Books mentioned in this essay:
Abraham Lincoln and the Forge of National Memory, by Barry Schwartz
Our Lincoln: New Perspectives on Lincoln and His World, edited by Eric Foner
Big Enough to Be Inconsistent: Abraham Lincoln Confronts Slavery and Race, by George M. Fredrickson
A. Lincoln: A Biography, by Ronald C. White, Jr.
Lincoln's Greatest Speech: The Second Inaugural, by Ronald C. White, Jr.
The Eloquent President: A Portrait of Lincoln Through His Words, by Ronald C. White, Jr.
Abraham Lincoln, by George S. McGovern
Abraham Lincoln, by James M. McPherson
Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief , by James M. McPherson
Lincoln at Cooper Union: The Speech That Made Abraham Lincoln President, by Harold Holzer
Lincoln and the Decision for War: The Northern Response to Secession, by Russell McClintock
The Lincoln Anthology: Great Writers on His Life and Legacy from 1860 to Now, edited by Harold Holzer
Looking for Lincoln: The Making of an American Icon, by Philip B. Kunhardt, III, Peter W. Kunhardt and Peter W. Kunhardt, Jr.
The Last Lincolns: The Rise & Fall of a Great American Family, by Charles Lachman
House of Abraham: Lincoln and the Todds, A Family Divided by War, by Stephen Berry
The Lincolns: Portrait of a Marriage, by Daniel Mark Epstein
Mrs. Lincoln: A Life, by Catherine Clinton
The Madness of Mary Lincoln, by Jason Emerson
Herndon's Informants: Letters, Interviews, and Statements about Abraham Lincoln, edited by Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, with Terry Wilson
The Inner World of Abraham Lincoln, by Michael Burlingame
Abraham Lincoln: A Life, by Michael Burlingame
One of the most perceptive comments ever made about Abraham Lincoln came from Helen Nicolay, in a small book she worked up in 1912 from the notes her father, John G. Nicolay, had amassed from his four years as Lincoln's chief of staff in the White House. "A few characters live in history uncircumscribed by time or place," she wrote; yet we always manage to think of these characters in modern terms, as though they were "as vital and as modern as ourselves."
Just so with Lincoln. Helen Nicolay's generation, shaped by the Progressives (she was writing in the very year of Teddy Roosevelt's Progressive Party), was unable to "think of Lincoln in any environment except our own." But "the country [Lincoln] knew was vastly different" from the Progressives' America. Up till the Civil War, "America had been the land of individual effort, where those who were dissatisfied could go on into the wilderness and work out their doom or their salvation unmolested," and Lincoln's "life was essentially of the old era." He had no lessons to teach about the new era "of great industrial and social processes" condemned in Woodrow Wilson's first inaugural address (a year after Nicolay's book was published). "People have sought to make him a prophet for this generation," Nicolay said, but "the truth is that Lincoln was no prophet of a distant day."
He made his own career by individual effort. His childhood, on the edge of civilization, had on the one side the freedom of the wilderness, and on the other the very few simple things which have been garnered as necessities from the world's useless belongings. His lawyer's earnings, at their highest, were only a pittance, by modern estimate; and a hundred details of his letters and daily life—like his invitation to an audience in the Lincoln-Douglas campaign, to meet him "at candlelight," which was not a figure of speech but an actual condition, showed how completely he was part of that vanished time.
Of course, it was possible to respond to Nicolay's judgment about Lincoln's historical remoteness in three ways. The most obvious, and the most superficial, was to ignore it, and this is the path taken by that endless stream of leadership gurus and historical second-guessers who want to strike Rodinesque poses and ask "WWLD?" as though Lincoln were an animated figure in a wax museum who could be made to mouth any of the current pieties on current issues—the Internet, climate change, stimulus packages. Another, more serious response to Nicolay's warning was to embrace it, and go one better. This was the way chosen by Richard Hofstadter in his scorching 1948 essay, "Abraham Lincoln and the Self-Made Myth," and that was to acknowledge that Lincoln and his ideals were, at best, relics of a simpler age which were now hopelessly lost to modern times, and the sooner we realized this, the better. "Had he lived to seventy, he would have seen the generation brought up on self-help come into its own, build oppressive business corporations, and begin to close off those treasured opportunities for the little man."
The third possibility, taken up by Harry V. Jaffa, was to insist it was modern times that were the problem, not Lincoln. Or rather, the problem was that modern times were being stealthily portrayed as so "different" from the past, so much of an evolution from the simplistic world of the founders, that Lincoln could be dismissed as an artifact, speaking the obsolete political language of pre-modernity—of liberty, of natural law, of the spirit of kings arrayed against the spirit of free men. Jaffa believes that the Declaration of Independence is the "transcendental goal" that guided all of Lincoln's politics; as such, "Lincoln's interpretation" of the founders commits him to "a transcendental affirmation of what [civil society] ought to be," regardless of historical time or place.
The first response is popular but insincere; the second and third responses are worth pondering, but they are inherently irreconcilable, mainly because they represent two mutually exclusive notions of what the American "experiment" (to use both Washington and Lincoln's term) has been and should be. Both of them have the virtue of realizing that what we say or think about the politics, the economics, and the ideas of Abraham Lincoln tends to be what we say or think about the viability of that experiment. That takes us into some very risky territory, which may be why so many of the Bicentennial Lincolns have preferred the popularity—and insincerity—of writing what amount to long essays on WWLD.
