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June 06, 2007

Lincoln Guidance Wanted

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Here's a little email exchange I just enjoyed with Friedrich Von Blowhard.

Me: Historical coaching needed.

I just finished reading (OK, going through a severely-abridged audiobook of) Gore Vidal's novel "Lincoln," and it has me puzzling over Lincoln. I have no idea what to make of the guy, and the few sources I've looked at haven't been much help.

I read one of the big fat bios of him maybe 10 years back and found it unenlightening. People seem to want to make such a big deal of the guy: freer of the slaves, savior of the nation, etc. The hero-worshipping gets overwhelming even when they admit to a few flaws, like, OK, he didn't actually like black people much.

And then there's a tiny minority of guys who think Lincoln was awful -- had no right to try to keep the South from seceding, killed hundreds of thousands unnecessarily, arrogated powers to the federal government that it never ought to have had, etc. I find this view of Lincoln much more convincing, but 1) I hate politicians, and 2) the proponents of this view are so damn rabid ... Anyway, I'm suspicious of it too.

So, as far as I can tell, there's the social-studies/civil rights crowd, who hero-worship Lincoln, and then there's the small-government types who despise him. Is that it? From the novel I'm not entirely sure what Vidal's take on Lincoln is -- Vidal seems pretty clear-eyed about Lincoln's power drive but he seems to feel that there was something noble about him too.

I do hate it when I stumble into topics like this -- topics that are genuinely interesting, but that I'll never devote enough time to to make sense of to my own satisfaction.

What's your p-o-v on Lincoln?

Friedrich von Blowhard: Personally, I'm kind of fond of Lincoln, but of course that's only as an imaginary person I've encountered in books. God knows what the real guy was like.

What do I like/admire about Lincoln? Well, he was obviously amazingly bright, although I'll grant you being intelligent is not exactly a moral character trait. He really did have less than one year of formal education and he really did write the Gettysburg address, not to mention that letter to the woman who had all five of her sons killed in battle that was read aloud twice in "Saving Private Ryan" and was more eloquent than anything a modern day Hollywood screenwriter could pen. Lincoln also did teach himself high school mathematics in his forties just for the hell of it, which has got to count for something.

I also like, or at least respect, the fact that he seems to have been a pretty good power politician. All the people in Washington who thought they would push him around ended up getting theirs. I believe his law partner made the remark that anyone who took Lincoln to be the country bumpkin he presented himself to be was likely to end up on his back in a ditch.

Lincoln's also funny. At one point he told a story of a horse who was trying to scratch himself and caught his foot in a stirrup; the man riding the horse remarked, "Well, if you're going to get on, I'll be getting off."

As for Lincoln's power drive, he certainly had one, but his actions as president were in significant part a reaction to the situation around him, which was more extreme than many of his critics seem to realize. I was just re-reading Paul Johnson's book, "The Birth of the Modern," in which he points out that what we think of as "The South" was really an integral part of the British cotton cloth industry. In the first half of the 19th century this was by far the biggest and richest economic system in the world. Prior to becoming embedded in this system, American slavery was declining (the value of slave fell 25% from 1775 to 1800) and every American, north and south, was convinced it would die out. However, once the southern U.S. became "The South" there was too much at stake economically for the Southern Elite (the richest people in the U.S.) to permit that to happen. As tends to happen, these moneyed folk attracted rather hysterical ideologists and bought flocks of politicians to defend their interests. Even the Atlantic coast southern states, unfit for growing cotton, became part of The System; the coastal states were used primarily to breed slaves (whose value rose ten-fold) to rapidly populate the Deep South plantations. "The South" also essentially controlled the national U.S. government, and the Southern Elite refused to share power, despite the fact that an ever-growing majority of people lived in the (non-slave-owning) North. Their hysteria when Lincoln was elected, and their decision to secede even before Lincoln took office or made the slightest move to restrict slavery, let alone extirpate it, precipitated the war.

