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Allen Guelzo

Two Cheers for Lincoln

A matter of conviction.

Michael Lind has made so many, and such glowing, references to me in What Lincoln Believed: The Values and Convictions of America's Greatest President that I am not sure whether I should have appeared as a co-author of the book rather than its reviewer. So let me say at the outset that there are two things about this book which I think are worth admiring—and one very large questionable thing which may render the admirable parts moot. Those who are satisfied with this as an example of disinterested benevolence are invited to read on in safety.

As a pundit, a columnist, and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, Lind is looking for the sort of thing in Lincoln which most people outside the analytical realms of academe look for, and that is some form of guidance about the nature of democracy. You might think that this looking would be better directed to the Founders—to Madison, Hamilton, Washington, and the Revolutionary generation. But we have become accustomed to the notion that an élitist republic rather than a democracy was the real goal of the Founders, and that democracy was something which was happening outside their circle, and not with their approbation. And so people turn, like Mr. Smith at the Lincoln Memorial, to what bearings on democracy Lincoln can give them.

Therein lies one of the great points Lind scores in What Lincoln Believed, because Lind understands how very, very perilous the status of democracy was in Lincoln's day. In the middle of the 19th century, the United States was the only large-scale, functioning nation-state in the world living under anything that approached the idea of democracy. "In Europe," Lind begins, "the dominant region of the world, monarchs and aristocrats were securely in command." And with, apparently, good reason: the most recent attempts at popular self-government—the French revolutionaries of 1789 and 1830, and the German and Austrian revolutionaries of 1848—had collapsed the moment one faction's notion of self-government differed from another faction's notion. Democracy seemed to possess a lethal, and unavoidable, centripetal force, based on the sheer perversity of human nature.

That democracy survived the Civil War has permitted us to forget that it was ever in serious jeopardy, and forced us to explain Lincoln's goals in more fuddled and contradictory terms—as the Great Commoner who wanted to raise up the little guy, as a willing dupe who paved the way for the emergence of the Robber Barons of the Gilded Age, as a mystical Unionist, as a prophet of the New Deal, as the Great Emancipator. What Lind sees, and sees with hairline accuracy, was that for Lincoln all of these were subordinate to proving to the theater of the world that democracy was fully capable of resisting the pressures democracies generated from within, without losing its democratic soul. "This is essentially a People's contest," Lincoln explained to Congress. "On the side of the Union, it is a struggle for maintaining in the world, that form, and substance of government, whose leading object is, to elevate the condition of men."1 The war was thus more than a war, or even a civil war—it was an ideological test, to see whether the American experiment in self-government, "or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure."

This much forms Lind's first cheer for Lincoln; the second cheer emerges at the end of the book, when he extends Lincoln's defense of democracy as a defense, not of an airy theoretical principle, but of the democratic nation-state. Formed in the mold of Alexander Hamilton, Henry Clay, and Clay's Whig Party, Lincoln believed profoundly in the right of Americans to self-government. But it was Americans, as Americans, who possessed that right. Lind's Lincoln is not an internationalist—he is perfectly happy to have other nations follow the American example into democracy, but he does not think that Americans have any special ownership of the idea of democracy, and he has little interest in forcibly exporting it, on the pattern of a Wilsonian or a Rooseveltian internationalism. It was democracy in America, not American democracy, which Lincoln sought to defend, and sought to hold up as the "last, best hope of mankind."

Which means that Lind sees in Lincoln no automatic assumption that the huddled masses, everywhere and always, were hungering for the American model, even if they took encouragement from the example of American democracy's survival. Lincoln's stand against the expansion of slavery, and then the secession of the Confederacy, was also a stand against the export of American democracy, if that export was tainted with slavery. This is not, we are invited to presume, a Lincoln who would have much interest in neo-conservative unilateralism.

But two cheers do not make a hurrah, and it is in the broad expanse of the book's middle that Lind's Lincoln turns peculiarly sour. Because Lincoln was a committed, if domestic, democrat (Lind argues), he could not have been any of the other good things people attribute to him—not the Great Commoner, not the Great Emancipator, and certainly not the almost-Christian mystic. Part of this argument is a fairly reasonable exercise of logical inference on Lind's part; a larger part of it, I suspect, is visceral, from a man who understands Lincoln's ideas remarkably well and simply doesn't much like them, or much like Lincoln's ideological descendents.