Lincoln as "One of Us"
It might have been a good idea if most of those who flew to their keyboards to write Lincoln books for the bicentennial had been forced, after a mandatory reading of Helen Nicolay's warning against making Lincoln into a ventriloquist's dummy, to click an "I Accept" box before writing a word. It might have saved them and us much subsequent grief. As early as September 2008, the Boston Globe had sighted a tsunami of Lincolniana curving toward us, with "at least 50 titles about Lincoln" in the works, including
three complete biographies; books of essays and photographs; books about Lincoln as a youth, as president-elect, as a military leader, as a writer, and as an inventor; books about Lincoln and his family, about Lincoln as victim of conspiracy, about Lincoln and his connections with others—his secretaries, his admirals, abolitionist Frederick Douglass, scientist Charles Darwin, even the poet Robert Burns,
not to mention "at least seven children's books." And the justification offered for this dam-cracking tide of Lincolns (apart, of course, from simple literary opportunism)? In a few cases, it was to establish (in the spirit of Hofstadter) that Lincoln is beyond our grasp; in some others, that Lincoln demands a renewal of the principles of the founders (in the spirit of Jaffa). But in most, it turned into what we had the greatest reason to dread, a tedious, one-inch-deep effort to re-model Lincoln as "our contemporary." Because, as Harold Holzer put it so nonchalantly, "He is one of us, not like a prince or a king."
The persistence with which Lincoln has been made and re-made into "one of us" has a lengthy history of its own, which has been extremely well-told by Merrill Peterson in Lincoln in American Memory (1994) and by Barry Schwartz in Abraham Lincoln and the Forge of National Memory (2000) and Abraham Lincoln in the Post-Heroic Era: History and Memory in Late Twentieth-Century America (2009). The ease with which Lincoln has been re-configured into a plaster saint for every decade and every cause grows, ironically, out of Lincoln's own intensely private temperament. In an age of intense diary-keeping and memoir-writing, Lincoln left no easily accessed record of his interior life, and that created blank spaces which others cheerfully filled in with manufactures of their own imagination. (T.R. and Woodrow Wilson were especially guilty of this.) But much of the remaking and refashioning was also a tribute to the sheer magnitude of Lincoln's accomplishments, which even today are hard to grasp without blinking—the complete destruction of slavery, the inauguration of a new pro-business economic regime which lasted pretty well intact until 1932, and the assertion of a national American identity over sectional and state special interests. No one except Lost Cause bitter-enders or perverse literary sensation-seekers, had bile enough to spit at such a mountain.
The Bicentennial Lincolns, however, seem driven neither by mystery nor by admiration, but rather by a single-minded determination to make Lincoln precisely the modern-day soft Progressive that Helen Nicolay warned us Lincoln could never resemble. The most unashamed bid to transform Lincoln into a usable historical commodity emerges from the pages of Eric Foner's collection of essays, Our Lincoln: New Perspectives on Lincoln and His World, in which Foner unblushingly claims that "Lincoln remains in many ways our contemporary." This is, to say the least, a quixotic anthology: of its eleven contributors, only four have ever published anything substantial about Lincoln, and of those four, only two—Harold Holzer and Richard Carwardine—have really built scholarly reputations around the study of Lincoln. At least Holzer and Carwardine have something worth saying. As for the other seven, their chief credential for inclusion in this book seems to be a more than routine case of left-wing holy-rolling. And, sure enough, the less time the authors have spent in serious work on Lincoln, the more shrill the political annexation of his reputation. The most uncloaked example is David Blight, who imagines Lincoln as the victim of "Republicans"—he singles out Karl Rove, Ken Mehlman, Lynne Cheney, and George W. Bush—who "try to steal the meaning of American history and ride Lincoln's coattails while hating the government he imagined." Since "the modern GOP possesses a history it hardly wishes to know," its leaders find themselves driven to claim that Lincoln was a…Republican. Or perhaps more to the point, Blight thinks the modern Republican Party is so steeped in white racial supremacist ideas that it needs the Halloween disguise of "Lincoln the Great Emancipator" in order to make an appeal to black Americans.
Yet it is hard to say just why Blight wants to tear the Emancipator Lincoln from the grasp of "the conservative movement," since Blight himself frankly doubts whether Lincoln deserves much credit as the Emancipator. "Numerous books and some slave narratives have demonstrated that slaves' volition in this story [of emancipation] is more than worthy of our attention." Blight thus pledges himself to the "self-emancipation thesis," in which slaves themselves used the exigencies of the Civil War as opportunities to free themselves, running away to safety and liberty with the advancing Union army long before Massa Linkum ever got around to picking up his emancipating pen. The great problem with the self-emancipation thesis (which first received public currency not from serious academic research but from the Ken Burns PBS Civil War series) is the simple lack of evidence that any such mass "self-emancipation" took place. The thesis may serve the noble purpose of promoting "black agency" and African-American self-esteem. But neither Blight nor the authors of "numerous books" have ever yet produced a single statistic on the number of slaves who thus freed themselves without benefit of Lincoln, nor has Blight ever dealt with the singular fact that, absent Lincoln's proclamation, not a single fugitive slave would ever be other than a fugitive, rather than a legally free man.
