Sean Wilentz takes on the new Lincoln establishment





... The announcements in last year's publishers' catalogues that a flood of new books would accompany Lincoln's bicentennial augured an opportunity to evaluate the state of Lincoln scholarship, in part by pointing to the writings of those historians, past and present, who insist on evaluating Lincoln seriously as a political creature. (I confess that I have contributed my own bits to the bicentennial torrent.) The difficulty is that an entirely new fashion in the historiography of Lincoln seems to have arisen, which further diminishes the importance of party politics and government in his career. This new fashion--which is really a retrieval and an expansion of older lines of interpretation--takes for granted that Lincoln rose to a surpassing greatness. In one way or another, the fashion locates Lincoln's chief distinction in his literary sophistication and his empathetic powers, making only passing glances at his political astuteness. Indeed, in some quarters, Lincoln's political successes, before and during his presidency, now seem to have come almost entirely from his writing and his oratory, in what might be called a literary determinist interpretation of history. Lincoln's apotheosis remains undisturbed; the difference is that he is now an archangel of belles lettres--or, as Jacques Barzun described him fifty years ago, a man with a hidden hurt who became an "artist-saint." Therein, supposedly, lay the basis, or at least one important basis, for his political greatness....

[ON GARRY WILLS]

The current fascination with Lincoln as a writer originated with Garry Wills's Lincoln at Gettysburg, which was published to a rapturous reception in 1993. Amid erudite and illuminating discussions of classical oratory, American sermonizing, and New England Transcendentalist philosophy, Wills described Lincoln's address, in November 1863, as a turning point in the Civil War and, thus, in American history. By proclaiming that the Union was fighting to save a government dedicated from its inception to the idea that all men were created equal, Wills said, Lincoln turned Jefferson's egalitarian Declaration of Independence into the nation's foundational text, on which the Constitution was later built. Yet Lincoln also cunningly expanded the slaveholder Jefferson's conception of equality by embracing blacks, slave and free, and promising that the war would finally bring "a new birth of freedom." In a span of fewer than three hundred brilliant words--and in a speech that many, at the time, deemed ordinary, even perfunctory--Lincoln supposedly revolutionized the nation's highest ideals.

Wills's account, like numerous later books that dissect one or another of Lincoln better-known orations, over-dramatizes the speech's importance....

[ON MICHAEL BURLINGAME]

... Michael Burlingame, who has written or edited a dozen books on Lincoln, gained considerable notice in the world of Lincoln scholarship a few years ago with a study, heavily indebted to Jungian psychology, that purported to describe and to analyze Lincoln's inner life. It was not the first time that a biographer or a historian has put Lincoln on the couch, if only to puzzle through Lincoln's famous chronic bouts of severe depression and to speculate about what some have seen as his burdensome marriage to an unstable woman. But Burlingame is deeply immersed in the sources on Lincoln, primary and secondary, so his judgments carried far more authority than the usual jerry-built psycho-histories.

Now Burlingame offers a massive two-volume life study so copiously documented that he and his publisher have decided to make the full footnotes available only on the Internet (where they can be updated as any new documentation or relevant secondary literature becomes available). Burlingame reliably and astutely covers Lincoln's political career, and he grasps the subtleties of Lincoln's political machinations. Still, reactions to this vast book will depend on how useful one thinks Jungian archetypes are in evaluating long-departed political leaders. To his credit, Burlingame refrains from heavy theorizing; but his psychological method is unmistakable, and it leads him to make some far-fetched assertions on the basis of scanty evidence. Is it likely, or even possible, that Lincoln's traumatic childhood in a dirt-poor family--"I used to be a slave," he recalled as an adult--accounted for his later hatred of slavery? The claim did make me stop and think, but then I wondered whether older meanings of the word "slave" as any kind of coerced dependence or obedience had played tricks on Burlingame's imagination.

If Burlingame's devotion to deep psychological analysis is itself a bit slavish, the documentation that he provides in his book is sometimes unsettling. Most historians would think twice about relying as much as he does on second-and even third-hand testimony, often published decades after the events described. It is as if Burlingame has so steeped himself in Lincolniana that he thinks he can intuit which highly questionable sources are actually truthful--a kind of historical clairvoyance that does not inspire confidence. On other matters--his insistent demonization of Mary Todd Lincoln; his contention that Stephen A. Douglas, a heavy drinker, was practically falling down drunk during his famous debates with Lincoln--Burlingame is labored and unpersuasive....

[ON RONALD C. WHITE]

... Ronald C. White Jr.'s biography of Lincoln is another story of an evolving glorious hero who also was plagued by doubt, including intense self-doubt. White sometimes gives in to the urge to supply his readers with too much information. But his book is much less detailed, less grandiose, and more vivid than Burlingame's; and, like Burlingame, White skillfully evaluates most of Lincoln's political maneuvering. Still, with all of its strengths, A. Lincoln does not supersede the best modern one-volume biography, David Herbert Donald's Lincoln, which was published in 1995 (and is especially strong on Lincoln's political career).

