Book Review: The Real Lincoln: A New Look at Abraham Lincoln, His Agenda, and an Unnecessary War

The Real Lincoln:  A New Look at Abraham Lincoln, His Agenda, and an Unnecessary War, by Thomas J. DiLorenzo

Thomas DiLorenzo wouldn’t recognize the real Lincoln if he showed up in a top hat and an ill-fitting black suit and beat him upside the head with a cane.  And, if the real Lincoln ever did read this book, he’d have more than enough material for one of the biggest libel judgments of all time.  To give a full refutation of the many errors of this book would require a vastly larger note than this book deserves, but the book’s major and fundamental flaws as well as complete non sequitor arguments need to be mentioned so that any would-be reader of this book is given fair advance warning of its extremely flawed approach.

First, though, because enough bad things will be said about this book in the rest of the review to come, it would be worthwhile to detail some of the things which this book gets right, at least in part (and this book is so pitiful that it requires partial credit to improve its score somewhat).  In fact, because the number of serious errors in this book is so large, I’m going to bullet three different categories of major claims from this book:  those that are at least partially right, those that are irrelevant, and those that are wholly mistaken.  After that will be an examination of the structure of the book.

There are a few things, though not very many, that this book gets right in part:

  • Lincoln’s identification with the Whig platform
  • Secession as the ultimate anti-slavery position (which he agrees with Jaffa about, whether he realizes it or not)
  • Lincoln’s support of internal improvements within Illinois (the real reason he wished to be seen as the DeWitt Clinton of Illinois)
  • Willingness of many Democrats and Border Southerners to allow the Confederacy to leave in peace
  • Lincoln’s master gambit in forcing the South to attack a food mission or risk losing face
  • Division of the South into different regions and the South’s insecurity over the possibility of slave insurrections
  • Lincoln’s combination of the commander-in-chief role with the insistence to faithfully execute the laws in order to find great war powers
  • Lincoln’s denial of the use of the post office to deliver disloyal newspapers, a power used by Southern postmasters for decades before the Civil War to prevent abolitionist papers and mail from being delivered in the South
  • Importance of state’s rights to both North and South before the Civil War
  • Condemnation on the effects of government subsidy of businesses on corruption

Additionally, there are a lot of non-sequitors in this book, areas that are completely irrelevant to the book’s topic (Abraham Lincoln):

  • Clay and Webster’s cozy relationship with the Second Bank of The United States long before Lincoln was ever involved in politics
  • Lincoln being blamed for the postwar American policy towards American Indians
  • Lincoln’s lack of familiarity with the economic thought of Frederic Bastiat, who wrote in French in the late 1840’s and would not have been accessible to Lincoln during his time in Congress in the late 1840’s
  • The supposed applicability of the Geneva Convention (which was codified in 1863 and which did not at any rate apply to what was not an international conflict in the Civil War)
  • Blaming Lincoln for the harshness of reconstruction, given his own ideas were much less harsh than Congress and given that he died before the start of reconstruction
  • Judging Lincoln by the standard of the Declaration of Independence, something which the South lacked in its rebellion
  • Blaming Lincoln for a law he never signed–the Indemnity Act, which never passed the Senate

The following is a list of major errors committed by this book, which is not even an exhaustive one:

