Will the Real Lincoln Please Stand Up?

Critical thinking is an important task required of the citizens of a free society. If freedom is to be preserved, free men must be able to evaluate reasoned arguments for various policy proposals. The truth must be found, and it must guide our practical decisions.

In that regard, Mackubin Thomas Owens, a professor of defense economics at the Naval War College, has written a book review which merits critical scrutiny.

Professor Owens reviewed The Real Lincoln, by Tom DiLorenzo, in The Washington Times on May 4, 2002.

The book review does not withstand reasonable scrutiny.

First, Owens begins by describing the book as "a rehash of Confederate propaganda spiced up with touches of Marxist economic analysis."

I think that someone has been watching Emeril.

Clearly, however, this is not a neutral or friendly review by Professor Owens. Ignoring the fact that one might accuse Owens of rehashing Northern propaganda (and spicing it up with touches of mercantilism and John Maynard Keynes), it is both highly amusing and distressing to see Owens accuse Tom DiLorenzo of applying "Marxist economic analysis" to the life of Lincoln.

Giving Owens the benefit of the doubt (and making his argument for him; generally, this is a no-no, but I am striving to be fair), it would appear that Owens refers to DiLorenzo as a "Marxist" because: (1) DiLorenzo (God forbid) considers the economic causes of the War Between the States; and (2) Marxists have considered the economic causes of the War Between the States. So DiLorenzo must be applying Marxist economic analysis.

No. Wrong. Such a charge of guilt by association fails to convince.

Worse, in making such a charge, Owens ignores the fact that DiLorenzo is a prominent expositor of free market economics, by which I mean genuine capitalist, laissez faire, free market economics, as opposed to the "free and regulated" baloney so common in the mainstream today, which is not free market economics at all.

Owens calling DiLorenzo a Marxist is like Owens calling Babe Ruth a figure skater. It is simply a silly characterization.

(By the way, in the last paragraph of the review, Owens mentions that DiLorenzo "writes from a libertarian perspective." How this is supposed to fit with the earlier charge that DiLorenzo is a Marxist, Owens does not elucidate. And how convenient that the Marxist charge comes in the first paragraph, and the libertarian comment comes at the end).

Second, introductory paragraph aside, the body of Professor Owens’ review is weak and unconvincing.

Owens (paraphrasing Harry Jaffa’s attack on Mel Bradford) writes that: "everything in this book has its antecedents in Southern editorials during and after the Civil War."

To which one can only reply: So what?

(DiLorenzo’s book also reminds me of more than a few Faulkner novels, and the movie Ride with the Devil, but that is neither here nor there.)

I wonder if Owens and Jaffa’s writings have any antecedents in Northern editorials during and after the war. Hmm.

Presumably, reasonable minds can agree that it would be very surprising if a book which criticized Lincoln’s actions as unconstitutional, and the war as illegal and immoral, had not a single antecedent in the works of those literate Southerners who were on the receiving end of Mr. Lincoln’s "greatness" and "statesmanship."

Also, Owens does not even attempt to explain why Southerners living from 1860 to 1865 are to be disbelieved for no other reason than that they were Southerners living under Lincoln’s armies. If anything, the Southerners alive during 1860 to 1865 are the best evidence to consider in evaluating the myth of Lincoln’s greatness — these people are the primary sources, the eyewitnesses, the real stuff of history. And so it would seem to be a good thing, where historical accuracy is concerned, that DiLorenzo has support among the Southern writers of 1860 to 1865 for his view of those years.

Owens next writes that "Mr. DiLorenzo writes as if the war were still going on, as in his mind it apparently is."

Hey, now, that’s a funny one. And so very original at that. I am certain I have not heard it more than a few thousand times.

Here, Professor Owens is wrong. I know Tom DiLorenzo personally, and have seen him in the Deep South after he traveled from the border state of Maryland. He has not arrived in disguise, nor has he mentioned having to evade Federal cavalry pickets. He seems to genuinely understand the concepts of time and place in a manner sufficient to pass medical and psychological tests.

Owens has resorted to a cheap shot. It is no less a cheap shot merely because Harry Jaffa once made the same cheap shot at Mel Bradford.

Next, Owens sets forth a caricatured view of the thesis of DiLorenzo’s book. To summarize more objectively: DiLorenzo argues in The Real Lincoln that: (a) Lincoln violated the constitution in waging the war; (b) that Lincoln was a Hamilton-Clay type, i.e., that he was a proponent of a centralized, national government and mercantilism; and (c) that Lincoln’s mythical status is not justified.

After his caricature of the thesis of the book, Owens returns to his unpersuasive criticism of DiLorenzo.

First, concerning DiLorenzo’s claims that (a) Lincoln wanted whites to be superior to blacks, and that (b) Lincoln is therefore not very admirable, Owens argues that:

Lincoln’s statements on race, however, must be placed in historical context. Though Lincoln certainly was no abolitionist and shared the prejudices of most whites of his time,he nonetheless believed slavery was a moral evil.

That is a large concession which is italicized above. Owens concedes that Lincoln "shared the prejudices of most whites of his time." Guess what — most whites at that time did not very much care for blacks. In that regard, see The Strange Career of Jim Crow, by C. Vann Woodward.

Should the fact that "everybody did it" get Lincoln off the hook? No. His racial attitudes were his racial attitudes, no matter what excuses his contemporary admirers might make for such attitudes.

Recall that Lincoln said in Peoria, Illinois, on October 16, 1854, that Nebraska and other new territories should be "for the homes of free white people." (DiLorenzo, p. 21). Owens simply fails to explain this unpleasant statement away.