The same determination to reset "the middle ground" of Lincoln interpretation well to the left emerges from the late George Frederickson's Big Enough to be Inconsistent: Abraham Lincoln Confronts Slavery and Race, which tips its hand at once in its title, snipped from W.E.B. DuBois. Frederickson sets the "extremes" of interpretations on the left with Lerone Bennett (Lincoln hated black people), and on the right with Richard Striner (Lincoln was "a closet racial egalitarian"), thus leaving the center to be occupied with "a third possibility," which is that "Lincoln's attitude toward blacks and his beliefs about race may have changed significantly during the war years." That any evidence for such a conversion experience is notoriously thin on the ground is no problem for Frederickson; the notion conforms nicely to that conceit so dear to Progressive hearts, that of the Arlen Specter Republican who gradually but inexorably is drawn to the Democratic light. Like Blight, Frederickson imagines that Lincoln was "pressured" into issuing the Emancipation Proclamation "by anti-slavery radicals" and "tens of thousands of slaves" who "had in effect freed themselves from bondage"—although like Blight's fugitive slaves, Frederickson offers no explanation of just how much "pressure" the tiny cadre of "anti-slavery radicals" actually exerted, or who, exactly, took the census that arrived at "tens of thousands" as the number who had "freed themselves."
But even if we grant for a moment that Lincoln underwent a change on race during the war years, Frederickson does not want us to become too lost in new-found love for Honest Old Abe. Not all the good-wishing in the world is ever sufficient to move Lincoln to where Frederickson really wanted him: "He simply did not share the Radical belief that the Civil War constituted a political revolution that had fundamentally changed the relationship between the states and the federal government." But if this is so, with what consistency can we talk about a Lincoln who is supposed to have undergone so much "change"?
A Polite Lefty
Two biographies from the bicentennial year give us a less dogmatic but still perceptibly Progressive Lincoln, the first from Ronald White, and the other, more oddly, from George McGovern. At first glance, the books could not appear more different. White's A. Lincoln: A Biography weighs in at 816 pages of text, while McGovern's Abraham Lincoln is only 208 pages long. White is a long-time academic, having taught American church history at San Francisco Theological Seminary for most of his career; McGovern earned a Ph.D. from Northwestern University, but his only visible claim to a place in the Lincoln literature is that he was once a presidential candidate, and a darling of the Democratic Left. The message in both books, however, is more or less the same. White, in the 1970s and '80s, was a peace activist who wrote extensively on race and the Social Gospel. Although almost nothing of that quondam activism survives as a distinct impress in this or his other two Lincoln books (Lincoln's Greatest Speech: The Second Inaugural in 2002 and The Eloquent President in 2005), what does seep through every page of A. Lincoln: A Biography is a mellowed-out sense of Bay-area niceness. White's Lincoln "was always comfortable with ambiguity," had an "inclusive spirit" which was turned-off by "sectarian rivalries," practiced law as a "peacemaker," and believed "that each generation must redefine America in relation to the problems of its time." Think of Lincoln in love beads.
White has read much of the relevant literature on Lincoln—to the point where it is pretty easy to guess whose book he is using at any point without having to turn to the endnotes—but what he lacks is the attention to detail that comes from a long immersion in Lincoln sources. It was in the militia, not the "military," that "units elect their own officers"; James Metzker (the victim in the famous "Almanac Trial") did not die "while attempting to escape on his horse"; Henry Villard wasnot covering the Lincoln-Douglas debates for the Illinois Staats-Zeitung; the voting in the Illinois 1858 elections was not"125,430 to 121,609" but rather 244,252 to 211,124; there is no evidence that Lincoln "had long admired the Reverend Henry Ward Beecher"; Leonard Volk was not Stephen A. Douglas's brother-in-law (he married a Douglas cousin); there is no evidence that Mary Todd Lincoln was her husband's "chief adviser" in political matters; John C. Frémont was known as the Pathfinder, not the "Pathmarker"; the number of soldiers killed at Antietam was approximately 3,600 (taking Union and Confederate together), not 6,500; James Cook Conkling did not read Lincoln's letter to the September 1863 mass Union rally in Springfield, Illinois, much less read it "slowly." This level of naïveté—I am reluctant to call it simple carelessness—is, unhappily, not mitigated by any new discoveries or dramatic interpretative shifts. In fact, there is scarcely anything in White's biography that could not have been just as easily learned from the Lincoln books currently in print. At the end, the best that can be said is that A. Lincoln: A Biography is a very nice book, by a very nice man, about a very, very nice president.
No such niceness, however, comes to the rescue of the McGovern biography. McGovern is almost as aggressive as Foner in trying to re-model Lincoln as Progressive mascot. McGovern scants all mention of Lincoln's Whig economics, and instead casts Lincoln the lawyer as a sort of legal Robin Hood, and Lincoln the president as the founder of a "people's republic." (Awhat?) Nevertheless, the book reveals moments when even Lincoln fails to live up to the peerless, soi-disant social democracy of George McGovern—for example, concerning the wartime suspension of habeas corpus. "The only oath an American president takes is to uphold the Constitution," McGovern intones, and because the nation may "need its constitutional protections even more in times of war than in the less turbulent times of peace," we are left to conclude that it would have been better had Lincoln left draft rioters unarrested, smugglers and blockade-runners undetained, and the Confederacy to go its merry way—as though the Constitution really were a suicide pact. What McGovern does find unarguably admirable in Lincoln is his "remarkable military leadership," although even here, Lincoln had to learn to "change," unlike certain other leaders who never learned "that the military methods of World Wars I and II would not work in Vietnam or Iraq."
