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Lincoln the Great

Though he didn’t look that way at the time

By Wilfred W. McClay | HUMANITIES, January/February 2009 | Volume 30, Number 1

The American Civil War and the enigmatic man whose election in 1860 precipitated it hold an inexhaustible interest for us. Thousands of volumes on both subjects have streamed out of publishing houses in the past century and a half, covering every conceivable topic and vantage point, from arcana of military operations to probing, and occasionally preposterous, efforts to explore Lincoln’s psyche. Nor does this flow seem to be diminishing. We are about to launch into a grand national celebration of the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth that may eclipse all such previous commemorations, and will for a time render that name as ubiquitous in our thoughts as it is on our currency.

For a country said to be uninterested in its past, this would seem to be a giant exception to the rule. Yet the deeper reasons for such enduring, even obsessive, interest in these subjects, permeating both the scholarly world and the general public, are not immediately obvious. There are few if any decisive new facts remaining to be unearthed, few glaring lacunae in the historical record crying out to be filled, few interpretive gambits that have not been tried at least once. There continue to be bands of Lincoln assassination enthusiasts who find it irresistible to speculate about what did or did not happen those fateful days in the spring of 1865. But they don’t explain the passionate interest in the man, any more than the popularity of Shakespeare’s plays derives from the rather tiresome search to ascertain their “true” author.

No, the lure of the Civil War is that it taps into something far deeper, a vein of powerful meanings and buried feelings that run beneath the surface of everyday American life. Even Civil War buffs and hobbyists, who pride themselves on their encyclopedic knowledge of battlefield tactics and wartime paraphernalia, know that the object of their passion is something fundamentally mysterious, precious, even sacred. And, notwithstanding the battalion of ersatz Abes that emerge on Presidents’ Day to sell refrigerators and used cars, there is a feeling of instinctive reverence that extends to the sixteenth president himself. For when it comes to the Civil War, and the leader who successfully prosecuted it, we somehow feel ourselves drawing close to the very core of American national identity. That is why these subjects command our attention. We cannot help but pick them up in our hands and turn them round and round, searching their many facets for confirmation, or for a hint of something fresh and new. These are large subjects that contain multitudes.

With Lincoln himself, the picture is particularly complex. Partly that is because popular perceptions of him are as exalted and outsized as the gigantic marble likeness of him inside the Lincoln Memorial, that national temple of the American civil faith. Such images of Lincoln as demigod do not jibe easily with the more human Lincoln that we think we know—awkward, melancholic, compulsively joke-telling, conniving, unhappily married, vulgar, fiercely ambitious, and superlatively eloquent uncommon-common man. In fact, as historian Merrill Peterson has shown, there have been many Lincolns over the years, some of them archetypal—the Savior of the Union, the Great Emancipator, the Man of the People, the Self-Made Man—but others very much tied to their moment.

In 1928, Stephen Vincent Benét (drawing on the sentimental popular biography of Lincoln written by Carl Sandburg) described him not as the highly successful corporate lawyer he was, but as a “lank man, knotty and tough as a hickory rail,”

Whose hands were always too big for white-kid gloves,
Whose wit was a coonskin sack of dry, tall tales,
Whose weathered face was homely as a plowed field.

In the 1950s, this country-boy Lincoln had morphed into the wise, prudent leader who steered the ship of Union between the wild excesses of ideologues: abolitionists on the left and proslavery fire-eaters on the right. In the 1960s, Lincoln was at first thought of as a civil-rights pioneer, but soon became criticized, even reviled, as a racist and a proponent of timid half-measures, a forerunner of the pragmatic liberalism that was so thoroughly drubbed by the New Left. Today, Lincoln is revered for his combination of faith and epistemological modesty, a skeptical believer who sought to do God’s will without ever claiming to know it—a view that requires one to overlook the fierce and relentless way he conducted the war that defined his presidency.

We too will have our own Lincoln, or Lincolns, and there is good reason to believe that ours will be as partial as anyone else’s. But we should not be content with such easy relativism. Out of respect to the man, we should at least try to recover a sense of both the grandeur and the contingency of the history that he lived through, and helped to shape. To see a statesman in full, and thereby learn something about the nature of statesmanship, one needs to see him not only in the overly clear light of retrospection, but in the shadowy and inconclusive light of the conditions he faced as they were unfolding. “I claim not to have controlled events,” Lincoln mused during the course of his presidency, “but confess plainly that events have controlled me.”

