A review of Lincoln’s American Dream: Clashing Political Perspectives, edited by Kenneth L. Deutsch and Joseph R. Fornieri

he cornerstone of the Lincoln Memorial was laid in 1915 on Lincoln’s birthday. Above the seated president runs the inscription: “In this temple, as in the hearts of the people for whom he saved the Union, the memory of Abraham Lincoln is enshrined forever.” The opening lines of Lord Charnwood’s biography, published the next year, confirm that Lincoln’s memory was indeed fixed in American hearts:

The subject of this memoir is revered by multitudes of his countrymen as the preserver of their commonwealth. This reverence has grown with the lapse of time and the accumulation of evidence. It is blended with a peculiar affection, seldom bestowed upon the memory of statesmen. It is shared today by many who remember with no less affection how their own fathers fought against him. He died with every circumstance of tragedy, yet it is not the accident of his death but the purpose of his life that is remembered.

Is this still so? While Americans could never forget Lincoln, there is a real danger of misunderstanding him. If memory is falsified long and thoroughly enough, the results can be worse than mere forgetting.

Lincoln was very interested in the phenomenon of memory, and especially its unreliability. It is a theme in his writing from the Lyceum Address in 1838 to the Gettysburg Address in 1863. The former closes with a meditation upon “the silent artillery of time” and the need for pillars of Union more perduring than the crumbling memories of the Revolutionary War. To supply the place of memory, Lincoln recommends pillars “hewn from the solid quarry of sober reason.” Similarly, the Gettysburg Address states that commemoration is insufficient: “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here.” It is customary to remark the irony of these lines, occurring in the most famous and memorized of speeches. Nonetheless, if Lincoln had not succeeded in redirecting the energies of the living away from lamentation and toward the “unfinished work” and “great task remaining,” his self-deprecating prediction would have come true. His words are remembered not for what they said but what they did. Lincoln declined to dedicate the cemetery ground, instead rededicating the nation to its founding thought or “proposition.” Even in the First Inaugural, which appeals to the “mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land,” we learn that those chords require something else in order to be sounded. The “mystic chords of memory” must be “touched…by the better angels of our nature.” The better angels are those that dispose us to “think calmly andwell.”

Another Lincoln text in which memory figures is a poem, written in 1846, entitled “My Childhood-Home I See Again.” There, Lincoln begins in an elegiac vein:

O memory! Thou mid-way world
‘Twixt Earth and Paradise,
Where things decayed, and loved ones lost
In dreamy shadows rise.

And freed from all that’s gross or vile,
Seem hallowed, pure, and bright,
Like scenes in some enchanted isle,
All bathed in liquid light.

But we soon learn mnemosyne’s limits. Memory cannot “hallow” all personages and events. Lincoln tells of meeting a companion of his youth (“Once of genius bright”) who went murderously mad (“Yourself you maimed, your father fought, / And mother strove to kill”) and who is now “A human-form, with reason fled, / While wretched life remains.” In returning to his childhood home, Lincoln confronted elements of unreasoning horror that the clouds of memory had disguised. His response, set forth in the last two stanzas, is to seek the ground, quite literally, of his being: “The very spot where grew the bread / That formed my bones, I see.” This “old field” is solid and life-giving. Contact with it restores his mental equanimity.

In many of his references to memory, Lincoln suggests that a faded or false view of the past can harm the future. For instance, in the Cooper Union Address (1860), Lincoln complains of “invocations to Washington, imploring men to unsay what Washington said, and undo what Washington did.” Being misty-eyed or bleary-eyed about the past leaves us vulnerable to sophistry. Our acquaintance with the past must be fully mindful.

If Lincoln is right, then the popular Lincoln-memory cannot be sustained by memorials and museums—fine though they may be. A true re-minding requires that we think again the thoughts of Lincoln. The Lincoln Memorial goes about as far as stone and mortar can to facilitate that encounter; it contains on facing walls the full texts of the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural. I don’t know of another civic monument that presents unabridged speeches. The Washington is silent and soaring; the Jefferson offers orotund sound-bites; the Roosevelt is more pictorial. I have always been struck by how many visitors to the Lincoln Memorial stand and read both speeches, and how hushed the atmosphere is within those engraved walls (an architectural expression of Lincoln’s “political religion” of “reverence for the laws”).