Detail is even less important to McGovern than to White, since McGovern cannot get right the names of Anson Henry and James Cook Conkling, mistakes the Missouri Compromise for the Compromise of 1850, mistakes the governor of Virginia for the governor of South Carolina, puts Winfield Scott in command of the Army of the Potomac (which had not yet been created when Scott retired), imagines that Lincoln somehow could regulate "telegraph news through the War Department," and describes the 1862 congressional elections as costing the Republicans 45 seats in the House, then 22 seats. He cannot even quote Lincoln accurately: the famous lines Lincoln wrote in 1858—"As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy. Whatever differs from this, to the extent of the difference, is no democracy"—now become "So I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master."
Much worse than merely misquoting Lincoln is McGovern's penchant for pushing into Lincoln's mouth words he would never have dreamt of uttering. McGovern's Lincoln "believed in…the idea that fairness and justice must govern relations between government and citizens," and that "liberty was something that the government helped to provide." It is safe to say that Lincoln never thought that government had any responsibility for fairness whatsoever. "If any continue through life in the condition of the hired laborer," he said in 1859, it was their own fault, and not some defect in the "fairness" of the American system. "It is not the fault of the system, but because of either a dependent nature which prefers it, or improvidence, folly, or singular misfortune." His advice to those who failed in business was almost cheerfully indifferent: "To such, let it be said, ‘Lay it not too much to heart.' Let them adopt the maxim, ‘Better luck next time;' and then, by renewed exertion, make that better luck for themselves." Nor did he believe that liberty was the gift of government. "Our reliance is in the love of liberty which God has planted in our bosoms," Lincoln said in 1858, and the principal responsibility of government was to create a condition of affairs in which people could look out for themselves. "In all that the people can individually do as well for themselves, government ought not to interfere."
Nothing connected to Lincoln and the Civil War would appear complete in 2009 without a word or two from James McPherson. The George Henry Davis 1886 Professor Emeritus in American History at Princeton, McPherson had written little about Lincoln until the Bicentennial. But he is widely-known for his basic Civil War textbook, Battle Cry of Freedom, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1989 and confounded all expectations (for a book published by a university press) by topping theNew York Times bestseller list. And the Year of Lincoln provided him an opportunity to compensate for any previous inattention by publishing two Lincoln titles, one a short biography from Oxford University Press and the other a full-dress study of Lincoln as a war president, Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander-in-Chief.
The short biography—at 96 pages, only half as long as even the McGovern biography—does little more than recite the bare outline of Lincoln's life, but gracefully and without any untoward interpretive interference. Much more expansive is the project of Tried by War, which is to show that Lincoln, the only president "in American history whose entire administration was bounded by war," devoted more "time and energy than anything else" to management of war, and apart from the vexing problem of constitutional and civil liberties violations, did it surpassingly well.
Still, war management was an unlikely burden for a man like Lincoln. As a long-time Whig, Lincoln shared the party's bone-bred suspicion of soldiering as the next door to despotism, and it was not by accident that the worst insult the Whigs could hurl at the head of Andrew Jackson was "the Military Chieftain." Lincoln served as a soldier himself for only a few months as a member of the Illinois militia in 1832, and in an age when politicians regularly sought out state militia commissions as patronage rewards, Lincoln never seems to have solicited any. Even as president, Lincoln looked askance at his own generals, not necessarily because they were incompetent (which a number of them were), but because six decades of dominance of the executive branch by various Democratic presidents had turned the professional army into a Democratic political engine. "Antislavery men, being generally much akin to peace," he told John F. Seymour, brother of Horatio Seymour, New York's Democratic governor, in 1863, "had never interested themselves in military matters and in getting up companies, as Democrats had." Nevertheless, the outbreak of the Civil War a bare six weeks after his inauguration forced Lincoln, if not into becoming a professional "military chieftain," then into taking charge of the ones who were.
And they were, as McPherson makes all too plain, a sorry lot, although in many respects this was not their fault. The U.S. Army in 1861 numbered a little over 16,000 officers and men, in 19 regiments (at a time when the newly re-organized Prussian army numbered 470,000 regulars and 130,000 reservists), most of whom had never been deployed in larger formations than a company, and had never faced anything more demanding than occupation duties in the West. The Military Academy at West Point specialized in training engineers, not combat leaders, and there was no staff college—or even a regular general staff—to provide that training in logistics, transportation, map-making, or communications. The one major exception was George B. McClellan, who had made the closest studies of European military methods and devised the first comprehensive strategic plan for the war in August 1861. But McClellan's gifts, which would have made him an ideal chief of staff (on the order of Helmuth von Moltke), did not extend to the management of actual campaign operations; and what was worse, his political loyalties to the Democratic Party inclined him to pull his tactical punches rather than deliver a clear-cut victory for a Republican president.
This left Lincoln little choice but to initiate his own process of self-education in military affairs, which he approached much in the same way he had learned lawyering—by borrowing books from the Library of Congress and studying them. What he learned from this reading, however, is highly debatable. McPherson believes that, over time, Lincoln learned to become a successful and competent master of "all five functions" of a commander-in-chief—"policy, national strategy, military strategy, operations, and tactics"—and the generals who eventually won the war on the battlefield did so because they embraced Lincoln's "mandate" to concentrate on destroying the rebel field armies rather than conquering territory or cities. This is not a particularly surprising conclusion, nor is Tried by War a particularly surprising book—it is actually, for the most part, a fairly conventional narrative of the Union view of the Civil War, indistinguishable from the relevant chapters ofBattle Cry of Freedom.
