Michael Knox Beran: The folly of Congress’s Lincoln Bicentennial Commission





[Michael Knox Beran is a contributing editor of City Journal. His book, Forge of Empires 1861-1871: Three Revolutionary Statesmen and the World They Made, has just been published by Free Press.]

In 1859 Abraham Lincoln expressed the fear that the “principles of free government” in the United States would one day be supplanted by those of “classification, caste, and legitimacy.”

Lincoln fought a civil war to stave off that threat; if he were alive today, he’d have to fight his own Bicentennial Commission, too.

The Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission, created by Congress to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth, has chosen to honor the sixteenth president’s memory by invoking the very principles of classification and caste that he opposed in life. The Commission is striving to fragment Lincoln’s legacy by pandering to multicultural identity politics that repudiate Lincoln’s own faith in a common national citizenship, rooted in the belief that all men are created equal.

According to the commission, its “ongoing series of explorations” of the 16th president’s life will illuminate “various perspectives on Lincoln.” In fact, the program elevates the multicultural ideal of racial and ethnic citizenship over Lincoln’s own ideal of American citizenship.

This past February, on the day before Lincoln’s birthday, the commission sponsored an event at the Chicago History Museum, “A Roundtable on African American Perspectives of Abraham Lincoln,” to discuss “whether Lincoln should be credited with freeing the slaves.”

In September the commission sponsored a panel discussion in Washington, “New Thinking on Lincoln’s Legacy: Hispanic Perspectives.” The commission’s press release states: “Abraham Lincoln was a symbol of opportunity and advancement for early 20th century Hispanic laborers paid with pennies bearing Lincoln’s likeness.” “In Mexico, his support for President Benito Juárez made him a hero. But does Lincoln’s legacy resonate with the 38 million Hispanics in the United States today?”

More such events are likely to follow in the run-up to the 200th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth in February 2009. In an effort to assist the commission in its work, I came up with a number of potential topics:

January 2008: Lincoln in the Eyes of Native Hawaiians. Supporters of Senator Daniel Akaka (D., Ha.) will explain why Lincoln, though he opposed state-sanctioned classification by race or ethnicity, would have made an exception in order to classify ethnic Hawaiians as a group entitled to special privileges and immunities. Life in a tropical paradise is harder than it looks, and Lincoln would no doubt have agreed that native Hawaiians deserve preferential treatment from the federal government.

March 2008: The Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual Lincoln. Does Lincoln’s legacy resonate with the gay community in the United States today? This town hall meeting will focus on Lincoln’s failure to stand up for homosexual rights and will analyze instances of homophobia in his administration. One of Lincoln’s political allies, James Harlan, dismissed a gay civil servant, Walt Whitman, from his clerkship in the Department of the Interior. The scholarship of C. A. Tripp, author of The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln, will be featured, as well as that of Ernest Hemingway, who in The Sun Also Rises (chapter 12) said that “Abraham Lincoln was a faggot. He was in love with General Grant. So was Jefferson Davis.” The town hall meeting will consider whether Lincoln’s gay lovers should have “outed” the President after Gettysburg, by which time the South was pretty much licked anyway....




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