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Aug 17, 2009 10:21 am

Unveiling Lincoln as Politician

In the New Republic for July 15, 2009, Sean Wilentz has an extended review essay covering seven recent books on Abraham Lincoln. Highly critical and sometimes a bit too unkind with trivial criticisms, the essay is still well worth reading. One of the books Wilentz negatively reviews was written by John Stauffer, who also has been involved in controversy over his co-authored book on the Free State of Jones, as reported by David Beito in a recent post on this blog.

There is a widespread tendency to reify Lincoln's thought, especially with respect to slavery and race, as if he held a consistent set of well-integrated ideas throughout his entire life. This can be true of those who admire Lincoln, as for instance the political theorist Harry Jaffa, who takes as his lifetime template the more mature Lincoln beginning to embrace full political rights for African-Americans, as well as true of critics of Lincoln, such as Ebony editor, Lerone Bennett Jr., who sees Lincoln as always and forever a full-fledged white supremacist. Both extremes overlook the fact that Lincoln was human. He changed his views throughout his life and was capable of inconsistency at any particular time, just like the rest of us mere mortals.

Wilentz, however, accuses several of the books he reviews of an opposite failing. They embrace what he calls the"two Lincolns" approach, in which"Lincoln's anti-slavery political convictions" not simply"hardened over time" but instead arose from a sudden and dramatic conversion"in the deepest recesses of his soul." In challenging this approach, Wilentz quite correctly points out that Lincoln was first and foremost a politician, who was frequently capable of adjusting his public statements to what the electorate would tolerate, even when those statements diverged markedly from his personal views. The peculiar fact that Wilentz actually considers this one of Lincoln's admirable traits hardly mars the power of the essay. My only reservation is that I think that Wilentz sometimes approaches too closely to the Jaffaite illusion that Lincoln's opposition to slavery was as strong and consistent in his early life as it was at the time of his death.

Hat Tip: Ross Levatter and Randy Barnett, the latter of whom posted about the Wilentz essay at the Volokh Conspiracy.

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