The Limits of Lincoln Bashing

April 23, 2008

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Between the warring camps vying for ownership of the true “American conservatism,” a remarkable consensus has emerged around the status of Abraham Lincoln and his legacy. In the conservative house divided, almost everyone agrees that the president was the prophet of democratic imperialism and that his war with the South was a mere dress rehearsal for global crusades for democracy which began half a century after his assassination. Naturally, the so-called paleoconservatives and neoconservatives disagree on the merits of Lincoln’s putative policy, but they don’t disagree that he led the advance guard of this project to create the world in America’s image and likeness. This dispute is no mere academic matter, since those who control the Lincoln legacy also manufacture the grist for any number of ideological mills.

Anyone who has read the history of the debates over Lincoln’s legacy—I recommend Merrill D. Peterson’s Lincoln In American Memory—knows that there is nothing new about the attempts of various ideologues to project revisionist meanings upon his name and historical record. As David Donald once observed, Lincoln is “everybody’s grandfather.” Almost immediately after the president’s assassination, Americans have been scrambling to join the president’s burgeoning family of descendants. William Herndon, Lincoln’s law partner and biographer, alienated many a pastor in America with his suggestion that the president had never sincerely accepted the tenets of Christianity. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, “robber baron” capitalists and socialistic populists predictably clashed over which side Lincoln might have taken in their class war: the business elite represented Abe as a devotee of laissez-faire while the leftist progressives enlisted the president in their struggle against the new “slavery” of child labor and low wages. While the radical abolitionist Frederick Douglas was confident, at least in his old age, that Lincoln had been a supporter of racial equality, the white supremacist Thomas Dixon (whose novel The Clansman inspired D. W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation”) was equally convinced that the president was an enemy of racial mixing. 

It was only with the American decision to enter World War One, however, that we see the first steps towards the refashioning of Lincoln as an enemy of global tyranny.  (Even the architects of the Spanish-American War almost twenty years earlier had not invoked Lincoln’s memory with such intensity.)  As Richard Gamble has documented in The War for Righteousness, millions of Protestant progressives justified President’s Wilson war on behalf of democracy on the grounds that the struggle against Wilhelmine Germany was simply a global version of the fight against Dixie slavery. They called upon the spirit of Honest Abe to lead American Christians into triumph over the German “pagans” (apparently Lutherans qualified for such a title.)  Yet this first attempt to portray Lincoln as a global democrat bogged down in the face of disillusionment over the heavy loss of American lives and Wilson’s failure to apply his own principles of democracy in the aftermath of the disastrous Versailles Treaty, which set the stage for World War Two. Irving Babbitt, that well-respected conservative, refused to accept any parallel between the statesmanlike presidency of Lincoln and the imperial presidency of Wilson.
Even attempts to invoke Lincoln during the war against Nazi Germany did not fully crystallize into his image as a global democrat. While Carl Sandburg, the famous biographer of Lincoln, persuaded FDR to invoke the image of Lincoln, Roosevelt prudently avoided excessive analogies between the Civil War and the war against Hitler, which could have cost the Democrats millions of votes in Dixie. It is only in the Cold War period that we find the successful re-creation of Lincoln as a democratic universalist—an image so successful that even Lincoln’s enemies have bought into it.

With the publication of Harry Jaffa’s Crisis Of The House Divided: An Interpretation Of The Issues In The Lincoln-Douglas Debates in 1959, the stage was set for a bold attempt to represent the president as a dedicated builder of democracy everywhere. Jaffa, a brilliant student of the political philosopher Leo Strauss, has argued for over forty years that Lincoln’s aims were universal in nature. (The sequel to this book, A New Birth Of Freedom: Abraham Lincoln And The Coming Of The Civil War, was published in 2000.) For Lincoln was the first president to understand that the great American experiment would not survive unless the republic spread democracy far and wide. Jaffa conflated the self-interest of the nation with this ideological experiment, which he unabashedly admitted was a “messianic” one. The American South, in Jaffa’s view, was simply a home-grown version of Nazism. Of course, prominent neoconservatives (like Robert Kagan and Richard Brookhiser) make similar claims that Lincoln stood for “universal human equality,” anytime, anywhere. Indeed, it is now a neoconservative credo that Lincoln would support an “end” to tyranny everywhere, as President Bush’s Second Inaugural Address made clear. Yet Jaffa has been the most determined fashioner of a Lincoln who looked forward to the day when the American eagle would spread its wings to liberate the darkest tyrannies of the world, just as it once did on the fields of Gettysburg. A “new birth of freedom” would now echo throughout the world, since America’s values are the world’s values. The Lincoln biographer Allen Guelzo has praised Jaffa’s Crisis as the greatest book ever written on Lincoln in the twentieth century. Undoubtedly, cosmopolitan elites who favor a more globalist role for America desire an image of Lincoln as the “last and greatest founding father” (in David Gelernter’s term) who would support endless expansionism in the cause of liberty.

Conservatives from the late 1950s onwards, who opposed Lincoln as a tyrannical enemy of Southern self-determination and a creator of the “Imperial” presidency, have not necessarily disputed all the details of Jaffa’s portrayal of Lincoln. They obviously never shared Jaffa’s idolatrous view that Abe was a “god-like” statesman who needed to crush the South in order to advance the cause of liberty, but they have never questioned his more serious view that Lincoln was a democratic imperialist. In the days when National Review still represented traditional American conservatism, two stalwart contributors to the magazine in the 1950s and 1960s, Willmoore Kendall and Frank Meyer, accepted the basic accuracy of Jaffa’s portrayal while they hotly disputed the benefits of this legacy. Although Kendall and Meyer blamed Lincoln for creating a “Caesarist” dictatorship over the republic, they did not challenge Jaffa’s view that the president had a global ambition to spread equality across all of creation. (Among the early contributors to National Review, only Richard Weaver praised Lincoln as a true statesman.) Mel Bradford, who often debated with Jaffa, agreed with his longtime opponent that Lincoln’s “gnostic” love of equality logically leads to endless revolutions at home and interventions abroad. Richard Gamble, in critiquing the logic of Irving Babbitt’s praise of Lincoln as a prudent statesman, apparently agrees with Jaffa that Lincoln fully intended to impose the Declaration of Independence on the rest of the world, just as he had upon the Confederacy. With the exceptions of Sam Francis and Paul Gottfried (neither of whom is a fan of Lincoln), I can’t think of other paleos in recent memory who resist this Jaffaite portrait of the “globalizing democrat” Abe. 

Perhaps most famously, the paleoconservative historian Thomas DiLorenzo has eagerly accepted Jaffa’s terms of discourse while disputing its moral implications. DiLorenzo draws a straight line between Lincoln’s “imperial” presidency and every single intervention in the name of “democracy” that followed the Civil War. (Ron Paul got in hot water with the neocons in late 2007 for admitting on “Meet the Press” that he sympathized with DiLorenzo’s portrait of Lincoln.) In his most recent work, Lincoln Unmasked, DiLorenzo asserts that the president’s unprecedented suppression of antiwar dissent during his presidency has rightly inspired his neoconservative admirers to clamp down on civil liberties during the “war on terror.” This image of Lincoln is useful to DiLorenzo, for it allows him to put the responsibility for all American empire-building on Abe’s shoulders alone. Yet pre-Lincoln America was not utterly devoid of tendencies towards centralized power. DiLorenzo’s hero, Thomas Jefferson, was not particularly shy about suppressing dissent during his presidency (as Leonard Levy has shown ). If Barry Shain is correct, a “conservative” founder like Madison was not loath to justify the growth of the federal government at the expense of the states.  In short, Lincoln was not the first architect of Leviathan in America; indeed, special war-time presidential powers quickly expired after the end of hostilities and it took a whole half century to restore these (during the Wilson presidency), as Irving Babbitt observed in his Democracy and Leadership.

Anybody who reads Lincoln carefully will find it very difficult to tease out of his many speeches a consistent message of democratic universalism. As a child of the Second Great Awakening, Lincoln was profoundly influenced by faith traditions that emphasized the intractable depravity of man. To be sure, Lincoln occasionally entertained hopes that Americans could put aside their differences over slavery in a peaceful manner. As a Calvinist, however, who understood God as an impersonal taskmaster, Lincoln could not believe that all human beings desire freedom and just leave it at that. For the president also recognized (famously, in his Peoria speech of 1854) that it is just as likely that humanity loves slavery, too. If we human beings desire freedom, it tends to be for ourselves alone. In disputing the “self-evident” nature of the Declaration, Lincoln was expressing the view (again, borne of Calvinist realism) that it is all too human to doubt the equality of all human beings. (This skepticism on the president’s part probably explains why he thought mass colonization of the freed slaves to Africa or Central America was the only way to prevent the racial violence which would characterize the Reconstruction period.) There is nothing particularly rational about Christian love, despite the lip-service which both the Yanks and the Rebs paid to this credo. In short, Lincoln’s realistic view about human nature hardly qualifies him as a democratic globalist who wants to liberate the republican lurking in the hearts of people around the world. Perhaps only Straussians who portray Lincoln as “Christian” simply in a Machiavellian sense could have missed the sincerely felt Calvinism in this president’s thought. 

In accepting the neocon image of Lincoln as a democratic universalist, paleos have made the task of their enemies that much easier. For the president has now been baptized as their hero, whom they can call upon when the circumstances demand it. Why have so few paleoconservative historians at least defended Lincoln’s “realistic” actions in the arena of foreign policy? I am not suggesting that paleos indulge in the occultist art of presidential hagiography. Nevertheless, every time a neocon commentator repeats mantras about “new births of freedom” which in reality call for new wars in the name of Lincoln, it is easy to cite situations when he was prepared to live with political arrangements which fell short of republican standards. In his First Inaugural Address, the president offered the South promises to enforce the Fugitive Slave laws and protect existing slavery with a constitutional amendment (obviously these proposals were rebuffed). After the Trent affair of 1861 provoked angry calls, particularly from most of his cabinet, for a war with Britain, Lincoln wisely refused to give into these forces, especially the pressure to invade Canada. (John A. MacDonald, a good Burkean Tory who later became Canada’s first prime minister, was very grateful to the president for his prudence and restraint in this matter.) When the Poles rebelled against Czarist Russia in 1863, Secretary of State William Seward, acting on the president’s wishes, assured the Russians that America would not interfere in this conflict (funny how neocons today omit this fact as they extend NATO’s influence ever closer to Russia’s borders). 
  
I don’t doubt that neos and paleos will always play politics with Lincoln’s legacy. It may not be very dramatic or glamorous to portray Lincoln as a tough-minded realist, instead of a proto-Bush Republican, but perhaps America could enjoy a little less excitement after five long years of failed democracy-building.    

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