Sean Wilentz: Abe Lincoln, Politician

Roundup: Talking About History

[Mr. Wilentz is a historian at Princeton.]

... Lincoln has never lacked for critics, ranging from pro-Confederates on the Right to black nationalists on the Left. Yet he has inspired far more approval and even adoration than animosity among historians--including one admiring line of argument that can accommodate even his unsavory attack on Pierce in 1852. That interpretation runs roughly as follows. For most of his adult life, Lincoln was an enormously ambitious and partisan Whig Party organizer and officeholder who, after a single frustrating term in Congress, retired from politics in 1849 to become a highly successful lawyer in Springfield. Then the enactment of the Kansas-Nebraska Act five years later stirred his moral aversion to slavery and re-awakened his political aspirations. Thereafter--his enormous human sympathy aroused, his conscience pricked by eloquent radicals such as Frederick Douglass, and his hand forced by ordinary slaves who flocked to Union lines during the Civil War--Lincoln the hack politician gradually transformed into a philosopher-statesman and a literary genius.

This account appears in many different forms. It is consistent with--or can be made to be consistent with--a particular view of American political history that emerged out of the radicalism of the 1960s and is widely held today. On this view, elected officials, even the most worthy, are at best cautious and unreliable figures who must be forced by unruly events--and by outsiders--into making major reforms. Thus Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement had to compel the southern wheeler-dealer Lyndon B. Johnson to support civil rights and voting rights for blacks. Thus John L. Lewis and the left-wing Congress of Industrial Organizations had to push a reluctant Franklin Delano Roosevelt into making and then enlarging the New Deal. And thus Frederick Douglass and the runaway slaves, not Abraham Lincoln, deserve the real credit for the Emancipation Proclamation.

Without question, what Lincoln called "public sentiment" is and always has been a key battleground; and insofar as agitators such as the abolitionists affect that sentiment, they have a crucial role to play in democratic politics (as Lincoln also recognized). But it is one thing to acknowledge the effects of outsiders and radicals and quite another to vaunt their supposed purity in order to denigrate mainstream politics and politicians. The implication of this anti-political or meta-political narrative is that the outsiders are the truly admirable figures, whereas presidents are merely the outsiders' lesser, reluctant instruments. Anyone who points out the obvious fact that, without a politically supple, energetic, and devoted president, change will never come, runs the risk of being branded an elitist or worse. (Hillary Clinton discovered as much during last year's presidential primaries, when she spoke admiringly about how Johnson pushed through the Civil Rights Act of 1964.) Lincoln may be the only one of these presidents who, having seen the light, went on to earn a kind of secular sainthood; but his redemption from grubby politics and self-interested prudence had to precede his martyrdom and canonization. That redemption came as a result of the dramatic resistance of the lowly slaves, and of the words and the actions of uncompromising abolitionists.

The "bottom up" populism of this line of argument got its start in the ideal of participatory democracy forty years ago, but its incomprehension and belittlement of politics and politicians originated much earlier. Historians, like most intellectuals, have long felt uncomfortable with scheming, self-aggrandizing political professionals, preferring idealists whom they imagine were unblemished by expedience and compromise. One of the exceptions among the historians, Richard N. Current, wrote with a touch of embarrassment in 1958 that, for Americans, "politics generally means 'dirty' politics, whether the adjective is used or not."

The hostility of some Americans toward partisan competition and political government is as old as the republic, but it gained special force among writers and publicists linked to the patrician, politically moderate, good-government Mugwumps of the late nineteenth century. Today's historians who uphold the radical legacies of the 1960s consider themselves anything but patrician and moderate--their sympathies lie, of course, with the poor and excluded, not with the virtuous, educated, genteel classes whom the Mugwumps championed. But the recent contempt for conventional party politicians shows that Mugwumpery has evolved, paradoxically, into a set of propositions and assumptions congenial to the contemporary American academic Left.

Like the Mugwumps, many present-day American historians assume that political calculation, opportunism, careerism, and duplicity negate idealism and political integrity. Like the Mugwumps, they charge that the similarities between the corrupt major political parties overwhelm their differences. Like the Mugwumps, they equate purposefulness with political purity. Consequently, their writings slight how all great American leaders, including many of the outsiders they idealize, have relied on calculation, opportunism, and all the other democratic political arts in order to advance their loftiest and most controversial goals. And they slight how the achievement of America's greatest advances, including the abolition of slavery, would have been impossible without the strenuous efforts of the calculators and the opportunists in the leadership of American politics.

At its most straightforward, caustic, and predictable--as in the balefully influential works of Howard Zinn, who has described Lincoln as at best "a kind man" who had to be "pushed by the antislavery movement" into emancipation--this post-1960s populist history writing is just as skewed as the tendentious "great white male" historiography that it has supposedly discredited. Other populist historians are more generous, allowing Lincoln--and, occasionally, Franklin Roosevelt--to escape relatively unscathed, and even ennobled. But if it is history that we really care about, then we must recognize that the populist storyline of Lincoln's redemption and transfiguration, like the other versions, makes a hash of his actual life and times....

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