The Origins of Andrew Napolitano's Lincoln Hatred

tags: Civil War, Abraham Lincoln, The Daily Show



David Burzillo teaches history at The River School, a 6-12 college preparatory academy, in Weston, Massachusetts.


Image via Wiki Commons.


Andrew Napolitano’s appearance on the Fox Business News program The Independents has sparked much interesting discussion about Abraham Lincoln’s legacy. This discussion has focused largely on the claims he made about slavery and the start of the Civil War early in the interview:

Instead of allowing it to die, or helping it to die, or even purchasing the slaves and then freeing them, which would have cost a lot less money than the Civil War cost, Lincoln set about on the most murderous war in American history in which over 750,000 soldiers and civilians--all Americans--died. Now that’s more people killed as a result of American military action in one war than in all wars combined.  That of course spawned Jim Crow, that of course spawned the Klu Klux Klan, that of course spawned the need for a Martin Luther King, which was a good end result from this, but the so-called freedom that Lincoln thought that he was bringing would not come about for another 125 years because of its birth in violence, rather….its birth in government violence, rather than its birth in the natural progress of human freedom.


Napolitano characterized himself as a “contrarian” at the start of the Fox segment, and these two claims--that Lincoln was responsible for starting the Civil War and that slavery was on its death bed by 1860-- certainly are “contrary” to the opinions of the Lincoln and Civil War scholars that I am familiar with.  And they are certainly contrary to my own. 

But as I thought about these claims, I wondered if my own understanding of the condition of slavery in 1860 and the attribution of blame for starting the war were mistaken.  Had I had somehow misinterpreted this period of American history and confounded the facts of the story?  I replayed Napolitano’s comments and began reviewing my books and notes.  I soon confirmed that his claims understated the economic condition of slavery in 1860 and ignored important events in the timeline leading up to the attack on Fort Sumter.  The detailed rebuttals of Napolitano’s claims by historians like Eric Foner, James Oakes, Manisha Sinha and others added to my confidence in this conclusion.   In the end, I do not believe there is any reason to believe Napolitano’s claims about the condition of slavery and the start of the war.

As I thought further about the significance of Napolitano’s comments, I began to wonder about the interpretation of history that his claims supported.  Napolitano’s interpretation of history has not been mentioned in any of the discussion I have seen or read.  I felt strongly that his interpretation of history needed to be subjected to the same critical scrutiny that his individual claims were receiving.  His claims were wrong; was his interpretation wrong as well?  

This led me to begin considering the following question:  If Napolitano’s claims about two critical points related to Lincoln’s legacy are so clearly wrong, then what is the interpretation of Lincoln and the Civil War period that he holds that require these (erroneous) claims to be true? 

Napolitano has written eight books, which focus on the Constitution, government, and race.  He has not devoted an entire volume to his views on Lincoln, but rather has adumbrated his understanding of Lincoln’s racial and political views in various chapters in a number of his works.  

Two points emerge clearly from these writings.  First, Lincoln was a racist who supported the idea of racial equality only when there was some tangible political benefit for doing so.  When Lincoln talked about racial equality or freedom for slaves, the thought did not arise from a moral conviction about the equality of all men.  In fact, Napolitano argues that Lincoln had an “aversion” to the idea of racial equality.   He devoted a chapter to Lincoln in Dred Scott’s Revenge where he makes the claim that “[A] look into Lincoln’s two-faced approach will reveal the inconsistencies and true aversion to social equality and freedom”(90).  What really bothers Napolitano about Lincoln’s legacy regarding race is the fact that Lincoln has been given a “free pass” by historians, who are unwilling to confront the inconsistencies in his positions and policies, preferring to ignore any blemishes in their “hero.”  “As a rule, they ignore the unpleasant facts about Lincoln, like his support of a constitutional amendment prohibiting the federal government from ever interfering with Southern slavery, his repeated attempts to deport the entire black community, and his constant white supremacist rhetoric.  There have been heated debates over the legacies of every other American president, but no such debate is politically acceptable regarding Lincoln”(Dred Scott’s Revenge, 103).

The second point that Napolitano stresses in his writings is Lincoln’s contempt for the Constitution.   In his book, The Constitution in Exile, Napolitano details the story of Abraham Lincoln’s assault on the writ of habeas corpus and his persecution of one of his chief critics during the war, Clement L.  Vallandigham.  Lincoln’s single-minded disregard for legal tradition and his attack on the right of free speech were reprehensible.  For Napolitano, this makes Lincoln  “The Great Perverter of the Constitution”(33). This theme is picked up in one of his more recent books Theodore and Woodrow.  Although there is not a chapter devoted specifically to Lincoln in this book, he still figures into various parts of the story.  Early on, during a discussion of Teddy Roosevelt, Napolitano declares:  “Theodore’s distant cousin, Franklin, is, in my view, second only to Lincoln in the degree of presidentially caused harm to constitutional government and personal freedoms in America…”(xii). When Napolitano writes of Wilson in the same book, he states that “[H]e was prepared to bend any rule, avoid any constitutional principle, and crush any individual liberty for what he believed was the common good” (xii).  Lincoln’s name could easily be substituted for Wilson’s in this quotation.  Lincoln, in Napolitano’s view, is the president most responsible for developing the idea that any violation of the Constitution, large or small, is justified in the name of “the common good.”

The message from Napolitano’s writings is that Lincoln was a racist who viewed individual freedom as being of secondary importance to the interests of the federal government.   These beliefs provide a greater context for understanding the claims Napolitano made about Lincoln in his appearance on The Independents.  