While in purely intellectual terms one can argue that the South had a right to secede, I don't think Lincoln as president was in a sufficiently tyrannical position to force the North to fight and bleed for four years purely on his say so. Rather, I think the population of the North was genuinely ticked off after decades of being dictated to by a minority of rich Southerners who were effectively treating the entire U.S. as an extension of their slave plantations. That's putting it a bit harshly, but there was definitely something of the sort going on there; I think people had had enough of getting pushed around by a super-bossy clique of aggressive jerks.

On the other hand, Lincoln was a pretty bad judge of generals, at least in the first few years of the war. Until he ran into Grant, he put one mediocrity after another in command, and that got several hundred thousand guys killed (including one of my distant relatives.)

Well, you can't win them all...!

Reactions and further thoughts will be appreciated. What's your take on Lincoln? Is he a hero to you or a villain? And have you read any of Gore Vidal's American-history novels?



UPDATE: The Man Who Is Thursday blogs about Gore Vidal here.

posted by Michael at June 6, 2007


Here's a good place to start for understanding Lincoln...

(written by a Northerner)

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on June 6, 2007 4:38 PM

As for Vidal's personal view of Lincoln:

Many, many years ago, shortly after "Lincoln" was published, Vidal appeared on the Canadian newsmagazine, "The Journal". The segment featured an enactment of a scene from the novel (an encounter between Lincoln and Seward if I remember rightly), and an interview with Vidal. Lincoln was played by a rather sinister, glinty-eyed actor, and the scene enacted was basically Lincoln messing with Seward's head. In the interview, Vidal emphasized Lincoln's ruthlessness and shrewdness, anticipating something of Doris Kearns Goodwin's recent take on Lincoln as a master political manipulator. But...and here's the kicker...Vidal LOVED Lincoln for this. As he was describing this side of Lincoln, Vidal's face was aglow with the light of hero-worship. It was clear that Vidal adored Lincoln, as much for his clear-eyed view of politics and people as for any idealized "he freed a lot of people, but the good they die young" horsetwaddle.

Vidal was a Lincoln groupie who loved his guy warts and all. Which is pretty much my take on him, too.

Posted by: PatrickH on June 6, 2007 5:01 PM

I grew up within the area where Lincoln rode the judicial circuit as a young lawyer. Boys in central Illinois grow up with the living legend of Lincoln. His story was repeated to me almost daily in my youth. During my childhood, my family repeatedly visited his family's home in Salem, Illinois and the museum of his law offices in Springfield. I feel as if I know him.

My family, like Lincoln's, first settled in Kentucky and then moved north into Indiana and Illinois. At the time of Lincoln's birth everything west of the Mississippi was still frontier, so Lincoln was a southerner, midwesterner and westerner all at once.

I think, if you are an Illinoian, Lincoln represents none of the things that Michael has listed. Lincoln stands for the aspirations of those who were born into poverty and ignorance. For those of you who do not know, Lincoln was widely reviled in the East, particularly in New York City. He also stood, in some way, for the common sense of the midwest in opposition to the haughty sophistication of NYC. There are many parallels to the life and ideals of Ronald Reagan, who was also a small town Illinoian.

I've read so many stories about Lincoln's life. In my opinion, Lincoln was set up to be the fall guy for the dissolution of the Union, which was well under way before he became President. He surprised everybody by refusing to preside over the dismemberment of the Union.

Regionalism, I think, determines your view of Lincoln. The abolitionist movement was largely based in the northeast. I have a dim view of the abolitionist movement. It represents a long historical theme of the Puritan northeast, which is waving that disapproving finger of blame at the yokels of the midwest and south. The issues of black and white seem today to have changed very little. "Limousine liberal" remains the proper term for the attitudes of the northeast, particularly the Manhattanite. Somebody else is supposed to live with results of the holy ideals of the West Village elite. "Sweet Home Alabama," I think, tells you the attitude of the rest of the country.