Donald's book is flawed by its insistence on seeing Lincoln as a passive man, based partly on a misreading of Lincoln's own reflections about his inability to control events. White's book, by comparison, is oddly superficial and circumspect on various issues, large and small, laying out the basic facts but leaving it up to the reader to supply answers. What explains Lincoln's repeated plunges into what looks today like suicidal clinical depression? Why did the anti-slavery politician--who claimed he had detested the institution since his youth--become such close friends with the Kentucky slaveholder Joshua Speed, or take another Kentucky slaveholder, Henry Clay, as his political idol? White's book discusses such perplexing, sometimes delicate matters, but leaves them unresolved....

[ON FRED KAPLAN]

... Kaplan goes much too far in making Lincoln a literary man, and in making Lincoln's use of words the key to his soul and his greatness. Kaplan hears all sorts of "Shakespearean resonance" and similar echoings in Lincoln's speeches. Some of this is certainly there, but some of it is also an illusion--and some of Lincoln's most "literary" work actually echoes American politicians, not British playwrights and poets. It is this indifference to the political context, and to Lincoln's immersion in political writing, that leads Kaplan astray.

Consider an example. Analyzing Lincoln's powerful closing to his "House Divided" speech of 1858, Kaplan pauses over its description of a united Republican Party drawn from "strange, discordant, and even hostile elements," in contrast to the divided Democrats, who were "wavering, dissevered and belligerent." Here is a passage, Kaplan rhapsodizes, that "emulated the distinctive intensity of Shakespearean language," and represents "the best of literary English from Shakespearean oration to Tennyson's 'Ulysses.'" In particular, he claims, the speech's "distinctively original use of 'discordant' and 'dissevered' make this mission statement the most distinctively powerful by any American president." The trouble is, these words and lines came, in some cases directly, from Daniel Webster's famous second reply to Robert Hayne delivered in 1830, one of Lincoln's favorite congressional speeches. Lincoln's meaning was different, but his "original" prose was not Shakespearean, it was Websterian--not John, nor even Noah, but Daniel....

[ON HENRY LOUIS GATES JR.]

... By concentrating on Lincoln's writings about race and slavery, 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?...

Some historians claim that Lincoln conceded that the choking off of slavery that he had in mind would take at least a hundred years to complete--a poor reflection on Lincoln's anti-slavery zeal. Gates accepts the claim, and writes, cuttingly, that "at that rate, some black people born in my birth year, 1950, would have been born slaves." Lincoln's actual remarks, delivered during his debates with Stephen A. Douglas in 1858, were far less definitive, and more like throwaway lines than position statements. They hardly endorsed the concept of a gradual emancipation protracted over the century to come. But the important point is that, until the Civil War, and even through the war's opening months, most Americans thought of emancipation in terms of one form or another of gradual emancipation. That was how slavery had come to an end in parts of the Caribbean and Latin America, as well as in the northern United States. (New Jersey passed its emancipation law in 1804, yet in 1860 there were still a few slaves in the state, called "apprentices for life.")...

... So it is impossible to understand the seriousness of Lincoln's anti-slavery politics before 1862 without paying close attention to his ideas, and to the ideas of others, about the Constitution. Yet Gates virtually ignores the Constitution, or he dismisses concerns about its integrity as underhanded evasions. This ahistorical judgment leads Gates to complain, a little obtusely, that Lincoln only occasionally and obliquely recognized slavery as the basic cause of the Civil War until he delivered his forceful Second Inaugural Address in 1865. In fact, between 1854 and 1865, virtually every speech Lincoln delivered, and every political letter that he wrote (including those that Gates reprints), made it clear, at some level, that slavery and its expansion lay at the heart of the sectional divide....

... Gates's confusion about words and politics also lies behind his own variation of this myth. Lincoln, he writes, experienced a "great sea change" in his thinking about the war during the summer of 1862. Until then, supposedly, Lincoln refused to acknowledge that slavery had caused the war, and was adamant about not recruiting blacks into the army. Only after the war went badly for the Union in 1861 and 1862, Gates claims, did Lincoln conclude, in despair, that the emancipation of the slaves in the rebel states and the recruitment of black troops were acute military necessities. Yet even as he prepared to sign the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation in September 1862, Gates observes, Lincoln told a delegation of two anti-slavery ministers from Chicago not only that an edict of emancipation would be useless "as we are now situated," but also that he feared black soldiers lacked competence and would be overrun by the rebel forces.

