Reading: A Bookful of Lincolns | Essay | Chicago Reader

Reading: A Bookful of Lincolns 

No aspect of his life is so arcane that some historian hasn't devoted a career to it.

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Down in Springfield last February Lincoln's ghost walked, as it does every year about that time. The capital took part in an authentic 1865 political rally, looked at family snapshots in period frames, was reminded of Lincoln's winning tactics in the election of 1860, listened as an MD explained why, in his opinion, the late president did not suffer from Marfan's syndrome, and heard learned men and women speculate about Lincoln's association with Queen Victoria.

Lincoln is so engrossing a topic that he has been divided into specialties: no aspect of his life is so arcane that someone has not devoted a career to it, and no question is so trivial that people can't be found willing to argue about it. This has increased our knowledge of Lincoln but not our understanding. Just as "Europe" means one thing to an expert on the Reformation church and another to a student of 19th-century colonialism, so the Lincoln limned by an expert in reconstruction politics might mystify (or bore) the specialist in frontier-era tort practice. Gabor Boritt, professor of Civil War studies at Gettysburg College, has often complained that Lincoln scholars "do not study each other's work carefully enough." They don't talk to each other very much either, Boritt has added. Anyone who's met a Lincoln expert will know why: one does not talk to a Lincoln expert--one listens.

To give scholars the chance to study and talk together, Boritt helped organize a conference at Gettysburg in 1984. Authors of the more important Lincoln books published in the previous decade were invited to summarize (or, in a few cases, defend) their views. Other historians were invited to comment, with all parties instructed to aim their remarks not at their fellow specialists but at the literate lay public, presumed to be interested in such things.

Those papers have been compiled and have now been published as The Historian's Lincoln: Pseudohistory, Psychohistory, and History. Edited by Gabor Boritt, the collection is probably the most useful addition in years to the overcrowded Lincoln shelf. We are introduced to Lincoln the humorist, Lincoln the theologian, Lincoln the media subject, Lincoln the economist, Lincoln the human-rights champion, even Lincoln the prototyrant. We also learn about assassination-conspiracy theories (as summarized by the historians here, they offer some welcome comic relief) and some useful insiders' judgments on recent Lincoln biographies.

None of the views offered in The Historian's Lincoln is exactly new. But by summarizing substantial works that are all but inaccessible to the general reader, the collection spares us what Boritt describes in his introduction to the work as "the often insurmountable obstacle of reading a dozen books in a particular field." "Insurmountable" isn't necessarily the word--"tedious" comes closer--but the reader may be no less grateful.

The title, however, is misleading. There is no historical consensus about Lincoln to justify it. Historians agree that Lincoln was tall and homely and that he died a Republican, but virtually every other aspect of his life is in constant dispute. Dead these 123 years, Lincoln has not been allowed to enjoy his eternal rest. He is forever being dug up by historians who want to pore over his remains one more time. We've had the Republicans' Lincoln, the copperheads' Lincoln, law partner Herndon's personal Lincoln, the white supremacists' Lincoln, and so on. Each generation since 1865 has brought its own preoccupations and prejudices to its reading of the man. The book might better have been titled The Historian's Lincolns, or The Historians' Lincoln.

For example, in his essay "Lincoln and the Economics of the American Dream," Boritt gives us a Lincoln for the Reagan era: Lincoln the champion of enterprise, the people's economist. "In more than three decades of public life," Boritt writes, "Lincoln probably talked more about economics . . . than any other issue, slavery included."

Lincoln's first known speech dealt with transportation improvements; his first published address took up banking; his first national address stressed the need to build up the nation's economic infrastructure. "Lincoln's most 'vital test' of democracy was economic," Boritt argues; "equality" to him meant equality of economic opportunity as much as anything.

To many casual students, this will be a new side to Lincoln. Most of us vaguely recall that this president spent the war years firing a general every morning, worrying about slavery in the afternoon, and slipping out back of the White House to split a few rails before dinner; the Illinois years were spent wrestling Stephen Douglas and memorizing the Gettysburg Address. Boritt asks us to reconsider the Civil War in particular as "a revolution that changed the government's role in the economy" by instituting a national bank, uniform paper currency, new tariffs, and the beginnings of a progressive income tax--all adopted with Lincoln's enthusiastic backing.

