Introduction: Thomas James DiLorenzo is an American economics professor at Loyola University Maryland. He is also a senior faculty member of the Ludwig von Mises Institute and an affiliated scholar of the League of the South Institute, the research arm of the League of the South, and the Abbeville Institute. He holds a Ph.D. in Economics from Virginia Tech. DiLorenzo has authored at least ten books, including The Real Lincoln: A New Look at Abraham Lincoln, His Agenda, and an Unnecessary War, Hamilton's Curse: How Jefferson's Arch Enemy Betrayed the American Revolution-and What It Means for Americans Today, How Capitalism Saved America: The Untold History of Our Country, From the Pilgrims to the Present, and Lincoln Unmasked: What You're Not Supposed To Know about Dishonest Abe. DiLorenzo lectures widely, and is a frequent speaker at Mises Institute events.
Daily Bell: You're prolific and widely read. So please excuse the repetition of our questions. Tell us a little bit about your background and how you became interested in economics.
Thomas DiLorenzo: I was an economics major at Westminster College in New Wilmington, Pennsylvania, where in my first semester the professor used as a "supplementary text" a little book of essays on current economic events by Milton Friedman. They were a collection of Friedman's Newsweek magazine columns, which he wrote in the 1970s. I loved how he used economics to explain just about everything about the economic world and economic policy. I also admired his very persuasive writing and speaking styles, and spent years in school trying to emulate it (and that of others who had similar talents). I also discovered The Freeman magazine, published by the Foundation for Economic Education, while a freshman in college, and reading through the back issues introduced me to the whole classical liberal tradition of scholarship, especially the free-market economists like Ludwig von Mises, F.A. Hayek, Israel Kirzner, Friedman, and others. I earned a Ph.D. in economics at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, where one of my professors was James M. Buchanan, who won the Nobel Prize in economics for being one of the founders of the "Public Choice" School, which uses economic theory and methodology to analyze politics and political institutions. One of the textbooks I used in my first semester at VPI was Human Action by Ludwig von Mises. That course was my real introduction to Austrian economics, which I then pursued mostly on my own.
Daily Bell: You're a valued member of the Mises Institute. When did you join?
Thomas DiLorenzo: When I was an assistant professor of economics at George Mason University in the early 1980s I received a flyer in the mail from Murray Rothbard and Lew Rockwell announcing the creation of the Mises Institute. I sent them a check for $35, which I suppose made me a "member." I soon began sending them articles for their monthly publication, The Free Market, and presented papers at some of the early Mises Institute conferences. I've been teaching at the week-long Mises University that is held every summer for almost twenty years now. In short, I've been associated with the Mises Institute from its very beginning.
Daily Bell: How did you arrive at your insights about Lincoln? Explain, in a short summary if you can, what they are.
Thomas DiLorenzo: As for my research and publications on Lincoln, Civil War history was a hobby of mine for years, and I began thinking about how I could combine my profession, economics, with my hobby and get a few things published. I was struck by the fact that for his entire adult political life Lincoln was almost exclusively devoted to Hamiltonian mercantilism – high protectionist tariffs, other forms of corporate welfare, a central bank modeled after the Bank of England to pay for it all, and political patronage and matching politics. It made no sense at all that his ascendancy to the presidency had nothing to do with these issues, as America's court historians say, or that these issues had nothing to do with the reason for the war. In fact, in his first inaugural address he literally threatened "invasion" and "bloodshed" (his exact words) if the Southern states that had seceded refused to continue to pay the federal tariff on imports, the average rate of which had just been doubled two days earlier. The entire agenda of Hamiltonian mercantilism was put into place during the Lincoln administration – along with the first income tax, the first military conscription law, and the creation of the internal revenue bureaucracy, among other monstrosities.
Daily Bell: You write about Lincoln from an economic perspective. Shouldn't more history be written this way? It seems a natural marriage.
Thomas DiLorenzo: Most historians generally know nothing at all about economics, but that doesn't stop them from writing book after book on economic topics, including the economics of the Civil War. There are a lot of books out there in university libraries that contain the facts about Lincoln, but these facts rarely make it into the textbooks that American children use. Education is dominated by the state, after all, and the state only criticizes past politicians who were not sufficiently statist (like Warren Harding, for instance). Being an economist and a libertarian gives one a very different lens with which to look at this information. Historians simply don't understand the importance of how the American political economy was transformed by the Lincoln regime, and most of them are rather buffoonish, excuse-making court historians when it comes to Lincoln who is, after all, the face and image of the American empire.
