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Published by EH.NET (September 2002)

Thomas J. DiLorenzo, The Real Lincoln: A New Look at Abraham Lincoln, His

Agenda, and an Unnecessary War. Roseville, CA: Prima Publishing (a division

of Random House), 2002. xiii + 333 pp. $24.95 (cloth), ISBN: 0-7615-3641-8.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Gerald Gunderson, Shelby Cullom Davis Professor of

American Business and Economic Enterprise, Trinity College, Hartford, CT.

Tom DiLorenzo is known for speaking his mind, which is very much the case in

his new book, The Real Lincoln, where he takes on one of America’s

greatest heroes and icons. He argues that Lincoln encouraged the Civil War as a

vehicle to increase the role of the Federal government.

This reviewer does not doubt that Lincoln sought ways to expand centralized

government and is sympathetic to DiLorenzo’s argument that Lincoln’s wartime

policy improvisations created a precedent for mischief later. The problem is

that this book ignores much of the relevant scholarship that has reshaped our

understanding of American growth and institutions. Take, for example, slavery,

which plays a central role in DiLorenzo’s argument. He dismisses it as an

inefficient institution, lacking incentives for growth such that it probably

would have disappeared if left alone. The standard interpretation now, however,

initiated by Robert W. Fogel and Stanley L. Engerman’s, Time on the

Cross, is that American slavery contained powerful incentives for growth

that yielded a long-term upward trend in slave prices. Thus, the market

certified rising productivity of slave labor as well as boosting the wealth of

their owners. There was little prospect that slavery would die economically;

that required an outside push. The slave population also grew, keeping pace

with that of the (historically exceptionally high) free population. This was

achieved by a system of incentives developed within slavery that encouraged the

slaves to work and to earn more responsible positions.

American slavery differed from all other major slave holding areas in the

nineteenth century. While the populations of others tended to die out and had

to supplemented by further imports of slaves, the American population expanded

robustly, turning relatively small imports of slaves into, by far, the largest

and most valuable supply in the world. American slaves’ value was approaching

$3 billion by 1860, so that actions that implied only relatively small

reductions in slave prices, such as not returning runaway slaves, could produce

losses of property in the hundreds of millions.

This wealth explains why emancipation in the U. S. did not take the peaceful

course that it did in all other nineteenth-century slave societies. DiLorenzo

believes America’s exception indicts Lincoln for pressing toward war but that

overlooks how much more expensive compensated emancipation would have been in

America. The latter also would have been much larger than the cost of fighting

the war was expected to be. It is true, as DiLorenzo argues, that the Civil War

proved to be much larger and more expensive than compensated emancipation. But

the Civil War became much larger than Americans, or most others in the world

for that matter, expected. Once committed to war the ex-ante predictions proved

much too small. Indeed, the Civil War proved to be a watershed in military

history, becoming the first of what military historians call “modern wars.”

Such wars are an order of magnitude larger than their precedents, such as the

American Revolution, putting far more resources — relative to the economy —

into the war. (The Europeans would not experience the shock of this intensified

style of warfare until World War I, which they initially called the World War

because they could not imagine there ever be another one like it.)

Ironically, the dramatic increase in the relative size of war probably results

from economic growth. Not only were there more resources that could be put into

action but also the relative cost of doing so went down as improvements in

transportation allowed the military continuous resupply. During the Revolution

land campaigns stalled after about two weeks as the horse-drawn supply line

dried up. In the Civil War, however, railroads and steamboats kept the

reinforcements coming continuously.

A corollary of modern war is that the enemy is not just the opposing armed

forces, but also his entire economy because that feeds the resources that keep

the conflict going. DiLorenzo criticizes the Northern government for being

unduly destructive of the Southern civilian economy but that is the implication

of modern war, and one that participants in other such wars soon discovered for

themselves.

DiLorenzo believes that Lincoln’s wartime attack on slavery was a hypocritical

tactic to justify continuing the war. He cites Lincoln’s statement at the

beginning of the war that the Union — not slavery — was the real issue. He

also argues that only a tiny share of the population were hard-core

abolitionists. One difficulty in making such a judgment is that antislavery

sentiment in the North — as in the rest of the North Atlantic economies —

grew rapidly prior to 1860. In 1840 or even 1850 it was still a minority view,

focused at election time, in splinter, noncompetitive political parties. The

Republican Party, emerging as a national party, in the 1850s was the first to

have a generally understood antislavery cast. This was not a commitment to the

immediate abolition of slavery nationally but rather the median Republican

voter believed that slavery was wrong and should be nudged toward eventual

elimination. As of 1860 that meant attacking the low hanging fruit, slavery in

federally controlled territories and the District of Columbia, while refusing

to aid recapturing run away slaves. But the eventual intention was clear,

enough so that Southern slaveholders saw Lincoln’s election as a capitalized

reduction in their slave wealth if they remained in the Union.

As with his dismissal of slavery, DiLorenzo doubts that the appeal of the

Federal Union really should have had much influence on the conflict. Again we

need to recognize the profound effect that economic growth had had since the

Constitution was approved some seventy years prior. In 1789, most Americans

identified themselves with their state in good part because most of their

economic efforts were on their own farms or with neighbors. Of course, most of

their home states had already been established for more than a century and had

recently been the focus of their resistance to British power. In contrast, by

1860, drastic reductions in transportation costs prompted Americans to become

much more economically specialized, buying and selling over greater distances,

including across state lines. A high proportion of Americans, such as Lincoln,

had moved to new states, including at least a third living in states that did

not exist in 1789. American naturally identified with the larger context in

which they now operated. Peter J. Parish, in The American Civil War, has

captured how mid-nineteenth-century Americans had paired their deference for

the Constitutional basis of their society with the concept of Union. Similar to

getting rid of slavery, preserving the Union had significant appeal to

Northerners and their representative, Abraham Lincoln.

In effect, The Real Lincoln is the latest example of one of the largest

topics of American historiography: what caused the American Civil War. Numerous

alternative causes have been suggested, many of which were clearly flavored by

the dominant concerns of the time they were propounded. For example, in the

aftermath of the shockingly high costs of World War I, a group of historians

reinterpreted the Civil War as a mistake that could have been avoided had it

not been for the bungling politicians of that era. Tom DiLorenzo has returned

to a similar theme, the war was unnecessary except for — in this case — one

conniving politician. But again, as so often in the past, the pattern appears

to repeat, the effort to reach a conclusion has outrun its basis in history.

The reviewer, Gerald Gunderson, is editor of the Journal of Private

Enterprise. The author, Thomas DiLorenzo (Professor of Economics, Loyola

College in Baltimore, MD), serves on the Board of Associate Editors for the

Journal.