Race, Politics, And Obama: Scholars Respond To Sean Wilentz's 'Who Lincoln Was'--And Wilentz Strikes Back

Historians in the News

Click here to read letters from Michael Kazin, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Fred Kaplan, and John Stauffer. The following is Sean Wilentz's response to their letters.

I wrote a 25,000 word essay about Abraham Lincoln, not Barack Obama. My aim was to review some of the most prominent scholarly books interpreting Lincoln on the occasion of his bicentennial, and to offer a different view of Lincoln as, first and foremost, a democratic politician. The essay took some of the books severely to task and pointed out repeated abuses of historical evidence and reasoning, including important factual errors, manipulation of documents, and specious logic. More generally, it pointed out the damage to historical understanding that results when writers slight or misread Lincoln's political skills, or disparage his political maneuvering as insufficiently idealistic and beautiful.

I hoped that my essay would stir up an interesting debate over Lincoln; and I expected that some of the authors would attempt to rebut what I wrote. Yet apart from a few feeble feints, these letters do not muster a single substantive reply to my charges about shoddy scholarship: nolo contendere. Although Lincoln gets discussed, the letters are at least as interested, if not more so, in Thomas Jefferson, Bill and Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama. Instead of arguing seriously and decently over history, three of these writers attack me for carrying on a supposed grudge left over from last year's primaries, and then trying to disguise my bitterness as nineteenth-century history. Expert debaters know that there is only one course of action when one is caught in a mistake or infraction but does not wish acknowledge it: admit nothing, change the subject, and impugn the other person's motives and character.


Fred Kaplan's book, as I said in my essay, makes some useful points about Lincoln's literary mind, but overdoes them. To recapitulate, briefly: Because Kaplan slights the political context, he attributes great Shakespearian echoes to passages in Lincoln's prose that Lincoln demonstrably adapted from Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, and Daniel Webster. Because Kaplan sets such great store by Lincoln as a literary man, he cannot see clearly enough the limits, and the uses, of eloquence in politics and government. Because he becomes so invested in his idea of Lincoln as a literary man, he comes up with groundless formulations about how, at one point or another"the only weapon [Lincoln] had at his command was language." To say, as I do, that this sort of contention has become an English Department conceit should hardly be controversial. Neither is it an attack on literary criticism, or on literary critics who analyze the writing of political figures or anyone else they choose. It is chiefly a criticism of Kaplan's analysis of Lincoln, and on its sloppy and over-reaching thinking about language, rhetoric, and politics, which abounds in the academy these days, and of which Kaplan's assertions are symptomatic.

My essay did not at all dispute, as Kaplan charges, that"the literary Lincoln and the political Lincoln are inseparable." That, in a way, was my very point. My complaint was that Kaplan and others either demote or ignore or misunderstand the political Lincoln, and the place of politics in Lincoln's identity. My essay did not imply that David Herbert Donald should not have written his distinguished biography of Thomas Wolfe, any more than it implied that Perry Miller should not have written about Cotton Mather. I suggest that Kaplan re-read my praise of how another author under review, the biographer and historian of theology, Ronald C. White, interprets Lincoln's reading and writing. There is a difference between doing a thing and doing it well, and all I say is that Kaplan's book often does the thing poorly. To point out this difference is what critics do: historical critics, literary critics, or any other kind of critic. To evade the evidence of his failures, Kaplan wraps himself in the mantle of his betters and treats my criticism of his work as an indictment of any effort to write about the literary side of a political figure.

Kaplan is one of the writers who claim that my essay has a devious political agenda. In fact, I spent all but about 1,500 of my many thousands of words on detailed discussions of Lincoln in his various phases and aspects. As it happens, I did not include Kaplan's book in my discussion of the Lincolnization of Obama and what it tells us about the larger intellectual climate. I had no idea whom he supported for the presidency last year. I don't care. It has nothing to do with my criticisms of his book.

Michael Kazin, who does not have a book in this affray, opens his letter with a highly flattering sentence about my previous work. He then observes, regarding Lincoln, that my"general thesis should be beyond dispute." The trouble is that it is not beyond dispute amid the proliferation of cultural studies and the like, which is why I wrote my essay. In line with his view that my argument was not only offensive but also obvious--a neat trick--Kazin proceeds to observe condescendingly that my observations on Lincoln and race are unoriginal--that they are merely an echo of a review Eric Arnesenwrote seven years ago for The New Republic, about so-called"whiteness studies" and American labor history. It is true that I briefly bring up whiteness studies in my discussion of one of the seven books under review; and it is true that I have found myself in almost complete agreement over the years with Arnesen. He and I have been allies in the labor history wars for a long time. And he will surely understand that my long discussion of Lincoln and race was not an homage to his book review. For Kazin to reduce all my historiographical criticisms on this vast and subtle subject to my objections about whiteness studies is--as our students might say--sketch.

According to Kazin, my Lincoln essay is really a sneaky effort to extend what he imagines is my hostility toward Barack Obama. He cites my criticisms of Obama published more than a year ago during the primaries, when I supported Hillary Clinton, and some friendly criticisms of his campaign after he secured the nomination, when I publicly supported him--although Kazin's letter makes me wonder if he can allow that there is such a thing as friendly criticism of Obama. Passing cursorily over what I hadto say about Lincoln, Kazin has an idee fixe about my view of about Obama--as if my view was fixed. He disqualifies my remarks, at the essay's conclusion, about the intellectuals' love affair with Obama as Lincolnian and above partisanship, because he did not see signs of that love affair during his own grassroots campaign work. Quite apart from its solipsism, this is odd. My essay never said that all of Obama's supporters, or even most of them, were swept up by the romance; it said only that many liberal intellectuals were so entranced, as well as members of the political press corps. Is this really controversial?

Kazin accuses me of attacking Obama"for possessing just those qualities [I] believe naive liberals ignore when they write about Lincoln." In fact, far from attacking Obama, I laud him for his political shrewdness, which I say is his truest Lincolnian trait. The essay--which is, I swear, about Abraham Lincoln, no matter what Kazin imagines--does contest the view that there were somehow two Lincolns, a party hack who then experienced some sort of mystical conversion (thanks to the goading of slaves and radicals) and went on to become a great statesman. And it attacks the kind of latter-day Mugwump liberalism--far more prevalent in the academic intelligentsia than in the electorate at large--that equates political virtue with political purity. Kazin clearly thinks that he and his political associates are not so na?ve. But does he mean to propose, with a straight face, that this political strain does not exist, and that its supporters are not legion, and that the Obama campaign failed to batten upon their idealism?

Kazin accuses me of not truly wishing the current administration well. This, of course, is the heart of his grievance. All I can say is that the accusation exemplifies an all-or-nothing view of political loyalty, a view that runs counter to liberal politics. If we must, for the moment, make Obama the center of this discussion: Why is it not enough to support him? Why must one also revere him? I certainly have supported him, beginning last June. Must my old criticisms be rehashed and recycled as if they had a larger and more sinister significance more than a year later? Kazin is a sore winner. There is a slightly poisonous quality to his dissatisfaction with me, which suggests that my writings have failed some sort of loyalty test. ...

[Click here to continue reading Sean Wilentz's response to his critics.]

Read entire article at Sean Wilentz in the New Republic

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