Lincoln did not care for the abolitionists' moralizing about race. He had a dim view of sanctimony and piety. Throughout the war, he viewed the issues of slavery and abolition as much as matters of political strategy as moral issues. I think that he was right in this.

Lincoln's assassination was the turning point of U.S. history. I have no doubt that only Lincoln understood how to successfully bring off Reconstruction.

Vidal, I'm sorry to say, is probably the worst writer to consult about Lincoln, since he is prosecuting the gay theme. In this instance, Vidal is writing something into the past that didn't even exist in the consciousness of people of Lincoln's era.

Admittedly, Lincoln stands as a towering mythical figure in my life. I think this is a good thing. Although I took part in the general assault on everything heroic, masculine and authoritative in the 1960s, I now look upon that era as a sort of destructive madness. It is a good thing to have bigger than life heroes.

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on June 6, 2007 7:17 PM

My view of Lincoln comes by way of Harry Turtledove. Imagine World War 1 with an added front cutting across America. Machine guns, tanks, poison gas & al. The South siding with Britain. The North siding with Germany. Now you're ready to give Lincoln his due regardless of your views on state sovereignity.

Posted by: Omri on June 6, 2007 10:27 PM

DiLorenzo's book (cited by Charlton) first interested me in getting past the Lincoln hagiography, but the problem is that I don't really trust him as a historian. He is a polemicist, and his line is quite selective.

I much prefer Jeffrey Rogers Hummel's _Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men_ as a general Civil War history. It is in fact both history and historiography, and it's devastatingly objective. Neither neo-Unionist nor neo-Confederate (both terms Hummel has no fear of using) historians escape well in his telling.

Charles Royster's _The Destructive War_ is pretty good as well, though it definitely falls in the neo-Unionist category.

But the real fun is Edgar Lee Masters' _Lincoln the Man_ (1931). Talk about wow. A devastating portrait, virtually suppressed in its own time.

Honestly, I've come to see Lincoln as exactly what he said he was - a pawn of forces larger than him. In particular, I'm starting to think the Civil War (or whatever you want to call it) is really best conceived as a war between the Northern and Southern newspapers. Both sides were really completely on crack - not that hereditary slavery wasn't evil, not that the South didn't have the legal right to secede, but both could very easily have found a way to achieve their aims without war. They didn't want to. In fact, like the masses of Europe in 1914, they wanted war. The press had worked them up to it and the politicians had no choice but to obey.

In my book, Lincoln was just not a very significant figure. He was a pretty competent politician from the sticks, a country Aaron Burr. He found himself pursuing a hard line on the war and had to stick with it. Everyone was pretty eloquent back then, so the hagiography is easy (and getting easier). But it is a mistake to compare any later American politician with the likes of the Founders, who were selected by a very different process.

Posted by: Mencius on June 7, 2007 12:45 AM

The attacks on Lincoln come from three sources.

1) Confederate apologists who still can't accept that their ancestors fought for a very bad cause.

2) Crank libertarians (e.g. the author of the book linked to in comment #1).

3) Leftists who can't acknowledge virtue in any traditional American hero.

Lincoln's glory will outlive them all.

As for his judgment of generals: the Union army had to be expanded from 15,000 men to about 600,000. In a year and a half. While half the senior officers deserted.

Nor was it obvious who was or was not competent. For the first year of the war, Robert E. Lee was sneered at: "Granny" Lee, "Evacuating Lee", the "King of Spades" (for his apparent liking for entrenchments). Sherman had a nervous breakdown in 1861. Grant had left the army because of his drinking problems. Some successful generals later turned into pumpkins (Rosecrans, for instance).

Neither was it easy to find qualified commanders. A testy Senator demanded that Lincoln sack McClellan. Lincoln asked who should replace him. "Anybody!" snorted the solon. "Anybody will do for you," said Lincoln, "but I have to have somebody."

He managed through it all.

Posted by: Rich Rostrom on June 7, 2007 2:27 AM

Well, this is certainly a range of opinions!

