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Does the Gettysburg Address Distract Us from the Real Lincoln?

A prominent historian on the politician behind the oratory

Universal Images Group/Getty Images


The past three generations of historians have agreed that Abraham Lincoln was probably the best president in American history and that Franklin Pierce was one of the worst. Pierce, a New Hampshire Democrat, gave political cover to fractious slaveholders and their violent supporters in the 1850s. His softness on the slavery issue encouraged the southern truculence that later led to secession and the formation of the Confederacy. Apart from their closeness in age--the bicentennial of Pierce’s birth passed virtually unnoticed four and a half years ago--about the only things that he and Lincoln had in common were their preoccupation with politics and their success in reaching the White House.

When Pierce ran for president in 1852, Lincoln, naturally, campaigned against him. But the cause of the Whig party was extremely feeble in Illinois that year. (The Whigs, originally formed in opposition to Andrew Jackson, were a national coalition of pro-business conservatives, reformers who supported economic development, and moderate southern planters. Lincoln remained a staunch Whig loyalist until the party crumbled in 1854.) And so Lincoln limited himself to a long speech in Springfield--it took him two days to deliver it!--which he abridged and repeated in Peoria. The speech did nothing to affect the outcome of the election, in Illinois or in the country at large. But it deserves to be remembered in these days of Lincoln idolatry, because it can be disturbing reading to anyone inclined to worship Father Abraham.

Defending the Whig candidate, General Winfield Scott, from slurs by Senator Stephen A. Douglas, Lincoln attacked Pierce not as a slaveholders’ tool, but as a Yankee who had flattered anti-slavery northerners. Lincoln specifically charged that Pierce had expressed a “loathing” for the Fugitive Slave Law, which Congress had passed two years earlier to help masters and their hirelings retrieve runaway slaves who had fled to the North. This was the very law that had provoked an outraged Harriet Beecher Stowe to write Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and portray the slave Eliza making her daring escape to freedom across the Ohio River. Lincoln defended the law as perfectly constitutional, and charged that Pierce had taken a stance that was all too friendly to the real-life Elizas, and too dismissive of the rights of slaveholders and slave hunters. He did so, Lincoln charged, in an effort to pick up votes outside the Democrats’ base in the deep South. Lincoln even claimed that the northerner Pierce’s “efficacy” at winning anti-slavery votes “was the very thing that secured his nomination.”

There was more. Lincoln said that Pierce could win only by positioning himself as a peculiar kind of political progeny, born of a mating of northern conservative Democrats and anti-slavery free-soilers, “the latter predominating in the offspring.” The positioning was particularly important in carrying the swing state of New York, where conservative Democrats, the so-called Hunker Democrats, had long been battling the anti-slavery Barnburners. According to Lincoln’s most optimistic projections, Scott might just peel off enough New York Barnburner votes to win the presidency. Pierce’s contrived politics put Lincoln in mind of a sailor’s sea chantey that had appeared in a book by the British writer Frederick Marryat: “Sally is a bright Mullater,/Oh Sally Brown--/ Pretty gal, but can’t get at her,/O Sally Brown.” Were Pierce actually elected, Lincoln joked, “he will, politically speaking, not only be a mulatto; but he will be a good deal darker one than Sally Brown.”

My point in re-telling this story is not to try, yet again, to debunk Lincoln’s reputation for probity and sagacity, and for perfect enlightenment on racial issues. The defamatory image of Lincoln as a conventional white racist, whose chief cause was self-aggrandizement, is even more absurd than the awestruck hagiographies that have become ubiquitous in this anniversary year. My point is simpler and larger. It is that Abraham Lincoln was, first and foremost, a politician.

Lincoln hated slavery, and had said so long before 1852. But he also had to admit that the Fugitive Slave Law was technically and constitutionally correct. In the congressional deal known as the Compromise of 1850, the Fugitive Slave Law was just part of the price the southern slaveholders exacted for sectional comity, and both major parties formally endorsed it in 1852. Lincoln knew that by assailing Pierce, a northern man with southern principles, as a conniver willing to play politics with the Fugitive Slave Law, he would sow doubts among northern conservatives, Whig and Democratic, whose votes the Whigs badly needed. Lightly infused with offhand racist humor, Lincoln’s speech was hardly his finest political hour--but it was just that, a political speech. It was not, as some current writers imagine Lincoln’s every utterance was, a foray into moral philosophy or social theory. Nor did his brief quotation from Marryat’s book have much at all to do with race or sex, the major preoccupations of so much of today’s academic scholarship; and it certainly had nothing to do with Lincoln’s love of English literature. It had to do with ridiculing Pierce as what we would call a flip-flopper, someone who would say anything to win the election.

In 1854, when Lincoln began shifting his loyalties to the anti-slavery Republican Party, the tone as well as the substance of his speeches became grander, and the casual racism receded. Lincoln evolved and grew as the Republican Party and anti-slavery public opinion in the North grew. But it is important to understand that those later pronouncements of Lincoln’s were no less political that his earlier ones, no less geared to achieving a particular political goal or set of political goals. Given the enlarged stakes of the sectional crisis and then the Civil War, Lincoln’s goals were actually more political than ever. He was a shrewd and calculating creature of politics; and he achieved historical greatness in his later years because of, and not despite, his political skills. It was the only way that anyone could have completed the momentous tasks that history, as well as his personal ambition, had handed to him. It was the only way he knew how to do anything of public importance, and the only way he cared to know.

These points are not new. One of the great Lincoln scholars of our time, David Herbert Donald (whose recent death is a great loss to historians and their readers), made some of them in an essay published more than fifty years ago, “A. Lincoln, Politician.” Yet many of Lincoln’s latter-day admirers, the most effusive as well as the begrudging, prefer a fantasy Lincoln who experienced some sort of individual awakening or mystical conversion, who somehow transcended politics for a realm more pure.

Lincoln has never lacked for critics, ranging from pro-Confederates on the Right to black nationalists on the Left. Yet he has inspired far more approval and even adoration than animosity among historians--including one admiring line of argument that can accommodate even his unsavory attack on Pierce in 1852. That interpretation runs roughly as follows. For most of his adult life, Lincoln was an enormously ambitious and partisan Whig Party organizer and officeholder who, after a single frustrating term in Congress, retired from politics in 1849 to become a highly successful lawyer in Springfield. Then the enactment of the Kansas-Nebraska Act five years later stirred his moral aversion to slavery and re-awakened his political aspirations. Thereafter--his enormous human sympathy aroused, his conscience pricked by eloquent radicals such as Frederick Douglass, and his hand forced by ordinary slaves who flocked to Union lines during the Civil War--Lincoln the hack politician gradually transformed into a philosopher-statesman and a literary genius.

This account appears in many different forms. It is consistent with--or can be made to be consistent with--a particular view of American political history that emerged out of the radicalism of the 1960s and is widely held today. On this view, elected officials, even the most worthy, are at best cautious and unreliable figures who must be forced by unruly events--and by outsiders--into making major reforms. Thus Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement had to compel the southern wheeler-dealer Lyndon B. Johnson to support civil rights and voting rights for blacks. Thus John L. Lewis and the left-wing Congress of Industrial Organizations had to push a reluctant Franklin Delano Roosevelt into making and then enlarging the New Deal. And thus Frederick Douglass and the runaway slaves, not Abraham Lincoln, deserve the real credit for the Emancipation Proclamation.

