Real Lincoln by Thomas Dilorenzo, Term Paper

Excerpt from Term Paper :

In return, Lincoln denounced Garrison and other abolitionists as "zealots" who would destroy the Union and dismantle the constitution for their cause.

In summary, DiLorenzo challenges the very foundations of classical Lincoln scholarship. He paints Lincoln as a power-hungry politician who put economic interests of his own group ahead of the interests of the country. He craved dictatorial power and willingly prolonged a bloody war in order to further his statist agenda. Finally, Lincoln's actions regarding colonization, his defense of slaveowners and his contempt for abolitionists belie his reputation as the Great Emancipator.

Analysis of arguments

DiLorenzo makes provocative arguments, ones that have been gleefully reported by right-wing columnists like Walter Williams and Joseph Sobran. However, a cursory reading shows that DiLorenzo's statements are hardly new. Instead, much of these are a rehashing of pro-Confederate writers from Jefferson Davis.

Some of DiLorenzo's statements are supported by facts. For example, Lincoln did indeed start his political life as a Whig before becoming a Republican. He was a deep admirer of Henry Clay, a man who pushed for the mercantilist-based "American system." The president also supported a scheme to repatriate freed black slaves to Africa or Central America.

Many of these facts seem to be trotted out for shock value. His critiques also fail to discuss the context and chaos of Lincoln's world. He also conveniently ignores the writings and actions from Lincoln's latter years, ones that would contradict his thesis regarding the Great Emancipator myth.

For example, DiLorenzo criticizes Lincoln's refusal to end the Civil War and to consider using federal funds to "buy" the freedom of slaves. This solution, states The Real Lincoln, would have also preserved the economic well-being of the slaveowners and by extension, the Southern economy.

However, this form of "compensated emancipation" would also have served to recognize slaves as legal property - a principle that goes against the very heart of emancipation. The crux of the argument against slavery, after all, was the recognition that Africans and other non-white people had the same rights as people of European descent. Slaveowners could not be compensated for "property" that they could not own in the first place.

To bolster his thesis regarding the Great Emancipator myth, DiLorenzo relies heavily on Lincoln's admiration of Clay and the president's early speeches and writings. The author dismisses, however, proposals that occurred under Lincoln's Republican presidency. DiLorenzo criticizes as "radical" a plan to compensate freed slaves by redistributing land for farming. Rather than compensate slaveowners, Lincoln seemed to lean towards compensating the slaves themselves, a position perfectly in line with emancipation.

DiLorenzo's repeated emphasis on Lincoln's failure to consider more considerate treatments of Southerners is unrealistic, given the hostility of many in that region to the idea of racial equality. After all, white southerners had just acted aggressively to remove the Cherokees from their territory, efforts that resulted in the Trail of Tears.

In fact, many white southerners defended slavery as a "positive good." Their actions were not merely a "venting of frustration" against Lincoln's economic policies, as DiLorenzo argues.

DiLorenzo liberally attacks Lincoln for adopting Whig policies of government subsidies to line the pockets of special-interest
groups and his other cohorts. However, the author again fails to mention that southern states have enacted similar policies years earlier. Many southern governments, for example, have already spent million to subsidize the construction of railroads and canals even before the Civil War. Viewed in this light, Lincoln's internal subsidy policies did not serve to undermine state constitutions, especially in the South.

Furthermore, DiLorenzo does not address how the Southern states themselves contributed to the need for a centralized or "statist" government. Southern states, for example, supported the equally bloody and ruinous Mexican War. They pursued their own statist agenda by striving for the creation of strong, centralized government for the Confederacy. Supporters of the rights of southern states have criticized Lincoln's attempts to build an intrusive government. However, DiLorenzo again fails to discuss how the Confederacy was intent on establishing a similar government. Many southern constitutions, for example, protected slavery and established conscription or a forced draft.

While Lincoln took hardline stances that may be characterized as borderline "dictatorial," it should also be noted that the president was working in the context of Civil War. The Southern economy -- and identity -- was invested in preserving the institution of slavery. It was unrealistic to think that there were other options short of waging war. In this light, DiLorenzo's assertion that the Civil War was fought solely to shift power to the North and to profit through corruption seems far-fetched.

It is certainly true that the Civil War codified power in Washington and, in the process, weakened the South. However, DiLorenzo takes a leap when he argues that these were the endpoints of Lincoln's goals. The author thus ends up recycling conspiracy theorists dating back to the Confederacy, and fails to contribute anything new to the argument.


In summary, this paper argues that The Real Lincoln claims to present new scholarship challenging Lincoln's Great Emancipator as a myth. Instead of a moral passion to abolish slavery, DiLorenzo contends that Lincoln was driven by a passion for political and economic opportunity. These selfish passions pushed Lincoln so far as to wage a ferocious and ultimately unnecessary war against the white residents of the South.

Towards this, Lincoln supposedly masked his own segregationist views. The president did not act quickly in his quest to free the slaves, and his solution was repatriation. The "real legacy" is thus not the emancipation of slaves. For DiLorenzo, Lincoln's most enduring legacy was federal corruption, the loss of major constitutional protections and the erosion of state rights.

Perhaps the only good thing about this book is the resultant discussion it triggered regarding Lincoln and Civil War scholarship in general.

Much of the DiLorenzo's scholarship, however, fails to hold up. Even the "facts" that DiLorenzo pushes could be interpreted in very different ways when given context. For example, a refusal to compensate slaveowners is also refusal to see slaves as property.

Lincoln's enactment of taxpayer subsidies for internal improvements is no longer out of place when taken in context of how states have already used taxpayer money to build railroads.

The Civil War brutality is not out of context with the determinism many on the south had to preserve the institution of slavery.

Given this lack of…

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