Now let’s get back to Napolitano’s interpretation of history.  Independents host Lisa Kennedy Montgomery asked Napolitano a logical follow-up question to his comment about the horrible costs of the Civil War:  “Why start a war that’s expensive in blood and money? Why does that go to Lincoln’s benefit to engage in the Civil War at all?”   What could possibly possess Lincoln to make such a choice?

In Napolitano’s view it makes perfect sense for Lincoln to actively push for war with the South.  The president wanted to increase the power of the federal government at the expense of individual freedom.  Napolitano argued for a natural connection between war and restrictions on human freedom, and to underscore his point he quoted Randolph Bourne, who made the famous comment that “War is the health of the State.”  War is a logical policy choice for a leader, like Lincoln, convinced he knows what’s best for his people and who is looking for a tried and true means for increasing state power.   The problem for Lincoln was that the South did not want war. 

That’s where slavery comes in.  Lincoln’s plan for expanding the power of government required he make use of the issue of slavery.  Because Lincoln was a racist, the idea of fighting to end slavery was not born in a moral belief in the equality of all men. This was just a pretext. It provided a means to an end.  Ending slavery in America would require an assault on the property rights of slave owners. If this assault proved successful, it could serve as a starting point for further assaults.  The idea was audacious, and clearly the best way to accomplish a violation of rights on this scale would be in the context of war.

The suspension of the writ of habeas corpus, the institution of the draft and income tax, the use of deportation, and the jailing of people who spoke, wrote, or published against the war are all adduced as evidence of Lincoln’s contempt for the individual freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution.  And even more troubling for future generations, in Napolitano’s view, Lincoln’s actions provided a blueprint for future presidents to treat individual rights with similar callousness.  Lincoln, according to Napolitano, “…had utter, and total, and complete disregard for the Constitution…. And as a result of that, his successors have used his behavior as an example of what presidents can do in wartime.”

Lincoln’s disdain for Constitutional freedoms was bad enough, but his actions had further negative consequences.  Disregard of Constitutionally-guaranteed freedoms by leaders and governments inevitably leads to even greater abuses of power and a greater trampling of rights, as was clear from the way the Civil War was prosecuted.
The death toll and loss of rights were bad enough, but there was even more devastation visited on the people of the South, according to Napolitano, because of Lincoln’s policies:

Look, Lincoln’s soldiers burnt courthouses, robbed banks, raped women, destroyed crops, killed civilians… I am talking about Sherman’s March.  And they were lauded for it as heroic, and they did this to their fellow Americans.   This is hardly something out of which a myth of god-like stature you would expect to come (sic), and yet it did because of the demonizing of the South. Look its not even altogether clear if slavery was the reason for secession.  Largely the impetus for secession was tariffs that were being collected in southern ports and spent by northern politicians.


The Civil War is a perfect illustration of state violence perpetrated for the purpose of increasing state power.  It seems appropriate here to reiterate a comment that was quoted earlier in this essay:  “…the so-called freedom (for African-Americans) that Lincoln thought that he was bringing would not come about for another 125 years because of its birth in violence, rather….its birth in government violence, rather than its birth in the natural progress of human freedom. “  (emphasis added)   

In the end, Napolitano’s interpretation of Lincoln and the Civil War requires two facts to be true:  a cynical president needs to fight a war to end slavery, despite the fact that slavery is already on its last legs, and this president needs to be responsible for starting the war.

Because Napolitano has shown that Lincoln is a racist, when Lincoln the racist fights the Civil War to end slavery and give freedom to African-Americans, he becomes the ultimate hypocrite.  On the one hand he appears to assume the moral high ground in fighting to end slavery, but on the other hand—and this is the reality--he despises those same slaves, considering them to be second-class citizens, inferior to whites.  This is a clear confirmation of the tendency of power to corrupt.  The fight to end slavery is a means to an end, not the end in itself.  The true end here is an increase in federal power.   Lincoln did not really care about ending slavery; he only desired an issue that he could use to leverage a war with the South.  “Abraham Lincoln was politically manipulative and truly Machiavellian.  He and his cabinet believed that they could `ride into power on the two horses of Liberty and Slavery”(Dred Scott’s Revenge, 102).  Lincoln’s fight to end slavery shows that he will do or say anything if it will lead to increased power for the federal government. 

Second, Lincoln needs to be actively pursuing war with the southern states.  Lincoln needs a war to restrict individual freedoms and grow the power of the federal government.  For Lincoln to be driven by a “Machiavellian” obsession with increasing federal power, he must be the aggressor in the lead up to the war—not the South. This provides additional confirmation of the ability of power to corrupt.  Lincoln does not care about what the war might cost in American lives, how it could devastate the economy, or the psychic toll it could take on average Americans.  War is a means to an end for Lincoln—increased federal power.  This is a further illustration of the corrupting nature of power and the lengths that some leaders will go to for the purpose of increasing the government’s power and reducing the individual’s—if we are not diligent.   

Ultimately for Napolitano, Lincoln is neither the savior of the Union in its time of crisis nor the emancipator of the slaves.  He is a cynical, power-hungry president, who was willing to tell any lie and take any risk for the purpose of increasing the power of the federal government.   Lincoln and his policies provide the blueprint for the cynical arrogation of federal power at the expense of individual freedom, a process amplified during the administrations of Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Franklin Roosevelt.   It was Lincoln who began our journey down the road to less freedom and a more powerful, centralized government—a far cry from the ideals that drove our forefathers to fight the American Revolution.  This process has led to an America, in Napolitano’s opinion, where a majority of people are sheep (Constitution in Exile, 10).  Napolitano’s interpretation of Lincoln’s legacy and Civil War history is one that sees the war as a key turning point in our march to an imperial presidency and out-of-control government.  What Napolitano is presenting is a specific interpretation of history that also serves as a call to arms. 



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