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Nonetheless, the memory of Lincoln will be decisively influenced by the partisans of mindfulness. For much of the last century, scholars (usually historians and political scientists) have been contesting Lincoln’s significance. Lincoln’s American Dream: Clashing Political Perspectives assembles almost three dozen, mostly previously published essays (the earliest dating from 1929, the most recent from 2000) divided into eight thematic sections. On each topic, the main lines of interpretation are represented by four or five significant essays, many of them by eminent scholars in the field. The volume comprises 500 pages of brutally small print. Font size apart, the book is an invaluable resource.

Through their judicious selections, the editors, Kenneth L. Deutsch and Joseph R. Fornieri, have created a sort of battle map, like the panoramic one at Gettysburg National Park that shows with lighted bulbs the array of opposing forces and the shifting lines of engagement. The central front in the scholarly wars is on view in the book’s opening chapter, “Lincoln, the Declaration, and Equality,” which pits Lincoln-haters Willmoore Kendall and M.E. Bradford against Lincoln’s greatest philosophic defender, Harry V. Jaffa. (If you have time for only one 500-page Lincoln book this year, make it Jaffa’s A New Birth of Freedom: Abraham Lincoln and the Coming of the Civil War.) From that initial clash of the big guns, the battle fans out into lesser skirmishes, like that in chapter four over the character of “Lincoln’s Democratic Political Leadership: Utopian, Pragmatic, or Prudent?” The action on the flanks, however, can be brilliant and significant on the model of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain’s maneuvers on Gettysburg’s Little Round Top.

The Chamberlain of this volume is Ralph Lerner, whose essay “Lincoln’s Revolution” is a beautifully composed exploration of Lincoln’s unique oratory. In a land where, as Tocqueville said, the majority “lives in perpetual adoration of itself,” how can one “make certain truths reach the ears of the Americans”? Tocqueville thought only “foreigners or experience” could do it, but Lerner reveals how a politician who actually won elections did it:

No aspiring politician needs to be told that there is a public pulse to be taken, and no halfway competent politician needs to grope for long to take it. Lincoln is more than halfway competent. He understands from the outset and with perfect clarity that the realm of politics is the realm of opinion. He sees that any speaker who would induce a people to hold a critical opinion of itself must first induce it to trust and have a good opinion of himself. But it will presumably not trust or have a good opinion of one who criticizes the opinions it holds dear. It would seem, then, that in order to gain a hearing for his critical, nonflattering speech, a speaker must first dissemble his critical opinions and flatter his audience, thus exacerbating the very sickness he wishes to cure.

Lincoln escapes his dilemma in a manner worthy of study. He flatters the people and gains their trust, not by catering to their present noncritical opinions of themselves and their affairs, but by bringing them with him, as equals somehow, into the problem of public opinion as such. He takes them into his confidence and makes them his partners in seeking a solution for the problem of popular government. And in this he succeeds. Not the least of Lincoln’s extraordinary political achievements is his success in making general an awareness of the problem of public opinion–his nurturing of an opinion about the signal importance of opinion. A greater achievement, yet impossible without the first, is his persuading many American people to criticize and repudiate the many base opinions about political right and prudence that their base flatterers would have them basely cling to. His kalam is directed against the enemy within.

Two other excellent essays are deployed in the religion section, William Lee Miller’s analysis of the Second Inaugural and Michael P. Zuckert’s interpretation of the Lyceum Address. Doubtless, these judgments bespeak my own preference for textual explication and commentary, but both of these essays are careful, insightful contributions to our understanding of Lincoln as a political thinker and actor.

