Tag Archives: Thomas DiLorenzo

Are You Sure You Are Waving the Right Flag?

29303976It seems strange to me that those marching and protesting in the name of limited government and states rights would choose a Confederate flag as one of their symbols.  We have Libertarian-leaning economists such as Thomas DiLorenzo and Walter Williams who celebrate the Confederacy and its leaders as the last bastion of limited federal power in the face of the Lincoln administration, which turned the nation toward “big government” with all of its inherent evils attached.  For these guys, it’s the beginning of the end.  [It's also one of the best examples of stepping out of your field of study and looking silly.]  For most people who take part in political rallies such as the one this past weekend the flag represents the last stand of limited government, respect for individual and state rights and perhaps even a final gasp before the evils of modernity took hold.

Such overly simplistic distinctions may work well to reinforce our tendency to view the Civil War and much of the rest of our past as battle between good and evil.  On the other hand, it makes for some really bad history.  No one who understands the history of antebellum America could possibly make the mistake of drawing such sharp distinctions given the fact that it was the Southern states who were pushing for the power of the federal government during the 1850s to protect the institution of slavery through legislative acts such as the Fugitive Slave Act and court cases such as the famous Dred Scott decision. Northern states, on the other hand, insisted at times that states had the right to resist the Fugitive Slave Act by passing Personal Liberty Laws which effectively nullified the power of the federal government in their respective communities.

So, is the record of the Confederacy one of limited government and respect for individual rights?  The record includes:

  • Conscription (before the United States)
  • Tax-In-Kind
  • Tariff (higher than the 10 to 15 percent rate proposed by Hamilton in his Report on Manufacturers (1791)
  • Confederate National Investment in Railroads (amounting to 2.5 million in loans, $150,000 advanced, and 1.12 million appropriated)
  • Confederate Quartermasters leveled price controls on private mills and were later authorized to impress whatever supplies they needed.
  • Government ownership of key industries
  • Government regulation of commerce
  • Suspension of habeus corpus (According to historian, Mark Neely, 4,108 civilians were held by military authorities)

John Majewski describes this government as “Confederate war socialism”.

A Civil War Title That is Too Good to be True

51k3yuRVRmL._SS500_I was in the process of ordering Jeffrey McClurken’s new book on Amazon when I came across this hilarious book on Lincoln that is being published by Pelican Press.  The book is titled, Lincoln Über Alles: Dictatorship Comes to America.  Eat your heart out, DiLorenzo.  The brief description is priceless: “Abraham Lincoln’s election was favorably influenced by the influx of German revolutionaries who fled Europe after the failed revolutions of 1848. Then, his agenda to establish a central government with unlimited political power caused the American Civil War. This fascinating book puts forth these arguments and also explores how, after the war, the legality of secession was viewed.”

On a different note, check out the thoughtful and hard-nosed critique of recently-published Lincoln studies by Sean Wilentz in The New Republic.  One of the books reviewed is by our friend, John Stauffer, who clearly has trouble handling critiques of his scholarship.

“The War Between the States”: Homeschool Style

It’s true that you can’t always judge a book by its cover, but you can judge it by the number of black Confederates that are claimed to have loyally served.  As a teacher I think it is important to stay up to date on new textbooks and other classroom resources, so with that in mind I decided to contact the good people at American Vision to see about getting a review copy of The War Between the States: America’s Uncivil War, which is authored by John J. Dwyer.  The book was published in 2005 and is endorsed by the likes of Thomas DiLorenzo, Lew Rockwell, Clyde Wilson and Donald Livingston.  The book is marketed to Christian schools and families that homeschool their children.  It is illustrated throughout with the artwork of John Paul Strain and at 650 pages it is by far the longest textbook on the war that I’ve ever come across.

Not surprisingly, the endorsements claim that this book serves as an alternative to the standard interpretations that currently pervade public schools and colleges.  Of course, Dwyer never elaborates on what this interpretation includes or explores its supposed weaknesses, but than again this book was not written to raise questions and encourage curiosity.  Rather it was written to conform to a Christian outlook that uses the past to justify current political and moral beliefs.  Such an approach offers a convenient justification for parents and educators who believe that the secular world must be resisted in all its forms.  Dwyer believes that his text moves beyond the “politically correct” studies that are used in secondary schools and colleges and allows the reader to focus on “God’s almighty work of calling out a covenant people for Himself in space and time, throughout human history.”  Such an approach doesn’t leave much room for questions about how the author constructs his interpretation since any challenge must necessarily be construed as a challenge to God’s vision.  I will leave the epistemological concerns aside for now rather than get bogged down into something that, as a historian, I could care less about.

