The Real Lincoln: A New Look at Abraham Lincoln, His Agenda, and an Unnecessary War

By Majewski, John | Ideas on Liberty, April 2003 | Go to article overview

The Real Lincoln: A New Look at Abraham Lincoln, His Agenda, and an Unnecessary War


Majewski, John, Ideas on Liberty


The Real Lincoln: A New Look at Abraham Lincoln, His Agenda, and an Unnecessary War

by Thomas DiLorenzo

Prima Publishing [bullet] 2002 [bullet] 272 pages [bullet] $24.95

For more than 140 years, classical liberals have heatedly debated the meaning of the American Civil War. During the war itself, British classical liberals-including John Bright and Richard Cobden, leaders of Britain's free-trade movement-enthusiastically supported the northern war effort, arguing that the South's strong support for slavery represented a grave threat to liberty throughout the world. Many other classical liberals, including the likes of Lord Acton, interpreted the War as an unnecessary economic and political calamity that facilitated America's long journey toward a centralized, interventionist state.

Thomas J. DiLorenzo's The Real Lincoln attempts to add to classical-liberal scholarship of the Civil War era. DiLorenzo argues that Abraham Lincoln fought the Civil War to advance a mercantilist agenda of corporate welfare, nationalized banking, and protective tariffs. The Civil War, he argues, was unnecessary to free the slaves; the federal government might have compensated slaveholders and put an end to the institution at a fraction of the cost of a long, bloody conflict. Lincoln's embrace of centralization led him to become a "dictator" who regularly violated civil liberties and committed war crimes against southern civilians. DiLorenzo also blames Lincoln's policies for Reconstruction, which The Real Lincoln portrays as "a vindictive, abusive, corrupt, political racket."

The question of whether or not war was necessary to end slavery is an important, complex question that deserves careful study. The Real Lincoln offers a reminder of what the war cost America, both in material and ideological terms. Especially useful is DiLorenzo's critique of Lincoln's economic policies, which often favored politically powerful corporate interests at the expense of ordinary taxpayers and citizens. Many of the problems of the Gilded Age, which historians often vaguely attribute to capitalism, resulted from specific Republican policies that subsidized railroads and other corporations. The long reign of corporate welfare on the national level, DiLorenzo correctly argues, began in the Civil War era.

DiLorenzo's critique of Lincoln, though, is sometimes too shrill and tendentious, missing opportunities to explore complex questions from a classical-liberal perspective. DiLorenzo's claim that Lincoln should have pushed for compensated emancipation, for example, might very well contradict basic classical-liberal principles because it implies that slaveholders had a legitimate property right in the labor of others. Such a thought would have horrified abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison, who vigorously opposed such schemes. In his discussion of Reconstruction, DiLorenzo seems to dismiss the radical Republican proposal to redistribute land to slaves to compensate for generations of lost labor. …

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