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Friday, August 29, 2003  

Back to the past
Part I: Blogosphere hosts new attack on Lincoln

Those of you who began reading my commentary before I had my own blog or who have been reading Mac-a-ro-nies from its inception already know I honed my blog teeth on the neo-Confederate movement. Readers who came along later have probably noticed I mention that pathetic band of Neandertals from time to time. It appears I need to return to writing about it often. A blogger sympathetic to the neo-Confederate movement has been promoting claims that President Abraham Lincoln was a despot and that the Emancipation Proclamation was meaningless.

Thanks for nothin' Abe

On January 1, 1863, Abraham Lincoln issued his so-called "Emancipation Proclamation" supposedly freeing the slaves.

Lincoln personally disliked blacks and had publicly stated that he would willingly accept the institution of slavery if it would stop the southern states from seceding. Slavery was not a main issue to the southern states, however, and they left anyway.

Re-subjugating the Confederacy to northern domination was turning out to be much bloodier and more costly than Lincoln had expected. He needed more and better reasons for northern families to give up the lives of their sons, preferably something of a moral nature. Therefore, halfway into the war he declared that it was about ending slavery. Yeah, that's the ticket!

His real view of the moral imperative of ending slavery, however, was better reflected in the clever lawyerly construction of this worthless Emancipation Proclamation, which did NOT apply to slaves held in Union states. In short, by design this Emancipation Proclamation freed ZERO slaves.

Unfortunately, due to lack of information, I gather, quite a few bloggers and readers believe the false assertions Al Barger is making. I will take on the responsibility of providing that information.

I last wrote about the neo-Confederate movement at length in regard to its effort to prevent a statue of Lincoln being erected in Richmond, Va. It was my pleasure to act as a conduit between Robert Kline, the man whose idea the statue was and the media, since I totally sympathized with him. (Besides, he needed the protection the attention brought. Neo-Confederate goons had come to his office and threatened him, an elderly man who would not be able to defend himself.) Atrios, Roger Ailes and Zizka helped me in in that worthwhile effort.

Among the mechanisms the neo-Confederates used in that failed battle was a made-up claim the U.S. Historical Society was guilty of fraud, which it had the Virginia attorney general investigate, web pages defaming the society and fellow traveler legislators in the state legislature and Congress who tried to prevent the monument being built. The neo-Confederates fight dirty and should be given no quarter.

The current assault on Lincoln relies on the same people behind the attempt to prevent the statue of our best president ever from being sited in the southern United States. As you may recall, their chief academic is Thomas DiLorenzo, a non-historian who has written a volume depicting Lincoln as a tyrant who caused the Civil War. DiLorenzo was the guest of honor at a neo-Confederate conference held to protest the opening of the Lincoln statue. The current smear of Lincoln relies on DiLorenzo's book, The Real Lincoln: A New Look at Abraham Lincoln, His Agenda, and an Unnecessary War, and other neo-Confederate sources. Mainstream historians have thoroughly dismissed DiLorenzo when they bother to acknowledge him at all. Even the reviewer for the far Right Washington Times declined joining DiLorenzo in defaming Lincoln. He has found a home in the neo-Confederate movement, but is not taken seriously anywhere else. His ludicrous platform is easily summarized. This reviewer, from a conservative site, incidentally, sees right through his lies.

In this hopelessly pro-Southern book, DiLorenzo offers tired explanations for why the South was righteous, and the Lincoln-led North was tyrannical. It is typical fare for the Southern apologist crowd, which oddly still inhabits the Civil War era. The Loyola College (Maryland) economics professor continuously hammers the theme of states' rights throughout the work. Predictably, he infuses his writing with deliberately selective quotes from Lincoln and others so that he can make bold accusations (i.e. He implies that Lincoln was a racist, for example).

Interestingly, he pays little attention to the 'peculiar institution,' which is otherwise known as slavery. Instead, he focuses the reader's attention on what he calls "Lincoln's real agenda: the American System." Basing one's arguments primarily on the states' rights component is a lot like having a polite dinner conversation with a 2000 pound pachyderm in the room.

The professor argues that slavery would have died out on its own at some point (he does not offer how long this might have lasted), since many nations were eliminating slavery peacefully throughout the 1800s. Perhaps the armchair historian is comfortable with that conclusion, but I have a feeling that the slaves of 1865 might have had slightly different feelings about the gradual phasing out of slavery.

He thinks he has our sixteenth president captured when he boldly announces that "Lincoln stated over and over that he was opposed to racial equality." Unfortunately, DiLorenzo fails to understand that history always involves a context. It is quite obvious that an abolitionist (or even someone who believed in equality for all people regardless of race) would never have garnered the support of the American public. We are talking about the mid nineteenth century, where people's concepts of race and prejudice were drastically different from today's standards. Using twenty first century standards to judge a president from the 1800s is foolish from a historical standpoint, and blatantly incorrect. It also exposes the weakness of one's argument.

