Was Lincoln A Tyrant?
by Thomas J. DiLorenzo
In a recent WorldNetDaily article, “Examining ‘Evidence’ of Lincoln’s Tyranny (April 23),” David Quackenbush accuses me of misreading several statements by the prominent historians Roy Basler and Mark Neely in my book, The Real Lincoln: A New Look at Abraham Lincoln, His Agenda, and an Unnecessary War. With regard to Basler, I quote him in Abraham Lincoln: His Speeches and Writings, as suggesting that on the issue of slavery, post 1854, Lincoln’s “words lacked effectiveness.” Quackenbush says he was not referring to Lincoln’s comments on slavery here, but other things. I read him differently. What Basler said was that, yes, Lincoln used eloquent language with regard to human equality and “respecting the Negro as a human being,” but he offered no concrete proposals other than the odious colonization idea of his political idol, Henry Clay. As Basler wrote, “The truth is that Lincoln had no solution to the problem of slavery [as of 1857] except the colonization idea which he inherited from Henry Clay.” In the next sentence he mentions Lincoln’s eloquent natural rights language, then in the next sentence after that, he makes the “lacking in effectiveness” comment. What I believe Basler is saying here is that because Lincoln’s actions did not match his impressive rhetoric, his words did indeed lack effectiveness.
As Robert Johannsen, author of Lincoln, the South, and Slavery put it, Lincoln’s position on slavery was identical to Clay’s: “opposition to slavery in principle, toleration of it in practice, and a vigorous hostility toward the abolition movement” (emphasis added). Regardless of what Basler said, I take the position that Lincoln’s sincerity can certainly be questioned in this regard. His words did lack effectiveness on the issue of slavery because he contradicted himself so often. Indeed, one of his most famous defenders, Harry Jaffa, has long maintained that Honest Abe was a prolific liar when he was making numerous racist and white supremacist remarks. He was lying, says Jaffa, just to get himself elected. In The Lincoln Enigma Gabor Boritt even goes so far in defending Lincoln’s deportation/colonization proposals to say, “This is how honest people lie.” Well, not exactly. Truly honest people do not lie.
The problem with this argument, Joe Sobran has pointed out, is that Lincoln made these kinds of ugly comments even when he was not running for political office. He did this, I believe, because he believed in these things.
Basler was certainly aware of Lincoln’s voluminous statements in opposition to racial equality. He denounced “equality between the white and black races” in his August 21, 1858 debate with Stephen Douglas; stated in his 1852 eulogy to Henry Clay that as monstrous as slavery was, eliminating it would supposedly produce “a greater evil, even to the cause of human liberty itself;” and in his February 27, 1860 Cooper Union speech advocated deporting black people so that “their places be . . . filled up by free white laborers.” In fact, Lincoln clung to the colonization/deportation idea for the rest of his life. There are many other similar statements. Thus, it is not at all a stretch to conclude that Basler’s comment that Lincoln’s words “lacked effectiveness” could be interpreted as that he was insincere. It also seems to me that Johannsen is right when he further states that “Nearly all of [Lincoln’s] public statements on the slavery question prior to his election as president were delivered with political intent and for political effect.” As David Donald wrote of Lincoln in Lincoln Reconsidered, “politics was his life.” In my book I do not rely on Basler alone, but any means, to make my point that Lincoln’s devotion to racial equality was dubious, at best.
Quackenbush apparently believes it is a sign of sincerity for Lincoln to have denounced slavery in one sentence, and then in the next sentence to denounce the abolition of slavery as being even more harmful to human liberty. (I apparently misread the statement Lincoln once made about “Siamese twins” by relying on a secondary source that got it wrong and will change it if there is a third printing).
Quackenbush takes much out of context and relies exclusively on Lincoln’s own arguments in order to paint as bleak a picture of my book as possible. For example, in my book I quote Mark Neely as saying that Lincoln exhibited a “gruff and belittling impatience” over constitutional arguments that had stood in the way of his cherished mercantilist economic agenda (protectionist tariffs, corporate welfare, and a federal monopolization of the money supply) for decades. Quackenbush takes me to task for allegedly implying that Neely wrote that Lincoln opposed the Constitution and not just constitutional arguments. But I argue at great length in the book that Lincoln did resent the Constitution as well as the constitutional arguments that were made by myriad American statesmen, beginning with Jefferson. In fact, this quotation of Neely comes at the end of the chapter entitled “Was Lincoln a Dictator,” in which I recount the trashing of the Constitution by Lincoln as discussed in such books as James Randall’s Constitutional Problems Under Lincoln, Dean Sprague’s Freedom Under Lincoln, and Neely’s Fate of Liberty. Lincoln’s behavior, more than his political speeches, demonstrated that he had little regard for the Constitution when it stood in the way of his political ambitions.
One difference between how I present this material and how these others authors present it is that I do not spend most of my time making excuses and bending over backwards to concoct “rationales” for Lincoln’s behavior. I just present the material. The back cover of Neely’s book, for example, states that thanks to the book, “Lincoln emerges . . . with his legendary statesmanship intact.” Neely won a Pulitzer Prize for supposedly pulling Lincoln’s fanny out of the fire with regard to his demolition of civil liberties in the North during the war.
Quackenbush dismisses the historical, constitutional arguments opposed to Lincoln’s mercantilist economic agenda, as Lincoln himself sometimes did, as “partisan zealotry.” Earlier in the book I quote James Madison, the father of the Constitution, as vetoing an “internal improvements” bill sponsored by Henry Clay on the grounds that “it does not appear that the power proposed to be exercised in the bill is among the enumerated powers” of the Constitution. Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, and John Tyler made similar statements. These were more than partisan arguments by political hacks and zealots. The father of the Constitution himself, Madison, believed the corporate welfare subsidies that Lincoln would later champion were unconstitutional.
