"Now he belongs to the English department": 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.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Jefferson, LIncoln, Wilentz, Gates, and Slavery:
  2. "Now he belongs to the English department":

Jefferson, LIncoln, Wilentz, Gates, and Slavery:

I'm with co-blogger Randy Barnett on this: Sean Wilentz' recently-published essay on Lincoln, historiography, politics (and many other things) is a magnificent piece of argumentative scholarship, well worth reading by anyone interested in Lincoln, US history, slavery, Thomas Jefferson, the Civil War, . . .

One issue -- tangential, admittedly, to the main debates, but interesting and important nonetheless -- caught my eye. Wilentz had some stinging criticisms of Henry Louis Gates' recent book (Lincoln and Race and Slavery), and Gates, in response, spends most of his time (rather oddly) arguing with Wilentz not about Lincoln, but about Jefferson. "When Thomas Jefferson wrote 'All men are created equal,'" Gates writes, "he did not have African Americans in mind -- or so I claimed in Lincoln on Race and Slavery." It's a claim, as Wilentz notes in his reply to Gates' response, "that scholars have been debating . . . for some time, [and] there is a strong case to be made for this claim, but also room for measured skepticism."

This caught my eye, of course, because, as faithful VC readers know (because I remind them ad nauseum), I've just published a book about Jefferson -- probably the only book about Jefferson in the past 20 years in which the word "slavery" (or the name "Sally Hemings") does not appear. I thought long and hard, in the decade or so during which I was working on the book, about that, and about what it meant. I sometimes wondered whether there was something wrong -- or possibly even immoral -- in that, the (very rough) equivalent of writing a book about Hitler's painting skills and passing over his murder of millions. It gave me considerable pause. In the end, I was comfortable with my judgment -- though I had a fair bit to say about Jefferson's (rather complicated) views on slavery (much of which I put into a paper I presented at a symposium back in 2001 at Middlebury College on that issue), they were simply not relevant (at least, not in any way I could see) to the subject matter of my book, which was ultimately about governance and law on the Internet and how Jefferson's ideas could illuminate those questions for us; I wasn't writing a comprehensive Jefferson biography but instead trying to use Jefferson's ideas, and any of his ideas that didn't help me think about the Net (and there were many) were jettisoned along the way.

But having said that, let me weigh in on the "measured skepticism" side of this argument. I don't believe we know, or can ever know, exactly what Jefferson "had in mind" when he wrote the phrase "all men are created equal." But on the more important question -- viz., what did the phrase "all men" mean, to the author, to contemporaneous readers, and to posterity -- the document itself has one vitally important clue. Jefferson's original draft of the Declaration included the following paragraph in its lengthy list of King George III's "abuses and usurpations" through which he had attempted to impose "absolute Despotism" upon the Colonies:

"He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the CHRISTIAN king of Great Britain. Determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought and sold, he has prostituted his negative [i.e., he has unjustly exercised his veto powers over Colonial legislation], suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce. And that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, by murdering the people on whom he also obtruded them: thus paying off former crimes committed against the liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another."

[The capitalization ("MEN," "CHRISTIAN") and the underlining in this passage are all Jefferson's own, taken from his own copy of the draft]

Much has been written by scholars about this paragraph (which, like the anti-slavery provisions in Jefferson's draft of the Ordinance of 1784, was deleted by Congress before final approval of the document) -- about Jefferson's motivations for including it in the draft, about the Congress' decision to excise it from the final Declaration, etc. But on the textual construction point, it is deeply significant (and possibly dispositive): "MEN" -- African-Americans, obviously -- were bought and sold as part of the "execrable commerce" of slavery. And all "men" were created equal.

Jefferson took enormous pains later in life to preserve his early draft, to make sure that history knew that it in his Declaration of Independence, slavery was deemed "cruel war against human nature itself," that the "men" declared equal in the Preamble included those who were "bought and sold," and that this "execrable commerce" in human souls violated the "most sacred rights of life and liberty."

And then there's the "pursuit of happiness" to which all men were entitled, along with life and liberty. Jefferson's use of this phrase in the list of natural rights has long been something of a puzzle. On the one hand, the prevailing view of the Declaration of Independence is, as Pauline Maier writes in her exhaustive history of the document (American Scripture), that it merely "summarized succinctly ideas defended and explained at greater length by a long list of seventeenth-century writers," that the ideas it expressed were "absolutely conventional among Americans of [Jefferson's] time." Jefferson himself admitted as much; that, he said, was the whole point. When John Adams wrote, using language more colorful than, but in substance identical to, Prof. Maier's, that "there is not an idea in [the Declaration of Independence] but what had been hackneyed in Congress for two years before," and that the "substance of it" was already "contained in the Declaration of Rights [enacted by] Congress in 1774," two years before Jefferson set to work, Jefferson responded: "That may all be true."