. . .Professor DiLorenzo is looking for controversy when he labels the Civil War as an "unnecessary war" in the subtitle of his book. Asking whether or not Lincoln was a dictator, DiLorenzo draws a ludicrous comparison between King George III and the Civil War era president. (George the Third was King of England when the American colonists rebelled, and eventually formed the United States.)

Reducing the Civil War's root causes to those involving free trade and government philosophy, DiLorenzo all but dismisses the slavery debate. He writes that, "Lincoln waged war in order to create a consolidated, centralized state or empire." He adds that ultimately the conflict centered around "the battle between the free-trade South and the protectionist North." While it is true that several factors were involved in the war, slavery's prominence is undeniable. The reality is that Southern gentry could not command thousands of men to go to their deaths for the aristocracy's slaves. Rather, framing the debate around "states' rights" provided a platform that would attract both rich and poor. It also covered up the heart of the issue -- whether or not men had the right to own other men.

DiLorenzo has compiled standard pro-Southern dogma, and placed it in new packaging. His "new look at Abraham Lincoln" is recycled material from a long-lived legacy of defeat from a few Southern, Confederate sympathizers, who refuse to live in the present. By the book's end, we are no closer to finding the real Lincoln than when we first began.

Once they stop snickering at the mention of DiLorenzo's name, historians take his book apart. About what? Everything. The Real Lincoln has been cited as faulty in every way. A commentator has organized the types of errors in the book as factual errors, distortions of interpretation and shoddy scholarship. Among the monolith of mistakes are purposeful misrepresentations of the Emancipation Proclamation and its effects. For example:

DiLorenzo states that the emancipation proclamation "caused a desertion crisis in the U.S. Army. At least 200,000 Federal soldiers deserted; another 120,000 evaded conscription; and at least 90,000 Northern men fled to Canada while thousands more hid out in the mountains of central Pennsylvania to place themselves beyond the reach of enrollment officers." This statement is referenced to p. 67 of The Confederate War by Gary Gallagher. However, this is wrong in two ways. First, no such statements are to be found in Gallagher's book, either on the page noted or anywhere else. (Gallagher's book tends to focus only on the Confederate side of the war.) Second, DiLorenzo is blaming all desertions on the U.S. side of the Civil War on the Emancipation Proclamation --- 200,000 is the consensus estimate for the total number of deserters throughout the war, according to Mark Weitz's article on desertion in the Encyclopedia of the American Civil War (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2000). Needless to say, some Federals deserted before the proclamation was passed, so not all the desertions can be ascribed to it, and it seems unlikely that every U.S. soldier who deserted after September 1862 did so because of the proclamation.

Barger's claim that the Emancipation Proclamation did not free any slaves, which relies on DiLorenzo and other neo-Confederates, is of course, false. As the Northern army progressed through the South, thousands of slaves were freed. However, of equal significance is that the Emancipation Proclamation changed the nature of the war, making it clear it was a war of liberation, and reinspiring Union troops.

Although the Emancipation Proclamation did not immediately free a single slave, it fundamentally transformed the character of the war. After January 1, 1863, every advance of federal troops expanded the domain of freedom. Moreover, the Proclamation announced the acceptance of black men into the Union Army and Navy, enabling the liberated to become liberators. By the end of the war, almost 200,000 black soldiers and sailors had fought for the Union and freedom.

From the first days of the Civil War, slaves had acted to secure their own liberty. The Emancipation Proclamation confirmed their insistence that the war for the Union must become a war for freedom. It added moral force to the Union cause and strengthened the Union both militarily and politically. As a milestone along the road to slavery's final destruction, the Emancipation Proclamation has assumed a place among the great documents of human freedom.

So, why would people denigrate Lincoln while lionizing Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee? Even a cursory examination of neo-Confederate sites answers that question. Lincoln's critics hate him because they believe he ended the possibility of the kind of society they prefer -- theocratic, racist, sexist and isolationist -- prevailing in the United States. Though they are still working to create such a society, they know there is little hope of achieving their goal. The best they can do is mislead other Americans about the historical events that shaped this country.

Am I saying Abraham Lincoln was a perfect person? No, but compared to most leaders of his time and since, the man was a giant. Virtually no one who had the same conflict brought before him or her could have dealt with it better. Most importantly, Lincoln grew as a person. After observing the valiant performance of black troops who fought for the Union during the war, he rejected the notion that African-Americans should be relocated elsewhere or permanently become second-class citizens. I believe that if Lincoln had survived, Reconstruction would have been successful and we would not have the shameful societal divisions we have today. To demean this man is to demean someone we all, as Americans, should be proud of.

Note: Most of the material describing and analyzing the Lincoln statue controversy can be accessed at Zizka's site and is well worth reading. (I prepared it before I had a blog.) It is a good introduction to the neo-Confederate movement.

5:09 PM