Boritt's insights help reconcile the Lincoln of the log cabin with Lincoln the prosperous Springfield corporate attorney. For all the romanticization of his youth, Lincoln knew that farming was no way to get rich. (He must have been gratified to preside over the first great migration of Americans off the land and into the cities.) His homesteading acts and land-grant colleges were essentially economic-development initiatives intended to make boyhoods like his own no longer necessary.

In other words, Lincoln's economics bear the stamp of the self-made man who, having made it himself, assumes that nobody stays poor for long. M.E. Bradford of the University of Dallas gives the same trait another cast. He insists that Lincoln's commitment to this particular American dream was mainly rhetorical. His pronouncements, Bradford writes, were "exercises in management and manipulation, an artful music" intended to win political support for policies whose implications he skillfully disguised. Bradford argues that the land policies of this common man's friend in fact played into the hands of speculators; that his tariffs protected the propertied interests; and that to the nation's poor farmers, black freedmen, and immigrants he offered only the promise of progress. To Bradford (something of a rhetorician himself), Lincoln is "the image of an Orthodox Whig covered up by a Democratic persona . . . with an egalitarian touch of 'poor mouth' tossed in for a soupcon."

Bradford here makes Mr. Lincoln sound very much like Mr. Reagan. At first glance the two would not seem to have much in common, apart from the fact that both spent more time in theaters than was good for them. Reagan is a Main Street Republican with Wall Street friends, while Lincoln was a Wall Street Republican with Main Street roots.

But there are more or less legitimate comparisons that might be made. For example, in his essay on Lincoln's use of humor, P.M. Zall of California State University shows us that Ron was not the Oval Office's first great communicator. Zall explains how Lincoln perfected a stage presence calculatedly at odds with the man, conveying political morals through stories and jokes. Like Reagan, Lincoln borrowed anecdotes from magazines, often changing them to fit a particular audience. The common people, Lincoln once remarked, are "more easily influenced by broad and humorous illustration than by any other way." This was a crucial skill in a president, because (as Lincoln put it on another occasion) "what lies at the bottom of all of it is public opinion."

Zall's emphasis on the political utility of Lincoln's humor is challenged in two different essays, one by Norman Graebner of the University of Virginia and the other by Mark Neely Jr., director of the Warren Lincoln Library in Fort Wayne. Graebner suggests that Lincoln joked out of psychological need, Neely that Lincoln was just plain funny. It is hard not to conclude that both views are valid, and that Lincoln, like Reagan, turned a characteristic way of seeing the world to his political advantage.

The administrations of Reagan and Lincoln share other, more generic traits, because Lincoln was in many respects the first modern president. He was the first, for example, to rule under the scrutiny of a genuinely national news media, and the first to develop a symbiotic relationship with the press as a result. The media in those days consisted of the political handbill and the torchlight parade, but the message is familiar to those of us accustomed to the photo op, the sound bite, the staged TV event. In "The Lincoln Image," Harold Holzer, Boritt, and Neely describe presidential politics in the 1860s as offering "spectacle, ritual, and time-filling amusements." The authors describe those 19th-century campaigns as being waged with the emotion of modern football; they might have added that late-20th-century presidential politics is played the same way.

Lincoln's views on race and slavery are another topic that historians have been chewing on for more than a century and have still not gnawed down to the bone. Of course the winners--here, the north--got to write the history, or at least the first history, as William Hanchett of San Diego State University reminded the Gettysburg conference. The postwar Lincoln was the Republicans' Lincoln, savior of the Union and freer of the slaves. That first Lincoln gave way to the reluctant abolitionist drawn by James G. Randall in the 1940s. As early as the turn of the century, the reputations of Civil War Democrats--castigated for a generation as anti-Lincoln rebels--were rescued by revisionists who organized what Hanchett calls "an orgy of recrimination" against the excesses of radical reconstruction. In this version the president acted to free the slaves out of political and military necessity rather than moral compulsion. It was a more complex explanation, and thus came closer to reflecting Lincoln's complex views than did the old "when I get the chance I'm gonna hit slavery and hit it hard" version popular in Hollywood films, school texts, and similar semifictional accounts. The suggestion that Lincoln may have temporized over race, for whatever reason, led to the charge in the 1970s that Honest Abe had been a closet racist all along.