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on June 7, 2007 8:01 AM

Gosh, Rich! You're right. How thoughtless of me. Here you go...

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on June 7, 2007 8:25 AM

1. Lincoln was a phenomenon. He excelled in all three areas in which heads of states need to be master: the military, the political, and the intellectual/literary. In all of history, there have been very few people who belong in this category. Alfred the Great, Winston Churchill, probably Lenin. No other American president does. If it weren't for the fact that his military policy was doomed to failure, I would be tempted to put Hitler in this group, however. Obviously, this is not a judgment that is based on (one's own) moral or political principles, but is rather based on the head of state's own principles and aims.

2. What happens when you apply your own principles to Lincoln? Well, Lincoln accomplished two things: He killed off the idea of the US as a union of states which retained some sort of sovereignty, and he established once and for all the Whig policy of lavish favors to big business for the public good (exemplified in the policy of generously subsidizing the transcontinental railroad). Thus Lincoln is the idol of big government liberals and big government conservatives (eg., neo-cons). "Idol" is hardly too strong a word, at that. In the Lincoln-literature, he is routinely depicted as a national savior, a colossus bestriding the world, blah blah blah. Since I am opposed to the one thing that these two ideologies have in common (obviously, big government) I do not idolize Lincoln. I also (same reason) don't like the practice of idolizing heads of state.

Posted by: Lester Hunt on June 7, 2007 10:12 AM

Thanks you Lester, for enunciating the traditional beef against Lincoln.

Lincoln's legal career benefitted to a very large degree from landing the railroads as a client.

From where I stand, Lincoln was a poor boy who did what he had to do to make a living. This is one of the things that I admire most about him. Lincoln epitomizes the different moral views of those who were born with nothing opposed to those who were born into inherited wealth. Steve Sailor writes brilliantly about how these moral issues work. A white man who doesn't need a job that a black man needs can (and will) take the moral high ground and condemn as a racist the white man who must compete against a black man for a job. Today, whites who do not need to compete for an education or a job will condemn as "racist" those whites who oppose racial and sexual quotas.

Nothing has changed in the 150+ years since Lincoln's death. Lincoln was not a man of absolute ideals, as the high minded idealists of the northeast insist we must be. These high minded idealists, I've learned, are almost always kids who were born into wealth. Lincoln was a pragmatist. He fought in the Blackhawk Indian wars to make a living because not much else was available to him. He lawyered for the railroads because that was where he could make money.

Absolute morals are great if you are born to money. Not of much use if you are born with nothing.

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on June 7, 2007 11:02 AM


It's true that the rags-to-riches theme is an important part of the Lincoln myth. It is also a legitimate part, in a way, because of course he did start out poor. But for some reason I have never been happy with accepting political rags to riches stories as proper instances of that genre. Artists, intellectuals, and business people who go from obscurity to prominence inspire me. But not politicians. Am I just prejudiced against politicians, I wonder? After all, getting people to vote for you is a real skill, an achievement. Maybe it's because getting elected, or pulling off a coup, is such a shortcut. It's not like (formerly poor) Andrew Carnegie building the world's greatest steel company piece by piece.

Posted by: Lester Hunt on June 7, 2007 12:33 PM

I have what I think of as "absolute" morals and I certainly wasn't "born to money."

Posted by: Bilwick on June 7, 2007 12:44 PM

Patrick H's description of Vidal's nuanced portrait/take on Lincoln is spot on, and Vidal's writings on Lincoln have indeed formed my perception of Lincoln. He was a far more complex and interesting character than many hagiographies describe.

In the omnibus "United States" Vidal has three Lincoln chapters, responding, (or delicately eviscerating) the critics ("scholar-squirrels") who objected to Vidal's portrayal of Lincoln.

Without going too deeply into it, Vidal accused Lincoln scholars of believing contemporary newspaper accounts of events in Lincoln's life as inerrant Gospel, as pure "fact". It's an interesting discussion of the interpreting of the past in itself.

One memorable dispute: Vidal was attacked by critics who were aghast that he suggested Lincoln might have contracted syphilis as a young man. He took this from writings of Herndon, Lincoln's best friend and law partner. Herndon had written (in a diary or private correspondence years later) that Lincoln told him he had contracted it during a 'terrible passion", a brief dalliance with a woman when he was in his twenties.

Vidal says he was attacked by those who saw this idea as desecrating a Great Man. I found him persuasive though; is it not at least a possibility that Mary Lincoln's later madness might have been syphilitic? Tragically and unknowingly transmitted from Lincoln?

Vidal amply backs up many of his perceptions of Lincoln; he was quite astute and politically shrewd, ruthless when he needed to be. He was resigned that professions of religious faith were a requirement of his job and era, but he himself was ..ambivalent.
He had a passion for Shakespeare, which influenced greatly his prose style as well has his understanding of the complexities of human nature and ambition. He suffered from "melancholy" that today we would probably describe as clinical depression.

In short, I think his was a far richer and more complicated persona than the 'great man' theories of yore. The past is more than another country, it's another World; and though it is often a mistake to retroactiveally project our own ideas on the past, Vidal backed up every perception of lincoln's character with the written word of Lincoln's intimates. Convincingly, imho.

Posted by: Deschanel on June 7, 2007 1:19 PM

Vidal does an amazing job of humanizing the people in his historical novels, and giving them plausible motivations and goals. It's all a little like a TV miniseries, but a very, very smart and worldly one.

It's funny about Lincoln ... I've never been able to work up any fondness for him. Nothing against him, as politicians go -- obviously gifted at the game, and lord knows he had a flair with the language. And I don't have a completely rabid, on-principle dislike of him either. But the fondness and admiration many feel for him eludes me. And not just the mythifying social-studies/big-govt types who love him for centralizing things -- screw that and them. But also the Vidal-types who are realistic about him but love him anyway. What do they see in him that their emotions glom on to? I must have skipped class the day our junior-high history teacher made everyone fall in love with the guy ... My shortcoming.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on June 7, 2007 2:03 PM

Well, I'm a Southerner by upbringing, and a small-government type. But I still have a lot of time for Lincoln. I think that the South should have lost the war, for one thing, and Lincoln managed to see to it that they (we?) did. We've had plenty of leaders who wouldn't have stuck with it after the way the first year or two of the conflict went, that's for sure. People who've only read the myths are surprised to find out his views on race relations, etc., but that only reinforces his non-superman qualities.

And being from out in an obscure part of the country myself, I always have some fondness for people who come out of nowhere and show the rest of the country how it's done. That's about the only soft spot I have for my fellow Arkansan, Bill Clinton, for example, but that's a whole different discussion. . .

Posted by: Derek Lowe on June 7, 2007 2:52 PM

I have some comments on Vidal on my blog here:

Posted by: Thursday on June 7, 2007 3:14 PM

Your mention of the Gettysburg Address reminded me of something. Jay Nordlinger reviewed American Speeches, edited by Ted Widmer and part of the Library of America series. (Here's the link -- reg. required.) Nordlinger made the following comment; I think it is telling, considering he made it after a broad sampling of American oratory:

Is there a speaker who stands out from the rest? A speaker who may be deemed the best? Are you kidding? In 1962, President Kennedy assembled some fifty Nobelists, remarking, “I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent and of human knowledge that has ever been gathered together at the White House—with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.” Mr. Widmer has given us the best collection of American speeches we have, with the possible exception of the collected speeches of Abraham Lincoln (published by the Library of America in 1989).
Lincoln is so far above the rest of us, we can barely see him. In American Speeches, he has seven entries, and they show his moral genius, his rhetorical genius, his political genius … They stagger the mind. If you’re looking for a heritage, take Lincoln, as a heritage all by himself.

Posted by: Fred on June 7, 2007 4:48 PM

Lincoln's greatness was that he was both pragmatic and moral. He did not claim the right to abolish slavery, only to restrict its territorial expansion, which he argued with good backing was a legitimate Federal government power. He believed, with much evidence, that the South was manipulating the Federal system to expand slavery against the will of the free state population. Look at the Dred Scott decision, which would have effectively expanded slavery even into the free states through the fiat of the Supreme Court.

It is absurd that the "small government" types blame Lincoln for the expansion fo the Federal government when he was so explicitly prepared to allow slavery to remain in existence in the deep south as a traditional state prerogative. Instead, the "small government / states rights" argument against Lincoln is generally a cover for the speakers nostalgia for the slave system of the old south.

The Gettysburg address is only a small sample of Lincoln's literary mastery, and not the greatest. The Second Inauguaral is even greater, and the Lincoln/Douglas debates are also a masterpiece.

I found it rather obscene that Lester compared Lincoln to Lenin and Hitler (!). Hitler was perhaps worse than Lenin, but both were real monsters. Hitler was not even a passable writer or thinker. It's absurd to compare either to Lincoln, who although he had his faults was one of the most humanist of world leaders.

I loved FvB's analysis in the post, by the way.

Posted by: mq on June 7, 2007 6:52 PM

If we want to know the mindset of an historical personality, should we examine their speeches or their actions? I for one am sick to death of people who glorify the speeches of Lincoln while ignoring his actions. He was the nation's first lobbyist, a bought and paid for politician who was the tool of big railroads. No different from today's politicians. Instead of looking at his speeches, I challenge the Lincoln cultists to look instead at his private correspondence and the actual legislation he pushed through a radical congress. There is your real Lincoln...not in those pretty speeches and public writings.

Posted by: Bob Grier on June 7, 2007 8:09 PM

"I found it rather obscene that Lester compared Lincoln to Lenin and Hitler (!). Hitler was perhaps worse than Lenin, but both were real monsters. Hitler was not even a passable writer or thinker."

I said that this is not a judgment based on (my) moral or intellectual principles. Plus, note that I also compared Lincoln to Churchill and Alfred the Great! And I said that Hitler does not belong in this group. My point was that, for me, Lincoln is most impressive when considered in this way -- ie., amorally. I regretfully do disagree with you about Hitler as a writer and thinker. The world would be a much better place today if he were less talented than he was.

Posted by: Lester Hunt on June 8, 2007 12:35 AM

Lincoln was a masterful analyst and expositionist, as in his "House Divided" speech. He grasped that the old live-and-let-live approach to regional differences on slavery wasn't going to work in an America increasingly integrated by fast railroad travel. The slave interest had to keep getting more powerful within the Union or die.

Posted by: Steve Sailer on June 9, 2007 2:42 AM

Here in the "Yankee" borough of the Bronx in NYC, where the American author from Virginia, Edgar Allan Poe once walked and talked on the Jesuit's Fordham University, (inspired perhaps by the bells of the chapel finally released from the "clutch" of the WFUV radio tower, a newer one next to the football field was 11' too close to the Botanical Gardens and so it is now FCC approved atop Montefiore Hospital, probably by its former Secretary of State's son Michael Powell, now next to the once also fought EPA mandated filtration plant taken over from "crooks" to be determined in court by Skanska going from $1 to $2 billion) President Lincoln contracted with Janes and Kirtland for a little over $1 million to cast and assemble the Capitol Dome, replacing the "hat box". I am given to understand he thought it an important symbol our unity, whom had previously built the cast iron fireproof Library of Congress since superseded by our literary output.

I worked on the site of the West Point Foundry in Cold Spring, NY where he witnessed the firing of R. P. Parrott's patented (1861) rifled cannon later (1863) used in the incendiary civilian bombardment of Charleston, South Carolina, named the "Swamp Angel" which blew apart later investigated by the Congress. It had been produced in the first federal facility to have a labor dispute over government run production. Another Hudson River foundry owner, was contracted by the Confederacy to build a powder mill said based on the London Crystal Palace brochures handed out and outside of Atlanta, Georgia its thought if it had been found might have shortened the civil war considerably, it was made very efficiently.

