Andrew Ferguson: If our 16th president were alive today, chances are he wouldn't be Barack Obama

Roundup: Talking About History

[Andrew Ferguson, a senior editor at THE WEEKLY STANDARD, is the author of Land of Lincoln: Adventures in Abe's America.]

Mario Cuomo has written one book (Why Lincoln Matters) and edited another (Lincoln on Democracy) dedicated to the proposition that Abraham Lincoln is a lot like Mario Cuomo. But he recently revised his view. Lincoln is actually a lot like Barack Obama. Cuomo listed the similarities in an op-ed that appeared in Newsday on Inauguration Day.

"Obama, like Lincoln, rejects rigid ideology in policymaking," Cuomo wrote. Both presidents declared their preference for "common sense" and "pragmatism," in stark contrast to those presidents who have declared their opposition to common sense and pragmatism. Accordingly, Cuomo went on, "Obama .  .  . like Lincoln, will not hesitate to call for substantial governmental assistance in the effort to right the Ship of State."

"Obama, like Lincoln, has superb personal gifts." These include a keen mind, poise under pressure, a prose style that sings, and a gift for delivering tub-thumpers. Both Obama and Lincoln lacked significant executive experience, Cuomo pointed out; both were political underdogs; and both were raised in "modest circumstances"--Lincoln on subsistence farms that were largely unchanged since the Iron Age, and Obama at a prep school in Honolulu, followed by Columbia University and Harvard Law School.

And then there's the shared mistrust of military force. "Lincoln knew, as Obama surely does, that we cannot end terror here [or] in the Middle East .  .  . just by having the world's most powerful weapons and the best fighting force." To sum up, Cuomo said, "Obama .  .  . shares Lincoln's extraordinary vision."

And yet, Cuomo added, and yet: There's a difference between these two pacific, statist, pragmatic presidents--these underdogs under the skin. Obama, taking office, has a tougher job than Lincoln ever did. Obama faces environmental disaster, genocide, worldwide hunger, and a "serious recession." Lincoln, Cuomo wrote, had only "one issue" to resolve. That would be the Civil War.

The declared similarities among Lincoln, Cuomo, and Obama will strike some of us as implausible. But Cuomo's view of Lincoln is already popular and gaining ground, here at the bicentennial of his birth. George McGovern, to cite another antique Democrat, wrote on Lincoln's birthday that Lincoln was a forerunner of Obama-like "change" and the perfect antidote to neo- conservatism. Opinion-slingers from Election Day onward made the same point--including the president himself, who after his election evoked Lincoln so often that he began to seem like a boy bouncing on tiptoe, shoulders thrown back, measuring his height against Dad's.

And so what? Americans are always trying to remake their greatest president in their own image. From the bottomless hamper of historical evidence we pick the scraps that can be stitched together to make the Lincoln of our dreams. Christians find Lincoln the prayerful mystic, military men see Lincoln the brilliant strategist of war, politicians buck themselves up with Lincoln the wily and beneficent leader, and even gay activists see, if not Lincoln the gay activist, then at least a Lincoln who was actively gay. So why not a Lincoln dolled up as a liberal Democrat circa 2009?

As if on cue, Ronald C. White appears with his new biography. A former professor at the San Francisco Theological Seminary, he has made an 800-page attempt to do what Cuomo did in an 800-word op-ed. It arrives amid an unstoppable and apparently endless torrent of Lincoln books roaring out of the warehouses, so blinding it becomes hard to tell them apart: "Which would be best for Father's Day--November 1862: Lincoln's Month of Change or July 1863: Lincoln and the Month that Changed America or maybe The First Half of the Second Week of May 1864: The Bloody Four or Five Days that Changed Lincoln?"

A. Lincoln: A Biography stands apart from all these, however. It has the potential to fix the Cuomoized Lincoln in the popular imagination for a long time to come.

This is mostly a matter of good timing. Every 15 or 20 years, a new cradle-to-grave, one-volume Lincoln biography like White's comes along, claiming to be the "standard life," as the booksellers used to say. If the public likes it, it takes its place in an ancient line of succession. One standard life displaces an earlier standard life, and then in time it is itself displaced by a still newer standard life. Lincoln the Unknown by Dale Carnegie held the position from the 1930s to the early 1950s, when Benjamin Thomas dethroned it with Abraham Lincoln: A Biography (still the best life of Lincoln in print). Thomas was bumped in the mid-seventies by Stephen B. Oates and his With Malice Toward None, which was pushed aside by David Herbert Donald's Lincoln in 1995. At age 14, Donald's book has grown whiskers--gotten stale, I should probably say--so White's book arrives at just the right moment. USA Today has already declared it the go-to bio.

"If you read one book about Lincoln," said the reviewer, "make it A. Lincoln."

What establishes any old Lincoln biography as the standard life is the kind of Lincoln the author has chosen to knit together. A successful biographer will grasp the Lincoln most suitable to the moment, costume it in erudition and endow it with scholarly authority, and then read it right back to the public from which it was drawn. Like every popular entertainer, the biographer gives the people what they want--the Lincoln they hope for, a Lincoln like them.

Carnegie's Lincoln was the Great Salesman, a frontier Babbitt straight from the pages of How to Win Friends and Influence People; the country's strivers and boosters thrilled to the tale. At the zenith of the Cold War Benjamin Thomas gave us Lincoln the colossus, bestriding history as a symbol of the triumph of American virtue, solemnized in Thomas's Ciceronian prose. Donald's book dismissed the worshipful views of Lincoln and gave us a figure drained of greatness by revisionism--"a much more accessibly modern man," as one reviewer put it, "de- mythologized," perfect for the wised-up Baby Boomer.

White's Lincoln is an accessibly modern man, too. It's an intimate portrait, lingering over the subject's emotional "journey." Lincoln is a man who has been taught by painful experience to be wary of moralism; he's ambivalent, gentle, long-suffering, brooding, and humbled--tortured, even--by his honest failure to find absolutes in a conditional world. "Lincoln was always comfortable with ambiguity" on his "spiritual odyssey" and in his "struggle with identity." But he's twinkly too: "Lincoln is the president who laughs with us."

He's unmistakably Cuomo's Lincoln. White collects his Lincoln materials and presents a flattering self-portrait of the modern American liberal. It's there in the language he uses. You can take the professor out of San Francisco, but you can't take San Francisco out of the professor. His natural idiom is the pillowy jargon of therapeutic California, where no man will say something when he can "share" it, or consult colleagues when he can "visit with them," or recover from a personal tragedy without "opening up a new chapter in his life."

The Peace Democrats who opposed Lincoln want to "give peace a chance." Soldiers, all of whom were men, had "spouses" rather than wives. Debates, even national debates, are "conversations." Lincoln himself is a "newspaper junkie." Instead of making a conciliatory gesture, or sending a letter, or asking somebody's opinion, or flirting, Lincoln "reaches out." His sublime writings are one more example of his excellent "communication skills."

The cant phrases of today look all the sillier when they're injected into the life of a 19th-century politician. But White is undeterred. His main task is to shave off whatever rough edges might complicate his view of Lincoln as the kind of guy Mario Cuomo would love. A. Lincoln: A Biography is a case study in how historians have managed to make Lincoln a contemporary figure, someone more to their taste. At the risk of pedantry it's worth going through some examples.

White wants Lincoln's revulsion at slavery to match our own. He doesn't try to claim that Lincoln was enlightened by contemporary standards, but he does want to reassure his readers that Lincoln's views on race were progressive enough for us to embrace him as an ally, if not a peer. White gathers evidence for this theme as he walks the reader through Lincoln's life. He quotes a famous letter Lincoln sent in the middle 1850s, written when he was one of the foremost antislavery politicians in the country. In the letter Lincoln reminded a friend of the time they had both seen a group of slaves chained together aboard a steamboat, years before. "The sight," Lincoln wrote, "was a continual torment to me."

But the evidence is complicated. As it happens, Lincoln recorded his thoughts about the slaves contemporaneously, in another letter written immediately after the same steamboat trip in 1841. In it Lincoln doesn't suggest any torment at all, his own or that of the slaves. To the contrary: Though they "were strung together precisely like so many fish upon a trout line," Lincoln wrote, the slaves appeared to be "the most cheerful and apparently happy creatures on board." They were singing and dancing and playing fiddles, too, just like in Song of the South. Lincoln's torment was evidently retroactive. White doesn't mention the 1841 letter.