When standing before the Lincoln Memorial, we should remember the depth and breadth of Lincoln’s unpopularity during his entire time in office. Few great leaders have been more comprehensively disdained or loathed—or underestimated. The low Southern view of him, of course, was to be expected, but it was widely shared north of the Mason-Dixon line. As David Donald put it, Lincoln’s own associates thought him “a simple Susan, a baboon, an aimless punster, a smutty joker”; he was, in the view of the abolitionist Wendell Phillips, a “huckster in politics,” and “a first-rate second-rate man.” When he delivered the Gettysburg Address, one of the great speeches of human history, he was completely overshadowed by the two-hour-long speech of famed orator Edward Everett that preceded his. There was little or no applause for him as he concluded his two-minute speech and sat down.

We need to remember that this is often how history happens. Background music does not swell at the crucial moment, and trumpets do not sound, when the events of history are actually taking place. The orator or the soldier has to wonder whether he is acting in vain, whether the criticisms of others are in fact warranted, whether time will judge him harshly. Few great men have felt this burden more completely than Lincoln.
We also need to remember how likely it seemed to Lincoln and others that he would lose the 1864 election, and thereby experience ignominious defeat and see the disintegration of the Union cause as he had fought for it. Had it not been for the miracle of Sherman’s and Grant’s decisive victories in the field, such a defeat at the polls would have been likely, as the American people had grown weary of this frustrating struggle. Add to this bleak outlook the weight of Lincoln’s relentlessly self-examining and depressive temperament and his constant, lonely struggles with a crippling sense of failure, and the sheer resiliency of the man becomes awe-inspiring, in ways a marble temple could never convey.

Beyond these immediate problems were unstated but widely shared worries about the inherent fragility of the Union. These grew out of what historian Robert V. Bruce called “the Civil War foresight saga,” by which he meant the deeply felt anticipation, running back at least to the time of the American Revolution and Shays’s Rebellion, that the American Union was fated to come apart. A fear of anarchy and disunion was indeed endemic in early national and antebellum America, a fact that should remind us of the fluidity and relative weakness of national identity in the decentralized early Republic, and of the degree to which the real operative authority and meaning of the Constitution had to be established through a long series of intensely contested political acts and policies.

When the young Daniel Webster mourned George Washington’s death in 1800 as the loss of the Union’s “great political cement,” he was moved to add the following haunting image: “I already see, in my imagination, the time when the banner of civil war shall be unfurled . . . and when American blood shall be made to flow in rivers by American swords!” For anyone who lived through the acrimonious politics of the 1790s, such foreboding thoughts did not seem out of place. Similar premonitions ran through the signal events of early American political history: through the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions, the Hartford Convention, the Missouri Compromise, the nullification controversy, and so on to Fort Sumter.

Lincoln firmly took his stand against all of these accumulated fears, in defense of the transcendent ideal of the Union as the sine qua non for the success of the American experiment in republican government. Indeed, as the conflict wore on, he spoke more and more frequently not just of the Union but of “the nation”; and when he did speak of “the Union,” he presented it not as a means to an end but as an end in itself, something worthy of sacrifice in its own right. His old friend (and Confederate enemy) Alexander Stephens later marveled that “the Union with him in sentiment rose to the sublimity of a religious mysticism.” But Lincoln well understood something that neither the Confederates nor the abolitionists could grant: that the future of constitutional liberty, and the possibility of even the most worthy social reforms, depended in a fundamental way upon the perpetuation of a strong and cohesive nation.

In its waging as well as its results, the Civil War was a great crucible of American national identity. This is why the literary critic Edmund Wilson called Lincoln the American Bismarck, thereby placing the American Civil War in the context of the other great worldwide movements of national unification and state-building that came in the middle years of the nineteenth century. In so doing, Wilson also made the melancholy but inescapable point that war has proved the most effective agent of national cohesion in modern history. For all the moral leadership that so often is attributed to Lincoln, it was his Bismarckian strategy of “blood and iron” that made Lincoln a creator of American nationalism, rather than a mere savior of the Union.