Without question, what Lincoln called “public sentiment” is and always has been a key battleground; and insofar as agitators such as the abolitionists affect that sentiment, they have a crucial role to play in democratic politics (as Lincoln also recognized). But it is one thing to acknowledge the effects of outsiders and radicals and quite another to vaunt their supposed purity in order to denigrate mainstream politics and politicians. The implication of this anti-political or meta-political narrative is that the outsiders are the truly admirable figures, whereas presidents are merely the outsiders’ lesser, reluctant instruments. Anyone who points out the obvious fact that, without a politically supple, energetic, and devoted president, change will never come, runs the risk of being branded an elitist or worse. (Hillary Clinton discovered as much during last year’s presidential primaries, when she spoke admiringly about how Johnson pushed through the Civil Rights Act of 1964.) Lincoln may be the only one of these presidents who, having seen the light, went on to earn a kind of secular sainthood; but his redemption from grubby politics and self-interested prudence had to precede his martyrdom and canonization. That redemption came as a result of the dramatic resistance of the lowly slaves, and of the words and the actions of uncompromising abolitionists.

The “bottom up” populism of this line of argument got its start in the ideal of participatory democracy forty years ago, but its incomprehension and belittlement of politics and politicians originated much earlier. Historians, like most intellectuals, have long felt uncomfortable with scheming, self-aggrandizing political professionals, preferring idealists whom they imagine were unblemished by expedience and compromise. One of the exceptions among the historians, Richard N. Current, wrote with a touch of embarrassment in 1958 that, for Americans, “politics generally means ‘dirty’ politics, whether the adjective is used or not.”

The hostility of some Americans toward partisan competition and political government is as old as the republic, but it gained special force among writers and publicists linked to the patrician, politically moderate, good-government Mugwumps of the late nineteenth century. Today’s historians who uphold the radical legacies of the 1960s consider themselves anything but patrician and moderate--their sympathies lie, of course, with the poor and excluded, not with the virtuous, educated, genteel classes whom the Mugwumps championed. But the recent contempt for conventional party politicians shows that Mugwumpery has evolved, paradoxically, into a set of propositions and assumptions congenial to the contemporary American academic Left.

Like the Mugwumps, many present-day American historians assume that political calculation, opportunism, careerism, and duplicity negate idealism and political integrity. Like the Mugwumps, they charge that the similarities between the corrupt major political parties overwhelm their differences. Like the Mugwumps, they equate purposefulness with political purity. Consequently, their writings slight how all great American leaders, including many of the outsiders they idealize, have relied on calculation, opportunism, and all the other democratic political arts in order to advance their loftiest and most controversial goals. And they slight how the achievement of America’s greatest advances, including the abolition of slavery, would have been impossible without the strenuous efforts of the calculators and the opportunists in the leadership of American politics.

At its most straightforward, caustic, and predictable--as in the balefully influential works of Howard Zinn, who has described Lincoln as at best “a kind man” who had to be “pushed by the antislavery movement” into emancipation--this post-1960s populist history writing is just as skewed as the tendentious “great white male” historiography that it has supposedly discredited. Other populist historians are more generous, allowing Lincoln--and, occasionally, Franklin Roosevelt--to escape relatively unscathed, and even ennobled. But if it is history that we really care about, then we must recognize that the populist storyline of Lincoln’s redemption and transfiguration, like the other versions, makes a hash of his actual life and times.

Lincoln may have had his own purposes, like the Almighty, but those purposes always included gaining or maintaining political advantage, often enough by cagey and unexhilarating means. Although he was often unsuccessful, his political cunning was his strength, and not a corrupting weakness. Pure-hearted radicals did not manipulate him into nobility as much as he manipulated them to suit his own political aims--which, as president, were to save the Union and insure that freedom, and not slavery, would prevail in the struggle of the house divided. Unless we understand this, none of Lincoln’s philosophizing, and none of his spare, arresting, and moving rhetoric, makes any sense.

The announcements in last year’s publishers’ catalogues that a flood of new books would accompany Lincoln’s bicentennial augured an opportunity to evaluate the state of Lincoln scholarship, in part by pointing to the writings of those historians, past and present, who insist on evaluating Lincoln seriously as a political creature. (I confess that I have contributed my own bits to the bicentennial torrent.) The difficulty is that an entirely new fashion in the historiography of Lincoln seems to have arisen, which further diminishes the importance of party politics and government in his career. This new fashion--which is really a retrieval and an expansion of older lines of interpretation--takes for granted that Lincoln rose to a surpassing greatness. In one way or another, the fashion locates Lincoln’s chief distinction in his literary sophistication and his empathetic powers, making only passing glances at his political astuteness. Indeed, in some quarters, Lincoln’s political successes, before and during his presidency, now seem to have come almost entirely from his writing and his oratory, in what might be called a literary determinist interpretation of history. Lincoln’s apotheosis remains undisturbed; the difference is that he is now an archangel of belles lettres--or, as Jacques Barzun described him fifty years ago, a man with a hidden hurt who became an “artist-saint.” Therein, supposedly, lay the basis, or at least one important basis, for his political greatness.

The current fascination with Lincoln as a writer originated with Garry Wills’s Lincoln at Gettysburg, which was published to a rapturous reception in 1993. Amid erudite and illuminating discussions of classical oratory, American sermonizing, and New England Transcendentalist philosophy, Wills described Lincoln’s address, in November 1863, as a turning point in the Civil War and, thus, in American history. By proclaiming that the Union was fighting to save a government dedicated from its inception to the idea that all men were created equal, Wills said, Lincoln turned Jefferson’s egalitarian Declaration of Independence into the nation’s foundational text, on which the Constitution was later built. Yet Lincoln also cunningly expanded the slaveholder Jefferson’s conception of equality by embracing blacks, slave and free, and promising that the war would finally bring “a new birth of freedom.” In a span of fewer than three hundred brilliant words--and in a speech that many, at the time, deemed ordinary, even perfunctory--Lincoln supposedly revolutionized the nation’s highest ideals.

Wills’s account, like numerous later books that dissect one or another of Lincoln better-known orations, over-dramatizes the speech’s importance. As Wills himself observes, Lincoln had been publicly testing the hard realities of slavery against the Declaration’s premises for nearly a decade before he spoke at Gettysburg. And Lincoln was neither alone in his beliefs nor one bit ahead of his time. As early as the debates over the Missouri Compromise in 1819 and 1820, anti-slavery Jeffersonian congressmen pointed to the Declaration--”an authority admitted in all parts of the Union [as] a definition of the basis of republican government,” one member of the House described it--and asserted that it was fundamentally at odds with what another congressman called “the intolerable evil and crying enormity of slavery.” (Southern congressmen replied that the Declaration “is not part of the Constitution or any other book,” and that Jefferson, although “venerable,” had been wrong to malign slavery in his Notes on the State of Virginia--charges that anticipated by forty years almost identical anti-Jeffersonian claims made by pro-slavery secessionists.)

To be sure, even if the ideas contained in the Gettysburg Address were widely held, “they never,” as Richard Current observed thirty-five years before Wills, “had been put so well.” Like Jefferson before him, Current wrote, Lincoln, “for his own time and for all time, crystallized in superb language the ideals and aspirations of millions of men and women.” Wills’s re-reading of the address, and enrichment of its intellectual context, has its merits; but since Wills is more interested in doctrine and culture than in politics, his book elides the basic fact that the speech had no political purpose greater than commemorating the dead and leaving a good impression, and no immediately discernible political effect whatsoever. Although pro-administration newspapers such as the Springfield Republican in Massachusetts pronounced it “a perfect gem,” the Democratic press echoed the Chicago Times’s ridicule of Lincoln’s shamefully “silly, flat, and dishwatery utterances.”

Similarly, the more prominent recent studies of Lincoln’s words and ideas are almost completely unconcerned with politics beyond banal and often illinformed rehearsals of Lincoln’s opinions on race, slavery, colonization, and democracy. Having already been mythologized, Lincoln is in danger of being aestheticized: now he belongs to the English department. Combined with an abiding post-1960s preference for radicals over politicians, this trend renders Lincoln as the supreme giant of American politics because he was, as Barzun observed, “a born writer” with “the quiet intent of a conscious artist,” and because his compassion, as well as the force of circumstances, led him to heed the wisdom of the militants, to champion the downtrodden, and finally, as president, to transcend politics as usual.

Modern democratic politics are supposed to be immune to the kind of intense cult of personality common in authoritarian regimes, with their caudillos, patriot kings, and maximum leaders. James Madison and the framers of the Constitution designed a federal government to hinder the emergence of such an individual. But the United States--or, at least, historical writing about the United States--is not immune. We are given a Lincoln whose surviving everyday possessions and scraps--including, according to one recent newspaper report, his pocket watch--are accorded the attention and invested with the properties otherwise associated with sacred relics. The historical Lincoln disappears and a wishful fantasy takes his place, symbolizing a politics that has been cleansed and redeemed, which is to say a politics that is unreal--a politics constructed out of words, just words.


A few books have appeared during this bicentennial that do take his politics and his political career very seriously. Harold Holzer, a prolific writer on Lincoln and the co-chairman of the Lincoln Bicentennial Commission, admires Lincoln enormously, but also understands that he was a political creature. His book is the closest study ever undertaken of the critical four months between Lincoln’s election as president and his inauguration on March 4, 1861. It aims to correct what Holzer considers the unjust view--formulated by the young Henry Adams at the time, and supported by later scholars--that Lincoln acted unsteadily in the face of the growing emergency of secession, resorting to platitudes and trivialities in his public statements, and otherwise giving an impression of weakness and indecisiveness.

For many pro-Lincoln historians, the transition months of 1860-1861 offer an important baseline for judging his later growth in office--but Holzer, who does not deny that Lincoln grew, insists that Lincoln was a brilliant leader even before the inauguration. If Lincoln appeared to be fumbling, according to Holzer, he intended as much, in order to cloak the momentous decisions that he was making about his administration’s policies and personnel. On his long circuitous train journey from Springfield to Washington, Lincoln would show his homely, newly whiskered face to the crowds and say a few innocuous words, so as to connect personally with the voters who had elected him. All the while, behind the scenes, he completed the delicate task of selecting his cabinet while writing the inaugural address that would make his views about the mounting crisis perfectly clear to all. What Adams had criticized as Lincoln’s “masterly inactivity” was actually, Holzer writes, the “confident silence” of a master of maneuver.

Holzer rescues Lincoln from some familiar misconceptions, above all the claim that, as of 1861, he cared completely about saving the Union and not at all about slavery. Although cautious not to say so publicly lest he worsen the situation, Lincoln vigorously opposed all congressional efforts to thwart secession by reaching some sort of deal that would allow slavery to expand into the western territories. “Let there be no compromise on the question of extending slavery,” he instructed his fellow Illinois Republican, Senator Lyman Trumbull. “If there be, all our labor is lost, and, ere long, must be done again.” Given that allowing slavery’s extension was the nub of the issue as far as the southern secessionists were concerned, and given that Lincoln himself had long described slavery’s restriction as the first step toward putting the institution, as he put it, “in the course of ultimate extinction,” this was, as Holzer recognizes, an unprecedented “show of power and influence” by a president-elect. Secession was evil, Lincoln believed--but he was not prepared to concede his party’s core anti-slavery conviction, or turn it into a bargaining chip, in order to salvage the Union.

Holzer, to be sure, is not the only historian who has elucidated these matters. Kenneth M. Stampp’s And The War Came, which was published in 1950 (and which Holzer curiously does not cite), offers a similar view of Lincoln, as does Russell McClintock’s fine study Lincoln and the Decision for War, which appeared in 2008. And some of Holzer’s more original revisionist arguments are unpersuasive. Holzer tries, for example, to refute the conventional view that Lincoln minimized the dangers of secession because he overestimated the extent of southern Unionism. Yet Lincoln failed to appreciate how southern Unionism was far more conditional than its northern counterpart, open to the possibility of secession (which became all too evident in the wake of the showdown over Fort Sumter). Lincoln had a shrewd understanding of northern politics, but he knew little of the South outside of his native Kentucky--and hence he failed to understand the complexities and limits of southern Unionism in 1860 and 1861, with terrible results.

Holzer’s intense admiration of Lincoln sometimes leads him to make too much of a good thing. In accord with the argument presented by Doris Kearns Goodwin’s recent book describing Lincoln’s cabinet as a “team of rivals”--an easily exaggerated view cited so often during the Obama transition that it became one of the platitudes of our day--Holzer is persuaded of the brilliance of Lincoln’s selections. Holzer accurately presents Lincoln the cabinet-maker as a hard-nosed politician, who made good on promises extended during the fight for the Republican nomination (although the book could have said more on this), and who sought to placate every element of his faction-ridden party. Yet Lincoln’s approach to the task was nothing new. Moreover, the cabinet that he picked was a dysfunctional collection of schemers far more than it was a team of any kind.

The practice of a president-elect choosing his chief rival within his party as secretary of state dated back, as James Oakes has pointed out, to John Quincy Adams, who selected Henry Clay in 1825 (and thereby provoked charges that the two had made a backroom deal). During the presidencies of Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, and James Buchanan in the 1850s, the practice practically became a ritual, and Lincoln followed suit by naming William H. Seward in 1861--even though doing so provided no assurance of a successful presidency. (Past experience might even have boded the exact opposite.) Lincoln’s other cabinet choices included Simon Cameron of Pennsylvania, who had helped Lincoln mightily at the Republican nominating convention--and who left his post as secretary of war in January 1862 under a heavy cloud of corruption allegations. (Cameron’s replacement, the redoubtable Edwin Stanton, did a brilliant job, but as a former Democrat he had been no rival of any kind to Lincoln or any of his fellow cabinet secretaries. And Lincoln’s vacillation over his initial selection of Cameron, long suspected of peculation, was hardly a profile in steadfast decisiveness.)

Secretary of State Seward skipped many cabinet meetings and took advantage of his private access to Lincoln, which infuriated the others. Treasury Secretary Salmon Chase, one of those most offended, also took to skipping meetings and tried, unsuccessfully, to wrest the nomination away from Lincoln in 1864, before he resigned. (When Roger Taney, chief justice of the Supreme Court and author of the notorious Dred Scott decision, died later that year, Lincoln eventually named Chase as his successor, choosing to put the politically maladroit Chase’s skill and ambition to work for the country.) Attorney General Edward Bates, who also resigned in 1864, complained bitterly that the president misused his cabinet and never relied on its collective wisdom. Lincoln may not have been quite as hapless in designing his cabinet as the prevailing accounts of his transition to office suggest, but his decisions hardly proved the brilliant political breakthrough that Holzer describes as the work of a “master political puppeteer.” All his political acumen did not spare Lincoln from making cabinet selections that were less than inspired, and in some cases disastrous.

The two most prominent new biographies of Lincoln, like Holzer’s book, offer serious accounts of Lincoln’s political career, but they have their own peculiarities. Michael Burlingame, who has written or edited a dozen books on Lincoln, gained considerable notice in the world of Lincoln scholarship a few years ago with a study, heavily indebted to Jungian psychology, that purported to describe and to analyze Lincoln’s inner life. It was not the first time that a biographer or a historian has put Lincoln on the couch, if only to puzzle through Lincoln’s famous chronic bouts of severe depression and to speculate about what some have seen as his burdensome marriage to an unstable woman. But Burlingame is deeply immersed in the sources on Lincoln, primary and secondary, so his judgments carried far more authority than the usual jerry-built psycho-histories.

Now Burlingame offers a massive two-volume life study so copiously documented that he and his publisher have decided to make the full footnotes available only on the Internet (where they can be updated as any new documentation or relevant secondary literature becomes available). Burlingame reliably and astutely covers Lincoln’s political career, and he grasps the subtleties of Lincoln’s political machinations. Still, reactions to this vast book will depend on how useful one thinks Jungian archetypes are in evaluating long-departed political leaders. To his credit, Burlingame refrains from heavy theorizing; but his psychological method is unmistakable, and it leads him to make some far-fetched assertions on the basis of scanty evidence. Is it likely, or even possible, that Lincoln’s traumatic childhood in a dirt-poor family--”I used to be a slave,” he recalled as an adult--accounted for his later hatred of slavery? The claim did make me stop and think, but then I wondered whether older meanings of the word “slave” as any kind of coerced dependence or obedience had played tricks on Burlingame’s imagination.

If Burlingame’s devotion to deep psychological analysis is itself a bit slavish, the documentation that he provides in his book is sometimes unsettling. Most historians would think twice about relying as much as he does on second-and even third-hand testimony, often published decades after the events described. It is as if Burlingame has so steeped himself in Lincolniana that he thinks he can intuit which highly questionable sources are actually truthful--a kind of historical clairvoyance that does not inspire confidence. On other matters--his insistent demonization of Mary Todd Lincoln; his contention that Stephen A. Douglas, a heavy drinker, was practically falling down drunk during his famous debates with Lincoln--Burlingame is labored and unpersuasive.

Otherwise Burlingame’s book fully accords with what might be called the standard “two Lincolns” approach--the line of argument that posits not simply that Lincoln’s anti-slavery political convictions hardened over time, but also that Lincoln experienced a sharp and complete transformation in the deepest recesses of his soul. Burlingame naturally presents the shift in psychological terms, as a painful but productive mid-life crisis, in which Lincoln laid aside evanescent ambitions and constraining loyalties, concentrated on the weightier aspects of life, curbed his ego, and become a fully individuated man. It is certainly plausible that Lincoln endured such a psychological trial. But in Burlingame’s account, a common rite of passage approximates the grandiose mythological sequence in which the hero must pass through some sort of clarifying ordeal before he can be reborn as truly heroic.

So heroic, in fact, is Burlingame’s Lincoln that he becomes quasi-sacred--and maybe not so quasi. “Lincoln’s personality was the North’s secret weapon in the Civil War,” Burlingame remarks. His attainment of “a level of consciousness unrivaled in the history of American public life” made possible the Union’s victory. Indeed, Lincoln was not simply a startling exception among petty politicians, with their clamorous egos. He also rose above the limitations of mere humankind. “Lincoln achieved a kind of balance and wholeness,” Burlingame writes, “that led one psychologist to remark that he had ‘more psychological honesty’ than anyone since Christ.” Burlingame finds the comparison apt, if one regards the Christian messiah “as a psychological paradigm.”

There is no way to prove or disprove such an assertion: it is, about Lincoln as about Jesus, a matter of faith. Burlingame’s final evaluation takes us back beyond the Lincoln Memorial, beyond the populist hero-worship of Carl Sandburg, to a level of unreality and hagiography not seen since the traumatized aftermath of Lincoln’s Good Friday murder, when an outpouring from grieving ministers, editorialists, politicians, and ordinary citizens affirmed that, as the president’s young personal secretary, John Hay, remarked a few months later, “Lincoln, with all his foibles, is the greatest character since Christ.”

Ronald C. White Jr.’s biography of Lincoln is another story of an evolving glorious hero who also was plagued by doubt, including intense self-doubt. White sometimes gives in to the urge to supply his readers with too much information. But his book is much less detailed, less grandiose, and more vivid than Burlingame’s; and, like Burlingame, White skillfully evaluates most of Lincoln’s political maneuvering. Still, with all of its strengths, A. Lincoln does not supersede the best modern one-volume biography, David Herbert Donald’s Lincoln, which was published in 1995 (and is especially strong on Lincoln’s political career).

Donald’s book is flawed by its insistence on seeing Lincoln as a passive man, based partly on a misreading of Lincoln’s own reflections about his inability to control events. White’s book, by comparison, is oddly superficial and circumspect on various issues, large and small, laying out the basic facts but leaving it up to the reader to supply answers. What explains Lincoln’s repeated plunges into what looks today like suicidal clinical depression? Why did the anti-slavery politician--who claimed he had detested the institution since his youth--become such close friends with the Kentucky slaveholder Joshua Speed, or take another Kentucky slaveholder, Henry Clay, as his political idol? White’s book discusses such perplexing, sometimes delicate matters, but leaves them unresolved.

Instead, White is chiefly interested in examining Lincoln’s words and rhetoric, about which he is highly informative. White has already written two important shorter books on Lincoln’s writing, completed long before the current surge of interest in Lincoln among literary scholars. (He also builds on Lincoln’s Sword, a fine study of Lincoln’s rhetoric by the historian Douglas L. Wilson, which was published in 2006.) If Burlingame’s biography explores Lincoln’s inner emotional life, White’s biography studies his inner intellectual life, as grounded in Lincoln’s reading of Shakespeare, the Bible, Blackstone’s Commentaries, and poets such as Burns and Byron. An endless self-improver--at one point he took on the task of teaching himself Euclidean geometry, the better to sharpen his own logic--Lincoln also got into the habit of composing personal memos of varying lengths, on which he would later draw in his public pronouncements. The notes form, according to White, a kind of running journal, which offers essential clues about not simply what Lincoln thought but also how he thought.

White’s historical approach to Lincoln’s reading, writing, and speaking greatly enhances the record of the man and his career. Known by his associates more for intellectual thoroughness than for quickness or brilliance, Lincoln would spend weeks, months, even years taking the measure of a particular issue, jotting down his musings, refining his opinions, and finally honing his prose and its rhetorical structure. The famous “House Divided” speech of 1858 is a case in point. Most Lincoln scholars, following the memoirs of Lincoln’s law partner William Herndon, have believed that he composed the speech during the days before he delivered it. But White points to a lengthy memo written seven months earlier, in which Lincoln elaborated his belief (as he wrote in the memo) that “the government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free.”

Understood this way, Lincoln’s prose remains arresting, especially after 1854, and most especially in contrast to the prolix billows that passed for fine oratory at the time. (Like several of the other current books on Lincoln, White’s makes much of Lincoln’s improvements to Seward’s suggested peroration to the first inaugural address.) White’s portrayal of Lincoln’s deliberate approach to his reading and his writing usefully reinforces what historians and biographers have written about his deliberate nature in other realms of life, including politics.

White also sheds light on one of the perennial puzzles in Lincoln scholarship: the increasingly religious tone of Lincoln’s speeches after 1862, culminating in his second inaugural address. Although not the first scholar to examine the connection, White shows how Lincoln’s reflections on “divine attributes” outside human control or comprehension may have reflected the preaching of the Reverend Phineas Densmore Gurley of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, where Lincoln sometimes attended services during his presidency. A student of the redoubtable Charles Hodge at the Princeton Theological Seminary, Gurley imparted a faith that joined, somewhat ambiguously, the spiritual fatalism of his own Old School Presbyterians and the free-will “effort” Calvinism of the evangelical New School. Gurley bundled the two in a mysterious description of man as a rational, accountable moral agent who was nevertheless governed by the traditional American Calvinists’ unknowable, omnipotent Providence. “Man proposes; God disposes,” Gurley explained; and that paradox of human agency and divine sovereignty was, he insisted, the best way to begin to understand what he called “the probable fruits and consequences” of the continuing Civil War.

Lincoln, an open skeptic in his youth who never actually joined a church, did not have to have become a believing Christian in order to kindle to these ideas. (In the second inaugural address, he seemed at pains not to identify himself as one of “the believers in a living God”; and the claims made by some historians that he had developed a personal Christian faith are based more on fancy than on evidence.) But Lincoln and his wife certainly did begin showing up for services more often after he became president, especially after the death of their young son, Willie, in 1862. And Gurley’s sermons did offer lessons on human limitation and humility in the face of an inscrutable universe, with a quiet faith that the Union would finally prevail.

In sum, White shows that Lincoln was not, as some writers have portrayed him, a “redeemer president,” the inventor of a national civil religion that he built out of his torments and the nation’s, and that became symbolized by his lofty words and, finally, by his murder. He was, rather, a Victorian doubter (and self-doubter) who found some comfort--and perhaps ways to question and at least partially to comprehend the incomprehensible--in the preaching of a Presbyterian minister. He then borrowed some clerical language to express what he had found, as well as his continued uncertainties, from his beloved King James Bible, the book most widely read and studied by his countrymen.


The much grander claims about Lincoln’s prose--the work of Barzun’s artist-saint--rest on a very small body of writing. The historian Don E. Fehrenbacher assembled two lengthy volumes of Lincoln’s speeches and writings for the Library of America in 1986, but the vast bulk of them consists of letters and minor speeches that are chiefly of historical and biographical interest, not examples of fine finished prose. Several of Lincoln’s speeches in Illinois during the 1850s (including some of his remarks during his debates with Stephen A. Douglas in 1858) qualify as literature, as does the Cooper Institute address that effectively kicked off his campaign for the Republican nomination in 1860. Thereafter, there are the powerful first and second inaugurals, the Gettysburg Address, and some brief passages in the first and second annual messages to Congress. In his letters, public and private, as well as in his conversation, Lincoln displayed a talent for sly metaphor and figurative language, reflecting his love of Aesop’s Fables as well as his westerner’s wit. But that’s about it. Apart from Jefferson, no American president has matched Lincoln’s mastery of prose--but no other American author has enjoyed such a stellar reputation based on such a slender literary output.

As small as Lincoln’s oeuvre was, though, an enormous literature exists, composed mainly by writers, including well-known novelists, poets, journalists, and public figures, whose main interests lay outside the writing of American history. The Lincoln Anthology, edited by Harold Holzer and described as “a special publication” of the Library of America, fills more than nine hundred pages with more than one hundred entries by “great writers” from 1860 to 2007. Yet even though Holzer’s introduction says that his “highly diverse array” of contributors includes historians, the closest we get to enduring historical scholarship are Barzun’s essay on Lincoln the writer, some snippets from Shelby Foote and Garry Wills, and Edmund Wilson’s cranky and controversial essay on Lincoln from Patriotic Gore. Carl Sandburg, by contrast, gets five separate entries, the most of any author. Richard Watson Gilder, Bram Stoker, Honore Willsie Morrow, Dale Carnegie, Rosemary Benet, Irving Stone, E.L. Doctorow, and (inevitably) Barack Obama all make the cut. But the distinguished historians James Ford Rhodes, Albert J. Beveridge, James G. Randall, Allan Nevins, Benjamin P. Thomas, Richard Hofstadter, Bruce Catton, David M. Potter, Kenneth M. Stampp, Benjamin Quarles, Richard N. Current, Don E. Fehrenbacher, John Hope Franklin, David Herbert Donald, and James M. McPherson do not.

One could conclude that Holzer and his editors at the Library of America do not consider historians “great writers,” although that would still leave unexplained the inclusion of Carnegie, Benet, and Stone, among others. But Holzer’s own writings on Lincoln show great respect for other historians. The choices in The Lincoln Anthology seem driven, rather, by a desire to convey Lincoln’s changing image among famous and influential, and formerly famous or influential, writers and political leaders--Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Winston Churchill, and Adlai Stevenson turn up, along with Barack Obama--in order to gauge Lincoln’s shifting place in the broader national culture, and not among scholars.

No doubt novelists, poets, journalists, and politicians carry much more cultural cachet than historians do, especially in the upper echelons of American art and politics. (So do painters: Holzer allots space for an odd geophysical love poem to Lincoln--”the only voice worth hearing”--by Marsden Hartley, along with a plate of one of Hartley’s oil portraits of the president in his stovepipe hat.) It is without question a treat to dip into what Mark Twain and Marianne Moore and James Agee had to say about Lincoln, and to see how impressions of Lincoln have changed over time. (The Lincoln Anthology can most profitably be read as a companion to Merrill D. Peterson’s excellent historical study, Lincoln in American Memory, which appeared in 1995.)

Still, the selection seems skewed. Apart from a brief--and, in this context, refreshing--piece by H.L. Mencken on Lincoln as “the chief butt of American credulity and sentimentality,” Lincoln’s devotees and occasional critics from the left are over-represented. The omission of Harry V. Jaffa, a follower of Leo Strauss and one of Lincoln’s more provocative conservative admirers, is noticeable. Holzer does include Lerone Bennett Jr.’s polemical attack from the left on Lincoln as a white supremacist, which appeared in Ebony magazine in 1968, but it is odd that Holzer fails to mention that virtually the same points as Bennett’s appeared in a celebration of Lincoln decades earlier by the white racist novelist Thomas Dixon, the author of The Clansman (which became the chief source for D.W. Griffith’s film The Birth of a Nation). The exclusion of Dixon is further evidence of the anthology’s Yankee bias. There do not appear to be more than a half-dozen southern white writers represented, or as many as ten southerners of any color. Neither the ironic view of Lincoln and the Union cause voiced by southerners such as Robert Penn Warren, nor the neoConfederate anti-Lincolnism associated with the likes of the adopted southerner M.E. Bradford, are given a hearing.

Finally, though, the exclusion, from a compilation of great writings about Lincoln, of those authors, the historians, who have actually known the most about the man and his times is stunning. It is also strangely fitting, as the practice of writing about Lincoln by non-historians continues, indeed is flourishing in this bicentennial year, inside as well as outside the academy. And it will come as no surprise that English professors are at the head of the line, given the recent trend for literary critics to write about any subject they please, and in a tone of serene authority.

Fred Kaplan’s study of Lincoln as a writer is one of the only books in the current flood to take account of Lincoln’s marathon “mulatto” speech in 1852. (Burlingame devotes one long paragraph to the entire 1852 campaign, and dispatches the speech’s attack on Pierce over the Fugitive Slave Act in a single sentence; Henry Louis Gates Jr. includes the speech in his collection of Lincoln’s writings on slavery and race, and explains it well in a headnote.) Kaplan describes the political background and Lincoln’s practical purposes. But he is chiefly interested in the speech’s literary artifice, its blend of burlesque and seriousness, its witty literary allusions to Oliver Goldsmith and Cervantes--and especially its concluding riff on Frederick Marryat and the sea chantey about the “bright Mullater” called “Sally Brown.”

In a brief and somewhat opaque analysis, Kaplan identifies Marryat’s travelogue, A Diary in America, as Lincoln’s exact source for “Sally Brown.” Fixing on the political uses of “the language of race,” Kaplan speculates about Lincoln’s literary entitlements in quoting the song. He then shows how Lincoln bent the song’s true meaning, which had to do with eros, not race; and he concludes that, at least in 1852, Lincoln shared in the dominant racialist discourse of his time. So the actual subject of Franklin Pierce and the speech’s actual politics have receded into a thicket of words and Lincoln’s misappropriated metaphors and the discursive practices of the 1850s. It is a small example of the much larger dangers of approaching Lincoln primarily as a writer.

Kaplan has actually written two books in one, the first a brief biography that pays special attention to Lincoln’s omnivorous reading and favorite authors, the second a series of explications de texte from Lincoln’s writings, ranging from his amateur poetry to the second inaugural address. Historians and biographers have long pointed to Lincoln’s deep affection for Shakespeare and the King James Bible, for Burns and Byron, for Aesop’s Fables. Kaplan, who concentrates on Lincoln’s pre-presidential years, fills out Lincoln’s debt to Burns and Byron. It is interesting to know more about these specific connections, but they will come as no great surprise to anyone familiar with the historical literature on American culture before the Civil War.

Burns was fabulously popular in nineteenth-century America, especially among up-from-under strivers such as Lincoln, who disdained snobbery and affirmed a broad affection for their plebeian democratic roots. As for Byron, also a popular favorite, it is hard to think of a young American idealist who was not touched by the Byronic sartorial style as well as by Byron’s poetry (at least until 1869, when Harriet Beecher Stowe’s expose of Byron’s incestuous love life caused a scandal). It would have been far more curious had the bookish Lincoln not enjoyed and memorized Burns and Byron.

Kaplan’s weightier assertion is that Lincoln’s literary reading is the key to understanding not just his writing but his very identity. But what difference did all that reading actually make? More than any other president save Jefferson and John Quincy Adams, Lincoln certainly quoted and alluded to great literature--although this may have reflected, on Lincoln’s part, a prideful habit common among bookish autodidacts. Still, Lincoln was no mere literary name-dropper. As Kaplan argues, like many others before him, the graceful and condensed prose of Lincoln’s finest efforts, especially after 1854, reflected his immersion in Shakespeare and the Bible, as well as his training in the law. There is justice in Kaplan’s description of the Second Inaugural Address as closer to a dramatic soliloquy than to the usual oratory at a presidential swearing-in--although this had as much to do with Lincoln’s genuine anguish and confusion in 1865 as with any literary design. Weary, tormented, and uncertain, Lincoln was talking to himself as much as he was to the nation.

Yet Kaplan goes much too far in making Lincoln a literary man, and in making Lincoln’s use of words the key to his soul and his greatness. Kaplan hears all sorts of “Shakespearean resonance” and similar echoings in Lincoln’s speeches. Some of this is certainly there, but some of it is also an illusion--and some of Lincoln’s most “literary” work actually echoes American politicians, not British playwrights and poets. It is this indifference to the political context, and to Lincoln’s immersion in political writing, that leads Kaplan astray.

Consider an example. Analyzing Lincoln’s powerful closing to his “House Divided” speech of 1858, Kaplan pauses over its description of a united Republican Party drawn from “strange, discordant, and even hostile elements,” in contrast to the divided Democrats, who were “wavering, dissevered and belligerent.” Here is a passage, Kaplan rhapsodizes, that “emulated the distinctive intensity of Shakespearean language,” and represents “the best of literary English from Shakespearean oration to Tennyson’s ‘Ulysses.’” In particular, he claims, the speech’s “distinctively original use of ‘discordant’ and ‘dissevered’ make this mission statement the most distinctively powerful by any American president.” The trouble is, these words and lines came, in some cases directly, from Daniel Webster’s famous second reply to Robert Hayne delivered in 1830, one of Lincoln’s favorite congressional speeches. Lincoln’s meaning was different, but his “original” prose was not Shakespearean, it was Websterian--not John, nor even Noah, but Daniel.

Lincoln was a politician, and he regularly looked for inspiration, including literary inspiration, from his political predecessors. When composing his First Inaugural Address amid the mounting secession crisis, he asked to be brought copies of three works: public pronouncements by Andrew Jackson, Henry Clay, and Daniel Webster. The heart of Lincoln’s address*--which was to deny any historical, political, or philosophical justification for secession--was a gloss on Jackson’s proclamation denouncing the South Carolina nullification movement at the end of 1832. When Lincoln spoke, later in the First Inaugural address, of American democracy, and asked if there was “any better or equal hope in the world,” or when he again spoke of American government, in his annual message in 1862, as “the last best hope of earth,” his words owed nothing to Shakespeare and everything to Jefferson, whose first inaugural address referred to “this Government, the world’s best hope.”

Kaplan’s vaunting of the literary reflects a deeper problem, which is to present Lincoln’s words and rhetoric as his chief asset--even, at times, his only asset. Kaplan correctly observes that “for Lincoln, words mattered immensely.” He has a point when he argues that Lincoln’s “lifelong development as a writer” gave him “the capacity to express himself and the national concerns more effectively than any president ever had, with the exception of Thomas Jefferson”--although how strong that point actually is depends on what one means by “effectively.” But to say that Lincoln “became what his language made him” is an English department conceit. Lincoln may have relied on his speaking and writing abilities more than some or even most, but like any self-made man--including stump-speaking politicians--he became who he became because of much more than his language.

To say, as Kaplan does, that, as president-elect, “the only weapon [Lincoln] had at his command was language” ignores the many weapons that Lincoln not only commanded but actually wielded before his inauguration, including his political clout and his ability to shut down efforts at compromise in Washington that conceded too much. Later, as if concerned that his readers might be getting the wrong impression, Kaplan draws back a little, and observes that “words could not prevent the war, and by themselves words could of course not fight the war. “ That such a ridiculous sentence even appears in Kaplan’s book indicates how much it overvalues rhetoric.

Indeed, it was just as well for Lincoln, and the nation, that the Union’s fate did not rest on the power of Lincoln’s prose. If by “effective” one means “effectual” or “consequential,” instead of merely “impressive” or “eloquent,” then Lincoln’s words had a mixed record indeed. His powerful speeches from 1854 through 1860, above all the Cooper Institute address and the “House Divided” speech, as well as the newspaper accounts of his debates with Stephen A. Douglas in 1858, were certainly crucial in making Lincoln a national figure and gaining him his party’s presidential nomination. But the First Inaugural Address, even with its moving appeals to “the mystic chords of memory” and “the better angels of our nature,” could not forestall the crisis at Fort Sumter--or prevent Virginia and three other southern states from seceding in April and May 1861--thereby, as Kaplan admits, failing “in its primary purpose.” The Gettysburg Address powerfully summarized what the Union cause had become in the aftermath of the Emancipation Proclamation; and it won praise from various listeners and readers, including the day’s main orator, Edward Everett; and it certainly accomplished its primary purpose, which was to dedicate a military cemetery--but it did not alleviate northern weariness with the war, or prevent Lincoln’s political standing from plummeting seven months later owing to the military stalemate and high casualties. (For several months thereafter, until Sherman’s smashing victory in Atlanta in September 1864, it remained doubtful that Lincoln would win re-election.)

The Second Inaugural Address--one of the shortest presidential inauguration speeches ever, composed with victory close at hand--superbly justified the Union effort and described the sin of slavery as somehow the war’s cause; and it did so with resounding Shakespearean as well as Biblical overtones. Some critics at the time hailed it as the masterpiece that it was. Lincoln’s murder six weeks later makes it impossible to know how the speech might have affected future events. Still, with Lincoln dead, the most frequent references to this speech over the decades to come, and even into our own time, skipped over the passages about “the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil” and about “blood drawn with the lash,” and moved directly to “with malice toward none; with charity for all”--which unreconstructed southern whites turned into a plea for lenience and eventually used as a conservative pitch to obstruct racial equality. Strangely, the greatest effect of the Second Inaugural Address, at least through the 1950s, may have been in helping to fabricate the pro-southern Lincoln later inflated and favored by Thomas Dixon and put on the screen by D.W. Griffith.

By contrast, President Lincoln’s most effective document was one of his least literary. Historians have gone back and forth over the years on the significance of the Emancipation Proclamation. Most are now inclined to agree with the late John Hope Franklin that, even with all its limitations, the proclamation set in motion the train of events that led to slavery’s abolition under the Thirteenth Amendment. “The first step,” Frederick Douglass called it, “on the part of the nation in its departure from the thralldom of the ages.” Kaplan correctly describes the proclamation as “perhaps the single most consequential document of Lincoln’s presidency,” but neither he nor anybody else can call it a literary masterpiece or anything close--something that Kaplan tries to explain away as a paradox. As Richard Hofstadter once observed, the proclamation had “all the moral grandeur of a bill of lading.” And yet words can be more than just words, even if they are dry legalisms--especially when they are backed up by the full force of the federal government, including the army.

The point is not that presidential oratory makes no historical difference, especially in swaying or consolidating public opinion. Think of Andrew Jackson’s message vetoing the re-charter of the Second Bank of the United States in 1832 (which insured his re-election), or his nullification proclamation (though that, too, was backed up with the threat of force). And think of Franklin Roosevelt’s First Inaugural Address or his fireside chats. All were powerfully convincing in their own ways, although none of them even approached the splendor of Lincoln’s great addresses. Presidential rhetoric certainly can persuade, placate, or inspire people to action, whether the presidents actually write their own words (as Lincoln did) or rely on speechwriters and cabinet members. But just as presidential language need not be eloquent in any classic literary sense to get things done, so eloquence is no guarantee that the words will be effective, or even right.


For many years, the literary scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. has been vigorously expanding and institutionalizing the study of African American literature and history, bringing to light forgotten writings by black authors, and serving as a link between the academy and an American mass audience. His work, in print and on television, blends the worlds of scholarship, antiquarianism, and entertainment. In Lincoln on Race & Slavery, Gates takes another step in this mixed direction by writing on a matter which, he admits, he had not previously studied, but had to work up in order to write, host, and narrate a bicentennial documentary for the Public Broadcasting System.

Along with his co-editor, Donald Yacovone, Gates has chosen seventy writings by Lincoln on the subjects of slavery and race, and reprinted either their key passages or the entire document. Thanks to the Internet, this compilation could not have taken up too much time or energy: if you go to the online edition of Lincoln’s collected works and enter the word “slavery” into the site’s simple search engine, all but a few of the book’s documents instantly appear, in chronological order, along with a few dozen more, all ready for downloading. Gates and Yacovone do provide headnotes, which the printed and online full editions of the collected works lack--a useful service, even though the information provided is not entirely accurate.

Unlike Kaplan, Gates is more interested in the substance than the style of Lincoln’s writing. He says nothing about Shakespeare; instead, more like a historian, he devotes a long introductory essay to making sense of Lincoln’s ideas about slavery and race. Gates describes being struck by the discovery that Lincoln developed quite distinct lines of thinking about the two subjects--as well as about a third subject, colonization, or the idea that blacks, once emancipated, ought to be strongly encouraged, and even given funds, to resettle voluntarily in Africa or in some other tropical destination far from the United States. What is truly striking, though, is that Gates is so surprised by what he found in Lincoln’s writings. Eric Foner’s study of the ideology of the antebellum Republican Party, Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men--which was published nearly forty years ago, and remains required reading in many undergraduate as well as graduate history courses--laid out the important distinctions. College textbooks have presented them for a long time.

The basic connections between slavery and racism before the Civil War are straightforward. Essentially, the nation divided into three groups on the issues of slavery and race. Virtually all proslavery Americans believed absolutely in white supremacy, and thought that inferior blacks merited bondage. All Americans who believed in racial equality were adamantly anti-slavery. And most anti-slavery American whites believed, to one degree or another, that blacks were inferior. The first of these three groups, the pro-slavery forces, dominated the white South. The second group, the abolitionist radicals, represented a minority of whites in the North, and believed that slavery should be abolished immediately throughout the entire country. The third, by 1860, represented a majority of the white North, and it included a wide spectrum of views about race.

The most conservative of the nonabolitionist anti-slavery northerners were vicious racists who wanted to halt slavery’s expansion in order to keep the western territories lily white. At the liberal end were those who believed that blacks, although inferior to whites, were human beings and should be emancipated. Unlike the abolitionists, these anti-slavery northerners, whatever their view of blacks, wanted to end slavery, but in accordance with what most Americans believed were the Constitution’s protections for slavery where it already existed. As an important first step toward putting slavery on the defensive, they fought to prohibit slavery’s expansion into the territories. Lincoln, after 1854, became a pre-eminent political leader of this broad anti-slavery group, with views on race that were decidedly at the more liberal end.

The colonization idea attracted some slaveholders in the upper South and, for a time, a few black activists in the North, as well as some non-abolitionist but anti-slavery white northerners. Again, there was a spectrum of opinion about race among the pro-colonizationists. Racist conservatives wanted to encourage colonization simply to rid the country of hateful sub-human blacks. Other supporters of colonization believed that, given the fierceness of white racial prejudice and the long chain of abuses under slavery, it would be better for whites and freedmen alike if they went their separate ways. (Some of these supporters also saw colonization as a means to prevent interracial sex and marriage, from which most white Americans publicly recoiled.) Lincoln, following his first great political hero, the Kentucky Whig slaveholder Henry Clay, held to the latter view, which as late as 1862 he supported as the best possible solution to the nation’s racial torment. Anticolonizationists, meanwhile, included slaveholders and their allies, who wanted to keep black bondmen enslaved and in America, as well as white abolitionists who, along with the African Americans, slave and free, wanted to bring racial equality to America.

