Update: Here is a transcript of a debate between Harry V. Jaffa and Thomas DiLorenzo from 2002, which was sponsored by The Independent Institute. Brooks Simpson has also written up a thoughtful response to this post.
I just finished watching Judge Napolotino’s interview with Thomas DiLorenzo and Thomas Woods on FOX News about the so-called mythology surrounding Abraham Lincoln. The three raced through all of the talking points that are now part of the standard debunking of Lincoln’s greatness. We are told that Lincoln was a racist [as was just about every mid-19th century white American], that he arrested thousands of political opponents [Have you read anything by Mark Neely?], and that he inaugurated a modern nation state that violated the Founders goal of establishing limited constitutional government [Relative to what?]. All of this is presented to the general public as if these arguments are somehow new. They seem to be completely unaware of the rich Lincoln scholarship that has revised much of what we know about our 16th president.
While those of us familiar with this Lincoln scholarship might enjoy a good laugh, we would do well to keep in mind that DiLorenzo and Woods are probably influencing the general public more through their publications and activism than all of the recent scholarly studies combined. There are a number of reasons for this, but I suspect that part of it can be traced to the unwillingness of museums, historical societies, and professional conference organizers to engage these folks in legitimate scholarly discourse. The upshot has been the creation of a self-contained group of writers, who reaffirm one another’s legitimacy by appearing on the same television shows and spewing the same rhetoric.
I am reminded of an essay that Daniel Feller, editor of the Andrew Jackson Papers at the University of Tennessee, published in Reviews in American History in which he reviewed three popular “counter-orthodoxy” books, including DiLorenzo’s The Real Lincoln.
If collegial accolades could settle historical debate, the new orthodoxy conveyed in [David Blight’s] Race and Reunion would have swept all competitors from the field. Yet a counter-orthodoxy not only survives, but thrives. By the measure of book sales, it even prevails. It flourishes not only among the neo-Confederates described by [Tony] Horwitz, but in an alternative world of scholarship, a world rarely encountered by subscribers to this journal [RAH]. The works of this other narrative are taught in college courses (though not necessarily in the best-known colleges) and endorsed by university professors (though not always professors of history). The authors are not cranks in re-enactor garb, but public intellectuals with academic credentials and claims to scholarly detachment.
The popularity of these books reminds us that academics live in a cocoon, which we mistake at our peril for the world. It is a comfortable cocoon, filled with people and ideas we feel at ease with. But outside that cocoon, convictions are being shaped that will affect us all. The inclination to ignore ersatz scholarship and go about our business is strong, for the costs of engaging are high. But if we believe what we say we do – that knowing history is important, for such knowledge has consequences – then the costs of neglect may be higher.
Of course, this is a much bigger issue than anything I can present in a blog post. What I will say, however, is that it would be nice to see DiLorenzo and Woods have to present these arguments among historians who have actually published scholarly studies about Lincoln. Let’s see how well their arguments hold up. Of course, first, they have to be engaged.: