How we should remember Lincoln

Phillip Magness Historian, George Mason University
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“Surrender won’t be thought of unless you’ve assured us, in writing, that we’ll be readmitted in time to block this amendment.” So declares Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens at a crucial turning point in the movie “Lincoln.” The scene depicted was the shipboard Hampton Roads “peace conference” between Abraham Lincoln and three southern commissioners in February 1865, in which the leadership of the two belligerents unsuccessfully attempted to end the raging Civil War. In Steven Spielberg’s biopic the impasse revolves around the recently adopted 13th Amendment. “Slavery, sir, it’s done,” answers Lincoln as the Confederate leadership storms out of the cabin, rendering the conference a failure.

This depiction makes for a climactic scene, combining the moral clarity of Lincoln’s push for the amendment with the frightening weight of the path not taken. It is also almost wholly fabricated. Slavery was discussed at Hampton Roads, though the recollections of its surviving participants place it in the context of an offer by Abraham Lincoln to secure funding for the purchase of the south’s peculiar “property” — a scheme of compensated emancipation typical of the sixteenth president’s brand of tempered antislavery. The conference itself failed not on an impasse around the 13th amendment, but the Southerners’ unwillingness to formally negotiate on any terms but independence and Lincoln’s refusal to accept the same.

Similar liberties were taken with the film’s dramatic depiction of the 13th amendment vote some days prior. The casual viewer might be forgiven for believing that the United States was narrowly spared from the continuation of slavery by a tense and uncertain vote on the smallest of margins. Yet as Lincoln described the event to a White House visitor in February 1865, “I had dismissed … all anxiety about that voting. I knew the bill would pass the day he introduced it.” Indeed it was a certainty if not by January 31, then early March when a larger Republican majority took office.

“Lincoln” is still cinema and may be entitled to dramatic license, though screenwriter Tony Kushner repeatedly extolled the film’s historical accuracy, a point he hammered home only slightly less than the supposed parallels between its subject and President Barack Obama. “I’ve watched the Obama presidency through the lens of looking at Lincoln,” he told a reporter during the film’s pre-publicity stage, “And it’s given me a very deep conviction that Barack Obama is a great president.” In so doing Kushner continues a long tradition of connecting Abraham Lincoln to modern politics, and with it bending historical depictions of the “Great Emancipator” to suit a distinct narrative in keeping with his ideology. Attempts to appropriate Lincoln are popular with self-described progressives, as historian Doris Kearns Goodwin demonstrated in a controversial lecture on the 150th anniversary of Gettysburg that meandered into a modern political message of women’s liberation, praise for LBJ, and a political plug for Hillary Clinton.

Yet it is one the political right practices as well. National Review editor Rich Lowry’s recent attempt to reclaim Lincoln for conservatives, a book with the distinctly un-conservative title Lincoln Unbound, is a meandering treatise that both disavows Father Abraham’s connection to a litany of progressive causes and purports to explain to the reader why Lincoln’s disdain for slavery might also be taken as an endorsement of something approaching National Review’s own distinct brand of market capitalism, or that of “Lincolnesque figure” Ronald Reagan. In reality Lincoln’s economic philosophy closely followed Whig neo-mercantilism, a now-obscure 19th-century doctrine of economic nationalism predicated upon federal transportation improvements and protective tariffs wholly mismatched for our own time. Yet in Lincoln’s economics, Lowry finds common ground for conservatives by way of a rather slipshod acceptance of promised industrial diversification and “profound optimism.” The sixteenth president would also repudiate Edward Snowden, because as Lowry informs us, “You can argue that the NSA program may be something similar” to Lincoln’s surveillance of telegraph wires.

Indeed it might be said that with a suitable anecdote and a touch of historical necromancy to extract esoteric “truisms” from the life and language of the deceased, one might find an endorsement for literally any political idea in Abraham Lincoln. Or perhaps in the case of Jack Hunter, aide to Senator Rand Paul — who recently came under fire for, among other things, a bizarre celebratory homage to John Wilkes Booth — a political adversary and scapegoat for everything that’s wrong with modern America. These various political claimants feud constantly. Lowry would likely categorize Hunter among the “rancid Abraham Lincoln haters of the libertarian right” that he recently railed against in the Daily Beast, yet to Politico’s George Perkovich it is Lowry who is “reincarnating [Lincoln] as an avatar of 21st century libertarianism” at the expense of his supposed adherence to yet another popular progressive divination from Lincoln’s life – a Rawlsian conception of justice.

A casual observer might wonder why a president who died almost a century and a half ago is the subject of such divergent and heated editorializing. Lincoln’s central place in the pantheon of American civic religion offers one explanation. But the deeper problem is that politicized history, whether laudatory or disparaging, typically makes for bad history, because it incentivizes an evidentiary technique that seeks out confirmation for a preconceived position or argument. Pundits latch on to a Lincolnian program as a panacea for modern political maladies left and right. Historical knowledge in turn suffers as an immensely complicated figure during an irreducibly complex war becomes a shallow stand-in for political scorekeeping.

The progressive, conservative, and hostile political interpretations of Lincoln are almost all inattentive to complicating details. Thus the progressive narrative skims past the uglier nuances of Lincoln’s 19th-century racial views for something approaching the moral clarity of Spielberg’s film or Goodwin’s editorializing, and arrives at a model for righteous political action clothed in wielding power for the greater good. The conservative similarly finds a roadmap in Lincolnian self-determinism to righting the course of American political order from the ravages of the very same progressive left. And the hostile interpretation finds a “tyrant,” and an administration that marked the moment America went astray.

Our historical memory is in desperate need of depoliticization where Lincoln is concerned. Like other statesmen figures before him — critical assessments of Washington and Jefferson through their morally compromised entanglements with slavery come to mind — the popular and historically perceived Lincoln needs to undergo a process of maturation that consciously disclaims the panegyric and polemic alike.

This entails reasonable criticism of Lincoln, while deflecting the impulse to gratuitously demonize him. Let’s take up a few particulars. Aspects of Lincoln’s racial though irritate modern sensibilities and complicate the picture of the Great Liberator. We find in Lincoln a genuine antislavery man, though he struggled to find and act upon a solution to the problem of slavery. He frequently subordinated his antislavery motives to a war for the Union, and even contemplated a constitutional guarantee of the south’s “peculiar institution” as a means of staving off secession. Nor can we easily look past his lifelong adherence to colonization, that distinctively antislavery yet racially separatist and paternalistic program of inducing voluntary resettlement of freed slaves abroad — a policy he aggressively pursued during his presidency, even calling it a “hobby.” Available evidence indicates this cannot be easily discounted from his tragically abbreviated second term.

On another front, Lincoln’s decision to suspend the writ of habeas corpus does not sit well with traditional constitutionalism. The weight of jurisprudence from William Blackstone down to our present age of discarded liberties overwhelmingly frowns upon unilateral executive suspensions. Lincoln struggled mightily with the habeas issue and, without diving headfirst into that dangerously fluid legal realm that bestows constitutionality by the convenience of a desired result, likely misstepped. It doesn’t make one a “rancid Lincoln-hater” to recognize the constitutional dangers of ignoring unfavorable rulings from the judiciary, or of Lincoln’s unchecked persistence during the almost two-year period before Congress finally authorized it in March of 1863. Lincoln acted in the uncertainty of wartime, out of perceived need and political convenience. He bears some fault in straying from the Constitution’s letter, but this was no conscious and malevolent design for its destruction.

We might also notice that Lincoln’s spoken convictions about the idea of a perpetual union and the American experiment exist in tension with the uncertainties of his presidency. Lincoln underestimated the strength of Southern disunionist sentiments, likely emboldened the secession movement by irritating conditional unionists of the upper South after Fort Sumter, and anticipated only a short and decisive military action at the war’s outset — not four years of brutal carnage and death. It is a mistake to accept the idea of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, that the course and tragic scope of the Civil War was inevitable, or to casually set aside the internal strain between the rhetoric of a government by consent and a union upheld by military force, even if we find the pretext of its dissolution utterly noxious. Here Lincoln’s words might be better thought of as an attempt to navigate the uncertain as its exigencies arose than a single coherent, unwavering, and perfectly consistent philosophical dialogue with the ages.

Historians are aware of these and other complications, and I don’t intend to charge them with neglecting their duty to help us understand the real Lincoln amidst the clutter of politicization that accompanies both. But serious engagement with uncomfortable facts about Lincoln’s life and administration is long overdue, and neither Rich Lowry nor Jack Hunter will give that to us. It is not our place to bend the past to support the present, or to neglect and obscure its unsavory attributes when they get in the way. The past is messy. Any discomfort that results from confronting it honestly is a far smaller price to pay than that which comes with distorting it to fit a political argument, or simplifying it to heroics or villainy.

Phillip W. Magness is a historian of slavery and the American Civil War, based at George Mason University.