Don't hold your breath waiting for economic historian Thomas DiLorenzo to show up as a guest lecturer at your local Republican Party's next Abraham Lincoln birthday gala. The professor at Loyola College in Baltimore has made too many enemies among Lincoln lovers and mainstream historians whom he says belong to the "Church of Lincoln."
His two short but sacrilegious books, "The Real Lincoln: A New Look at Abraham Lincoln, His Agenda, and an Unnecessary War" and "Lincoln Unmasked," argue, among many things, that Lincoln was a lover of Big Government whose name should be not "The Great Emancipator" but "The Great Centralizer."
I telephoned DiLorenzo, 54, after he wrote a column online arguing that "Honest Abe" would not be the least bit appalled at the political corruption scandal now racking Illinois because it was exactly the kind of politics he played:
Q: Based on what we know so far, what do you think of Gov. Blagojevich's alleged pay-to-play schemes?
A: What we know so far is he's been accused of all these schemes. Of course, he hasn't had his day in court yet, but it doesn't sound any different than the way Illinois politics works, and Pennsylvania politics and Maryland politics, where I am. It's politics ... . I grew up in Western Pennsylvania, and I always understood that the only reason the people around me who got into politics got into it was so they could do the kind of things Blagojevich is accused of doing. So this is not at all as surprising to me as it is to the mainstream media.
Q: Is it more crude or more brazen, or is it just because we found out about it?
A: Who knows why they targeted him of all people. I'm sure they could have gone to any state and investigated any governor, just about, and found similar things. Maybe it'll come out some day that someone in the federal government had some sort of vendetta against this particular governor. But I suggest that is why he was targeted -- someone in the Bush administration must have had it in for him for some reason . . But this is very common practice. This is how politics works -- pay for play. This is how it's worked for a couple hundred years, hasn't it?
Q: How do Gov. Blagojevich's alleged crimes compare to some of the scandals from history?
A: Well, in one of my online articles at LewRockwell.com, I sort of make fun of Patrick Fitzgerald, the federal prosecutor. He said that Abraham Lincoln would roll over in his grave if he had learned an Illinois politician was selling political favors. But Lincoln himself, when he was a young man, said that his goal was to be the "DeWitt Clinton of Illinois." DeWitt Clinton was a governor of New York in the early 19th century who has gone down in history as pioneering the spoils system in America, which is exactly what Blagojevich is involved in. By the time Lincoln ran for president, he had become the master string-puller in politics in the state of Illinois. So this would have been nothing new to him.
In fact, I visited Springfield, Ill., two years ago and next to Lincoln's house, which is the biggest house on a place called "Old Aristocracy Row," was his next-door neighbor's house, and the sign said he sold all the tin cups to the U.S. Army during the Civil War. It's hard to believe that he won that contract through competitive bidding; he was Abe Lincoln's next-door neighbor.
Q: I'm surprised they let you in Illinois after what you've said about Abraham Lincoln. You also said that Lincoln was basically a railroad lobbyist and that when he became president one of the first things he got to do was to decide which town would be the eastern terminus of the transcontinental railroad. What's that about?
A: Yes, Lincoln represented the Illinois Central Railroad and all the major railroad corporations in the Midwest. He was offered the job of the general counsel of the New York Central railroad by a man named Erasmus Corning. So he was a big corporate lawyer. When he became president, one of his first priorities -- about two months after the war started -- was to call Congress to Washington to get the ball rolling on the Pacific Railroad Bill. When the bill passed a year later it gave the president the right to determine the eastern terminus -- where they would begin building the transcontinental railroad. Lincoln chose Council Bluffs, Iowa, where he had just bought a vast land holding, which to this day some people call "Lincoln's Hill" in Council Bluffs. He must have made a great killing by doing that.
Q: When you say "vast" land holding, what are we talking about -- a couple hundred acres, thousands?
A: I'm not sure exactly what the acreage was. I've looked in the history books and none of them seems to say what the acreage was. But they all make it sound like it was a very substantial real-estate investment that he made. Lincoln was a friend of a man named Grenville Dodge, who was the chief engineer of the building of the transcontinental railroad. It was Dodge who advised him that this would be a good place to begin building a railroad. This was several years before Lincoln became president.
Q: What should Americans know about "Honest Abe" that they've probably never been told in their high school history books?
A: Well, they should know that in his first inaugural address, which everyone can read online, he pledged his support for a constitutional amendment that would have prohibited the federal government from ever interfering in Southern slavery. That amendment, which was known as the Corwin Amendment, was named after a member of Congress, was Lincoln's doing. He got William Seward, who was his secretary of State, to get it through the Senate and the House.
