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

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

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.