The Mythology of the Mythology of Lincoln

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.:

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34 comments… add one
  • Margaret D. Blough Feb 26, 2011 @ 15:58

    That assumes that DiLorenzo will appear with someone who can challenge him on a scholarly level, but you never know unless you try.

    I find it ironic that since DiLorenzo is such a hit among those who accuse others of being politically correct since, what I have read of his material, his specialty is twisting history to make it conform to his political conclusions. The Republican Party was from its inception closely tied with enterpreneurs. Also, Lincoln was very much a man of the West. The only real interest in much of the West (including what is now considered to be the Midwest) in any action of the federal government was internal improvements and free or at least cheap land. We have no idea of what Lincoln would have been like as a peacetime president; he was never given the opportunity. Almost as soon as he finished the inauguration, he was neck deep in the conclusion of the Fort Sumter crisis. As you noted, Kevin, even the Confederacy found out that a degree of centralization that would have been unthinkable in peacetime anywhere in the US, pre-war, regardless of the region, was essential in wartime. Lincoln and the US government realized it earlier and did it more effectively, especially regardling the railroads.

    All you need to look at is the decades after the Civil War in which the Republicans had almost total control of the federal government. That was also the era that many current Republicans look back at with such nostalgia: The Gilded Age, the Robber Barons, the virtually total lack of regulation of business activity and violent suppression of attempts to unionize. Lincoln express sympathy for unionization but he does not appear to be typical of his party.

  • Terry Johnston Feb 26, 2011 @ 10:12

    Years ago, North & South magazine printed a ‘discussion’ of sorts between DiLorenzo and Gerry Prokopowicz on Lincoln. And while Gerry did a fine job, I think, in addressing DiLorenzo’s various claims, a bit of me wondered (before and immediately after the piece ran) if it was worth doing, i.e., giving such far-out viewpoints any kind of serious exposure. Looking back, I think it was, but only because a scholar of Gerry’s caliber was willing to enter the fray. That was key.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 26, 2011 @ 14:00


      I remember that issue well and I applaud N&S for inviting DiLorenzo to contribute. The more he is forced to confront serious historians the better even if it means that, in doing so, his interpretation is given some legitimacy.

  • Rob Wick Feb 26, 2011 @ 8:25

    The “debate” by these guys where the Constitution is concerned always makes me laugh. It strikes me funny that, when compared to the Articles of Confederation, the Constitution was an act to enlarge the power of the federal government over the states, and if Alexander Hamilton had had his way, our concept of states would have been radically changed for all our nation’s history.

    I wonder, however, if Di Lorenzo, et al, have as much influence as is assumed. Sure, people buy their books, but are they reaching people whose mind is a blank where this political philosophy is concerned (and is their mind changed by it), or does their audience already lean in that direction and, like Beck or Hannity, they’re just preaching to the choir? Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying their arguments don’t need to be challenged, but in doing so, do we give them a legitimacy they otherwise wouldn’t have or deserve?


    • Kevin Levin Feb 26, 2011 @ 8:28

      You make a good point, but it’s all relative. If we are granting too much to DiLorenzo and co. than we really need to back off in ascribing any real influence on the part of those who are trained in the field.

      • Rob Wick Feb 26, 2011 @ 8:52

        Well, I wonder how much influence they have themselves? When I talk to anyone who doesn’t study or read anything about the war, and I mention Gary Gallagher, David Blight or Brooks, most of the time I get a blank stare. Mention Ken Burns or Shelby Foote and there is a bit more recognition, but even that’s limited.

        How many people actually think about this? Many more might in the context of current political battles, but if you limit it to a philosophical discussion as to Lincoln’s views of government in the context of his own time, I think only those of us infected with the fever really care. Again, I’m not saying we shouldn’t challenge it whenever necessary, but in the work-a-day world where almost 22 percent of the people believe health care reform was actually repealed by the Republicans, I don’t think anything written by either side makes much of a blip on the radar. For the general public, those who might actually be targeted by this work, it’s a non-issue.


  • Andy Hall Feb 26, 2011 @ 8:10

    DiLorenzo and Woods are both affiliated with the Abbeville Institute, and DiLorenzo, in particular, is considered an intellectual heavyweight in the modern secessionist/Confederate apologist community. Every time DiLorenzo farts it merits a fawning new blog post by the League of the South.

    The Lincoln-was-a-tyrant theme has been around a long time, but it’s been augmented more recently by the idea that he was also a secret big-gubmint Marxist — as you say, “to pinpoint the moment where everything went wrong.” What’s gong to be interesting to watch is how, as this meme gets more and more air time in mainstream conservative circles, is how much it’s going to shape the way Republicans view the history of their own party. Are they really going to ditch Abraham Lincoln? Really? There are an initiative not long ago to have Grant removed from the $50 bill and replaced with Ronald Reagan; will they drop the fifty and go after the fiver instead?