The argument is far from finished, indeed may never be. Lincoln's views on race were contradictory. They also changed over the years. Lincoln can thus be quoted to support almost any opinion on racial equality, colonization, slavery, and civil rights. Recent apologists such as Stephen Oates, author of the highly regarded 1977 biography With Malice Toward None, chart Lincoln's wisdom on the subject as a rising curve. Toward the end of his life, Oates has argued, Lincoln transcended both the bigotry of his own background and the political pressures applied by northern racists.

Bradford, however, calls this analysis "wishful thinking." Despite Oates's vision, Bradford says scornfully, Lincoln would not have "come out for fair housing in Chicago and the 1964 Civil Rights Act." Lincoln's views on race, Bradford suggests, were only as enlightened as Republican Party politics required them to be. And even if his intentions were honorable in the light of abolitionist opinion, his judgment was still suspect. To order the release of slaves "at bayonet point, in the midst of war, confined in a South angry and without means, with no federal plan for an intermediate period of apprenticeship in freedom," Bradford writes, may have been good politics but it was anything but enlightened policy.

It's hard to say how much, if any, of our subsequent stumbling toward equality can be blamed on this first hasty step. It remains a question worth talking about, however. LaWanda Cox of Hunter College tries to relieve Lincoln of the blame for the failure of emancipation to truly integrate black Americans. According to Cox, Lincoln moved the nation forward obliquely in small steps on matters of race. Cox's exposition is quite detailed, but the portrait that emerges is of a canny pragmatist. "By temperament Lincoln was neither an optimist nor a crusader," she writes. He believed that "in a self-governing society a generally held feeling, though unjust, 'cannot be safely disregarded.'"

Lincoln, says Cox, knew what liberal reformers often forget: that an evil, entrenched social institution will not disappear automatically upon an appeal to conscience. Cox suggests that no one today "can with confidence fault Lincoln's political judgment of what was attainable in the 1860s." She offers as an instance the fact that in an 1862 referendum Illinois voters overwhelmingly approved constitutional provisions that banned Negro migration into the state and denied them the right to vote and to hold office.

Armstead Robinson of the University of Virginia answers Cox by saying that emancipation was a means rather than an end for Lincoln. His true aim was to end the war speedily by creating divisions within the south: if emancipation were the real issue, then poor whites were fighting to protect slavery in what was essentially a rich man's war. Like Bradford, Robinson puts some of the blame for postwar race problems at Lincoln's feet, in particular the separate-but-equal doctrine that arose in the south in the 1890s. What looks like political wisdom to Cox looks suspiciously like a sellout to Robinson. "By allowing himself to be constrained by the ignoble side of Northern public opinion," he writes, "Lincoln revealed the degree to which he shared the racial prejudices of his age."

Many of these disputes are less about Lincoln than they are about things that can be argued about in terms of Lincoln--the nature of political leadership, for example, and even theories of human nature. Allowing himself to be constrained by public opinion (ignoble or otherwise) is no grave fault if one believes that the oath of office obliges presidents to be constrained to some extent by the public will. Tyranny, even in a good cause--perhaps especially in a good cause--is not a happy trend in a democracy.

There were and are people who believe that Lincoln was just such a tyrant. Was this not the man who suspended habeas corpus, who proclaimed blockades, who used the Army to break up strikes? Most historians acquit Lincoln of the charge of tyranny, seeing him as a dictator out of necessity rather than ambition. There was a war going on, after all. A few, however, see in his official acts evidence of a deep--not to mention unfathomable--impulse to power.

The topic is taken up in a section of The Historian's Lincoln that uses the techniques of psychohistory to explore causes rather than effects. There, Dwight Anderson of San Diego State rolls the historiographic equivalent of a few dried bones to divine how the sixteenth president really wanted to be the first. Lincoln had adopted George Washington as his imaginary father, according to Anderson's reading, whom he both emulated and (later, as president) defied with "revolutionary vengeance." "Sublimating guilt into political authority," Anderson writes, "Lincoln took Washington's place as the father of his country."