But what, actually, did Lincoln learn from his autodidactic pursuit of military science? The standard textbooks of the day were written under the spell of Napoleon Bonaparte, and they hewed to the belief that victory in war was the product of single, decisive battles in which one side, in one massive stroke, disabled the opposing army and compelled its political leadership to come to the peace table. This might have served Napoleon's purposes at Jena and Austerlitz. But by the 1850s, field armies had swollen to dimensions which ensured that single-stroke, "decisive" victories would be impossible. What would certainly cripple an enemy army, however, would be to shift the blow to the enemy's logistics—lines of supplies, depots, and manufacturing centers—since these newly-gargantuan armies had stomachs which no mere foraging on the countryside could any longer satisfy. McClellan, curiously, understood this, and so his initial plans for war-making were aimed at the Confederacy's logistical centers, rather than at its field armies. Hence McClellan's grand plan to side-step the rebel army in Virginia, shift his own Army of the Potomac by water to the James River peninsula, and hit the Confederate capital at Richmond through its back door.
But Lincoln, who already had ample reason to resent McClellan's unconcealed contempt for the president he called "the original gorilla," interpreted McClellan's strategy as politics, not warfare—as a desire to avoid a straight-up, knock-down confrontation with the rebels. When Robert E. Lee and the Confederate army turned the tables on McClellan and ripped out McClellan's own logistical wiring during the Seven Days' Battles, McClellan hastily retreated. This looked to Lincoln like cowardice, not prudence, and when Lincoln finally relieved him of command in November 1862, he was adamant that McClellan's successors stop fooling around with plans to take Richmond, and drive up the middle, overland, to slug it out with Robert E. Lee and the Confederate army. "Lee's Army," he told Joseph Hooker, "and not Richmond, is your true objective point."
But was it? Obediently, a succession of generals—Burnside, Hooker, Meade—struggled to follow Lincoln's directive, and ended up with nothing to show for it but indecisive collisions with the rebels. When Lincoln brought Ulysses S. Grant to take control in Virginia in 1864, Grant was handed the same mandate. But Grant enjoyed Lincoln's political confidence like no other of the generals, and after another resultless string of stalemates, from the Wilderness to Cold Harbor, Grant prevailed on Lincoln to let him try the McClellan strategy below the James River. The result was a siege of Richmond and Petersburg which drained the life out of Lee's army, and when Lee finally broke away and tried to make a run for it in April 1865, the rebel army, lacking a logistical base, stumbled and collapsed into Grant's arms. The same pattern held true elsewhere in the war—it was not the defeat of rebel armies at Perryville or Murfreesboro, but the capture of Chattanooga and Atlanta, which wrecked the Confederacy's war-making capacity. In retrospect, Lincoln's directive to make "Lee's army…your true objective" was almost the worst advice a commander-in-chief could have given in the 19th century. Which only goes to show that even a great man cannot be wise in everything. But we do not even catch a glimmer of this from Tried By War.
Harold Holzer, who began life as a public-relations man for Bella Abzug and then for Mario Cuomo, and who now serves as senior vice president for external affairs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, may seem as unlikely a Lincolnite as Lincoln seemed a commander-in-chief. What Holzer lacks in academic standing, however, is more than made-up for by his relentless energy in carving out a niche all to himself in Lincoln studies, first as a specialist in Lincoln iconography and then as the principal remembrancer of Lincoln's connections to Holzer's own New York City. Although he has contributed numerous essays and chapters to a variety of Lincoln-related books, Holzer's contribution to the Bicentennial, Lincoln, President-Elect: Abraham Lincoln and the Great Secession Winter, 1860-1861, is actually only his second full-length study of Lincoln (the first being Lincoln at Cooper Union: The Speech That Made Abraham Lincoln President in 2004). But like the Cooper Union book, it is a tale rollickingly well-told, studded with curious details that enliven and humanize Lincoln's difficult progress from the day of his election in November 1860, to the moment he takes the presidential oath from Roger Taney on the steps of the Capitol four months later. Indeed, the focus may be a little too unrelentingly on Lincoln. There is comparatively little in Holzer's book about the larger political context of the "secession winter," which Russell McClintock meticulously lays out in Lincoln and the Decision for War: The Northern Response to Secession, a sadly unheralded book that appeared the same year as Lincoln, President-Elect.
Politics, however, rules the roost in The Lincoln Anthology: Great Writers on His Life and Legacy from 1860 to Now, which Holzer edited for the Library of America series. Conceived as a companion volume to LOA's two-volume Lincoln: Speeches and Writings (edited by Don E. Fehrenbacher in 1989) the Anthology is a collection of writings about Lincoln, from the odd (Artemus Ward, Bram Stoker) to the famous (Walt Whitman, Leo Tolstoy) to the incongruous (both Winston Churchills, the American novelist and the British prime minister). And for its first 700 pages, the Anthology as a whole has a certain Barnumesque celebrity-walk quality, since almost none of this material would be worth reading apart from its associations with Abraham Lincoln. Where this trajectory loses speed and begins to corkscrew is in the last part—in other words, writings on Lincoln from the 1970s onwards, where Holzer's leftward political tilt becomes risible. In rapid succession, the stage is seized from Jacques Barzun and H.L. Mencken, and turned over to W.E.B. DuBois, H.G. Wells, Robert Sherwood, Allen Ginsberg, Gore Vidal, Mario Cuomo, Garry Wills, Richard Slotkin (using an excerpt from Slotkin's inept shinplaster, Abe: A Novel of the Young Lincoln), E.L. Doctorow, and finally…Barack Obama.
