Posted: January 30, 2009
las, poor Lincoln! Or is it, poor us? The writers are legion who have sought the "man" beneath the "myth," their point usually being to expose Lincoln as not nearly as great as legend has it. Like his predecessors, Michael Lind promises to strip Lincoln of the myths that conceal and protect him. Yet in What Lincoln Believed, he suggests that Lincoln is still our greatest president. Does Lind belong to a different legion?
Lincoln, Lind tells us, is not the "Great Emancipator," nor the "Great Commoner," nor the "Savior of the Union." Admitting that there is some truth in each of these appellations, he argues that each hides one of Lincoln's salient characteristics. Lincoln did have a hand in ending slavery, but he would have been content with a union that still possessed slavery. At heart he was a racist, and thus does not deserve the title of "Great Emancipator." He did rise from humble origins and championed the working man, but Lincoln was comfortable with business types and did not understand that the true interest of the working man was not to have equality of opportunity but to be taken care of by the welfare state. Thus he cannot rival Franklin Roosevelt as the "Great Commoner." Lincoln saved the Union, but he had only legal objections to a state's seceding, and this cold attachment hardly merits the title "Savior of the Union."
Even after denying Lincoln these traditional honors, Lind considers him "America's Greatest President." Assuming this isn't postmodern irony (and irony seems foreign to Lind), why do the 16th president's bared bones deserve such high praise?
Lincoln, Lind argues, is best understood as "an old-line Henry Clay Whig." Historians have mistakenly divided Lincoln's career into Whig and Republican segments, not realizing that he never departed from the former. Clay was "a great synthesizer who could weld diverse policies into a coherent program." Lincoln, by contrast, "was content to inherit his program from Clay with little modification." According to Lind, "Henry Clay was to Abraham Lincoln what Franklin Delano Roosevelt was to Lyndon Johnson—a lifelong hero and role model as well as the architect of a political philosophy adopted and implemented by the younger politician."
Clay's program—again, according to Lind—consisted of economic nationalism, on the one hand, and the ejection of blacks from the country through colonization, on the other. So "Lincoln's America" is to be found in the late 19th-century combination of "industrial capitalism" and racial segregation (a second-best resort once colonization proved impracticable). This was an America fortunately overthrown by Franklin Roosevelt and his successors.
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Is greatness found in following someone else's footsteps, particularly someone with so flawed a vision as Lind's Clay? Realizing the implausibility of this, and perhaps fearful that no one would believe that these poor relics are truly Lincoln's bones, Lind acknowledges that Lincoln was a great speaker—better in this one respect than Clay. "Lincoln's genius lay in his ability to articulate, in succinct and memorable language, the political principles of the American Republic." Although Lincoln believed that American democracy should be restricted to whites, he was at heart an Enlightenment rationalist, scornful of religion, who saw that human equality and democracy were universal ideals. He enunciated these beliefs in such simple and compelling phrases that they could become a children's catechism and thereby survive the ravages of time. Though Lincoln himself influenced no one directly except the Chinese (!), the principles of 18th-century rationalism that his oratory rescued are those of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. He is great, in short, because he preserved the ideas that today are the basis for the United Nations.
Alas, poor Lincoln! A kinder reviewer would dig out some fragment of truth from the wreckage of this book. One careless of space would delineate the exact nature of its many distortions. Here I shall suggest only the major reasons why Lind, in spite of his putative admiration for Lincoln, goes grossly astray.
The first is that his scholarship is shallow. With the exception of Allen Guelzo's Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President(1999), he seems completely unaware of the best books (such as those by Harry V. Jaffa) about Lincoln's political philosophy. The second is that he does not know how to use historical material. For example, in picturing Lincoln as a fanatic for wishing to repatriate blacks, he quotes the opinions of one of Lincoln's advisers, James Mitchell, and assumes that Lincoln thought the same way.