Lincoln's law practice occasionally touched on slavery and race. In 1841, he defended the disputed freedom of a former slave girl. A few years later, in another case, he took the opposite side. Though legally a free state, Illinois allowed slaves to be brought in as temporary laborers. In 1843 a slave named Jane Bryant escaped her master, Robert Matson, in Coles County, not far from Lincoln's hometown of Springfield. With the aid of local abolitionists, Bryant claimed her freedom. Matson later went to court to assert what he said were his property rights in the woman and her children. Lincoln joined with a friend to defend Matson's claim and re-enslave the family. Lincoln lost, fortunately for Bryant. Though he dwells at length on both Lincoln's law practice and his racial views, White doesn't mention the case.

On the subject of politics, the consuming passion of Lincoln's life, White is no help--even misleading. He sums up Lincoln's political style with phrases from the op-ed pages. "He embraced a pragmatic approach to politics," White writes, "and had become wary of politicians whose ideology, be it conservative or liberal, blinded them to the practical considerations inherent in local conditions."

White is using ideology here the same way party hacks use it in political argument, as an insult meaning "somebody else's political opinions." The phrase pragmatic approach isn't much better. Has there ever been a politician, in Lincoln's century or our own, who doesn't claim his approach is pragmatic? What's unusual in Lincoln's case is the skill and single-mindedness with which he deployed the weapons of politics to get what he wanted. He left no instrument untouched, and he could be sneaky and misdirecting. White, to cite a small instance, simply asserts that Lincoln played no role in picking his second vice president, Andrew Johnson, at his party's convention in 1864. The point is important for many of Lincoln's admirers because it absolves Lincoln preemptively of any responsibility for the nightmarish administration that Johnson presided over after Lincoln's death.

There's evidence that Lincoln kept clear of the process that chose Johnson at the convention. There's also compelling testimony that he orchestrated Johnson's nomination through surrogates, and thereby bestowed upon the country this drunken incompetent as a part of his legacy. White's readers won't know about the contrary evidence; the suggestion would taint Lincoln, make him too complicated.

White finds the conventional politics of Lincoln's day distasteful. He mentions patronage only twice, in reference to strings Lincoln pulled as a one-term congressman to secure jobs for friends. (Lincoln also lobbied hard to land a plum job for himself, but White turns this episode into another example of Lincoln's selflessness.) White's neglect of patronage is baffling, for Lincoln was the most powerful and determined party boss--or party builder, if you prefer--in American history. No official before or since has displayed such an ardor for the spoils of office.

At his inauguration in 1861 Lincoln controlled roughly 1,500 political appointees; he replaced 1,200 of them with loyal Republicans. The government had never experienced a turnover so sudden and so far-reaching. As the war progressed, the government swelled to unheard-of size, and Lincoln's patronage power grew with it. By the end of the war the number of federal employees--in the Post Office, the Treasury, the departments of the Interior and, of course, War--had increased fivefold, and so had the reach of the president's political appointments.

Keeping track of new openings, screening candidates for loyalty, canvassing local bosses for political intelligence, juggling scores of positions at once--these activities consumed as many hours of Lincoln's day as managing the war. They're the reason Lincoln's White House swarmed with office-seekers; the boys knew who to see for a good government job. The allocation of spoils was never far from his mind. A friend went to see him one evening in the depths of the Fort Sumter crisis, expecting to find him tracking events and plotting his next move as secession spun out of control and war loomed. Instead he found the president weighing the credentials of candidates for the receivership of the federal land department in Olympia, Washington.

Lincoln's use of patronage, his willingness to thrust his hands into the (to us) unappetizing innards of politics, was a source not only of his political strength but also of his ultimate success. By careful hiring and firing he could ensure that, across a far-flung country, the legal authorities were men who remained loyal to the Union at its hour of maximum danger. (It also helped guarantee that the Republicans would remain the dominant political party for the next 70 years.) His obsession with patronage was nothing for his admirers to be ashamed of, but readers won't learn anything about it from White's book. The hardheaded party boss complicates White's view of the soft-hearted president who had transcended partisanship. Patronage offends the progressive imagination.

