Lincoln: A Lying Duplicitous Bigot
This review of David Donald's Lincoln ( New York and London: Simon & Schuster, 1996) was commissioned and published by the Spectator (London), for which I wrote with some frequency, once upon a time before the world ceased pretending to exist. (Surely all the events of 2020 were scripted by filmmakers of the type who created Dark City and Total Recall.) It is amusing to imagine the response of an American editor today. The title above was given, as I recall, by the editors, but I cannot find a reference on the Spectator's website. "I know you'll think I', crazy, but...what if everything I'm supposed to remember, never really happened, someone just wants us to think it did?"
In 1862 Col. John Basil (né Ivan Vasiliev) Turchin led his Union troops into Athens, Alabama. Turchin, formerly a Colonel of Cossacks for the Czar, took offense at the contempt displayed by the townspeople, black and white. "Saying, for one hour I close my eyes," the Cossack officer turned over the town to be sacked by his soldiers, who burned, pillaged, and raped to their hearts' content. Turchin's commander, General Don Carlos Buell, convoked a court marshall presided over by future president James Garfield. Garfield found Turchin guilty and stripped him of his rank. But Turchin had influential friends back in his adoptive state of Illinois, and they appealed the conviction to President Lincoln, who promptly reinstated the Cossack and arranged for a promotion.
In his new biography of Lincoln, David Donald is silent on this and many other episodes that caused many Americans to regard Lincoln as a brutal dictator instead of the saint and martyr that is almost uniformly offered up in the long series of hagiographies that have been published since his assassination. (distinguished exceptions are the honest memoirs published by his law partner Herndon and the debunking biography written by Illinois poet, Edgar Lee Masters, the author of Spoon River.)
Only Richard Nixon--the great Satan of American history--has more books devoted to him than the Suffering Servant, and foreigners who wish to understand the nature of the American regime could not do better than to contemplate the polarity between the mythical Lincoln and the mythical Nixon. (The Nixon myth is so well-established by now that Oliver Stone's film can be described as a sympathetic portrait. I knew Richard Nixon, and believe me, Anthony Hopkins is no Nixon.)
It is as easy to write critically of Lincoln today as it would have been to attack the memory of Lenin in 1940. Every other American hero has come in for a serious debunking--Washington and Jefferson, for example-- but it is still lèse majesté to tell the truth about either Richard Nixon or Abraham Lincoln. The American regime rests upon Lincoln's accomplishment, because Lincoln destroyed the old republic of the founding fathers and laid the foundation for a new order. This point has been made in recent years by the late M.E. Bradford who lamented the change and by James McPherson, who celebrated it, but for many Southerners and a few Northern conservatives in the United States, Lincoln remains a highly ambigious figure: a man of many good qualities and, perhaps, even greater weaknesses, an essentially humane and kindly man, whose personal ambition and political incompetence led to a war that devasted the wealthiest section of the United States and turned the peaceful republic of Jefferson and Jackson into a plutocratic empire.
This latest book on the 16th American president may be as honest a biography as we are likely to see, but it stops short of holding Lincoln accountable for his personal and political failings. Donald has not dealt with the larger issues raised by Lincoln's career: the rightness or wrongness of the Southern cause, the morality of total war, the long-term consequences of the president's assumption of dictatorial powers, including the suspension of habeas corpus and the wholesale arrest of his political opposition.
He does, however, take up the question of Lincoln's character. The key, as Donald sees it, is to be found in the President's letter to a Kentuckian, explaining his shift from his promise never to interfere with slavery: "I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me." In Donald's view, Lincoln's "fatalism," while it led to indecision, was also responsible for his compassion and tolerance. In fact, Lincoln seemed remarkably incapable of dealing with either his wife's tantrums or the arrogant contempt displayed by General George McClellan.
But there is another side to Lincoln's fatalism, a side that his latest biographer does little to elucidate: Even as a young man, the future president regarded himself as a man of destiny. As Donald does relate, Lincoln's mother, from a poor white family in Virginia, told her son that she was illegitimate. Her true father, she said, was a Virginia planter. From this tale (told to his law partner, William Herndon), Lincoln constructed a personal myth. According to Herndon, Lincoln was proud of his mother's background and believed that he inherited his own ambition and intelligence from "this broad-minded, unkown Virginian." Out of such a fantasy, Hardy might have written an Abe of the D'Urbervilles. In fact, there is much in Lincoln's story that would have appealed to Hardy: like Jude or the Mayor of Casterbridge, the young Abraham was a lower class boy with ambitions. Despising his own father for his poverty and lack of ambition, he dreamed of making his way in the world, and like the mayor, he was not above throwing over an inconvenient woman.
