Empire?  and in other places in the world?  According to DiLorenzo, the end of slavery was also foreshadowed by economic conditions which made it cost-prohibitive to maintain as an institution.

“Secession as Treason” is explored as a myth.  DiLorenzo carefully lays out his evidence supporting his belief that secession was always a legal option available to the states and that when it had been threatened prior to the Civil War, including by some of the northern states, no one ever stated that it was illegal or treasonous.  Secession was always a “state right”, never surrendered by any compact.

Was Lincoln a dictator and did he deliberately ignore the Constitution in order to accomplish his main agenda?  The suspension of habeas corpus, the suppression of free elections in Maryland, the imprisonment of newspaper editors who spoke out against the war and the administration, the “unconstitutional” creation of West Virginia out of the territory of a sovereign state, the granting of powers to the military (plundering and devastation within the borders of the United States), confiscation of arms in violation of the second amendment, the ordering of the mass removal of Indians who Lincoln felt would support the rebellion, and other unconstitutional acts are presented and documented.  The chapter concludes with an analysis of how the “Lincoln Scholars” justify and rationalize Lincoln’s behavior and actions.

In a chapter on “Waging War on Civilians,” DiLorenzo outlines the rules of war and their evolution and concludes that had the north lost the war, Lincoln and his generals would have been guilty of war crimes.  “The victors are never charged as war criminals, of course; only the losers are.  This was true in 1865 and it is true today.  Lincoln’s abandonment of the internationally agreed upon rules of war as codified  by the Geneva Convention of 1863 and his demolition of Constitutional liberties as described… established precedents that would provide countless excuses and rationalizations for empire-building and war-mongering politicians throughout the world in the decades to come.  Politicians of all parties would routinely invoke the name of the martyred Lincoln to ‘justify’ their own schemes to run afoul of the Constitution, international law, and commonly accepted norms of morality.” (p. 199).

The final chapters relate the “costs of Lincoln’s war” and give an “Afterword.”  The telling conclusion is that Lincoln was the anti-Jefferson:

Jefferson’s philosophy of government was “that government is best which governs least” – a principle repudiated by Lincoln, whose administration set into motion the wheels of the centralized state that Americans slave under today.  He was truly the anti-Jefferson, who did more than anyone else to destroy the voluntary union of free and sovereign states that was created by the American founding fathers.

The Lincoln myth is the ideological cornerstone of big government in America.  It is Lincoln, not Washington, Jefferson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, or anyone else, who is the most visible symbol of statism in America, with his countenance on the five-dollar bill and Mount Rushmore, with his Zeus-like statue in Washington, D.C., and with so many schools, streets and towns named after him.  His administration created what historian Leonard P. Curry called the “blueprint for modern America,” which is more appropriately labeled the blueprint for big government in America, with its income taxation, protectionism, central banking, internal revenue bureaucracy, military conscription, huge standing army, corporate welfare, and foreign policy meddling. (p. 304-305)

In calling for a re-interpretation of Lincoln, DiLorenzo has exposed the greatest of all the Lincoln myths – that government is and should be – of the people, by the people, and for the people.  Big government – of a central authority, by a central authority, and for a central authority – was in Lincoln’s heart and soul from his beginnings in politics to his assassination – and by the time that fatal act occurred, it was too late to turn back.

The  2003 edition contains a new “Afterword”.



Leave a Reply

Please note: Comment moderation is currently enabled so there will be a delay between when you post your comment and when it shows up. Patience is a virtue; there is no need to re-submit your comment.