Sean Wilentz has a marvelous review essay in the New Republic entitled Who Lincoln Was in which he critiques a series of recent books about Lincoln. I highly recommend it and cannot adequately summarize all it covers. Wilenz’s basic point is this:
The defamatory image of Lincoln as a conventional white racist, whose chief cause was self-aggrandizement, is even more absurd than the awestruck hagiographies that have become ubiquitous in this anniversary year. My point is simpler and larger. It is that Abraham Lincoln was, first and foremost, a politician.
That, for Wilentz, Lincoln must be understood, “first and foremost,” as a politician is not a bad thing. Wilentz quotes James Oakes:
“It is important to democracy that reformers like Frederick Douglass could say what needed to be said,” Oakes wisely observes, “but it is indispensible to democracy that politicians like Abraham Lincoln could do only what the law and the people allowed them to do.” And, he might have added, it was indispensible for the nation, and above all the slaves, that Lincoln performed as president as well as he did.
Near the end of his essay, Wilentz offers a reconceptualization of the parellel between Lincoln the politician and Douglass the reformer:
Douglass in his later years did indeed become more like Lincoln–not because he turned “conservative,” but because he came to recognize, as Lincoln did almost instinctively, the difference between the role of a radical reformer and the role of a politician. He arrived at a moral and historical appreciation of politics. James Oakes puts it well: “[Douglass] did not claim that the abolitionist perspective was invalid, only that it was partial and therefore inadequate. Lincoln was an elected official, a politician, not a reformer; he was responsible to a broad public that no abolitionist crusader had to worry about.” Douglass, that is, had grown wiser, and had come to see politics as more complex than he had before the war. It is a kind of wisdom lost on political moralists of all generations, for whom radical reform is the ship, and virtually everything else is a corrupting bog of compromise.
Without an appreciation of this complexity, it becomes easy to view Douglass as a backslider, just as it is easy to see Lincoln as a hopelessly cautious politician–or, as Stauffer puts it, a “conservative”–who only began to transcend politics in 1862 or 1863. In fact, it was Lincoln’s pragmatic, at times cynical, but always practical insistence on not transcending politics that enabled him, as Douglass put it in 1876 (in the passage that Gates finds puzzling), to restore the Union and “free his country from the great crime of slavery.” Achieving either of those great ends, as Douglass finally understood, required the sympathy and the cooperation of Lincoln’s “loyal fellow-countrymen. ” Putting “the abolition of slavery before the salvation of the Union,” Douglass observed, would have “rendered resistance to rebellion impossible.” Had Lincoln truly been the radical that Stauffer would have preferred, the slaveholders likely would have won the Civil War.
Although it is not the central point of Wilentz’s essay, I particularly appreciated his insistence on taking constitutional analysis seriously. For example,
By concentrating on Lincoln’s writings about race and slavery, [Henry Louis] Gates also misunderstands how much more besides race affected Lincoln’s political approach to slavery. Apart from the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery in 1865, Gates does not discuss the Constitution much, even though references to it abound in the Lincoln documents that he has selected, and even though constitutional issues were pivotal in Lincoln’s thinking about both slavery and the Union. For Lincoln, to destroy slavery while destroying the Constitution would have been no victory at all, as it would demonstrate to the world that the American Revolution and republican government were follies or frauds–impervious to reform. Yet in accord with most anti-slavery men, Lincoln held that, like it or not, the Constitution tolerated and even protected slavery in the states where it already existed. How, then, could Americans abolish slavery under the terms of their own Constitution?
As of 1860, there was absolutely no possibility that Congress would pass, and that the states would ratify, a constitutional amendment banning slavery, which would have been the only peaceable and constitutional way for the federal government to outlaw bondage everywhere. Nor was there any possibility that the cotton states of the Deep South, or even the less slave-dependent states of the upper South, would abolish slavery on their own anytime soon. On that account, a minority of radical abolitionists, most conspicuously William Lloyd Garrison, concluded that the Constitution was morally bankrupt. But most of the anti-slavery forces, Lincoln among them, concluded that they would have to attack slavery where they believed the Constitution gave the federal government the power to do so, chiefly by barring slavery from the territories.
These anti-slavery advocates believed that, as an economic system, plantation slavery would have to expand or it would die. Halting its expansion thus amounted to a sentence of gradual death. (On this point, the slaveholders agreed.) Politically, the addition of new free states out of the vast territories added from the Mexican War, as well as the remainder of the Louisiana Purchase lands, would break the hammerlock that the South had long enjoyed in Washington over the slavery issue. This was what Lincoln meant when he spoke of putting slavery in the course of ultimate extinction–by containing it, as opposed to permitting slavery’s expansion which, he said, would put the nation “on the high-road to a slave empire.”