They should also know that in his first inaugural address, he also literally promised a military invasion of any state that refused to collect tariffs -- which is a tax on imports, which had just been doubled by the Republican Party, which was in control of the government at the time. Those are very important points that most Americans don't know anything about. I grew up and went to public school in Western Pennsylvania and I never heard of that.
Q: You are really an economist, not a historian, right?
A: Right. But economic history is my main area of research, so I look at a lot of historical episodes and figures from the eye of an economist. That's how I come up with somewhat different interpretations of some of these events -- such as the American Civil War -- than a historian would who doesn't have any background in economics.
Q: How would you define your politics?
A: I'm a free-market economist. I guess most Americans would relate to me if I told them I was a Jeffersonian who believes that "that government is best which governs least." Libertarian is what some people call this philosophy these days.
Q: When you rank presidents, where would you put Lincoln and who do you put at No. 1 and No. 2?
A: My criterion for best president is who did the best job in administering a government that protected life, liberty, property and the pursuit of happiness -- period. In that regard, there is a new book out called "Recarving Rushmore" that ranks presidents exactly according to this criterion. Ivan Eland is the author, and he ranks John Tyler as the best president ever. Hardly anyone ever knew he was president in 1841.William Henry Harrison was the president who died one month after taking office, of pneumonia, I believe. You've probably heard something about "Tippecanoe and Tyler too," the campaign slogan, in school. Well, the "Tyler too" was John Tyler.
He was a Jeffersonian. He vetoed numerous spending bills. He vetoed import tariffs. He vetoed legislation that would have allowed for the use of tax dollars to subsidize corporations to build roads and canals and things like that. He was opposed to a central bank. So he was a hard-core Jeffersonian. He would rank at the top.
I also like Grover Cleveland. I wrote an article once called "The Last Good Democrat." I'd put Tyler and Cleveland up there at the top and Lincoln dead last because I think he waged an unnecessary war on his own country -- not on foreign invaders, but on his own country, that ended up killing 620,000 Americans. If you adjust that for today's population, it would be the equivalent of about 6 million Americans dying in four years. All the rest of the world ended slavery peacefully during the 19th century without any war or deaths. We could have done the same thing, in my opinion, but we didn't.
Q: These are not opinions that are going to get you invited onto "Meet the Press" to talk about FDR or Lincoln's "team of rivals" or anything like that, are they?
A: I was on C-SPAN's "Q&A" with Brian Lamb for an hour though last summer . . He's the straightest of the straight shooters in the television media, I think.
Q: You argue that selling potential political favors defines what politics in Washington and elsewhere is about. Can you elaborate on that?
A: Well, sure. There's even a whole sub-discipline in economics called "public choice" that studies this. It looks at politics in Washington and elsewhere in terms of supply and demand, where special-interest groups of all sorts are the demanders, if you will, of special favors of one kind or another -- a government subsidy, a regulation that benefits them at the expense of their competitors in business, you name it -- and the suppliers are the politicians. Government is one big auction of government favors. I think it was Mark Twain who said, "An election is an advanced auction of stolen goods," and he was right. That's basically what politics in a democracy is all about. Forget about what you were taught in high school and civics. It's all wrong. It's the buying and selling of favors and influence.
That's why, for example, the Framers originally had it set up so that U.S. senators were appointed by state legislatures. The reason for that is they didn't want the senator from Pennsylvania to go to Washington, D.C., and gather money from people in New York and elsewhere -- lobbyists and special interests -- and be beholding to those people. They wanted to be sure that when they went off to the nation's capital, that the senators would serve the people in their home state. They set it up so they could fire the U.S. senator on the spot if he didn't do what they wanted. It happened on numerous occasions. But once we had the 17th Amendment to the Constitution, which was in 1913, for the direct election, now the senator from Pennsylvania can go to California and New York and Texas and raise money for his or her re-election campaign and he can vote against the interests of the people of Pennsylvania in many instances and still get re-elected because he has got so much money for his campaign.
Q: Some people when they hear what you just said would say, "Why, that's so horribly cynical -- that's just so cynical about politics." What would you say to someone who said that to you?
A: I would say, "It's not cynical -- it's realistic." I think it's the duty of every citizen to understand something about economics, as well as understand how politics really works, or else the politicians will abuse us like they are doing right now in giving away literally trillions of dollars to god-knows-who. (New York City Mayor) Michael Bloomberg sued the Federal Reserve to find out who these trillions were going to and they essentially told him to get lost.
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