The book includes no references to outside studies other than a few choice titles that are floated throughout the text such as Charles Adams’s In The Course of Human Events and other books by the Ludwig Von Mises crowd and assorted libertarians.  The curious reader is left to wonder what kinds of primary and secondary sources were used.  Obviously, I cannot review the entire book; rather, I will proceed in short segments that focus on a representative sample that should give you a sense of why the book is so popular as a homeschool/Christian text.

Consider the author’s treatment of black Confederates as an entry point into the overall quality of this text.  The student is prepped for this “analysis” with multiple sections focused on the life of slaves and their relationships with their masters.  Dwyer relies heavily on the WPA Slave Narratives as well as Fogel and Engerman’s Time on the Cross.  The author acknowledges that historians have pointed out problems with using the WPA sources, but suggests that they reveal a wide range of experiences of slave life.  Indeed they do, but the author simply makes assertions that are to be accepted by the reader rather than demonstrating with examples.  Dwyer also never mentions the controversy surrounding Time on the Cross, including important critiques by Herbert Gutman and others.  Ignoring such problems allows the author to pick and choose from the texts to draw conclusions that confirm the crucial point that God is an ever present force in the lives of slaves and slaveowners.  “They (Fogel and Engerman) produced perhaps the most thorough examination of plantation records and first-hand accounts ever done,” writes Dwyer.  Just as disturbing is the way in which facts are presented without any context whatsoever.  In fleshing out the reality of slave life in the South the reader learns that “thousands of free Southern blacks owned other blacks as slaves, including one hundred twenty-five in Charleston, South Carolina, and over 3,000 in New Orleans.  No mention of the complexity of race in a city like New Orleans compared with the rest of the region and no references at the end of the chapter to allow students to read further.  I guess it’s all about faith.  There is a constant reminder throughout that historians today cannot be trusted and that their research is a product of nefarious motives.  The student learns quickly that the author’s goal is to rescue them from such treachery.

The author’s assessment of slavery is difficult to make sense of given the goal of reconciling a Christian world-view and a slaveholding society.  There is a palpable tension between acknowledging the reality of slavery and wanting to correct the harshest critiques of slave life.  In the hands of a reputable historian such a goal is not only laudable, but essential if we are to continue to uncover the complexity of slave life and race relations in the United States at different times.  This is not meant to ignore the harsh reality of slavery, but to acknowledge that it does not constitute the beginning and end of what we need to know.  Here is a revealing passage:

Slavery, though not an evil institution when practiced Biblically, was attended with evils as practiced in the South.  It was not in any way perfect or utopian.  In fact, as a Southern social institution, generally considered, it was evil.  Christians should be quick to notice the discrepancies between Biblical slavery and that practiced in the South.  These differences between the Biblical standard and Southern slavery make impossible an unqualified defense of the institution as it existed and operated in the South.

One could read this as suggesting that the “evils [of slavery] as practice in the South” was a matter of degree given its sanctioning in the Bible.  An “unqualified defense” may not be appropriate, but it certainly leaves room for one that is qualified.  For someone who is not a Christian, but who holds to very strong moral/ethical principles it is impossible for me to come to terms with such a distinction.  Dwyer takes full advantage of the opening provided in the above passage to present the “Unexpected Blessings” of slavery.  No surprise that it is the fact that the slaves were introduced to Christianity.  Of course, it implies that the original Africans had no religious identity, but that doesn’t seem to bother Dwyer since the goal of his commentary is to present slaves and slaveowners as some kind of organic whole that at least approached the Biblically sanctioned institution of slavery.   As far as I am concerned such a view reflects moral bankruptcy and deserves outright condemnation.  But if that wasn’t enough of a reason to question our “politically correct” narrative of slavery how about this one?:

No one needs lament the passing of slavery, and the editors of this volume emphatically do not.  But who cannot but lament the damage to both white and black that has occurred as a consequence of the way it was abolished?  In many respects, the remedy applied has been far worse that the disease ever was.  Christians who doubt this should consider whether it was safer to be a black child in the womb in 1858 or in 2004.

Well, you can probably surmise that I will not be using this particular book in my Civil War survey course, but you can bet that I will break this out for my course on Civil War memory.  I was hoping to get to this book’s interpretation of black Confederates, but given the length of this post I will hold it for the next one.  It’s a doozy.  They even offer up a number of 40,000.