Daily Bell: Was it difficult to write a revisionist history about Lincoln?
Thomas DiLorenzo: As a libertarian, I saw it as my duty to spread the truth about what a horrific tyrant Lincoln was, with his illegal suspension of Habeas Corpus and the imprisonment of tens of thousands of political dissenters in the North; his shutting down of over 300 opposition newspapers; his deportation of the leader of the congressional opposition, Democratic Congressman Clement Vallandigham of Ohio; and his purposeful waging of total war on civilians. He destroyed the voluntary union of the founding fathers and destroyed the system of federalism that was the hallmark of the original constitution by using military force to "prove" that nullification and secession were illegal. Might makes right. Unlike England, Spain, France, Denmark, Holland, Sweden, and other countries that ended slavery peacefully in the nineteenth century, Lincoln used the slaves as political pawns in a war that both he and the U.S. Congress declared to the world in 1861 was being waged for one reason only: to "save the union." But as I said, he really destroyed the voluntary union of the founders.
Daily Bell: Was the Civil War popular in the North? What did people think of Lincoln in his day?
Thomas DiLorenzo: Lincoln was immensely unpopular during his time. How could he not have been, with having imprisoned tens of thousands of people in the North without any due process, shutting down hundreds of newspapers, handing thousands of Northern men death sentences in the form of military conscription, and generally ruling as a tyrant. Even with the South out of the union he only won the 1864 election with 55% of the vote, and that was after federal troops were used to rig the elections by intimidating Democratic voters at the polling places.
The Civil War was immensely unpopular in the North. That's why Lincoln had to imprison so many dissenters and shut down most of the opposition press. It's also why he resorted to the slavery of military conscription. There were draft riots in New York City and elsewhere. In the July, 1863 New York City draft riots Lincoln sent 15,000 troops who fired into the crowds, killing hundreds in the streets. Entire regiments of Union Army soldiers deserted on the eve of battle again and again, and tens of thousands – probably more – deserted.
Slavery could have been ended peacefully as all other nations did – and as the Northern states did – in the nineteenth century. There were still slaves in New York City as late as 1853. The real purpose of the war was to end once and for all the ability of American citizens to control the federal government by possessing the powers given to them by the Tenth Amendment, including the power of nullifying unconstitutional federal laws, and secession or the threat of secession. Thomas Jefferson believed that the Tenth Amendment was the cornerstone of the Constitution. Lincoln, who was the political son of Jefferson's nemesis, Alexander Hamilton, removed that cornerstone by orchestrating the murder of some 350,000 fellow American citizens, including more than 50,000 civilians according to historian James McPherson.
Jefferson's dream of an "empire of liberty" was ended once and for all, and America was on the road to becoming just another corrupt, mercantilist empire like the British and Spanish empires.
Daily Bell: We notice that municipal corruption began right after the Civil War. Were eruptions such as Tammany Hall mere coincidences or a symptom of something deeper?
Thomas DiLorenzo: It was no mere coincidence that the post-war Grant administration became notorious for political corruption associated with the government subsidization of the transcontinental railroads. American politicians had debated the constitutionality of granting taxpayer-financed subsidies to corporations ever since 1789. The biggest opposition to the subsidies came from the South: presidents Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Jackson, and Tyler all opposed them, or insisted that the Constitution be amended first to permit them. Northern politicians were always the biggest supporters of corporate welfare.
Daily Bell: Did the Civil War mark the end of the US as a republic and the beginning of the US as an empire?
Thomas DiLorenzo: In The Real Lincoln I quote the historian Leonard P. Curry as saying that after the war there were no longer any "constitutional scruples" about squandering taxpayers' money on corporate boondoggles. The railroads were only the beginning of what is on display today with multi-trillion dollar bailouts of Wall Street, General Motors and Chrysler, and even now the Greek banks (which Wall Street must be heavily invested in).
Daily Bell: Did British and European bankers secretly back the North during the Civil War even though the perception was that Britain was sympathetic to the South?