  • False portrayal of Lincoln’s viewpoint towards blacks through the use of selective  quotations and judgment by an anachronistic standard
  • Failure to concede constitutional status of the Fugitive Slave Act as reason for Lincoln’s willingness to support it
  • Biased use of sources throughout
  • Ad hominem attacks on Lincoln throughout the book
  • Failure to recognize Lincoln’s continual and unsuccessful efforts at supporting compensated emancipation (such as the Conkling Letter)
  • Failure to recognize Colonization as the only non-abolitionist anti-slavery position possible in Antebellum America
  • Mislabeling of Whig economic policy as mercantilism
  • Blaming only the North (and not the South) for use of paper money during the Civil War
  • Consistent inability to distinguish between the universally accepted right of revolution (invoked by the US in 1776 and recognized as valid by Abraham Lincoln for Texas’ 1835 revolution) and the nonexistent right of secession originated by John Calhoun and claimed by the South in 1861
  • Frequent addition of “secession” to quotes in which the word does not appear
  • Argument from silence concerning lack of right to stop secession when the Constitution gives clear rights to the federal government to act against rebellion
  • Failure to concede that Lincoln’s argument that the secession of the South would lead to other secessions in turn from it–like West Virginia and the Free State of Winston
  • Lie that Lincoln promised not to reprovision Fort Sumter repeadly–his promise was not to reinforce it but rather to send only food supplies to the fortress
  • Argument that the South had just constitutional cause to leave the Union–they didn’t
  • Argument that the South left due to tariffs–which was disproved by the DeBow’s Review, the South’s premier business magazine, which admitted in late 1860 that it was slavery that agitated the South and not tariffs
  • Failure to concede right of federal government to rescind right of habeus corpus in times of rebellion–like the Civil War
  • Bogus claim that West Virginia’s support of gradual and compensated emancipation was against Lincoln’s own wishes
  • Author’s support of Vallandigham’s theory of Civil War causes in the absence of proof simply because it agrees with author’s biases
  • Ad hominem accusation in absence of evidence that Lincoln supported the establishment of modern welfare state
  • Failure to distinguish between the fierce rhetoric and mild conduct of General Sherman
  • Failure to properly recognize the honored and legitimate place of foraging as a logistical tool within warfare in 19th century and before
  • False argument that the Union waged total war on the South
  • Ad hominen attacks on historians that DiLorenzo disagrees with (like Willis and McPherson)
  • Biased focus on supposed Union war crimes without the admission or discussion of Southern war crimes of equal or greater severity (like the sack of Lawrence, Kansas, or the destruction of Chambersburg, PA, by confederate raiders in 1864)
  • Accusation that Republicans held a monopoly in the government for two decades after the Civil War
  • Author’s acceptance without question or verification of the exaggerated claims of Southern citizens during and after the Civil War
  • Unsubstantiated accusations of forced prostitution of Southern women after Civil War by Northern soldiers
  • Biased blaming of only the North for corporate welfare and the failure to report the South’s favoritism towards its own favored class of property (exempting large slave owners from the draft, for example)
  • Blaming the North alone for bad race relations in the South that continue to this day
  • Accusation that the desire for an intercontinental railroad was the cause of the existence of the Republican party when it was hostility to a corrupt bargain by Douglas (with Southern Senators) for the expansion of slavery in exchange for support for an intercontinental railroad controlled by Douglas’ associates
  • False assumption that Lincoln’s reconstruction plan would have allowed 10% of the population of Southern states to rule the rest despotically
  • Failure to recognize Lincoln’s use of pocket vetoes to show disagreement with Congress (for example, of the Wade-Davis Bill)
  • Total ignorance of the precedent of Andrew Jackson’s coercion of South Carolina over tariff for Lincoln’s behavior in the Civil War
  • Complete ignorance of socialist behavior of the Southern government during the Civil War as a context of the increased government powers in the North at the same time
  • Anachronistic claim that Northerners “bombed” Southern cities, a phenomenon of WWII and afterward
  • Failure to accept partial Southern responsibility for Supreme Court authoritarianism (see Dred Scott case)
  • Argument from silence of Gettysburg Address concerning Lincoln’s supposed lack of concern for the importance of the consent of the governed
  • False accusation made of Lincoln’s desire to invade Mexico (when in reality presence of 50,000 US troops near border was to preserve Mexican self-rule from French imperialism)
  • Failure to concede justice of Union grievance against Britain for violation of neutrality laws that allowed the South to buy commerce raiders to attack Northern civilians
  • Ad hominem attack on Lincoln for (nonexistent) goals of foreign conquest and the complete failure to accept Southern antebellum goals for conquest of Cuba (Ostend Manifesto) and Nicaragua and parts of Mexico (southern-led fillibuster expeditions in the 1850’s)

DiLorenzo’s lengthy rant against Abraham Lincoln is divided into ten chapters, some of which are entirely irrelevant to the subject at hand.  Chapter 1 is an introduction that looks at the book’s themes and positions and makes a lot of accusations that the book fails to support except through repetitive false accusations throughout the rest of the book.  Chapter 2 selectively quotes Lincoln as being hostile to blacks and unconcerned with the issue of race, avoiding any quote that suggested Lincoln had enlightened views for his time about race and providing a skewed and biased view of Lincoln’s racial position.  Chapter 3 is a lengthy and false accusation against Lincoln as not being in support of emancipation, with the failure to concede the unpopularity even within border states for compensated, gradual emancipation, which Lincoln continually sought (and which the book fails to discuss at all).

Chapter 4 seeks to uncover Lincoln’s supposed “real agenda” for a welfare state, huge tariffs, and centralization (an argument largely repeated in Chapter 9 with evidence taken largely from the 20th century tendency of socialists to use Lincoln as a bogus precedent for their own corrupt goals).  Chapter 5 is a largely irrelevant failure to distinguish between the universally agreed to right of revolution and the completely nonexistent constitutional right of secession in order to argue fallaciously that the right to secession was the claim made by America’s revolutionaries in 1776 and was nearly universally supported in the 1860’s.  Chapter 6 examines the question of whether Lincoln was a dictator in the examination of his suspension of the writ of habeus corpus and his prevention of the hostile opposition presses from using the mails.  In the hands of a legitimate historian, this may have been a thoughtful discussion instead of a rant, but DiLorenzo fails to meet the acceptable levels of historical competence expected of a high school term paper, much less a supposed master work on constitutional history.