And You Thought Lincoln Was Dangerous

I noticed that Thomas DiLorenzo has a new book out about Alexander Hamilton.  While I haven’t read it both the title [Hamilton's Curse: How Jefferson's Enemy Betrayed the American Revolution--and What It Means for Americans Today] and book jacket suggest that this is a continuation of DiLorenzos’s efforts to uncover the root of centralized government and the supposed breakdown and “death of federalism.” 

DiLorenzo reveals how Hamilton, first as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention and later as the nation’s first and most influential treasury secretary, masterfully promoted an agenda of nationalist glory and interventionist economics—–core beliefs that did not die with Hamilton in his fatal duel with Aaron Burr. Carried on through his political heirs, the Hamiltonian legacy:

• Wrested control into the hands of the federal government by inventing the myth of the Constitution’s “implied powers”
• Established the imperial presidency (Hamilton himself proposed a permanent president—–in other words, a king)
• Devised a national banking system that imposes boom-and-bust cycles on the American economy
• Saddled Americans with a massive national debt and oppressive taxation
• Inflated the role of the federal courts in order to eviscerate individual liberties and state sovereignty
•Pushed economic policies that lined the pockets of the wealthy and
created a government system built on graft, spoils, and patronage
• Transformed state governments from Jeffersonian bulwarks of liberty to beggars for federal crumbs

By debunking the Hamiltonian myths perpetuated in recent admiring
biographies, DiLorenzo exposes an uncomfortable truth: The American
people are no longer the masters of their government but its servants.
Only by restoring a system based on Jeffersonian ideals can Hamilton’s
curse be lifted, at last.

The book jacket follows the standard formula used in his two previous books, which castigate Lincoln for instigating an unnecessary war and using it to further the agenda of the “great centralizer.”  DiLorenzo isn’t so much interested in Lincoln as a historical figure but as a case study to further his own Libertarian agenda.  Remember, DiLorenzo is not a trained historian but an economist.  I have no doubt that he is a very good economist, but it is almost impossible to take him seriously as a Lincoln scholar.  While he vehemently complains about the overwhelming number of Lincoln apologists you will find very few references to Lincoln studies after 1950 in his bibliographies.  He rarely challenges the interpretations of those he disagrees with.  In his first book DiLorenzo rails against protective tariffs, the Morrill Act, railroad subsidies, national currency, income tax, the Homestead Act, and of course, emancipation by military force.  He also blames Lincoln for the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, which extended the power of the courts.  

Please keep in mind that I have no problem with this approach to the past.  There is even an entertaining quality as you feel the momentum of the narrative build to a point of satisfaction and vindication for the writer: “You see, he really was anti-American.”  Kind of reminds me of a political campaign mentality set to a pseudo-historical narrative.  The problem is that the reader ends up learning more about DiLorenzo than about the period he is writing about.  I now know that DiLorezno believes in Libertarian principles of small government and free markets.  My problem is that I could have learned that from one of his publications in an economics journal. 

Now DiLorenzo has set his sites on the Founding Era as Americans worked through their experiences going back to the American Revolution, the Critical Period of the 1780s and the Constitutional Convention of 1787.  In it DiLorenzo finds a battle between good and evil rather than a moment in early American history where the fundamental questions of the proper scope of the federal government and the states, along with the very meaning of individual liberty, were being worked out.   Along the way DiLorenzo intends to debunk the mythmakers (as he supposedly did with Lincoln scholars) such as Ron Chernow whose massive biography of Hamilton is a must read.  There is a reason why books by Ron Paul, Pat Buchanan, and Thomas Woods are referenced as further reading on Amazon’s site.  DiLorenzo’s approach to the study of the past is ultimately an extension of his political and economic world view.  You can forget about Hamilton as a historical subject because DiLorenzo isn’t interested in that.  What matters is that in light of what DiLorenzo believes Hamilton was wrong and ultimately to blame for all of our contemporary woes.  Perhaps another way to put is that DiLorenzo is interested primarily in converting the reader to Libertarian principles.  History become a means to an end in DiLorenzo’s hands.

I assume that DiLorenzo’s next book will focus on the centralizing tendencies of the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.  There you will find a great deal of central control over public morality.  It turns out that the “City on a Hill” was the first step down the long road of corrupt government and the suppression of individual freedom.