"I did not consider it as any part of my charge to invent new ideas altogether, [or] to offer no sentiment which had ever been expressed before. . . . [T]he object of the Declaration of Independence [was] not to find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of, [or] to say things which had never been said before; but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent, and to justify ourselves in the independent stand we are compelled to take. [Not] aiming at originality of principle or sentiment, . . . it was intended to be an expression of the American mind, and to give to that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion. All its authority rests then on the harmonizing sentiments of the day . . ."

But at the same time, at a critical juncture in this "conventional" document, Jefferson takes a turn to the decidedly, and fundamentally, unconventional. "Life, liberty, and property" was the conventional formulation; the revolutionary generation's favorite political philosopher, John Locke, had established that familiar trilogy almost a century before, and Congress, in the 1774 Declaration of Rights to which Adams refers in the quotation above, had, conventionally, followed the Lockean outline:

"The inhabitants of the English colonies in North-America, by the immutable laws of nature . . . have the following RIGHTS: That they are entitled to life, liberty, and property . . ."

That, too, is how George Mason's enormously influential Virginia Declaration of Rights of the same year (1774) -- another document with which Jefferson, and the other delegates in Philadelphia, were intimately familiar -- put it:

"All men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights, . . . namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property . . ."

That formulation was, for obvious reasons, of considerable comfort to the slave-owning class, for it put their "ownership" of slaves -- their "property" interest -- on equal rank, in the natural order of things, with the "life" and "liberty" of those over whom that ownership was exercised.

But with the stroke of the pen, Jefferson took that away. Whatever comfort one might have taken in the notion that owning other human beings was in the natural order of things -- a widespread view in the eighteenth century -- that notion was not to be found in the Declaration of Independence.

Nobody understood all this (or explained it) better than Lincoln himself, and he should have the last word(s). In the Fifth Debate with Stephen Douglas in 1858, Lincoln said this:

The Judge [i.e., Douglas] has alluded to the Declaration of Independence, and insisted that Negroes are not included in that Declaration; and that it is a slander upon the framers of that instrument, to suppose that Negroes were meant therein; and he asks you: Is it possible to believe that Mr. Jefferson, who penned the immortal paper, could have supposed himself applying the language of that instrument to the negro race, and yet held a portion of that race in slavery? Would he not at once have freed them? I only have to remark upon this part of the Judge's speech, (and that, too, very briefly, for I shall not detain myself, or you, upon that point for any great length of time,) that I believe the entire records of the world, from the date of the Declaration of Independence up to within three years ago, may be searched in vain for one single affirmation, from one single man, that the Negro was not included in the Declaration of Independence. I think I may defy Judge Douglas to show that he ever said so, that Washington ever said so, that any President ever said so, that any member of Congress ever said so, or that any living man upon the whole earth ever said so, until the necessities of the present policy of the Democratic party, in regard to slavery, had to invent that affirmation. And I will remind Judge Douglas and this audience, that while Mr. Jefferson was the owner of slaves, as undoubtedly he was, in speaking upon this very subject, he used the strong language that ``he trembled for his country when he remembered that God was just;'' and I will offer the highest premium in my power to Judge Douglas if he will show that he, in all his life, ever uttered a sentiment at all akin to that of Jefferson.

The Declaration, Lincoln wrote in 1859, gave "liberty, not alone to the people of this country, but hope to the world for all future time, . . . promise that in due time the weights should be lifted from the shoulders of all men, and that all should have an equal chance." The cause of American progress and American greatness was not the Constitution or the Union, but "something back of these, something entwining itself more closely about the human heart: the principle of 'Liberty to All.'"

"All honor to Jefferson -- to the man who, in the concrete pressure of a struggle for national independence by a single people, had the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times, and so to embalm it there, that to-day, and in all coming days, it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling-block to the very harbingers of re-appearing tyranny and oppression. He supposed there was a question of God's eternal justice wrapped up in the enslaving of any race of men, or any man, and that those who did so braved the arm of Jehovah -- that when a nation thus dared the Almighty every friend of that nation had cause to dread His wrath."

Taking his cue from the 25th chapter of the Book of Proverbs -- "a word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver" -- he wrote:

"The assertion of that principle, at that time, was the word 'fitly spoken' which has proved an 'apple of gold' to us. The Union, and the Constitution, are the picture of silver, subsequently framed around it. The picture was made, not to conceal, or destroy the apple; but to adorn, and preserve it. The picture was made for the apple -- not the apple for the picture. So let us act, that neither picture, or apple, shall ever be blurred, or bruised, or broken."

Now it is undoubtedly true (as Wilentz reminds us in the essay referred to at the top of this posting) that one always has to read Lincoln's words carefully, and in their proper (political) context, in order to understand their meaning. Lincoln wrote and said many things that were crafted primarily for the purposes of political expediency; he wanted to claim Jefferson for his side, and whether he "actually believed" what he wrote is impossible to fathom -- but I'll take him at his word.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Jefferson, LIncoln, Wilentz, Gates, and Slavery:
  2. "Now he belongs to the English department":