    Many pundits have been noting for a while now that the Republican Party seems to be increasingly a party centered in the Old South. There’s a well-known liberal blog that took to referring to the GOP as the “Confederate Party” a while back, and it will be interesting to see how media segments like the one embedded above help move that notion along.

    Sorry for the long, ranty nature of this comment. I would go on, but Glenn Beck’s about to come on and I gotta set the TiVo thingie.

    • James Kabala Feb 28, 2011 @ 21:43

      It should be noted that, for better or for worse or for neutral, DiLorenzo and Woods and similar authors mostly have as much contempt for the modern-day Republican Party as for the 1860s version. They might support Ron Paul, but despite his GOP affiliation, not because if it. Judge Napolitano, being a Fox News talking head, has a bit of a foot in both camps, but he is an exception.

  • EarthTone Feb 26, 2011 @ 7:25

    The problem is as much the media as it the academy. Guys like Simpson, Ed Ayers and Gary Gallagher are out there, they’re on CSPAN, and they’ll talk as much as you let them. 🙂

    But is FOX going to put those guys on? What attraction do they have for FOX’s target audience? Not much, probably. As in the case of Woods, the desire is for a “presentist” view that connects Lincoln with all that’s wrong with the world today.

    What bothers me is that too often we see contrived, 2-3 minute “debates” between, say folks from the SCV and the NAACP, or politicians and pundits. What results is the opposite of a learning experience.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 26, 2011 @ 7:50

      You are right, but that’s not a problem with FOX exclusively. You are not going to see Simpson, Gallagher, or Ayers on CNN or MSNBC. On the mainstream news shows history is nothing more than an extension of their political discussions.

      A few years ago the Museum of the Confederacy invited DiLorenzo to join a panel discussion on Lincoln. We need more of this within the historical community.

      • James F. Epperson Feb 26, 2011 @ 7:56

        It doesn’t even have to be broadcast—although I am sure it would be video-ed. Let’s do a “home-and-home” set of debates between Brooks and DiLorenzo, one at Loyola-Maryland, one at Arizona State. Use the format that PBS used for the “Firing Line” debates between panels back in the 80s.

      • EarthTone Feb 26, 2011 @ 9:40

        We’re just about on the same page. CNN and MSNBC are among the media that I feel don’t do enough to use historians in their discussions of historical issues. I’d like to see all the historians mentioned (Ayers, Gallagher, Simpson) get a chance to expand outside the CSPAN/NPR/PBS silo.

        However, I do feel the Lincoln bashing/presentism that we see in the Napolotino clip is unique to FOX, or at least, the judge himself.

      • Brooks D. Simpson Feb 26, 2011 @ 11:27

        Oh, I’ve been on CNN.

        What aired on 2/12/2009 was even longer, but there it was … 🙂

        • EarthTone Feb 27, 2011 @ 3:08


          If Marshall McLuhan/Andy Warhol are right, you’re owed 14 and a half more minutes of fame. 🙂

          Sadly for me, my timer hasn’t even started yet…

  • James F. Epperson Feb 26, 2011 @ 6:46

    There is a lengthy rebuttal to DiLorenzo online at

    I have made points similar to yours in the past. I think a big mistake the scientific community made was in ignoring creationists, and you can see where that led. I would pay to see these clowns debate someone like Brooks Simpson.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 26, 2011 @ 6:55

      Thanks for the link, James. In a culture with a deep anti-intellectual strain I don’t know if the scientific community could have done anything to combat creationism.

      • James F. Epperson Feb 26, 2011 @ 7:02

        You have a point, Kevin, but they should have been willing to engage them in debate. They took the “this is beneath us” attitude and we can see the results. And that is my point here for historians—people need to engage and debate these loons.

        • Kevin Levin Feb 26, 2011 @ 7:04

          Don’t get me wrong, I completely agree with you.

          • James F. Epperson Feb 26, 2011 @ 7:39

            Ich verstehe (ask your wife 😉 ). I’d really love to see these yahoos debate someone like Brooks, who has no patience with idiocy.

  • Sherree Feb 26, 2011 @ 6:17

    Your points are important, Kevin. Members of the public–the general public–however you want to phrase it, will put together a view of the past based upon the information that is most readily available. The changes in historical narratives and in how the profession of history itself is approached have been profound over the past three decades. What might seem an old, worn topic to men and women in the profession of history, may not be so old and worn to those not in the profession. A simplistic portrayal of Lincoln in an unflattering light by Fox News is very suspect, to say the least. Could that be because President Obama has praised Lincoln?