Add to this Lincoln’s extraordinary disregard for the Constitution during his entire administration, and it seems absurd for Quackenbush or anyone else to portray him as a champion of the Constitution who was pestered by “political zealots.” Among Lincoln’s unconstitutional acts were launching an invasion without the consent of Congress, blockading Southern ports before formally declaring war, unilaterally suspending the writ of habeas corpus and arresting and imprisoning thousands of Northern citizens without a warrant, censoring telegraph communications, confiscating private property, including firearms, and effectively gutting the Ninth and Tenth Amendments.
Even quite worshipful Lincoln biographers and historians called him a “dictator.” In his book, Constitutional Dictatorship, Clinton Rossiter devoted an entire chapter to Lincoln and calls him a “great dictator” and a “true democrat,” two phrases that are not normally associated with each other. “Lincoln’s amazing disregard for the . . . Constitution was considered by nobody as legal,” said Rossiter. Yet Quackenbush throws a fit because I dare to question Lincoln’s devotion to constitutional liberty.
Quackenbush continues to take my statements out of context when commenting on the Lincoln-Douglas debates, and he refuses to admit that Lincoln did in fact lament the demise of the Bank of the United Stated during the debates. His earlier claim that there was not a single word said during the Lincoln-Douglas debates about economic policy is simply untrue.
But the larger context is that even though most of the discussion during the debates centered on such issues as the extension of slavery into the new territories, they were really a manifestation of the old debate between the advocates of centralized government (Hamilton, Clay, Webster, Lincoln) and of decentralized government and states’ rights (Jefferson, Jackson, Tyler, Calhoun, Douglas). At the time of the debates Lincoln had spent about a quarter of a century laboring in the trenches of the Whig and Republican Parties, primarily on behalf of the so-called “American System” of protectionist tariffs, tax subsidies to corporations, and centralized banking. When the Whig Party collapsed Lincoln assured Illinois voters that there was no essential difference between he two parties. This is what he and the Whigs and Republicans wanted a centralized government for. As Basler said, at the time he had no concrete solution to the slavery issue other than to propose sending black people back to Africa, Haiti, or Central America. He did, however, have a long record of advocating the programs of the “American System” and implementing a financially disastrous $10 million “internal improvements” boondoggle in Illinois in the late 1830s when he was an influential member of the state legislature.
Lincoln spent his 25-year off-and-on political career prior to 1857 championing the Whig project of centralized government that would engage in a kind of economic central planning. When the extension of slavery became the overriding issue of the day he continued to hold the centralizer’s position. And as soon as he took office, he and the Republican party enacted what James McPherson called a “blizzard of legislation” that finally achieved the “American System,” complete with federal railroad subsidies, a tripling of the average tariff rate that would remain that high or higher long after the war ended, and centralized banking with the National Currency and Legal Tender Acts. It is in this sense that the Lincoln-Douglas debates really did have important economic ramifications.
Quackenbush complains that I do not quote Lincoln enough. He falsely states that there’s only one Lincoln quote in the entire book, which is simply bizarre. On page 85 alone I quote Lincoln the secessionist, speaking on January 12, 1848 (“The War with Mexico: Speech in the United States House of Representatives”): “Any people anywhere, being inclined and having the power, have the right to rise up and shake off the existing government, and form a new one that suits them better. This is a most valuable, a most sacred right –a right which we hope and believe is to liberate the world. Nor is the right confined to cases I which the whole people of an existing government may choose to exercise it. Any portion of such people, that can, may revolutionize, and make their own of so much of the territory as they inhabit.” That’s four sentences, by my count, and there are plenty of other Lincoln quotes in my book, contrary to Quackenbush’s kooky assertion.
But he has a point: I chose to focus in my book more on Lincoln’s actions than his words. After all, even Bill Clinton would look like a brilliant statesman if he were judged exclusively by his pleasant-sounding speeches, many of which were written by the likes of James Carville and Paul Begala. Yet, this is how many Lincoln scholars seem to do their work, even writing entire books around single short speeches while ignoring much of Lincoln’s actual behavior and policies.
I also stand by my argument that Lincoln was essentially the anti-Jefferson in many ways, including his repudiation of the principle in the Declaration of Independence that governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. I don’t see how this can even be debatable. The Whigs were always the anti-Jeffersonians who battled with the political heirs of Jefferson, such as Andrew Jackson and John Tyler. Lincoln was solidly in this tradition, even though he often quoted Jefferson for political effect. He also quoted Scripture a lot even though, as Joe Sobran has pointed out, he never could bring himself to become a believer.
In this regard I believe the Gettysburg Address was mostly sophistry. As H.L. Mencken once wrote, “it is poetry, not logic; beauty, not sense.” It was the Union soldiers in the battle, he wrote, who “actually fought against self determination; it was the Confederates who fought for the right of their people to govern themselves.” Regardless of what one believes was the main cause of the war, it is indeed true that the Confederates no longer consented to being governed by Washington, D.C. and Lincoln waged a war to deny them that right.
It’s interesting that even though the title of Quackenbush’s article had to do with “Evidence of Lincoln’s Tyranny,” in fourteen pages he does not say a single word about the voluminous evidence that I do present, based on widely-published and easily-accessible materials, of Lincoln’s tyrannical behavior in trashing the Constitution and waging war on civilians in violation of international law and codes of morality. Instead, he focuses on accusations of misplaced quotation marks, footnotes out of order, or misinterpretations of a few quotations.