Chapter 7 is a one-sided (and highly exaggerated) account on Lincoln’s supposed war against civilians which fails to take into account the behavior of both Northern and Southern armies (and raids) as well as the wide gulf between the hostile rhetoric and mild behavior of Sherman and other military generals on the South.  Chapter 8 blames Lincoln for a harsh and corrupt reconstruction (not taking into account the situation of the South in 1865) when he was not even alive to have influenced it and run it according to his own goals.  Chapter 9 seeks to blame Lincoln for the rise of the nanny state that he opposed.  The book closes with Chapter 10, a whining about the costs of the Civil War without any sort of acceptance for the blame of the South on the war’s start.  Those who start wars have no right to complain about their heavy cost when they face more than they can handle.

It is hard to imagine a more biased, less historically valid, and more libelous account of Abraham Lincoln ever being allowed to be printed.  Nonetheless, had this book been written by a competent historian, some of the book’s material may have been worthwhile to uncover.  For example, a competent historian could have examined the role of Abraham Lincoln in appealing to a racist audience for what were in fact enlightened goals, and showing Lincoln’s mastery of using racist arguments for enlightened ends.  Likewise, a competent historian could argue about the constitutionalism of Lincoln’s Civil War policies (and that of Jefferson Davis) as a way of illuminating the weaknesses of the U.S. Constitution in its lack of commentary and guidance about what is appropriate in a time of rebellion.  Additionally, a competent historian could write about the drastic and temporary effect of the Civil War on increasing the power of government in order to examine how fierce warfare itself threatens liberty through the imposition of temporary war socialism, the use of inflationary paper currency, the establishment of military drafts, and other such activities, providing a strong argument for republics that wish to limit government to avoid warfare.  Likewise, a competent historian could write about both the American Revolution and the Civil War as cases where internal division and hostility leads to extremely barbaric warfare on all sides and the violation of normal standards of warfare as a result of the particularly fierce nature of civil conflicts.  Other questions–like the relationship of the Civil War to postwar (and prewar) policy towards American Indians–could also be explored by competent historians.  Unfortunately, DiLorenzo is not a competent historian, and so he is unable to provide valuable insight on these very real and worthwhile questions, because the overwhelming strength of his bias against Lincoln and against the North prevents him from believing the truth and presenting an intellectually honest account of the Civil War.

About nathanalbright

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37 Responses to Book Review: The Real Lincoln: A New Look at Abraham Lincoln, His Agenda, and an Unnecessary War

  1. Tim Smith says:

    Thanks for the review. It is helpful.

    I’m surprised, no, horrified how many people seem to take DiLorenzo’s work as valid. Are people just predisposed to believe it, or does DiLorenzo provide enough support to convince open-minded readers? Do you think that there are enough true things in it, that people didn’t know about Lincoln, for him to sound convincing? I would guess Southern sympathizers would have a natural appeal to want to believe it. It seems like he goes further than even the old school Southern revisionist historians.

    Do you know if “mainstream” historians like James McPherson and Eric Forner have answered DiLorenzo’s claims? Do they even take his book seriously enough? Do you know if there are there serious historians who take his work seriously?

    ~ Tim Smith

    • I do know that he has engaged in a longrunning debate with Harry Jaffa about Abraham Lincoln. As far as answering his claims directly, I haven’t seen McPherson or Fomer do such work themselves, though there have been other Southern historians who have shown the socialist side of Confederate economic and social policies during the Civil War period. Hopefully that helps.

      • Tim Smith says:

        Thanks for correcting my spelling of Fomer. I’m sure you have better things to do than answer this, but just in case you have time… How much valid evidence is there that Lincoln and the Republicans wanted to impose increased tariffs? Were they really that different from what had gone on the previous 80 years?

        In my study of Lincoln, I know he had a great respect for of Henry Clay and the Whigs, and that in his early political life he sought to be a faithful Whig, and Clay “American System.” But I was under the impression that when he revived his political career in 1854 that he focused almost entirely on the slavery issue, and that even when he did talk about economics it was about free-labor vs. slave-labor. I was also under the impression that since the Republican party was made up of members of such diverse former parties that they did not really even have a clear economic platform.

        Do you know the best way for me to learn about the early Republican economic platform? Would DiLorenzo actually be helpful in this?

      • DiLorenzo would not be helpful in showing the diversity of the Republican Party in the 1850’s. Harry Jaffa is generally more helpful at this–both in showing how Abraham Lincoln focused on slavery post-1854 in a speech-by-speech analysis in a couple of his books, as well as an examination of how divided the Republican party was, and how Lincoln’s 1860 nomination in part depended on the fact that he was sufficiently obscure of a political figure on the national stage not to have baggage, given that the Republican party platform was very vague on economic matters, and even on slavery it focused on free soil rather than abolition.

      • Tim Smith says:


        BTW – you have a great blog. I’m enjoying reading some of the posts and wish I had time to read more.

      • I’m glad you appreciate the blog. I do tend to write far more than most people have time to read, though.

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    Reblogged this on James' Ramblings and commented:
    Reblogging for future reference.

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