Later, the statue at the Lincoln Memorial was created and then reproduced from sections of the smaller statue by a Bronx, New York firm.

Posted by: George Myers on June 16, 2007 8:42 PM

I'm way late to this discussion, but, for whatever reason (ok, he fascinates me) have read lots more both about and by Lincoln than the above commenters (I am guessing). Not that there are not some very fine comments above. So here are a few stray reactions, in no order:

1. Lincoln was not really a racist in any meaningful sense (unless you think razib is a racist), despite his remarks in the southern part of Illinois during the Lincoln-Douglas debate. For an hilarious insight into his feelings on that score, as well as the hell that was his marriage, and his crazy repore with children, see the memoirs of his black washer woman in the late 1850's. The original title was "Massa Abe an de Missus," but it was eventually, and fairly recently, published under a different title I can't remember (email me and I will dig it up: The manuscript is controversial -- most Lincoln scholars don't accept its authenticity -- but the names and street addresses of all the neighbors are right, and as a human document, transcribed in dialect, it is innimitable: nobody could make this stuff up. There are priceless anecdotes and hellish marital scenes, Mary being -- according to the maid -- addicted to laudanum, which she make Lincoln get for her at the local druggist's. For me, a Lincoln afficinado it was a real find, and I bet dollars to donuts it is eventually confirmed as authentic on circumstantial evidence.

And now having shot my credibility all to hell, a few other remarks:

2. Lincoln is the most knowable historical figure by a long shot, if you want to get to know him (I find him simpathetic, but then I am melancholic myself). Good places to start: Edmund Wilson's chapter in Patriotic Gore, Herndon's Life, the first volume of Beveredge's biography for his childhood (made Dickens's look like a picnic) and then, if you want to be your own editor, Sandburg's 6 volume miscellany, which throws in everything but the kitchen sink.

Lincoln was shrewd, ambitious, but also . . . honest, not easy for lawyers and politicians. He felt guilty over the House Divided speech because he new it would provoke the South (in a subtle and deniable way) and thus felt responsible for the war ("oh my offense is rank" was his favorite quote near the end) which he knew, though morally necessary, was also necessary to slake his defacto "towering" ambition (as he referred to it himself, obliquely, as a young man in an early speech on the perpetuation of our liberal institutions. Just to grow up to be another President was piddling by his standards. He wanted to live on in the moral imagination of the human race, essentially forever. He couldn't help it. He was born that way.

The guy said (and believed) that it was more important to save the union than to abolish slavery, for which he is often criticized. However, he was being responsible as a stateman must be (see Weber's essay comparing statemen and scholars) and realized that if the Union were lost slavery would neither be ended nor contained, whereas if the Union were preserved slavery could be contained for the time being and possibly later ended. Moral realism. The logic is irrefutable; and, anyway, I think he had a pretty good idea how events would eventually unfold. He was almost uncanny in this regard.

He was maybe the world's first stand-up comic, and had the knack -- which Franklin lacked, for example -- of not making others jealous of his genius. People loved or loathed him but nobody ever envied him. To pull that off required psychological talent and tact of a rare kind. He was seen as ugly and miserable in the here and now (the miserable part was real enough) that he might appear as noble and beautiful in the long run. "Mortal man, made of clay. Gone tommorow, here today." (His little off-the-cuff jingle while getting a wagon unstuck in the mud as his companions watched.)

Oh, well, I might as well go ahead and declare myself: he was the greatest modern man (even though the part about syphilis was very probably true, and he could lose his temper). What is more, he knew it, both prospectively and respectively, though never in the moment. He could have accepted failure, but he planned for, and was not really surprised by, his success. Edmund Wilson brings this out nicely. As Shakespeare was to the world of imagination, Abraham Lincoln was to the world of action: the real thing.

But enough of this hero worship!

Posted by: Luke Lea on June 20, 2007 3:33 PM

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