Robert Bruce of Boston University gleefully describes this thesis as a "vagrant fantasy." He adds that it is stretching things to suggest that Lincoln's appropriation of wartime power was the act of a man "deranged by a diet of [Washington biographer Mason] Weems, [who] venerated Washington so much that he murdered him posthumously with an overdose of apotheosis."

Psychohistorians of Lincoln are part of a tradition of historical mischief making. Its guru was William Herndon, Lincoln's law partner of many years, who invented the Ann Rutledge love story in his 1866 biography. The real mischief makers, however, are the assassination theorists. Professionals have only recently taken up Lincoln's murder as a topic, after having abandoned it for decades to charlatans. As a result, the assassination inspired even more foolishness than Lincoln's "romance" with Rutledge. Lincoln has been described as the victim of plots by Catholics, by copperheads (northerners sympathetic to the south), by bankers, by the Secret Service. Reagan himself never suggested that Lincoln was killed by the liberal big spenders, but no doubt he has supporters who believe that. A historian once observed that the only theory not yet advanced was that Lincoln, bored with the play on that fateful night, shot himself.

Hanchett dismisses the various conspiracy stories as "captious and perverse." And yet they're durable. The concoctions of one such theorist, the Chicagoan Otto Eisenschiml, have been repackaged a half-dozen times since he first put them on the table back in the 1930s. His argument--that Secretary of War Stanton was the chief plotter and frustrated radicalism was the motive--continues to show up in magazine articles and TV specials.

Hanchett regrets that his colleagues' failure to drive stakes through the hearts of the Eisenschimls of the world has kept the goofball theories coming back. Thomas Reed Turner of Bridgewater State College in Massachusetts, who has made the president's murder his academic specialty, warns that historians leave any topic to "sensationalists and popularizers only at great peril to the truth." But this warning seems to doom historians to chasing what Hanchett calls "every fool theory that comes along."

But what exactly is the historians' role, if not to straighten out a historical record bent by the gullible, the unscrupulous, or the televised? The perplexed, cautious, sometimes devious man depicted in this collection bears scant resemblance to the Lincoln revered by millions. The people's Lincoln--the earnest young scholar, the gawky lover, the indulgent family man, the precocious antislavery crusader, the sainted martyr--has been impervious to correction by historians.

A few readers are listening to historians of a sort, however. Gore Vidal's Lincoln and William Safire's Civil War novel Freedom are fascinating examples of books that are not traditional historical novels but novelized history. (In fact their relative intellectual rigor and respect for the historians' truths are so substantial that they dull the books' value as entertainment.) Oates's best-seller, unlike the Vidal and Safire books, is a conventional biography, but it is a biography written in the breathless prose of a lesser novelist, the only seriously intended study of its subject that also works as a beach book.

So traditional Lincoln scholars have had to watch as the literate public is seduced away from them by smooth talkers and imitation historians. Boritt bravely asserts that such works "serve history . . . by enchanting a large public that historians cannot reach." Perhaps what we need is not more historically informed novelists but a new generation of Lincoln historians who can write--not just for an informed public (as these historians do well enough), but for an uninformed public as well.

The fact is that readers seem to be as fascinated with history as they are impatient with historians. Don Fehrenbacher, the Pulitzer Prizewinning Lincolnian from Stanford, writes, "Perhaps historians should pay closer professional attention to the influence on America's historical consciousness of works such as Roots, Ragtime, The Armies of the Night, and Vidal's Lincoln." Were they to do so, they might find a country that values history chiefly as myth, one that requires facts to be distorted into some more satisfying kind of truth. It's not only that historians and the public think different things about our past--they think about it in different ways, finding different uses for it. James McPherson of Princeton explains the appeal of assassination conspiracy theories by pointing out that most people believe (as historians generally do not) that great events must have great causes. According to the popular cosmology, great men cannot be rendered extinct by men of small motive, nor can great wars begin over mean issues. The Civil War refutes both points.

The Lincoln that historians seek is (as Phillip Paludan of the University of Kansas puts it) "a man of his age, not . . . a man too good for it." It is an honorable quest. But as long as Americans look to their history as a kind of bedtime story, the historian's Lincoln and the people's Lincoln will be strangers whom fate stuck with the same name.

The Historian's Lincoln: Pseudohistory, Psychohistory, and History, edited by Gabor S. Boritt, University of Illinois Press, $24.95.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Kurt Mitchell.

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