We are all familiar with the libertarian perspective on the Civil War that views Lincoln as a tyrant and the Confederacy as the last bastion of limited government. It’s a strange cast of characters, including Thomas DiLorenzo and Walter Williams, both of who go out of their way to paint the Confederacy in the best light by minimizing the importance of slavery to secession and overlooking its own march toward a centralized state. Their limited understanding of historical scholarship comes through loud and clear in their books and/or Op-eds. In recent years there seems to be a realignment among those on the right regarding Lincoln and the war from folks like Glenn Beck to National Review editor, Rich Lowry, who recently published a new book on Lincoln
In this video Jason Kuznicki of the Cato Institute asks his fellow libertarians to reconsider their support of the Confederacy. Let’s ignore for a moment just how bizarre it is to be even talking about supporting the Confederacy 150 years later. I am less concerned with sound historical interpretation than I am with the fact that the Cato Institute believes there is a need for such a video. What do you make of it?
The anti-Lincoln critique is mostly, but not entirely, limited to a fringe. Yet it speaks to a longstanding ambivalence among conservatives about Lincoln. A few founding figures of this magazine were firmly in the anti-Lincoln camp. Libertarianism is rife with critics of Lincoln, among them Ron Paul and the denizens of the fever-swamp at LewRockwell.com. The Loyola University Maryland professor Thomas DiLorenzo has made a cottage industry of publishing unhinged Lincoln-hating polemics. The list of detractors includes left-over agrarians, southern romantics, and a species of libertarians — “people-owning libertarians,” as one of my colleagues archly calls them — who apparently hate federal power more than they abhor slavery. They are all united in their conviction that both in resisting secession and in the way he did it, Lincoln took American history on one of its great Wrong Turns.
Anyone familiar with mainstream academic work on Lincoln will find absolutely nothing new in this article. It doesn’t take much for Lowry to dismantle the DiLorenzo-Williams interpretation of Lincoln because so little of it is actually built on a serious reading of the relevant history. The humor of it all quickly fades. In fact, this article (and perhaps eve the book) has very little to do with Lincoln or the Civil War. Rather, Lowry is clearly worried about the current state and identity of the Republican Party. “A conservatism that rejects Lincoln,” writes Lowry “is a conservatism that wants to confine itself to an irritable irrelevance to 21st-century America and neglect what should be the great project of reviving it as a country of aspiration.” Continue reading →
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.:
Actually, I’ve never met Harold Holzer, but his review of John Avery’s Lincoln Uber Alles: Dictatorship Comes to America, which can be found in the latest issue of North and South (November 2010) magazine is hilarious. I am not the biggest fan of reviews that go beyond a strict critique of the argument, but as far as I am concerned book published by Pelican Press are open season:
Second, the author suggests that German-born refugees from the 1848 Revolutions in Europe radicalized the Republican Party with foreign-bred Communistic ideas (such outrages as “equality throughout the nation”). their support tipped the election to Lincoln in 1860 thus ending idyllic American life as we knew and loved it, when men were men, and slaves presumably knew their place. This Gone with the Wiener Schnitzel theory would be sickening were it not so silly. Anyone who counts picture-publisher Louis Prang as a dangerous fomenter of socialism, or believes Germans really made Lincoln president (even a big German vote in Missouri beyond a minuscule 2%), has been smoking too many European cigarettes or reading too much Thomas DiLorenzo or the current governor of Virginia…. However, those who seek confirmation of the wildest of old and new conspiracy theories, including the belief that Lincoln’s presidency paved the way for nation-building, FBI stings, the London Blitz, Hiroshima, and the government raid on Waco, need look no further than Lincoln Uber Alles. Let the record show that I said “Waco,” not “wacko,” though either word will do.
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I suspect that the reason for this disconnect with historical reality is that: 1) The Fox News Channel is essentially a propaganda arm of the neoconservative political cabal that has captured the Republican Party; 2) One of the cornerstones of neocon ideology is Lincoln idolatry and hatred of the South and Southerners. (Professor Paul Gottfried, for one, has written extensively about this.) 3) Therefore, if Glenn wants to keep his gig at Fox, he must toe the party line on Lincoln. Being otherwise libertarian – while the Democrats are in power – serves the purposes of the neocon cabal nicely.
Whatever the reason, I am very disappointed in Glenn Beck and have lost a degree of confidence in the accuracy and truthfulness of other statements he has made or will make in the future. I hate this because I have had such confidence in his truthfulness and admire his courage in revealing many of his findings about powerful people and potentially explosive situations.
We will have to wait and see whether Beck recants and returns to the embrace of a view that has almost nothing to do with history. As far as I can tell, all three individuals lack a serious understanding of Lincoln and the Civil War, but for some reason I find myself rooting for Beck.