Apart from William Safire, modern conservative writing on Lincoln is rigorously airbrushed out of existence—nothing from Harry Jaffa, nothing from M.E. Bradford, nothing from Jack Kemp, nothing from Willmore Kendall, nothing from Thomas Sowell, nothing even from Thomas DiLorenzo. (Not that I think them all equally admirable—but it seems an odd anthology of writing about Lincoln which so arbitrarily and triumphantly excludes them). Like Our Lincoln (to which Holzer contributed), The Lincoln Anthology reeks of Left imperialism, trying to lay hold of Lincoln in much the same spirit that a spoiled child lays claim to another child's toy.
There are at least two books among the Bicentennial Lincolns which aspire to do little more than harmlessly amuse and interest, and which are worth a quick look. One is Looking for Lincoln: The Making of an American Icon, from Philip and Peter Kunhardt, which is probably the closest thing to being a coffee-table book for the Bicentennial. The Kunhardt family has a long history of its own in Lincoln photography, stretching back to Philip and Peter Kunhardts' great-grandfather, Frederick Hill Meserve, who published the first Lincoln photograph collection, The Photographs of Abraham Lincoln, in 1911. Meserve's grandson, Philip Kunhardt, Jr., who would rise to become a managing editor of Life, published a number of rare Lincoln photographic discoveries in that magazine (including a memorable article on the final reburial of Lincoln's coffin, together with an interview of the last survivor of the reburial to have actually seen Lincoln's face). He also produced, in 1965, a remarkable photographic history of the Lincoln assassination and funeral, Twenty Days, and in 1992, a gorgeous picture book, Lincoln, which accompanied a PBS television series. Looking for Lincoln, coming from the fourth and fifth generations of Kunhardts, easily outdoes its predecessors, both in its sumptuously glossy reproductions and as an extension of the 1992 Lincoln into the post-1865 world of Lincoln remembrance. As such, the principal players (and images) of this volume are not Lincoln, but his family, his biographers, his associates, all the way to the death of Robert Todd Lincoln, the last of his immediate family, in 1926. (For those who expected to get more of Lincoln himself, a convenient "Gallery" offers an enumeration and thumbnail reproductions of all of the 114 currently known Lincoln photographs.)
If there is a fault to find with the Kunhardts' long retrospective, it is that it flattens a little too gently the weirdly-undulating landscape of the Lincoln family after the president's death. This accusation, however, can never be aimed at Charles Lachman, whose The Last Lincolns joins a rapidly sprouting sub-division of "Lincoln family" books in the past few years, which includes Stephen Berry's House of Abraham, Daniel Mark Epstein's The Lincolns: Portrait of a Marriage, Catharine Clinton's Mrs. Lincoln: A Life, and Jason Emerson's The Madness of Mary Lincoln. The story of Mary Todd Lincoln's slow spiraling into insanity after her husband's murder and the death of all but one of her children has been often told and endlessly debated, and Emerson's Madness does little more than confirm the reality of that derangement. Berry'sHouse of Abraham, however, makes plain how many of Mary's siblings and step-siblings seem to have sunk into la-la land at some point, and Lachman completes the story of this harrowing descent by re-creating in agonizing detail just how very close the Lincoln family, between 1865 and the death of the last direct Lincoln descendent in 1985, came to becoming a model for the Addams Family.
The one family member who seemed to have a reasonably solid hold on reality was Lincoln's sole surviving son, Robert Todd Lincoln. Although William Herndon sneered that Robert was more of a Todd than a Lincoln, Robert was actually one of the few Lincolns who could reasonably be described as perfectly normal, and enjoyed an enormously successful career as a lawyer. Robert's older daughter Jessie, however, was a rebellious serial adulterer (she eloped with her first husband, a drifter named Warren Beckwith, in 1897; they divorced in 1907, after which she married Ned Johnson, who divorced her when he found her in bed with Robert Randolph, whom she married in 1926, all the while picking her parents' pockets for money). RTL's younger daughter, Mary (known as "Mamie" to keep all the Marys in the Lincoln clan apart), married Charles Isham, adding yet another lawyer to the family. But Mamie had only one weak, anemic son, and he lived the swank life of the New York speakeasies and never had children of his own. Jessie had produced two children from her first marriage, Peggy and Robert. Peggy turned out to be the oddest ball in the court, living in her father's mansion in Vermont, Hildene, like an eccentric beggar. She ultimately willed the place to the Christian Science Church upon her death in 1976. (The Christian Scientists wisely unloaded Hildene to a non-profit group which now operates it as a Lincoln museum.) Her brother, Robert Todd Lincoln Beckwith, also had a roving streak, which resulted in a paternity suit in 1976, which then resulted in divorce, and then in tests which finally proved that RTLB's supposed offspring could not have been his child, since Beckwith was, as it turned out, impotent.