Donald gives just enough information on Lincoln's courthship of Mary Owens to arouse suspicions. Abraham was a negligent lover, and the half-hearted attention he paid to his fiancee turned to aversion that he expressed in coarse abuse. " A fair match for Falstaff," he described her in a letter to a friend. In Donald's version of the affair, the hero is guilty of, at worst, crude manners and a change of heart. But a closer reading of the letters [such as my friend Tom Landess performed] reveals a clever lawyer bullying the poor woman into breaking off the engagement in order to prevent a suit for breach of promise.
An early clue to both Lincoln's character and his political career is an address he made to the Young Men's Lyceum of Springfield in 1838. Condemning recent incidents of mob violence, Lincoln went on to warn against ambitious men who might sieze the opportunity to "overturn that fair fabric" of republican government. While lesser men might be satisfied with a career that reached to the Congress or even the White House, "such belong not to the family of the lion, or the tribe of the eagle." Raising the spectres of Alexander, Caesar, and Napoleon, Lincoln warned (hoped?) that such a genius, which "thirst and burns for distinction" would have it, "whether at the expense of emancipating slaves or enslaving freemen." Wittingly or not, Lincoln had sketched out his own career.
Although he broke his promise not to interfere in the institution of slavery, the Emancipation Proclamation was a strictly political move, meant to pacify his abolitionist colleagues and, what is more important, to curry favor with European liberals. His own views on slavery was colored by his strong distaste for blacks. Part of Lincoln's negrophobia is due to his family's Quaker background, part to the difficulty his poor white father had in making a living in Kentucky. But fear and loathing of African Americans made up a good part of the abolitionist creed. In the Lincoln-Douglas debates, Lincoln had put the question with brutal frankness: "I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black, races [applause]--...I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people...there is a physical difference betwen the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of equality." Early in his career, Lincoln had favored the deportation of negroes to Africa or Latin America, but realizing the impracticality of such schemes, he was "in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race."
Lincoln's racism was no piece of campaign rhetoric: from first to last he favored racial separation and white hegemony, and if he sometimes spoke out of both sides of his mouth on this question, it was because such duplicity was normal with him. I have often thought that the sobriquet "Honest Abe" was bestowed on Lincoln as a frontier example of the trope known as lucus a non lucendo--like calling a tall man "shorty."
Lincoln's colleagues in the Republican Party, including the senior members of his own cabinet, despised him for his cowardice as well as for his inexperience and incompetence. Donald cites some of their criticisms, but whole volumes could be published with nothing but the jibes and sneers of Secretaries Stanton (War) and Chase (Treasury). The Secretary of State, W.H. Seward was more polite. Of his relationship with his president, Donald says only that they met as adults and "never confided their deepest feelings to each other," but in his letters, Seward is clearly aware of his own superiority, and he apparently found it difficult to avoid condescension. It was hard to take this crude "pettifogging lawyer," seriously. His famous homespun humor could be effective, on the right occasion, but Lincoln, who had no sense of timing, was fond of cutting the fool on the most solemn occasions. Two weeks after the bloodletting at Gettysburg, Lincoln was composing satiric doggerel on General Lee's invasion of Pennsylvania.
The ambassador to the Court of St. James, Charles Francis Adams, was a descendant of two presidents, and he was shocked by Lincoln's apparent frivolity at the outset of the national crisis. Donald, in telling the story of Adams' meeting with Lincoln, emphasizes the president's personal indifference to the ambassador who had been chosen by Seward and not himself, but the ambassador (according to the biography written by his son) was dismayed by Lincoln's absorption in "the distribution of offices." Over a decade after Lincoln's assassination, Adams still recalled the "moral, intellectual, and executive incompetency" displayed by Lincoln upon taking office.
A more competent president could have prevented the war, but few Southern leaders had any direct knowledge of Lincoln and those who did, like Alexander Stephens (vice president of the Confederacy), simply did not trust him. Even after the first shots had been fired, peace was still possible, but the president would have none of it, and when his commanders could not win victory on the battlefield without incurring terrible losses, he found a general (U.S. Grant) willing to make the sacrifice of blood, and he unleashed William Tecumseh Sherman upon the defenseless women and children of the South. Some Southerners curse Sherman--and Lincoln--to this day, but Sherman's appalling march receives only two lines out of 599 pages. Lincoln approved of Sherman's campaign, and when his general related stories of his "bummers," the President "laughed...and told others in return." There are parts of the South that have never fully recovered from Sherman's bummers, and some of the people of Georgia and South Carolina are still not laughing.