Whenever White has to weigh competing versions of events, the benefit of the doubt always goes to whichever version makes Lincoln look like a softie. The reasoning goes in circles: Lincoln must have done X because he was nice; we know he was nice because he did X. White will even contradict Lincoln himself if he has to, on the most momentous questions. He insists that Lincoln's ultimate object in the war was emancipation of the slaves, with the restoration of the Union as a kind of lesser twin. And so he is weirdly dismissive of the plain meaning of Lincoln's words--as found, most famously, in the letter to Horace Greeley, written a year-and-a-half into the war.

In an editorial Greeley had asked what "policy" Lincoln was pursuing in prosecuting the war. Lincoln's response was straightforward: "I would save the Union," he wrote. And: "My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or destroy slavery." And: "What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union."

White finds Lincoln's priorities mistaken. So he reinterprets them. "The reply to Greeley is misconstrued if interpreted as a simple declaration of support for the union." White's argument seems to run like this: At the time he wrote Greeley, Lincoln was pondering the release of the Emancipation Proclamation. Therefore the president must have been revising his war aims from Union-saving to slave-freeing; he just couldn't say so in public. And once the Proclamation was issued, Lincoln's change of heart was complete, even though he never admitted it.

White wants Lincoln to serve as an example of that mostly mythical process, "growing in office": The president advances from the crudely nationalistic goal of saving the Union to the universal one of freeing slaves. And when he does, the complicated figure from the 19th century drops away, to be replaced by Mario Cuomo's ideal.

Lincoln said often that he was moved by the injustice of slavery. But did it move him to wage war for four years? Plain, public evidence suggests that Lincoln was moved to war by his devotion to the American constitutional system, "the last best hope of earth," which the Union alone could preserve. The two war aims were entangled in any case. The Constitution, said Lincoln, set slavery on a course of ultimate extinction: If the Union was saved, slavery was doomed. And only the Union, with its founding proposition of equality before the law, could guarantee that slavery, once gone, would be gone for good. The end of slavery was a consequence of preserving the Union, not its purpose.

If Lincoln had "grown in office" it would be hard to explain the ambiguous evidence from the end of the war. By early 1865 the Confederacy faced certain defeat. Lincoln nevertheless engaged in odd, last-minute peace overtures--odd because unnecessary. White says he made them "against his better judgment" for reasons of public relations: Lincoln was "sensitive to the charges that he was not making every effort to end the war." Why White thinks Lincoln thought this goes unexplained.

His narrative leaves out important facts that don't square with his picture of the progressive Lincoln. Three months before Appomattox, Lincoln met with a Confederate delegation in southern Virginia, on his yacht. White describes the meeting at length, relying mostly on the account written by one of the participants, Alexander Stephens, vice president of the Confederacy. In his account Stephens reports that Lincoln, after cordial small talk, laid down conditions for further negotiations. The only thing rebel troops had to do was stop fighting, Lincoln said, and then the southern states "would immediately be restored to their practical relations to the Union."

Not much more transpired at the meeting. Lincoln deflected a few diplomatic feints from his guests, made a couple of Lincolnesque quips, and then called the summit to a close.

That's White's account, anyway. But he omits the most interesting part of Stephens's account. Stephens asked Lincoln a question much on the minds of southerners: What would happen to the Emancipation Proclamation at the end of the war? Would it be understood to have freed only those slaves who were already free at the war's close, or would it retain force to free all slaves? Lincoln replied emphatically that no slave freed under the Proclamation could ever be re-enslaved. Beyond that, however, the courts would have to decide.

"His own opinion," wrote Stephens, "was, that as the Proclamation was a war measure, and would have effect only from its being an exercise of the war power, as soon as the war ceased, it would be inoperative in the future. It would be held to apply only to such slaves as had come under its operation while it was in active exercise."

You can see why White wants to shield his readers from this passage. By his lights it must be horrifying. The Lincoln who emerges is hard to grasp. Stephens may be describing a leader so weary of war that he would do anything for peace, including betray one of his signature accomplishments. Or he's describing a man with ice water in his veins, prepared to abandon a million enslaved blacks who had already begun to call him Father Abraham. Whichever you choose, it isn't the president of progressive dreams.