Then there is this:
The Dred Scott decision certainly moved Lincoln to clarify his thinking about the legitimacy of Supreme Court decisions, to himself as well as to the public–but contrary to Stauffer, Lincoln rejected the Dred Scott ruling not because he thought it violated a “higher law,” but because he thought it was erroneous and unconstitutional (as well as unjust), and he called for constitutional and democratic action to overturn it. “We know the court that made it has often over-ruled its own decisions,” Lincoln declared, “and we shall do what we can to have it over-rule this.”
Lincoln hardly “repudiated” the Constitution. (Stauffer shamelessly constructs this contention by quoting, out of context, bits of Lincoln’s writings from well before the Dred Scott ruling, dating back as far as 1854.) Lincoln repudiated the Taney Court’s interpretation of the Constitution as flagrantly unsound. The best way to remedy the situation, he believed, would be to hold fast to the anti-slavery principles that Chief Justice Taney had wrongly declared unconstitutional, and elect officials (including a president and a Senate majority) who would uphold accurate constitutional interpretation. Once in office, those men would legislate and execute accordingly, and start to change the composition of the court, and finally succeed in overturning Dred Scott.
Wilentz’s even-handedness is illustrated by this passage:
Stauffer’s blanket condemnation of Republicans such as Grant for turning their backs on southern blacks is, at the very least, unfair. As Stauffer himself notes, Grant, as president, crushed the Ku Klux Klan in 1871. He might also have mentioned Grant’s support for the successful ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870, and for the full range of the enforcement acts that he signed in 1870 and 1871, and for the Civil Rights Act of 1875–taken together, the strongest civil rights record of any president between Abraham Lincoln and Lyndon B. Johnson. Even after the economic panic of 1873 and a Democratic resurgence in the midterm elections of 1874 sharply reduced his options, Grant remained committed to enforcing the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, and doing what he could to protect Unionists and freedmen in the South.
At the essay’s end, Wilentz offers his take on the relationship of the Obama phenomenon to Lincoln:
The intellectuals’ rapture over Obama, their eagerness to align him with their beatified Lincoln, has grown out of a deep hunger for a liberal savior, the likes of which the nation has not seen since the death of Robert Kennedy in 1968. The eight years of George W. Bush’s presidency only deepened the hunger; and last year it overtook a new generation of voters as well who, though born long after 1968, yearned for smart, articulate, principled liberal leadership. Along came Obama who, despite his inexperience–or, perhaps, because of it: he seemed so uncontaminated by the arts that he practiced–fit the bill, his African heritage doing more to help him by galvanizing white liberals and African Americans. Although Obama’s supporters at times likened him to the two Kennedys, and at times to FDR, the comparisons always came back to Lincoln–with the tall, skinny, well-spoken Great Emancipator from Illinois serving as the spiritual forebear of the tall, skinny, well-spoken great liberal hope from Illinois.
The danger with the comparison does not have too much to do with the real Barack Obama, whose reputation will stand or fall on whether he succeeds or fails in the White House. The danger is with how we understand our politics, and our political history, and Abraham Lincoln. That the election of an African American to the presidency brings Lincoln to mind is only natural. But the hunger pangs of some liberals have caused them to hallucinate. Obama’s legendary announcement in Springfield was the purest political stagecraft, but it was happily regarded as a kind of message from history. One hears that Obama, like Lincoln, is a self-made man–but Lincoln, unlike Obama, started out in life dirt poor, and lacked any opportunity to attend an elite private high school and then earn degrees at Columbia College and Harvard Law School. One hears that the rhetoric that carried Obama to the White House is Lincolnesque, which it most certainly is not, either in its imagery or its prosody. One hears even that Obama is not just an extremely talented and promising new president but, as Henry Louis Gates Jr. writes, that he is “destined”–destined!–“to be thought of as Lincoln’s direct heir.”
Who does not wish Obama well? But such hallucinations make it difficult for historians to keep the intricacies of political history front and center, or to acknowledge Lincoln’s peculiar gifts as a political leader and a political president. It would appear that those intricacies and those gifts need to be salvaged from the mythologizing and aestheticizing glorifications, from populist fantasies born of forty years of liberal frustration.
I do not mean these lengthy block quotes as a substitute for the essay itself. Nor am I necessarily endorsing Wilentz’s thesis about politics (though it has gotten me thinking). Lastly, Wilentz could not resist the historian’s tick of elevating “historians” above mere partisans. “Stauffer’s rehearsal of the old Speed story illustrates the difference between a historian and a professor with an agenda.” As if many PhD’d historians lack an agenda that influences their history. Later, Wilentz himself notes that “Many historians have offered an exaggerated ‘two Lincolns’ interpretation of the president.” But of course.
But today’s ‘historian superiority complex’ is kept to a tolerable minimum in an essay that demonstrates well what a careful and measured historian can contribute to public discourse.