Thomas DiLorenzo: There was no secret conspiracy of British bankers to support the Lincoln regime. The Lincoln administration financed the war with tax revenue, the printing of "Greenbacks" (which created massive inflation), and borrowing, including borrowing from European bankers. It was all out in the open. This is how governments always finance wars.
Daily Bell: Why didn't the South just stand down? There's a theory that if the South had simply declared its independence and walked away that there would not have been much the North could do. Why did the South willingly embark on a shooing war?
Thomas DiLorenzo: The South did not "embark on a shooting war'" Lincoln did. The states were sovereign, and therefore had a right to secede, as they do today. Article 7 of the Constitution proves this by stating that the Constitution is to be ratified by political conventions of the states. No human being was harmed, let alone killed during the bombing of Fort Sumter. South Carolinians considered the fort to be their property, paid for with their tax dollars, and erected for their protection. Lincoln responded to Fort Sumter with a full-scale invasion of all the Southern states that ended up killing some 350,000 Southerners. For this he is hailed as "a great statesman" by our court historians.
Daily Bell: Still, there are those who believe it was a mistake for the South to have initiated hostilities at all.
Thomas DiLorenzo: Lincoln had sent warships to Charleston Harbor, and successfully duped the South Carolinians into foolishly firing on the fort. Afterwards, Lincoln wrote a letter of thanks and congratulation to his naval commander Gustavus Fox for assisting him in getting the war started in this way. It was the biggest political miscalculation in American history: Lincoln (and many other Northerners) believed the war would be relatively bloodless and last only a few weeks or months.
Daily Bell: It was a terrible tragedy and still evokes strong emotions today. Have you brought anyone in mainstream academia over to your side?
Thomas DiLorenzo: There are many American academics who have thanked me for writing my books on Lincoln, and they are using them in their classrooms. But the "Lincoln Cult," as I call it, is a lost cause. These are people whose human capital is entirely wrapped up in the spinning of fairy tales and myths about Lincoln; revealing the truth about the real Lincoln destroys their life's work, so I am not the least bit concerned about persuading any of them. My books are written for the general public, students, and open-minded academics who don't have a financial stake in maintaining the false Lincoln myths.
Daily Bell: Has American academia become at least a little more evenhanded as a result of your exposes?
Thomas DiLorenzo: The Lincoln myth has deified not only Lincoln but the American presidency in general. The poet and novelist Robert Penn Warren once wrote that the war gave the North a "treasury of virtue" because of all the myths that were fabricated after the war. In war, the victors always write the history. This false virtue has been used ever since to portray American foreign policy as benevolent, selfless, and saintly. Thus, there are many people with careers, income and wealth dependent upon the propping up of the American foreign policy establishment with the myth of "American exceptionalism." Anything "we" do is right and just, simply because it is "we" who are doing it.
Daily Bell: Why was Lincoln assassinated? Did he break with the monetary backers of the Civil War in your opinion?
Thomas DiLorenzo: As for why Lincoln was assassinated, I suspect it was simply an act of revenge for having micromanaged the murder of hundreds of thousands of fellow American citizens from the Southern states; burning many of their cities and towns to the ground; and plundering tens of millions of dollars of private property. Southerners also knew that Lincoln had attempted to have their president, Jefferson Davis, assassinated by Union Army soldiers. (Look up "The Dahlgren Raid" on the Web).
Daily Bell: Is the US really several nations? Do states have the right to secede today?
Thomas DiLorenzo: I think secession is not only possible but necessary if any part of America is every to be considered "the land of the free" in any meaningful sense. As Thomas Jefferson said late in life, if the country becomes several different republics, "they will all be our children." He meant that they would all still be Americans, and he wished them all well. His view of secession was the exact opposite of Lincoln's tyrannical "pay up or die" declaration from his first inaugural address.
Daily Bell: Has the Internet helped publicize your work? Would your work have received as much attention without the Internet?