Take, for starters, Lincoln's nationalism—this gave intellectual stiffening to his Whiggish preferences for high tariffs, government-funded superstructure investment, and a national banking system. The downside of such nationalism is that it also laid the foundation for the emergence of a swaggering and arrogant corporate capitalism and a kind of human tariff in labor, in the form of exclusionary immigration policies that tried to shut out foreign workers from competition with white Americans. Lincoln was thus responsible for a revolution in American affairs, a "Second Republic" as Lind calls it, a closed economic shop whose one focus was on the cultivation of industrial productivity of, by and for white Americans. Only with the advent of the New Deal and World War II—what Lind calls "the Third Republic"—did Americans finally throw off the mantle of protectionism and become the arch-proponents of economic globalization, free-trade, open immigration, and broadly based civil rights.

The same exclusionary logic that operated in favor of white Americans and against foreigners also operated against non-whites at home. Lind does not doubt the sincerity of Lincoln's aversion to slavery; what he doubts is whether it amounted to much beyond that, and whether the elimination of slavery operated principally in Lincoln's mind as a way to eliminate yet another form of competition with free white labor. And true enough, Lincoln was slow to oppose more than simply the expansion of slavery; even when he finally did realize that he had no alternative to abolishing slavery and emancipating Southern blacks, he did so with the clearly enunciated intention of deporting the freed blacks somewhere else and reserving the United States for whites. "I am … in favor of our new Territories being in such a condition that white men may find a home—may find some spot where they can better their condition—where they can settle upon new soil and better their condition in life," Lincoln said in 1858.2 To be sure, the deportation never happened. But the freed slaves were dumped under the wheels of something nearly as repugnant, in the form of Jim Crow segregation. To this, Lind doubts whether Lincoln would have had much objection, and so the 14th and 15th Amendments would likely never have followed the 13th if Lincoln had served out his second term as president.

This may not seem very consistent with Lind's previous depiction of Lincoln as the Great Democrat. But Lind's Lincoln, remember, is a nationalist—American democracy is a virtue for those who can be defined as Americans, and Lincoln does not define as Americans anyone with black skin. This does not mean—and it is this which decisively separates Lincoln from Stephen A. Douglas and the pro-slavery militants—that Lincoln was simply another Romantic racist who denied that blacks were even human, or who claimed that blacks have no natural rights as whites do. What he doubted was whether the physical markers that defined races would ever allow full civil equality and civil integration of multiple races within a single nation-state. The majority race, by virtue of their majority, had a legitimate power to exclude minority races from civil equality in a democracy; but otherwise, those minority races were perfectly capable of practicing democracy within their own nation. "No sane man will attempt to deny that the African upon his own soil has all the natural rights" everyone else possesses, Lincoln argued, and he fully expected that the blacks who were colonized abroad after emancipation would create model democracies of their own.3 (Lincoln, in fact, took the dramatic step of extending diplomatic recognition to one such black republic, Haiti.) But at the bottom line, Lincoln's interest in blacks was strictly subordinate to his interests in whites. And that, in turn, explains for Lind the great geo-political shift Lincoln's Republicans experienced in the 20th century, from being a coalition of Northern capitalists and Western farmers to being a party of Southern whites and Christian fundamentalists. The interests of white people were always at the heart of Republican affairs, and by the election of 2000, without much difficulty, "the party of Abraham Lincoln had become the party of Jefferson Davis."

After damning Lincoln for racial indifference and running-dog capitalism, there may not be much enthusiasm left for giving the two cheers Lind wants to give Lincoln as the Great Democrat and the Great Nationalist. But more troubling is whether Lind really has the evidence he wants for Lincoln as the Great Racist and the Capitalist Tool. There is no question but that Lincoln resonated fully with Henry Clay's "American System" (Clay was, after all, his "beau ideal of a statesman"), or that, as his partner William Herndon remarked, Lincoln managed to make quite a good living as a lawyer, representing the interests of big railroad corporations. "Much as we deprecated the avarice of great corporations," Herndon chuckled, "we both thanked the Lord for letting the Illinois Central Railroad fall into our hands."4

But in Lincoln's imagination, the great virtue of capitalism was its power to liberate people from the trammels of status and class, to promote social mobility. "I don't believe in a law to prevent a man from getting rich," Lincoln insisted, because laws that prevented a man from getting rich were precisely what aristocrats used to keep power in their own hands. "Free society is such … that there is no fixed condition of labor"; anyone who "starts poor, as most do in the race of life … knows he can better his condition." And a man who knows he can better his condition is the first and deadliest enemy of every aristocrat, whose future depends on everyone keeping to their own place and not jeopardizing theirs. Lincoln wanted "every man to have the chance—and I believe a black man is entitled to it—in which he can better his condition. … That is the true system … and so it may go on and on in one ceaseless round so long as man exists on the face of the earth!"5 Lincoln was not contradicting his allegiance to democracy by his devotion to capitalist development, whether in the form of tariffs or "internal improvements"; it was precisely the wedding of ambition to "the fuel of interest," rather than to social rank, which gave democracy its vitality.