We should remember too that, with events controlling him, Lincoln had to do things as president that he was not equipped to do, either by experience or temperament. He had not only opposed the aggression of the Mexican War but was something of an antimilitarist who abhorred violence. How then to account for the fact that he became such a remarkably effective war leader, indeed the quintessential war president—the only president in our history whose entire term of office was defined by the conditions of war, and the employer and enabler of such legendarily destructive warriors as Grant and Sherman? It is surely one of the many mysteries about this man.

He also excelled in understanding the larger political dimensions of the war, in riding the flow of events and changing Northern public opinion with a consummate sense of timing. He understood the importance of isolating and containing the South, keeping the border states out of the Confederacy and European mischief-makers out of the struggle. He gradually and deftly redefined the war as an unlimited, total struggle to overthrow the South’s political system, and pushed his military leaders toward a strategy of unconditional surrender that was appropriate to the war’s changing objectives. Such maneuvering helps us appreciate why Lincoln at first so actively suppressed the idea that the war was to be a war for emancipation, to the extent of countermanding John C. Frémont’s Missouri Emancipation Proclamation in 1861. It helps us appreciate the mixture of genuine moral idealism and shrewd military calculation that lay behind Lincoln’s decision to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, a document that is often unfairly disparaged on the grounds that it refrained from abolishing slavery and technically freed almost no one.

Which brings us to the question of Lincoln’s halfway measures, whose fuller context we need to remember. He rose to prominence as a politician who was antislavery but also anti-abolitionist. The strategy he preferred would have contained the spread of slavery, then gradually eliminated it—as opposed to overturning the institution in one grand liberatory gesture. Such a position perhaps seems incoherent now, and it failed in the end, since the South concluded that it could not trust President Lincoln, who received not a single electoral vote from the South, to protect its “peculiar institution.” But it was a position predicated on Lincoln’s belief that the maintenance of the Union was the key to all other political goods.

We find it harder to swallow Lincoln’s frank disbelief in racial equality and his support for African colonization schemes. That such positions were common, even mildly progressive, in his day does not count for much with us. But what should count for us is the fact that, in the maelstrom of war, Lincoln overcame his disinclinations to see that the Union could only be preserved if it sought to achieve something greater than its own survival.

Statesmanship is not an abstract skill, but a contextual one, highly specific to the circumstances it finds. It is irresistible to wonder what kind of leader Lincoln would have been had there been no secession attempt after his election, or had he lived to be a postwar president. That the question is almost impossible to answer intelligently, though, tells us a great deal. Lincoln was above all a war president. Like it or not, that condition of history defined him. He was not elected to be such a president. He might have been no more effective in peacetime than Andrew Johnson was. And he might well have found out, as Winston Churchill or George H. W. Bush later did, that voters prefer very different kinds of leaders in times of peace and war. We will never know. In any event, such was not to be his destiny.

Wilfred M. McClay is SunTrust Chair of Excellence in Humanities at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, and author of The Masterless: Self and Society in Modern America. He is a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and has been a member of the National Council on the Humanities since 2002.

The National Endowment for the Humanities has supported a vast number of Lincoln-related projects, including a number of major projects timed for the bicentennial. The National Constitutional Center in Philadelphia, PA, was awarded $271,910 for “Lincoln: The Constitution and Civil War Panel Exhibition,” which will travel to 25 libraries in 2009 and 2010. The National Constitutional Center has been awarded $30,000 for another project as well, a documentary called Democracy at War: Lincoln’s Three Challenges, expected to air on television in 2009. The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum Foundation was awarded $400,000 for the traveling exhibition program, “Abraham Lincoln: Self-Made in America.” In July 2008, two exhibitions began circulating, aiming to reach 40 libraries and historical societies and museums. The Library of America was awarded $299,750 for Lincoln in American Memory, an anthology of major writings about the sixteenth president to be published in 2009 and accompanied by a website. The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, working with the History Channel and the National Museum of American History, was awarded $400,000 for “Abraham Lincoln: A Man of his Time, A Man for All Times,” a traveling exhibition that will circulate to libraries and the National Museum of American History. The Kentucky Humanities Council was awarded $92,700 in two recent grants to develop and support Chautauqua performances for the bicentennial and a special Lincoln issue of Kentucky Humanities magazine.