Because the chapter divisions are inevitably overlapping, a straight read through the book yields a fair amount of repetition. So, we get Lincoln as tyrant from every angle: the “heresy of equality” in chapter 1, his Caesar-like ambition in chapter 2, his misuse of presidential power in chapter 5, and Lincoln “the great centralizer” in chapter 7, along with, of course, the refutations of such character assassination. Surprisingly, one overlooked issue in the volume is the question of secession. Neither the chapter on “Lincoln and Executive Power” nor that on “Lincoln, the Union, and the Role of the State” contains an essay setting forth the grounds for Lincoln’s view of secession as unrightful rebellion. Accordingly, just about the only well-known Lincoln quote that does not appear in these pages is the ballots and bullets passage from Lincoln’s message to the special session of Congress in 1861:

Our popular government has often been called an experiment. Two points in it, our people have already settled—the successful establishing, and the successful administering of it. One still remains—its successful maintenance against a formidable internal attempt to overthrow it. It is now for them to demonstrate to the world, that those who can fairly carry an election, can also suppress a rebellion—that ballots are the rightful, and peaceful, successors of bullets; and that when ballots have fairly, and constitutionally, decided, there can be no successful appeal, back to bullets; that there can be no successful appeal, except to ballots themselves, at succeeding elections.

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The defenders of Lincoln win every engagement in this volume, but the case for Lincoln should include a deeper exploration of the rightfulness of the Union cause.

Although no single volume can contain all of the best pieces on Lincoln, I missed two remarkable essays from the 19th century. Frederick Douglass’s “Oration in Memory of Abraham Lincoln,” delivered at the unveiling of the Freedmen’s Monument in 1876, would have served as a fitting opening to chapter 3, “Lincoln, Race, and Slavery.” Douglass’s verdict on the priority of Union over Emancipation in the statesmanship of Lincoln has never been bettered:

His great mission was to accomplish two things: first, to save his country from dismemberment and ruin; and, second, to free his country from the great crime of slavery. To do one or the other, or both, he must have the earnest sympathy and the powerful cooperation of his loyal fellow-countrymen. Without this primary and essential condition to success his efforts must have been vain and utterly fruitless. Had he put the abolition of slavery before the salvation of the Union, he would have inevitably driven from him a powerful class of the American people and rendered resistance to rebellion impossible. Viewed from the genuine abolition ground, Mr. Lincoln seemed tardy, cold, dull, and indifferent; but measuring him by the sentiment of his country, a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult, he was swift, zealous, radical, and determined.

Walt Whitman’s lecture, “The Death of Abraham Lincoln,” first delivered in 1879, might have been paired with the second Bradford essay, “The Lincoln Legacy: A Long View.” Whitman’s address is a sustained reflection on the meaning of Lincoln’s martyrdom. Whereas Whitman celebrates our “first great Martyr Chief,” Bradford seeks to “devise a way of setting aside the martyrdom,” recognizing in it an obstacle to his attempted impeachment of the man. Alternatively, the Whitman piece might have been paired with George Anastaplo’s essay, “Walt Whitman’s Abraham Lincoln.” In his otherwise largely critical assessment of the poet’s vision, Anastaplo remarks that Whitman’s Lincoln lecture is superior to his Lincoln poetry. The lecture deserves wider circulation.

Finally, given that Edmund Wilson’s essay, “Abraham Lincoln: The Union as Religious Mysticism” (first published in 1954 and later collected in Patriotic Gore: Studies in the Literature of the American Civil War) gave such a boost to the psychologizing trend, it should have been included, especially since a number of authors respond either directly to it or its Freudian progeny. Just so we know that the influence of literary critics may not always be baleful, Jacques Barzun’s wonderful sketch, “Lincoln the Literary Artist” (1959), would have made a fine addition, too.

Clearly, there is no dearth of writing about Lincoln. Perhaps we have Wilson, Bradford, and company partly to thank for bringing forth so many wise defenders of Lincoln even as the “insidious debauching of the public mind” first begun by Calhoun eventually brought forth Lincoln. But perhaps this gives the academic Calhounites too much credit. Charnwood said of Calhoun that he was a man of “powerful enough” intellect, but “undisturbed in his logical processes by good sense, healthy sentiment, or any vigorous appetite for truth.” Such men will always be with us. Our gratitude is due to those scholars who delve for truth and who thereby bring citizens to a deeper, more knowing reverence. One hopes that Americans will revere Lincoln, if not “forever,” then, as Lincoln said of Washington, “to the last.”