Thomas DiLorenzo: One only has to look at the Web site of the Mises Institute (www.mises.org) to see that there is a great deal of research and publication going on by scholars who are educated in Austrian economics and who consider themselves to be defenders of a free society. My friend Thomas E. Woods has published two New York Times bestsellers (The Politically-Incorrect Guide to American History, and Meltdown), and a survey of mises.org will introduce readers to such authors as Robert Higgs, Robert Murphy, and free-market/libertarian "revisionist" historians. What is being "revised" are the lies and misconceptions that plague the obsessively politically-correct history profession. Much of the writing of authors like these is on the Web, which has revolutionized the world of scholarship whereby the politically-correct "gatekeepers" of the Official Truth are routinely ignored and openly ridiculed.
Daily Bell: What other books and resources would you recommend to our readers?
Thomas DiLorenzo: My latest book project is tentatively entitled False Virtue: The Myths that Transformed America From A Republic to an Empire. It will be about what the federal government did with all that "virtue" after the Civil War, such as its war of extermination against the Plains Indians, subsidies to the transcontinental railroads, so-called "reconstruction," the Spanish-American War, etc.
Daily Bell: Thank you for speaking with us. It has been most informative.
We very much enjoyed this interview with Thomas DiLorenzo because we think he has proven to be one of the most important and effective historians for free-markets and for helping people understand what happened to the American sociopolitical "exception" – and how it went wrong. DiLorenzo – especially through his affiliation with the trailblazing Mises Institute – has fought the good fight for several decades now for a more balanced perspective on Lincoln. He has done so against the weight of a collective academic universe in the United States that has long looked upon Lincoln with almost sociopathic approbation.
Even the few, timid, conservative retellings of the Lincoln myth actually shed little light on the actuality of the man's accomplishments – both good and bad – until DiLorenzo came along. One of Abraham Lincoln's most prominent historians is Harry V. Jaffa, and his books, available in the 1990s, were considered "revisionist" in terms of the way they profiled Lincoln from a conservative point of view. But reading Jaffa was a dense slog, and it took a DiLorenzo (thankfully) to cut through the rhetoric. He debated Jaffa at one point in the early 2000s, and also attempted to clarify Jaffa's point of view in articles and book reviews. Here's an excerpt from a book review by DiLorenzo, in May of 2002 of Jaffa's book, A New Birth of Freedom, which can be found at the Independent Institute website:
Jaffa has spent a lifetime expounding upon Lincoln's rendition of constitutional history that was first invented by Joseph Story and Daniel Webster—that the Union preceded the states, as opposed to the view (the correct one, in my opinion) that the sovereign states formed the government as their agent by adopting the Constitution. (St. George Tucker's View of the Constitution of the United States is the best exposition of the latter view; Jaffa's book is the best of the former view).
This is indeed the crux of the matter. Whatever else Jaffa liked or disliked about Lincoln, the nation's foremost conservative Lincoln-historian (at least during the late 20th century) was busy retelling Lincoln's life in such a way as to rebut any idea that the Southern states had a right to secede. He was, in other words, writing about Lincoln as an apologist for the American federal government. Looked at from this point of view, Jaffa's scholarship was actually a kind of sociopolitical propaganda. And Jaffa was not alone. When the full report on its literature is written – academic and otherwise – we believe the 20th century will be found to have been a fount of authoritarian perspectives, some better disguised than others.
It is fairly indisputable as a matter of fact. One can look at almost any grouping of similar books from the era – from history to science fiction to "the Beats" (Burroughs, Ginsberg, etc.) – and discover they are full of works by apologists for the state in one way or another. This is what has made the Internet and the 21st century itself such a blessing from an intellectual standpoint. Led by the Mises Institute, the frame of reference has gradually begun to right itself. We can see this in work that DiLorenzo has accomplished, and increasingly in historical and sociopolitical scholarship in other areas beyond economics. We would anticipate later in the 21st century that there will be an efflorescence of free-market fiction that will finally provide Ayn Rand with some company.
Writers like DiLorenzo deserve our thanks not only because they have brought some much-needed sanity and balance to literature, but also because they are blazing the path to a more balanced literature generally. To write critically of Lincoln in the 20th century, even the late 20th century was an act of great academic courage. But beyond DiLorenzo's accomplishment, let us mull an academic establishment – and a publishing media, generally – that was sealed as tightly as a coffin when it came to free-market arguments of any sort in the 20th century. The censorship was quiet as the grave and just as powerful. It is a startling to look back on this state of affairs. How much has changed! The times we live in are "interesting" – but exciting as well. (Introduction excerpted from Wikipedia.)