Lachman could have ended matters there, and the whole story would have been rattlingly strange on its own. And perhaps he should have, since he makes the mistake of inserting into the final chapter the absurd speculation that Jack Coffelt, a grifter who was adept at conning poor Beckwith, was the infamous D.B. Cooper, before Cooper made his famous jump into the Pacific Northwest in 1971. As it is, the miserable story of the Lincolns after Lincoln only recalls the weary comment of Charles Dickens, who was saddened to look around his dining table at his children, only to see not a one who had departed from the fecklessness of his own quite feckless father. If anyone wants fuel for arguing that Abraham Lincoln is strictly an artifact of the past, these two books will more than do the job, at least as far as genetics goes.
A Touchstone Biography
The score, then, on books for the Lincoln Bicentennial has not been an encouraging one. And this is odd, because the last 15 years have seen a renaissance of Lincoln scholarship, which has made them the golden age of Lincoln studies. A number of currents have combined to swell this flood, not the least of which has been the rebirth of the Abraham Lincoln Association in the 1980s, the stupendous editing accomplishments of the Lincoln Legal Papers project (under Cullom Davis and Daniel W. Stowell) and Herndon's Informants: Letters, Interviews & Statements about Abraham Lincoln (edited by Douglas Wilson and Rod Davis in 1998), plus the creation of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, with the wise but hidden hand of Illinois state historian Thomas Schwartz at the wheel.
No single historian, however, has done more to roll these developments into one enormous Lincolnian package than Michael Burlingame, who is himself responsible for a small industry of editions of Lincoln-related memoirs and recollections (including the papers of John G. Nicolay, the diary of John Hay, and the newspaper correspondence of Noah Brooks). As a student of the late David Donald—the nation's premier Lincolnian until his death last May—Burlingame re-opened what seemed to have been the sealed tomb of Lincoln writing in 1994 with The Inner World of Abraham Lincoln. Until that moment, the most conventional of conventions about Lincoln books was that, after so many biographies and biographers over the years, nothing further could possibly be known about Lincoln, and so all new efforts at writing about him could be little more than wearing the ruts just a little deeper.
What occurred to Burlingame, however, was one of those basic—almost primitive—insights that make for the shifting of entire paradigms. Every biographer, he reasoned, works from notes. Most of the notes never manage to get into the biography for reasons of space, just as most of the 3×5 cards we amass for college term papers never get into the final submission. In our case, the excess 3x5s wind up in the waste basket; in the case of famous writers, they wind up in collections of authors' papers in various archives and libraries, where no one except the most diligent (or the most antiquarian) ever bother to call for them. Surely the same thing must hold true for biographers of Lincoln. The more famous (like the muckraking journalist Ida Tarbell), the more likely the unused material has survived; the closer they were to Lincoln's time (and Tarbell was really the last to interview people who had personally known Lincoln), the more likely that the unused material contained gems of direct information which no one had ever thought to look for. Tarbell being the easiest example, Burlingame tracked down Tarbell's papers to her alma mater, Allegheny College, and sure enough, what he found was a gold mine of interviews and correspondence from Tarbell's informants which had not made the final cut for Tarbell's The Life of Abraham Lincoln (1903). This set Burlingame onto the track of every archive likely to contain similarly unused cast-offs, and the result, in The Inner World of Abraham Lincoln, was a series of essays, escorted by an armada of 200 footnotes each, which unearthed a Lincoln no one had seen in more than a century. In some cases, each chapter's footnotes were as long as the chapter, and just as interesting to read on their own terms.
That this would lead to the creation of a new, comprehensive biography of Lincoln, no one doubted. The only questions were, how big would it be and how long would it take? The last super-biography of Lincoln had been Carl Sandburg's curious, multi-volume Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years and Abraham Lincoln: The War Years, which appeared between 1926 and 1939. But Sandburg's Lincoln was as much a poetic saga, glorifying the folksy Lincoln who "had walked out of a Chinese or Russian fairy story…with a handkerchief full of presents he wanted to divide among all the children in the world," as it was a biography, and it played to a far different audience. Burlingame's Abraham Lincoln: A Life was originally planned for six volumes (fearful publishers brought that down to two, and sans all but the most skeletal footnotes) and took a decade-and-a-half to finish. (Even so, Burlingame's Lincoln totals nearly 1,600 octavo pages of text, packaged in a slip-case at $125 a set, but they are worth every centime.) Unlike Sandburg, Burlingame has no interest whatsoever in fairy tale Lincolns. "Sandburg was a poet, I am a scholar," Burlingame writes in a prefatory note, and laus deo for that. And unlike the Pecksniffian chirping of Lincoln's Left-annexationists, Burlingame's Lincoln is self-consciously "a champion of freedom, democracy, and national unity…psychological maturity, moral clarity, and unimpeachable integrity." The Emancipation Proclamation is an unambiguous triumph for freedom, and its apparently desolate vocabulary was designed "to make sure that slaves liberated under the proclamation had a sound legal basis to protect their freedom in court, if necessary." And his death at the hands of John Wilkes Booth was a martyrdom for the cause of black civil rights fully as much as was Martin Luther King, Jr.'s assassination by James Earl Ray.
