Monday, March 31, 2008


Let me say, right off, that this is not a biography of Lincoln. It is not even a character study because most of Lincoln’s character is never touched here. This is a study – I think it fair to call it an attack - of one aspect of Lincoln, his ideological purpose in fighting the Civil War. However, it is a determined, fact-filled attack, worth reading.

I have always believed, on the basis of my own studies, that the American Civil War was unnecessary, but this is a view that arouses hostile feelings in Americans as it runs against the public-school civics course beliefs around that conflict.

There is definitely an American Civic Religion with a set of tenets and sacred writings and a cast of mythically-endowed characters comparable to the chief figures of the Old and New Testaments. Many well-known American historians, some quite eminent, are conscious or unconscious proponents of the Civic Religion, not such a difficult thing as you might first imagine because history, just like good police detective work, involves interpretation, judgment, and instincts. The raw facts, when they are even known, are always susceptible of emphasis and interpretation.

So it was refreshing to find a serious writer who also believes that the war was unnecessary.

However, Dilorenzo’s reason for saying the war was unnecessary is different to my own. The author believes that Lincoln consciously used the war to impose the so-called American System of the Whig Party and Henry Clay, destroying the powers of the individual states and centralizing government in the United States. I believe rather that this was one of the unavoidable effects, wars always and everywhere being far more revolutionary events than people generally recognize.

There can be no doubt that Dilorrenzo marshals a strong case, but I believe that he largely fails to prove his main thesis. Lincoln, although not the sentimental figure of American text books and the Lincoln Memorial, was not America’s Joseph Stalin.

Most of his fact-marshalling is impressive, but when he goes off on a tangent to give a background on the basic political split between Jeffersonians and Hamiltonians, he actually gets it rather wrong. Jefferson was anything but the kind of figure he is in the eyes of libertarian devotees like Dilorenzo. He was hungry for power, hungry for empire, and ruthless to those who opposed him. He bent or broke laws many times and never was bothered about rights of others where they stood in the way of his vision. Jefferson was, in short, everything the author claims Lincoln was.

The tone of this book becomes almost oppressive as the author hammers away with citations and anecdotes tending to support his view – in other words, the author is guilty of overkill.

The sense of oppressiveness is increased by the fact the author writes from an ideological viewpoint, not many pages convincing the reader of the author’s pronounced libertarian attitude. In general, I do not like histories or biographies written with an ideological perspective, but here the fault is compounded by the author’s narrow focus.

I don’t think anyone with a fairly open mind can study Lincoln and come away with a view like Dilorenzo’s. Lincoln himself was a victim of believing in the American Civic Religion of his day. He genuinely believed in The Union as a semi-mystical concept. Lincoln was a genuine skeptic with regard to conventional religion and the existence of God, and the feelings that might have had an outlet there attached themselves to “The Union.” He was tough and hard-headed in many respects, but he would have been, in this writer’s judgment, temperamentally incapable of launching and continuing a vast war for the purpose of installing Whig policy.

For those interested, the reviewer believes the Civil War was unnecessary because most great wars are unnecessary and rarely solve anything. For example, World War I only created the foundation for World War II. The American Civil War, which was not fought over slavery, solved little about the ugly institution of slavery. The South went on for about a century afterward with a new set of arrangements for its black citizens hardly better than the previous institution.

The Civil War did establish the anti-democratic principle that no state can separate from the United States, hardly an admirable or advanced attitude. The Civil War is also the tipping point in America becoming a world power with fervent imperialistic views (demonstrated earlier in a more provincial theater of operation in many policies such as the Mexican War), again hardly an admirable outcome.

I believe too that the angry, long-unforgiving South actually dragged the United States backward in social progress over the next century. The United States might have become a better, more decent place without the South and its superstitious religion and traditions of personal honor, much resembling the blood-feud attitudes of backward places like Armenia. And slavery itself would have naturally died out even in the South in a few decades as it did in so many places like Brazil.