Lind's most egregious failure, however, is his mischaracterization of Lincoln on race. No one needs to mistake Lincoln for a racial equalitarian; they are, in fact, pretty thin on the ground around the world even today. At the same time, no one needs to mistake him for a lily-white bigot, either. It was Lincoln, to the horror of Stephen Douglas, who kicked off the great senatorial campaign of 1858 by saying, "Let us discard all this quibbling about this man and the other man—this race and that race and the other race being inferior … and unite as one people throughout this land, until we shall once more stand up declaring that all men are created equal."6 Lincoln, likewise, was never the ardent colonizationist Lind makes him out to be (a case so weak that Lind must resort to citing instances of colonizationist talk from Lincoln which he knows to be bogus).7 The one experiment in colonization which Lincoln did sponsor, in 1863, was framed as a purely voluntary, Congressionally funded expedition to the Caribbean, and when it flopped after six months, Lincoln had a warship retrieve the colonists and never raised the subject again. From that point onward, Lincoln progressively talked more and more about integration and voting rights, not colonization. "How to better the condition of the colored race has long been a study which has attracted my serious and careful attention," Lincoln told New York abolitionist and Union general James Wadsworth in January, 1864. "In assisting to save the life of the Republic, they have demonstrated in blood their right to the ballot, which is but the humane protection of the flag they have so fearlessly defended."8

Nor is it fair for Lind to suggest that a persistent strain of Lincolnian racism is what turned the South into the stronghold of the Republican party in the 20th century. Lind assumes that the Confederate South has remained, demographically as well as ideologically, the same Confederate South it always was. But this ignores the massive migration of American capital and population from the Northeast to the South and the Sun-Belt beginning in the 1970s, a migration which brought middle-class Northerners to the South in numbers unseen since Reconstruction, and brought with them the Republican party in similar numbers, similarly unseen since 1877.

I suspect that, lurking deep within Lind's own authorial and political subconscious, is the realization that Lincolnian principles have not only shaped, but continue to shape, a good deal of the political life of the nation—and that these are principles with which Michael Lind has little personal sympathy. He can endorse Lincoln the Great Democrat, but only to the extent of seeing him as a knight of democratic faith; he would prefer not to see this Great Democrat striding through the world like Sir Artegal's iron man Talus (or George W. Bush) with his righteous flail, and so Lincoln is tailored down to being a domestic democrat rather than an internationalist one. But even the domesticated Lincoln can be something of a threat, which is why I am inclined to think that streaking him with racism and cupidity, as Lind does, is a device to keep people from taking Lincoln too far or too seriously. What we end up with is a singularly lopsided Lincoln—and a flawed but interesting book. A book worth two cheers, yes; but not a hurrah.

Allen C. Guelzo is the Henry R. Luce Professor of the Civil War Era and director of the Civil War Era Studies program at Gettysburg College. He is a two-time winner of the Lincoln Prize for Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President (2000) and Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America (2004).

1. Abraham Lincoln, "Message to Congress in Special Session" (July 4, 1861), in Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, ed. Roy P. Basler (Rutgers Univ. Press, 1953), vol. 4, p. 438.

2, AL, "Seventh and Last Debate with Stephen A. Douglas at Alton, Illinois" (Oct 15, 1858), in C.W., vol. 3, p. 312.

3. AL, "Speech at Carlinville, Illinois" (August 31, 1858) in C.W., vol. 3, p. 79.

4. Herndon's Life of Lincoln: The History and Personal Recollections of Abraham Lincoln as Originally Written by William H. Herndon and Jesse W. Weik, ed. Paul M. Angle (World, 1942), p. 284.

5. AL, "Speech at New Haven, Connecticut " (March 6, 1860), in C.W., vol. 4, pp. 24-5.

6. AL, "Speech at Chicago, Illinois" (July 10, 1858), in C.W., vol. 2, p. 501.

7. Lind cites as his clinching example of a Lincoln persistent in his determination to deport freed blacks the claim of Benjamin F. Butler, made in 1885, that Lincoln told Butler as late as January, 1865, that he was still looking for ways to effect colonization; the Butler story, however, has been demonstrated to be a fabrication by Mark Neely in "Abraham Lincoln and Black Colonization: Benjamin Butler's Spurious Testimony," Civil War History, Vol. 25 (March 1979), pp. 76-83. But Lind, even after acknowledging that "historians have questioned Butler's veracity," still steams serenely past them and claims that "there is no reason to doubt his [Butler's] account of Lincoln's obsession with the colonization scheme" (p. 225).

8. AL, "To James S. Wadsworth," in C.W., vol. 7, p. 101

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