What is breathtaking is the depth of Burlingame's research—newspapers (the Belleville Weekly Advocate, not just the New York Times), collections of manuscripts ranging from the Beinecke Library at Yale to the "fragment of the manuscript" from Katherine Helm's Mary, Wife of Lincoln (1928) which he found in the William H. Townsend Papers at the University of Kentucky, and of course the Ida B. Tarbell Papers (not only at Allegheny, but at Smith College, too). If there is a comment, phrase, observation, reminiscence, or recollection concerning Abraham Lincoln which Burlingame has notexhumed, it can probably stay safely buried. This, at last, simplifies the dilemma of the Bicentennial Lincoln books: If you want to read for amusement, read Holzer's Lincoln, President-Elect or Lachman's The Last Lincolns. If you want to read for comprehension, read Burlingame, because from now and into the foreseeable future, Burlingame's is the touchstone biography everyone who aspires to the study of Lincoln must embrace, cite, read, and occasionally quarrel with.
The Statesman Lincoln
Yes, quarrel with-because even amid this refreshing Niagara of data, it is clear that the Lincoln who matters most to Burlingame is the psychological Lincoln, the Lincoln who rises up from mental loss and humiliation as a young man, who suffers what we would call "spousal abuse" at the hands of a near-maniac wife, and who bears the sorrows of a bleeding nation through four years of war without losing his balance or his resiliency. What is missing from Burlingame—in fact, what seems to have taken French leave from almost all the Lincoln Bicentennial books—is the political Lincoln. Not the politically-corrected Lincoln of Holzer's Lincoln Anthology or of Foner's Our Lincoln, but the political Lincoln as he himself knew and understood politics. "Politics were his Heaven," wrote Lincoln's third law partner, William Henry Herndon, and not just the politics of immediate issues and statutes, but the overarching politics of the American experiment itself. He could be "a trimmer" in politics, wrote Leonard Swett, who had known Lincoln since his days on the Illinois circuit and who carried out discreet personal embassies for Lincoln during the war years, "and such a trimmer the world has never seen…. Yet Lincoln never trimmed in principles—it was only in his conduct with men."
Those principles, from the beginning of his political career, were the Whigs'. "He was as stiff as a man could be in his Whig doctrines," recalled his second law partner, Stephen T. Logan, and these included the creation of a national banking system, protective tariffs for American manufacturing, government encouragement to business in the form of "internal improvement" projects, and a profound reluctance to meddle otherwise in the affairs of a free market. Shocking as this may sound to the apostles of redistribution, Lincoln frankly said in 1860, "I take it that it is best for all to leave each man free to acquire property as fast as he can…. I don't believe in a law to prevent a man from getting rich; it would do more harm than good." Nor was this merely an offhand genuflection to capitalist hegemony. Lincoln had read long and hard in the classical liberal texts of natural law and political economy—"[John Stuart] Mill's political economy, [Matthew] Carey's political economy, social science…[John Ramsey] McCullough's political economy, [Francis] Wayland, and some others," according to Herndon—and like the classical liberals of the Manchester School, what Lincoln wanted was to "allow the humblest man an equal chance to get rich with everybody else." Then, he added, "you can better your condition, and so it may go on and on in one ceaseless round so long as man exists on the face of the earth!"
There is certainly plenty of greatness in Lincoln to go around, plenty in fact to allow whole books devoted to the depth of his character, his capacity for managing military affairs, his concepts of race and of emancipation. But at the end of the day, we will still lack the essential core of the man without his politics and the principles which animated them. Hofstadter's contempt for Lincoln was rooted in Hofstadter's distaste for Lincoln's politics; but he at least understood that the man and his ideas were inseparable. Hofstadter hoped that the ideas had become irrelevant, but he had no illusion that he could re-write or erase the politics and still have the man. This, however, is precisely why Hofstadter's Left-Progressive heirs, from Foner through McGovern, so often seem to be dealing in pasteboard Lincolns. If they took Lincoln as seriously as did Hofstadter, or even Helen Nicolay, they would have to be singing paeans to free markets, free speech, and free men, or else renounce him as a capitalist tool.
But at the other end of the spectrum, there are far too many conservatives who imagine that Lincoln's uncomplicated Manchester liberalism can be dropped into place without sufficient consideration of Hofstadter's (and Nicolay's) point that Lincoln "belonged to the age of craftsmanship rather than industrialism." A mid-sized factory in 1860 meant 15 employees and an owner (or partners) in shirt-sleeves; a major industrial establishment might employ 85. Corporations accounted for only 7% of all American manufacturing in 1860. By 1900, however, that share had swollen to 69%; between 1897 and 1905 alone, 5,300 small-scale firms were consolidated and reorganized into just 318 corporations, and 26 super-corporations controlled 80% of American industrial output. After the Civil War, "I found that I had got back to another world," said the title character of William Dean Howells's novel, The Rise of Silas Lapham. "The day of small things was past, and I don't suppose it will ever come again in this country."
In that light, the greatness of Abraham Lincoln will rest on how much genuine credit (and not just notional assent) we still give his politics as the embodiment of natural laws written onto the hard disk of human nature and transcending the immediate circumstances of his times; or whether we believe that our America has changed so much that Lincoln's ideas are simply no longer applicable to an interdependent, free-floating, immigrant swamped, mass consumption society. Without making that determination, the question will not be whether Lincoln is our Lincoln or their Lincoln, but whether he is anybody's Lincoln, any more.
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For Correspondence on this essay, click here.