The third is that Lind does not understand democratic politics. He does not take account of the fact that Lincoln may have had to appeal to sentiments in the people that he himself did not share or share fully. Quoting from Frederick Douglass's assessment at the time of the dedication of the Freedmen's Monument to Lincoln, Lind notes Douglass's statement that his race was only the "step-child" of Lincoln. He diminishes Douglass's subtlety by assuming that "step-child" unambiguously means second-class. It is true that a "step-child" is someone who may not be as naturally close as a "natural-born" child, but it is also true that he is one who has been deliberately brought into the family. More significantly, Lind makes no mention of Douglass's profound appreciation of the difficult task of political leadership Lincoln faced. Douglass argues in the speech that Lincoln had two great tasks: "to save his country from dismemberment and ruin," and "to free his country from the great crime of slavery." To do either, he needed "the earnest sympathy and the powerful co-operation of his loyal fellow countrymen." Douglass's final judgment is: "Viewed from the genuine abolition ground, Mr. Lincoln seemed tardy, cold, dull, and indifferent; but measuring him by the sentiment of his country, a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult, he was swift, zealous, radical, and determined." He was indeed the Great Emancipator. The fourth and most important cause of error in this book is that Lind does not read Lincoln's words with any care (perhaps because he does not think that Lincoln thought deeply).
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Fortunately there is a wonderful antidote to Lind's book by someone who has read Lincoln's words with great care, and that is John Channing Briggs's Lincoln's Speeches Reconsidered. Briggs does not simply back up Lind's opinion (shared by virtually everyone) that Lincoln was a great democratic advocate; he proves that despite this reputation, historians and others have underestimated Lincoln's oratorical excellence. He demonstrates also, contrary to Lind, that this excellence cannot be separated from Lincoln's equal distinction as politician, statesman, and thinker. Briggs accomplishes this without a trace of hagiography, and without a trace of assumed superiority to his subject.
After a chapter on the setting of Lincoln's oratory, each of the following considers one of Lincoln's pre-presidential speeches (with the exception of the final chapter, which examines three presidential speeches). Each speech is placed in its historical context, without that context overwhelming the speech itself. With sensitivity both to the complications of Lincoln's circumstances and to the complexity and ambiguity of his attempts to hold his audience "in the presence of deep thoughts he did not and could not always communicate in full," Briggs examines how each speech is constructed and how it penetrates to its deeper purposes and principles.
To follow Briggs's argument is to see these speeches with fresh eyes, so carefully does he guide the reader to subtleties of Lincoln's thought and language. Building speech upon speech, he gradually reveals Lincoln in a fresh way as well. For example, in the chapter on Lincoln's 1852 Eulogy for Henry Clay, Briggs shows why it is impossible to regard Lincoln as a mere follower of Clay. One would think that the occasion—a speech of commemoration only a week after Clay's death—and Lincoln's own predilections—he once said that Clay was his "beau ideal of a statesman"—would result in a speech of unqualified praise. Lind takes it as such. But Briggs reveals a deeper aim. Although acknowledging Clay's contributions as the Great Compromiser, praising this quality by quoting from a Democratic Party newspaper, Lincoln seeks to place Clay in a different light. Briggs shows that Lincoln's words of eulogy "shift attention away from Clay's plans for colonization, elevate his antislavery sympathies, and subtly recognize the possibility of finding ways of implementing the gradual emancipation of American slaves—not simply as a first step to colonization but as an emancipatory action in its own right."
Briggs traces Lincoln's rhetorical consistency even as the particular topics and audiences shifted, showing that the antebellum speeches are a comprehensive rhetorical achievement culminating in the great speeches of the presidential years. Beginning with Lincoln's courtroom rhetoric, Briggs identifies a pattern of concession and resolve in which Lincoln characteristically "pared away his views, in seeming or genuine deference to his opponents' position, until he stood by a single decisive point." On one level this was an effective technique that enabled Lincoln to meet and address his audiences as he found them. Admitting all that could be conceded to their opinion, the weight of what he refused to concede became the greater; and he could then draw them toward the deeper understanding he wished them to have. Lincoln was able to use this basic pattern whether he was addressing slavery, the Mexican War, or discoveries and inventions.
But Briggs argues that this duality of concessions and resolve, of passivity and activity, was not a mere technique but ultimately reflected Lincoln's deep understanding of man's relationship to the whole of things. Perhaps this understanding is most clearly, if enigmatically, revealed in Lincoln's portrayal in his presidential speeches of man's relationship to Providence. With the help of Shakespeare and Milton, Briggs interprets Lincoln's references to Providence with a subtlety and intelligence I believe to be unsurpassed in Lincoln scholarship. He shows how Lincoln threads his way between a belief in Providence or fate that would make men mere tools of the divine, and a belief in the efficacy of human action that would reduce justice to mere human invention.
Briggs explains that he wishes to show that great prose works are worthy of careful literary attention. He accomplishes that and much more: he provides a model of how better to understand our country and ourselves.