Based on the evidence, and there is a great deal of it in the book, it appears that Mr. Lincoln had no fondness for blacks. By way of further example, Owens fails to so much as mention the fact that Lincoln consistently pursued the goal of colonization as a "solution" to the "black problem." Lincoln attempted to ship freed blacks to Africa, and to Central America. (See, DiLorenzo, pp. 16-20).

No matter what Lincoln might have thought about the morality of slavery, it is no excuse for Lincoln’s racial views to say that "everybody held them." If Lincoln is to be admired, we must know what he really thought, not what his admirers would like him to have thought.

Owens’ next argument, similarly defies logic. He writes that:

even loyal slave states refused to accept Lincoln’s repeated proposals for compensated emancipation. It was the failure of this idea that led Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation and to propose the 13th Amendment banning slavery.

Two responses. First, Owens ignores the fact — and here I beat a dead horse — that the Emancipation Proclamation, by its express terms, did not free any of the slaves in the "loyal" slave states. None. It only purported to free the slaves held by citizens of an independent nation, i.e., the CSA.

Second, notice that Owens argues that war was inevitable — those southerners simply wouldn’t get rid of slavery, and so 620,000 Americans had to die. No waiting, no possibility of a peaceful solution. "Peaceful emancipation was not a viable option," Owens writes.

And yet the Emancipation Proclamation was not issued until the North was losing the war and desperate.

If Lincoln had genuinely pursued peaceful, compensated emancipation, then it is rather odd that he apparently started the war nearly two years before Owens claims that the effort proved a failure. Owens writes that the failure of compensated emancipation led to the Emancipation Proclamation. And that was not issued until the war was long begun.

Now, however, we must address the most grievous failing of the review, namely, Owens’ unpersuasive analysis of the right of secession.

Owens writes that: "DiLorenzo asserts that until 1861 most commentators took it for granted that states had a right to secede." Owens also calls DiLorenzo "disingenuous" in that regard.

Owens, however, fails to mention that American legal scholars could only be said to have taken it "for granted" that there was a legal and constitutional right to seceded because they had thoroughly reasoned to that unavoidable conclusion.

By the way, DiLorenzo does not, as Owens puts it, merely "assert" the point about the right to secede. On pages 92-93, and on page 133, he references the American legal scholar William Rawle, whose book, A View of the Constitution, was the constitutional law textbook at West Point (you know, the U.S. Military Academy, i.e., a part of the federal government).

As DiLorenzo adds,

Rawle was a close friend of George Washington, and President Washington appointed him the United States attorney for Pennsylvania in 1791. In 1792, Rawle joined the Maryland Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery; in 1818, he was elected president of that organization and remained in that position until his death in 1836.

Rawle, an abolitionist, argued that there was a constitutional and legal right of secession. And the U.S. government used his textbook at West Point. (For more about William Rawle, see my article "Three Views of the Constitution"; by the way, you might note that I take issue with Mackubin Thomas Owens in that article. And he is rehashing the same arguments against DiLorenzo which I have already refuted. But I digress).

At this point, I must confess a disappointment: DiLorenzo does not discuss the works of St. George Tucker, yet another influential American legal scholar who argued at length for the constitutional and legal right to secession. This, however, is a small omission in an otherwise excellent book. (For more about St. George Tucker, see my article "Three Views of the Constitution").

Next, Owens returns to an argument which I criticize in "Three Views of the Constitution," namely, the argument that:

the seceding states never invoked the right of revolution that Andrew Jackson, Daniel Webster, Lincoln and others acknowledged.

Ignoring the fact that Owens argues that Southerners "never invoked" the right of revolution, allegedly because one man (John C. Calhoun) rejected the idea of such a right, what is Owens’ point?

Does Owens contend that Lincoln did not understand that the Southern states had left the union? Did they need to send a certified letter to Lincoln informing him that they were going? Here, Owens argument is too cute by half, worthy of Bill Clinton’s "confusion" over the meaning of "is," and wholly unpersuasive.

Hint: the Southerners declared their independence, by acts of their state legislatures. They declared that they had left the United States, and they formed a new nation: the Confederate States. What further invocation of the right to throw off a bad government and institute a new one — the right articulated in Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence — was required?

Is there a secret form to fill out for permission to start revolutions that the federal government keeps tucked away in a vault?

Additionally, although Owens claims that Lincoln believed in a natural right of revolution, Owens also writes that:

The right of revolution, however, is in tension with the president’s constitutional "duty to administer the present government, as it came into his hands, and to transmit it, unimpaired by him, to his successor."

Some "belief" in the natural right to revolution that Lincoln had. Lincoln, if he truly believed in the natural human right of revolution, behaved like a legal positivist of the worse kind in crushing the Southern revolution, especially when one considers the specious legal arguments upon which Lincoln relied.

Worse, in doing so, Lincoln failed to uphold the duty he allegedly sought to carry out in violating his own belief in the natural right to revolution. He failed to preserve the American republic as it was given to him.

The old republic, as it existed before 1860, and before Abe, looks very little like the centralized state of 1865. Lincoln is the reason for this difference. (See, Jeffrey Rogers Hummel, Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men).

As Tom DiLorenzo argues in his wonderful book, and as Charles Adams (When in the Course of Human Events) and Jeffrey Rogers Hummel (Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men) have written before him, Lincoln’s failure to preserve the American republic is one reason why Lincoln fails to live up to the myths of his greatness.

Critical thinking is an important and necessary task for the survival of a free society. Consider Owens’ review. Read it carefully. Read The Real Lincoln. And decide for yourself.