Why We Keep Reinventing Abraham LincolnHistorians in the News
tags: books, Abraham Lincoln, Revisionist History
Lincoln revisionism is not new. In the nineteen-fifties, Edmund Wilson, in these pages, shook off the crooning hagiography of Carl Sandburg’s multivolume biography and replaced it with a vision of Lincoln as a calculating, aggressive nationalist—an American Bismarck, though one in possession of a sternly arresting prose style. The Civil War, in Wilson’s account, was fought for no higher cause than that which makes sea slugs attack other sea slugs: because it is in the nature of beasts to make war. In place of smiling Honest Abe we got lynx-eyed Killer Lincoln.
This view was taken up, with a few complimentary curlicues, in Gore Vidal’s best-selling 1984 novel, “Lincoln.” Wilson and Vidal, channelling the ghost of Henry Adams, and seeing themselves as the last redoubts of patrician hauteur, painted their Lincoln against the background of the Cold War. Lincoln’s militarization of the Republic, his invention of an armed national-security state, was taken to be a kind of original sin that would lead to the Pentagon and Vietnam. The lovable Lincoln persisted through this period, but Lincoln was interrogated as much as admired. (And this was merely the revisionism from the left; some Southern conservative intellectuals were still muttering “Sic semper tyrannis.”)
In the decades that followed, the tone of Lincoln biographies became remarkably more benign. There were hymnals in praise of Lincoln’s wisdom in assembling a Cabinet of political opponents (though all Presidents in the era assembled Cabinets of their rivals) and others on the beauty of his language (though Disraeli, in London, was as good a writer in his own way, and no one was deifying him). Spielberg’s Lincoln gave us the beatified, not the Bismarckian, President, even if Daniel Day-Lewis brilliantly caught the high-pitched, less than honeyed tones that Lincoln’s contemporaries heard. In more recent years, however, Lincoln has been under assault—not for being a militarist but for not being militant enough, for not being as thorough an egalitarian as some of the radical Republicans in Congress. Newer Lincoln biographies have been needed, and the need has been met.