Thomas DiLorenzo’s The Real Lincoln (2002) was as much an event as it was a book. Here was a brutally frank treatment of a political figure we are all expected to treat with a quiet awe, and certainly not with the kind of serious and sustained scrutiny reserved for mere mortals. With every major aspect of the standard narrative that students are taught about Lincoln laughably and grotesquely false, this book was a shocking reminder of suppressed truths. It sold extremely well, managing the truly astonishing feat of reaching number two in Amazon sales rank in the face of (surprise!) a complete media blackout. That kind of success, in the absence of a major marketing and publicity campaign, is almost completely unheard of.
In the wake of his last book, How Capitalism Saved America, DiLorenzo has returned to Lincoln once more in the brand new Lincoln Unmasked. Although readers should without a doubt read both books, Lincoln Unmasked is in some ways even more incisive and relentless than The Real Lincoln. To get an idea of this latest book’s breadth, consider just some of its chapter titles: "The Lincoln Myths — Exposed," "Fake Lincoln Quotes," "The Myth of the Morally Superior u2018Yankee,’" "An Abolitionist Who Despised Lincoln," "The Truth about States’ Rights," "Lincoln’s Big Lie," "A u2018Great Crime’: The Arrest Warrant for the Chief Justice of the United States," "The Great Railroad Lobbyist," "The Great Protectionist," "The Great Inflationist," "Lincolnite Totalitarians," "The Lincoln Cult on Imprisoning War Opponents," and "Contra the Lincoln Cult."
The reader of Lincoln Unmasked is in for a great many mischievous pleasures. Consider: Harry Jaffa, the dean of what DiLorenzo calls the "Lincoln cultists," has more than once compared the Southern cause to that of Nazi Germany. DiLorenzo embarrasses Jaffa in this book by pointing out passages in Hitler’s Mein Kampf in which the German leader expressed both his support for Lincoln’s war and his unwavering opposition to the cause of states’ rights and political decentralization (which, as a dictator seeking absolute power, he naturally sought to overturn in Germany). Hitler even adopted Lincoln’s fanciful retelling of American history in which the states were creatures of the Union rather than vice versa.
In Germany, Hitler promised that the Nazis "would totally eliminate states’ rights altogether: Since for us the state as such is only a form, but the essential is its content, the nation, the people, it is clear that everything else must be subordinated to its sovereign interests. In particular we cannot grant to any individual state within the nation and the state representing it state sovereignty and sovereignty in point of political power." Thus the "mischief of individual federated states…must cease and will some day cease…. National Socialism as a matter of principle must lay claim to the right to force its principles on the whole German nation without consideration of previous federated state boundaries." Which side was the Nazi one again, Professor Jaffa?
DiLorenzo punctures all the typical Lincoln myths (about slavery, the war, and so on) and then some. One example will have to suffice: Lincoln’s admirers then and now, anxious to show him to be a convinced Christian, claim that Lincoln exclaimed, after viewing the graves at Gettysburg: "I then and there consecrated myself to Christ. Yes, I do love Jesus!" The trouble is, the quotation is phony: Lincoln never said anything like it. By all accounts a skeptic, Lincoln had to be transformed by his supporters into a respectable, pious Christian. No wonder one astute clergyman observed that Lincoln became a Christian "six months after his death."
One of the most important contributions of Lincoln Unmasked is its treatment of how the Lincoln myth is employed today. The Lincoln legacy can be and has been cited on behalf of all manner of political atrocities, from the decimation of civil liberties to the waging of war against civilian populations. The religious veneer of Lincoln’s political rhetoric seared into the American consciousness the idea of the U.S. government as an instrument of God’s will, to be employed without mercy against any force so impious as to resist it. This conception of the federal government works even for politicians who might feel uncomfortable with openly religious language: the idea of a righteous central authority steamrolling all opposition — ipso facto wicked and perverse, of course — as part of the inevitable forward march of history fits quite nicely into just about any nationalist agenda, left or right. This is why the Lincoln myth is so stubborn, so resistant to evidence, and so difficult to overturn: the entire American political class has a vital stake in its preservation.
Eric Foner, the Marxist professor of history who has spent much of his career at Columbia University, has even cited Lincoln on behalf of the preservation of the Soviet Union. DiLorenzo cites a February 1991 article in The Nation called "Lincoln’s Lesson," in which Foner denounced the secession movements in Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, and Georgia, and called upon Mikhail Gorbachev to suppress them with the same ruthlessness Lincoln showed the South. According to Foner, no "leader of a powerful nation" should tolerate "the dismemberment of the Soviet Union." "The Civil War," he explained with approval, "was a central step in the consolidation of national authority in the United States." And then: "The Union, Lincoln passionately believed, was a permanent government. Gorbachev would surely agree." For all the talk about slavery, there it is in a nutshell: the "Civil War" and Lincoln’s legacy involved the violent suppression of independence, exactly what Foner wanted to see in the Soviet Union. What better condemnation of Lincoln could we ask for?
With Christmas now on the horizon, I urge readers not merely to buy and read this book. Buy ten copies and give them as gifts. Our political and intellectual establishments thrive on lies and propaganda, and they hate nothing more than someone who exposes them, revealing them for the liars and ignoramuses they are. That is why they hate Thomas DiLorenzo and why we owe him our respect, and our thanks.
This article will appear in the winter issue of Southern Partisan magazine and is printed here with permission.
Professor Thomas E. Woods, Jr. [view his website; send him mail] holds a bachelor’s degree in history from Harvard and his Ph.D. from Columbia. He is senior fellow in American history at the Ludwig von Mises Institute. His books include How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization (get a free chapter here), The Church and the Market: A Catholic Defense of the Free Economy, and the New York Times bestseller The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History.