Will White's trimming bother anybody? By now we should be used to biographers smoothing Lincoln down to a manageable size and more comely proportions. The Lincoln portrayed in A. Lincoln: A Biography could easily last its allotted 15 or 20 years. The unambiguously virtuous figure who's comfortable with ambiguity, who shares and reaches out, is too flattering for us not to embrace, too well-tuned to the crochets and vanities of the day.

Meanwhile, the Lincoln of the public record--the man who emerges from undisputed words and deeds--stays right where he is, far beyond our poor power to embellish or simplify. He really did save the Union, and he saved it because he knew that, alone among nations, it "held out a great promise to all the people of the world for all time to come." Such are the brute, uncontested facts of Lincoln's achievement, and reason enough for us to write book after book about him.

It's just too bad that he didn't do what he did by being tolerant of ambiguity, or by laughing with us, or by transcending partisanship, or by rising above politics, or by growing in office--or by being like us.

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Andrew D. Todd - 3/31/2009

There is an interesting article in a recent issue of Trains Magazine.

Peter A. Hansen, The Rail Splitter and the Railroads: Abraham Lincoln's vision helped determine what American railroading would become, and what kind of nation it would serve, Trains, Feb. 2009 , pp.28-39.

Hansen talks about the fact that Lincoln was a railroad lawyer: "Lincoln participated in suits involving 13 different railroads, defending them 79 times and opposing them on 63 occasions." (p. 32). In the Effie Afton case of 1856, involving a steamboat which had collided with the Rock Island bridge across the Mississippi, with an ensuing fire which put both out of commission, Lincoln was obliged to handle an essentially technical negligence case. In 1859, as an undeclared presidential candidate, he managed to have himself briefed by Grenville M. Dodge who had been out west surveying the route for a transcontinental railroad. In 1863, Lincoln reestablished contact with Dodge, now a Union brigadier-general, to consult with him about railroad matters. Dodge eventually became the chief engineer of the Union Pacific Railroad, with a direct line to Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman in case of difficulties. In short, Lincoln was quite thoroughly plugged into the leading emergent technology of his day. He was not altogether unique in that respect. Robert E. Lee had given engineering advice for the Rock Island Bridge prior to its construction, and the United States Military Academy was one of the two major sources of civil engineers in the Early Republic, the other being the Erie Canal project.

I cannot think of any modern national politician who is involved with technology at anything like Lincoln's level. Even Albert Gore has not gone much beyond general boosterism. Considering Lincoln as a lawyer, the closest modern parallel I can think of would be David Boies, who, far from being a presidential candidate, has been investigated by his state bar association.

Similarly, the one lawyer I can think of who has written most intelligently about aviation is F. Lee Bailey, but of course Bailey's reputation was primarily based on defending gruesome killers of one kind of another, and if he had tried to enter electoral politics, that would have come back to haunt him.

On the contrary, one of the enduring realities of our own time is that the major organs of government are usually dangerously uninformed on technological matters, and tend to blindly follow the advice of the usual lobbyists, without being able to relate technological issues to traditional issues of public policy. Granted, Barrack H. Obama's decisions on technological matters are a bit better than those of John S. McCain, but one suspects that to be mostly a matter of age, in the sense that Obama must have formed many of his "unexamined presuppositions" circa 1980, rather than circa 1960. We can see this more clearly in the case of former Sen Ted Stevens, arguably the single most misguided senator on current technology issues, famed for his remark about "the internet being a series of tubes," which was treated as a general excuse among engineers to regard the Senate as a laughing stock. The central fact about Stevens was that he was born in 1923, and formed his "unexamined presuppositions" circa 1940, that by 1980, he was of an age and status at which most men do not casually learn from their environment very much. If you have a secretary who listens to your oral ruminations and conjectures, and writes them up into polished drafts, you are not going to learn to use a word processor, or to surf the internet, etc.

Incidentally Hansen reproduces a wickedly funny contemporary cartoon of Lincoln sneaking through pro-south Baltimore on his way to Washington, DC. Abe looks at once sinister and terrified, intimidated by a yowling tomcat.