The Real Real Lincoln

I’m not a U.S. Civil War buff. Actually, I don’t know much about the U.S. Civil War, apart from what I’ve learned from reading Military Heritage for about ten years now. So, when a small, but loud, sect of libertarians argue that Abraham Lincoln was imperialist scum and the South fought a virtuous secessionist war I don’t say anything; not out of tacit agreement, but because I leave criticism to the better-read. But, this doesn’t mean libertarians have been silent about the matter or that there has been no internal criticism. For some time, non neo-Confederate libertarians were the most vocal critics of this mini-movement, probably because at the time the neo-Confederate mini-movement was too obscure.

Here’s Tom Palmer,

But what’s a little confusion and misuse of language for Mr. DiLorenzo, compared to the masses of errors that characterize his recent works? Mr. DiLorenzo would have us think that the reason for the secession of the southern states was, oh, tariffs and such like. His sole evidence is the erection of a straw man: that Boaz and “a small band of Marxist historians” claim that “the war was caused by slavery alone.” Now note the rhetoric: Boaz claimed quite rightly that without slavery, there would have been no secession, not that “the war was caused by slavery alone,” which is a view few could hold, if for no other reason than that “the war” followed the secession and was not necessitated by it. To dispense with the canard that slavery was not the overriding reason for the secession, one need but read the “Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union,” which makes it quite clear that the process was very, very, very much about keeping people in chains. I strongly encourage anyone who supports the secession of the southern states — which is quite different from the subsequent decision to wage war on them; either might or might not be justified, but they are very different acts — to read that document. They may not be made “physically ill,” but if they are decent human beings (and more so if they are serious libertarians) they will be repulsed by the sentiments that motivated those who took the south out of the union.

And, remember that Richard Gamble, in his review of Tom DiLorenzo’s The Real Lincoln, described the book as “a travesty of historical method and documentation.”

Why don’t libertarians continue the in-fighting and effort to correct the small neo-Confederate sect? Opportunity cost: it’s a waste of time, and most aren’t motivated by smear campaigns to undermine Republican politicians (if we dislike their policies, we attack what’s relevant). Like with most mini-movements, there will probably always be someone who supports the doctrine. But, this group is bound to get smaller and smaller, as reasonable people walk away.

7 thoughts on “The Real Real Lincoln

  1. anonymouse

    United States history offers a challenge because we have to find a framework that approves of the rebels in the Revolutionary War and that approves of the Union in the Civil War. If we take the Declaration of Independence seriously and its right to rebel, then the confederacy seems to be justly exercising its right. Moldbug’s take on the major wars since 1860 is in this vein:

    “the North is trying to subdue the South; the South is trying not to be subdued by the North. Victory for the Confederacy means the survival of the Confederacy. Victory for the Union means the non-survival of the Confederacy. The German Wars are slightly more complex, but through most of both wars, it was the Germans who made peace proposals, their enemies who rejected them.”

    Slavery is proposed as a solution as to why the South’s right to rebel was invalid. But it seems to be a bit of a stretch from a historical perspective. Abolitionism was an upper class thing, and nowhere near popular enough to cause a million men to march off to their deaths in its defense. Some slaveholding states joined the union. And abolitionism is notably absent from early Union propaganda (it would be a little awkward, with the slave states in their alliance and all).

    In mathematical terms, slavery is a necessary, but not sufficient cause of the Civil War. There has to be something else. I’m a Moldbug guy, not a DiLorenzo guy. I suggest his analysis in full (

    The simple story has holes in it, and these holes allow doubt and revisionism to creep in. But the simple story is for school children, and it functions pretty well as a first approximation. My read on the Civil War is that, like most Civil Wars in democracy, it was triggered when one side saw that there was no hope for them to gain the majority. This is usually an ethnic minority, like in Sri Lanka. But in the United States the regions were separated by deep cultural, religious, and economic differences, and the South saw the writing on the wall. It attempted to gain a majority by spreading its culture to new territories via the expansion of slave labor, but this was really a desperate last-gasp. So it seceded. So slavery as a first approximation to the causes of the Civil War is not terrible.

    There’s another motivation that causes libertarians to throw in with neo-Confederates: the Civil War was clearly the death knell of the Constitution. If the federal government exceeded its powers, who was going to stop it? Many libertarians think the Constitution died with FDR, but really FDR was inevitable once you have a Lincoln. I used to be a constitutionalist and find this line of reasoning compelling, but I no longer believe a written constitution can be a realistic check on government power.

    Yet another motivation is that many libertarians are pacifists, and the Union, like the winning side in most Western wars, was ruthless. In the Civil War, we see a prequel of the Allied decimation of the Axis’s civilian populations.

    Questioning the dominant historical narrative is interesting, but socially dangerous. I don’t blame libertarians who want to distance themselves as far as possible from the historical revisionists. In this case, the dominant narrative might have holes, but it’s not completely wrong. The South was certainly not an idyllic libertarian society.

    1. Ryan Long

      “Abolitionism was an upper class thing…”

      How can you type something like this with a straight face (if, indeed, you did)? Was it the lower classes who owned slaves? Do you ignore the fact that every slave is by definition a lower class abolitionist?

      The mind reels.

    2. Phil Kearny

      “Abolitionism is notably absent from early Union propaganda (it would be a little awkward, with the slave states in their alliance and all).”

      Not just that, but many in the North who were willing to fight for the abstraction of “union” would not be willing to fight for the cause of abolition. Just look at what happened in the New York City Draft Riots. I think Civil War historian Gary Gallagher’s analysis is spot on when he wrote that for the most part, northerners were fighting for the preservation of their glorious Union and when they did come around to supporting emancipation, it usually was not for the reasons we would like (e.g. as a means of punishing the South for seceding, to deprive the Confederate war machine of labor, etc.).

      “It attempted to gain a majority by spreading its culture to new territories via the expansion of slave labor, but this was really a desperate last-gasp. So it seceded. So slavery as a first approximation to the causes of the Civil War is not terrible.”

      I think secession is much more attributable to the direct fears of intervention with slavery by a Republican presidency than it is to a more general feeling of sectionalism. Slavery as the ultimate cause of secession I don’t think it honestly that debatable. The cause of war (which ought to be differentiated from the cause of secession) was secession.

      “The South was certainly not an idyllic libertarian society.”

      This point is way too often ignored by libertarians who focus their attention on defending secession and criticizing the Lincoln administration. Many see this as a tacit defense of the Confederacy. The Confederacy’s strongly anti-libertarian policies, including, but not limited to, firm protections of slavery, conscription, egregious civil liberty violations, and outright war socialism are usually not mentioned, downplayed, or even at times, defended by those writers who want to defend secession. Jeffrey Rogers Hummel’s book offers a notable exception to that tendency and he deserves far greater readership, in my opinion.

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  3. RobertRoddis

    Mr. Gamble wrote:

    The Real Lincoln ought to have been a book to confound Lincoln’s apologists and to help rebuild the American historical consciousness. Ironically, IT IS ESSENTIALLY CORRECT IN EVERY CHARGE IT MAKES AGAINST LINCOLN, making it all the more frustrating to the sympathetic reader. DiLorenzo’s love of the chase needs to be tempered by scrupulous attention to detail.

    So Mr. DiLorenzo is a sloppy writer. We can now go back to celebrating the North’s “total war” on southern civilians and dogs.

    Tom Palmer is less than meticulous in his nasty attacks on Hayek, Mises and the Austrian School:


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