    • Kevin Levin Feb 26, 2011 @ 6:35

      That might explain why FOX News would devote a slot during its Business Hour to Lincoln, but it doesn’t explain DiLorenzo or Woods. They are interested in Lincoln because it helps to explain and justify their belief in libertarianism. Pointing the finger at Lincoln allows them to pinpoint the moment where everything went wrong. The only problem is that their argument fails to explain the push toward stronger central government in the Confederacy and in other parts of the world. Some of what they point out is beyond argument. Yes, Lincoln held racist views for the time. Yes, like many Americans he didn’t believe that the races could co-exist peacefully. Woods has never written anything remotely scholarly on Lincoln and DiLorenzo’s two books present an overly narrow and naive view of Lincoln. He engages none of the rich literature on Lincoln that is available. Still, his books are the big sellers.

      • Sherree Feb 26, 2011 @ 8:22

        This is undoubtedly true, but how many people know it? You are probably right, but I personally don’t credit the FOX audience with that much sophistication. I think that many tune in every night just to get a daily dose of anti Obama rants–or absent President Obama, anti the Democratic party.

        • Kevin Levin Feb 26, 2011 @ 8:27

          I don’t believe that any of the mainstream news outlets cater to a sophisticated audience. It’s an audience that enjoys sound bites and debate that rarely gets below the surface. Who do you think tunes into Chris Matthews every night. They want to hear a certain schtick that is no different from what Glenn Beck’s fans want.

          • Sherree Feb 26, 2011 @ 8:44

            I agree. In fact, I consider MSNBC to be the alter ego of FOX.

            I just find it strange that Lincoln, who is usually the President most admired by many, is suddenly a target of attack by both FOX and by the BBC (at least in the clip you featured) –FOX because Fox is anti Obama and Lincoln is associated with Obama; and the BBC because…..? Who knows?

            • Kevin Levin Feb 26, 2011 @ 8:47

              The problem with your explanation is that Beck is pushing a very different view of Lincoln, which includes a heavy dose of the old mythology of Lincoln standing apart from the flow of events to free the slaves.

              • Sherree Feb 27, 2011 @ 0:35


                I have had time now to read your older post concerning this topic. In that post you say the following:

                “I have to say that I found this interpretation of Lincoln and the place of slavery within the Confederate experiment to be quite surprising. I mean, where is the Lincoln the Tyrant theme that includes his abuse of the Constitution? And in opposition to this tyrant image, where is the Confederate commitment to states rights? Instead, we are presented with a much more moderate and, in my view, accurate view of Lincoln’s handling of civil rights during the war and a Confederate government that is committed to the preservation of slavery. [Note: Beck does miss the mark on the slave trade reference.]”

                Understanding that you are not a Beck admirer and that you are simply analyzing his show, my take on this is that Beck cleverly co-opts what he considers to be liberal or progressive thought, points out glaring inconsistencies, embraces obvious moral positions, and thus–at least to Beck himself–makes himself immune to charges of racism. (He also embraces Dr. King) That way, when Beck goes after Obama’s healthcare plan, which would help ten of thousands of poor African American men and women, along with men and women of other races as well, it is because Beck is being a proud, patriotic American, not a regressive racist. After all, Beck thinks Lincoln was a good guy and that African American men and women deserve equal rights, just not necessarily, good healthcare, since healthcare is not a “right” in Beck’s universe. African American men and women can be equal, just so they stay their new “place” and don’t attempt to address decades old institutional racism, an old liberal phrase and concept that Beck might explore some day, if he hasn’t already.

                • Kevin Levin Feb 27, 2011 @ 1:59

                  I am definitely a Beck admirer, but not for his understanding of history. Beck is the perfect example of someone who co-opts history to fit into his inane conspiracy theories. I just wanted to point out that the anti-Lincoln theme of Napolitano does not extend to the entire FOX family.

                  • Sherree Feb 27, 2011 @ 3:29

                    I understand. And, I agree.

                    Beck has my attention because so many people believe him. The other day he plugged the AFL-CIO into his communist, socialist, fascist conspiracy theory. My mother worked for the AFL-CIO. I wish she could be here now so that she could rebut Beck’s arguments, at least in an email. Beck would never be the same. She was pretty persuasive.

                    • Kevin Levin Feb 27, 2011 @ 3:31

                      Beck is harmless. When I see him I immediately thing Father Coughlin. There is nothing new there.

                    • Sherree Feb 27, 2011 @ 4:49

                      You are right. There is nothing new there. Whether or not this type of program is harmless, however, remains to be seen. There is a lot of highly charged rhetoric on the left and the right. I think cooler heads are starting to prevail, though.

                      Thanks for the conversation……Now, back to our scheduled program……

  • Arleigh Birchler Feb 26, 2011 @ 5:42

    As I told cousin Marc, I thought you were too intelligent to watch Fox News. Don’t you realize that they make up all of their stuff to fit their warped political agenda?

    • Kevin Levin Feb 26, 2011 @ 5:45

      I watch everything, but I don’t really see what this has to do with the post.

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