Why, then, did Lincoln change his mind about recruiting blacks, including ex-slaves? Gates, the literary critic and rare-book lover, finds the key to the riddle in a literary text. Specifically, Gates proclaims that Lincoln came to his senses after reading a brief book called An Historical Research Respecting the Opinions of the Founders of the Republic on Negroes as Slaves, as Citizens and Soldiers, written by one George Livermore--a Cambridge, Massachusetts abolitionist, merchant, bibliophile, and collector of Americana--about the Founding Fathers' admiration of black soldiers during the American Revolution. One of the headnotes in Gates's book is more emphatic, stating that Livermore's writing had "persuaded" Lincoln by the late summer of 1862 about the Founding Fathers' views--a chronological impossibility at the very least, since Livermore's book was not even published until October 1862, and Lincoln did not receive a copy of it until November. Anyway, that book turns out to have been influenced by an earlier volume written by the black abolitionist William C. Nell. It was, Gates writes, "quite cleverly" presented to President Lincoln--in what Gates calls "an important, and little noted, subtle coup"--by Senator Charles Sumner, the Massachusetts radical Republican, and a friend of Livermore. In Gates's telling, the scales then fell from the president's eyes, and Lincoln changed his policies. Thereafter black soldiers fought so valiantly that Lincoln completely repudiated his earlier doubts, and became the black troops' greatest champion--a change that eventually pushed the president into contemplating limited black suffrage once the war was over.

Gates's account of Lincoln's conversion experience makes greater allowance than some historians and critics do for the military exigencies of the war. But it also amounts to a variation of the old populist story: instead of arguing that runaway slaves prompted the Emancipation Proclamation, Gates says that Lincoln's opposition to black recruitment changed with Sumner's "coup" of giving the president a book influenced by a black abolitionist writer, and that thereafter the intrepid black troops began changing his mind about blacks in general. The problem is that most of what Gates says about the decision-making behind emancipation and black recruitment is either dubious or inaccurate, and much of it is preposterous, and some of it runs afoul of basic scholarly standards....

... Gates simply fails to understand what historians have long known was transpiring beneath Lincoln's political artifice. He takes Lincoln's words at face value when it suits his own arguments--such as his remarks to the Chicago ministers in September 1862 about black military incompetence--but he is unable to see Lincoln for what his finest biographers have shown he was: a shrewd leader who could give misleading and even false impressions when he wanted to do so, and made no public commitments until the moment was ripe. So it was with the Emancipation Proclamation, which (on the advice of Seward) Lincoln delayed releasing until after the outcome of the battle of Antietam on September 17, which gave the Union cause more credibility....

[ON JOHN STAUFFER]

... Since Carl Sandburg wrote of the "streak of lavender" that he detected in Lincoln, there has been speculation about Lincoln's affection for men, and Stauffer is determined to give it one more whirl. He notes an intellectual debt to C.A. Tripp's The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln, a discredited hodgepodge of supposition and deception, which appeared in 2003, though he does not endorse Tripp's sensational claim that Lincoln was "predominantly homosexual." Stauffer favors the more diffuse argument, adapted from Foucault and now generally accepted in the academy, that until the words "homosexuality" and "heterosexuality" were invented (some say in 1868, others in 1886 or 1892), sexual love between men was a repertory of acts and not a trait of personality. In America, so the argument goes, sexuality was much more polymorphous before the Civil War than after. Yet if Stauffer sees the antebellum sexual universe as, in his words, "very blurry indeed," he is adamant about one thing: "Lincoln's soul mate and the love of his life was a man named Joshua Speed."

Stauffer's rehearsal of the old Speed story illustrates the difference between a historian and a professor with an agenda. Joshua Speed was a young storeowner and the son of a wealthy Kentucky planter. Between 1837 and 1841, he roomed with Lincoln above Speed's store in Springfield. As was then the custom, they shared a bed ("a very large double-bed," Speed later recalled); and they became, according to numerous accounts, intimate friends, confessing to each other their hopes, fears, and ambitions, while musing aloud and gossiping about politics and (especially) literature. Stauffer works hard to suggest that what he calls this "romantic friendship" included loving sexual contact. As evidence, he presents a mish-mash of strained analogies and literary references (including, inevitably, Ishmael and Queequeg) as somehow telling. He notes that "male-male sex was also common in the military." He dismisses as "rhetorical gymnastics" David Herbert Donald's detailed denial of homoeroticism in Lincoln's and Speed's friendship. And so he concludes that "there is no reason to suppose that [Lincoln] didn't also have carnal relations with Joshua Speed."

The trouble is there is no reason to suppose that they did. Speed's letters to Lincoln during the years in question, Stauffer records, "have sadly been lost"; but Lincoln's letters to Speed betray no signs of any passion or romance, let alone a sexual bond, apart from some pledges of undying friendship. (Lincoln did, as Stauffer notes, close one letter to Speed "Yours forever"--but Donald pointed out that Lincoln used the same phrase in letters to his law partner and an Illinois congressman.) As Stauffer does not bring Lincoln's sexuality to bear either on his relations to Douglass or on any other later aspect of his life, including his marriage, it is difficult to see why the Speed story arises at all, especially given how fragmentary the evidence is. It is also difficult to understand why Stauffer would devote so much time and space to the imputation of a profound homoeroticism that, by his own admission, cannot be proved, at least with the available documentation....






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