Gates dispenses his lessons respectably. For the most part, he places Lincoln correctly in these different groups and along these different measures, even though it requires conceding that Lincoln fell far short of our own conceptions of justice and humanity. Amid the current bicentennial emoting, it is refreshing to read an evaluation of Lincoln that refuses, as Gates writes, to “romanticize him as the first American president completely to transcend race and racism.” Yet Gates presents also his own dramatic--and utterly unpersuasive--version of the fanciful “two Lincolns” script. Several basic facts of political and constitutional history elude him, as do certain nuances of political speech and political strategy. And on some crucial issues his analysis is very poor.

According to Gates, Lincoln’s most “radical”--and therefore his most admirable--achievement was to overcome Jefferson’s limitations and proclaim that blacks as well as whites should be included in the Declaration’s “self-evident truth” that all men are created equal. Whatever he may have learned from Sally Hemings, Gates remarks suavely, Jefferson (although in principle anti-slavery) believed that blacks were sub-human, and he did not include them within his definition of men in 1776. Lincoln, by contrast, “most certainly and most impressively did”; and although this “rather radical” belief never led Lincoln to embrace full social and political equality between blacks and whites, it did propel him to the point where, at the end of his life, he declared his limited support for black suffrage--the first American president to do so.

A correction is immediately required regarding Thomas Jefferson. In 1785, Jefferson did advance in his Notes on the State of Virginia--as “a suspicion only,” he added--”that the blacks ... are inferior to the whites in the endowments of body and mind,” and he proceeded to explain why, in terms that today are hair-raising. There is a strong case to be made, on this account, that he did not have blacks in mind when he wrote the Declaration nine years earlier--although it is by no means as certain as Gates concludes. (Hopeful slaves and angry slaveholders of Lincoln’s time took Jefferson at his word in the Declaration. So did Lincoln.) But as it happens, later in the Notes, Jefferson observed that slavery removed “in the minds of the people that [their] liberties are of the gift of God”--that slavery is a human usurpation of men’s God-given natural rights to liberty. Gates ignores these significant observations. They suggest that although Jefferson thought blacks inferior to whites, he still considered them human beings. If so, Jefferson’s thinking (though not his political action) ran closer to the “rather radical” Lincoln than Gates allows.

In any event, Jefferson, just before he left the presidency in 1809, had second thoughts about his earlier writing about black inferiority, and he hazarded ideas about slavery and race not unlike those that Gates praises in the mature Lincoln. Early in 1809, in a letter to Henri Gregoire, the French radical priest and abolitionist, Jefferson declared that he had offered his earlier views on blacks “with great hesitation,” and that he had based them only on his limited personal observations, and that he wished to see their “complete refutation.” Above all, Jefferson asserted, the “degree of [the blacks’] talent” ought never to become “a measure of their rights.” Just because Isaac Newton was superior to others in intellect and understanding, Jefferson wrote, “he was not therefore lord of the person and property of others.” Indeed, Jefferson told Gregoire that he hoped that one day blacks would be placed “on an equal footing with the other colors of the human family. “ So Gates’s claim that Jefferson “never stated ... in his writings” that blacks were human is simply false.

On other points, Gates takes Lincoln to task. He is inclined to endorse Frederick Douglass’s assertions that Lincoln hated slavery chiefly as an economic system that degraded all labor and hurt poor whites, and that it was for the good of whites, not blacks, that he fought slavery as he did. Now, it is without question that what Foner has called the “free labor” argument against slavery did form a part of anti-slavery’s principled core (just as it deeply informed the more radical abolitionists’ arguments); and Lincoln certainly shared this view. But it is unfair to slight Lincoln’s repeated affirmations that he also considered human bondage a moral abomination, and that blacks, as humans, had the same basic rights as whites to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It is especially unfair of Gates to describe these broad rights to individual selfhood strictly as economic rights.

The unfairness becomes clearer by broadening the context to include such anti-slavery leaders as Representative David Wilmot of Pennsylvania, the author of the famous Wilmot Proviso in 1846 that tried to restrict slavery’s expansion (for which Congressman Lincoln voted and which Frederick Douglass applauded). In fighting slavery’s spread, Wilmot said, he harbored no “morbid sympathy for the slave,” but was trying to keep the West open for “free white laborers” and “a white man’s country,” and to stop any possibility that northern whites would be ruled by men who had been suckled by “some damn Negro wench.” Lincoln, the native Kentuckian, occasionally used words such as “nigger” and “Cuffee” on the stump and in conversation, even after he was elected president, which would have made him a gross violator of later racial etiquette across the nation. But he did not assert the crude racism of those such as Wilmot, who insisted that they opposed slavery purely and simply in order to benefit the white man. (Wilmot, incidentally, later altered his views about slavery’s cruelty to blacks.)

By concentrating on Lincoln’s writings about race and slavery, Gates also misunderstands how much more besides race affected Lincoln’s political approach to slavery. Apart from the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery in 1865, Gates does not discuss the Constitution much, even though references to it abound in the Lincoln documents that he has selected, and even though constitutional issues were pivotal in Lincoln’s thinking about both slavery and the Union. For Lincoln, to destroy slavery while destroying the Constitution would have been no victory at all, as it would demonstrate to the world that the American Revolution and republican government were follies or frauds--impervious to reform. Yet in accord with most anti-slavery men, Lincoln held that, like it or not, the Constitution tolerated and even protected slavery in the states where it already existed. How, then, could Americans abolish slavery under the terms of their own Constitution?

As of 1860, there was absolutely no possibility that Congress would pass, and that the states would ratify, a constitutional amendment banning slavery, which would have been the only peaceable and constitutional way for the federal government to outlaw bondage everywhere. Nor was there any possibility that the cotton states of the Deep South, or even the less slave-dependent states of the upper South, would abolish slavery on their own anytime soon. On that account, a minority of radical abolitionists, most conspicuously William Lloyd Garrison, concluded that the Constitution was morally bankrupt. But most of the anti-slavery forces, Lincoln among them, concluded that they would have to attack slavery where they believed the Constitution gave the federal government the power to do so, chiefly by barring slavery from the territories.

These anti-slavery advocates believed that, as an economic system, plantation slavery would have to expand or it would die. Halting its expansion thus amounted to a sentence of gradual death. (On this point, the slaveholders agreed.) Politically, the addition of new free states out of the vast territories added from the Mexican War, as well as the remainder of the Louisiana Purchase lands, would break the hammerlock that the South had long enjoyed in Washington over the slavery issue. This was what Lincoln meant when he spoke of putting slavery in the course of ultimate extinction--by containing it, as opposed to permitting slavery’s expansion which, he said, would put the nation “on the high-road to a slave empire.”

Some historians claim that Lincoln conceded that the choking off of slavery that he had in mind would take at least a hundred years to complete--a poor reflection on Lincoln’s anti-slavery zeal. Gates accepts the claim, and writes, cuttingly, that “at that rate, some black people born in my birth year, 1950, would have been born slaves.” Lincoln’s actual remarks, delivered during his debates with Stephen A. Douglas in 1858, were far less definitive, and more like throwaway lines than position statements. They hardly endorsed the concept of a gradual emancipation protracted over the century to come. But the important point is that, until the Civil War, and even through the war’s opening months, most Americans thought of emancipation in terms of one form or another of gradual emancipation. That was how slavery had come to an end in parts of the Caribbean and Latin America, as well as in the northern United States. (New Jersey passed its emancipation law in 1804, yet in 1860 there were still a few slaves in the state, called “apprentices for life.”)

Any proposal for gradual emancipation, in whatever form, in the United States was generally taken as a serious attack on slavery. And the slaveholders knew as much. To them, the principle of nonextension was a radical threat to slavery’s survival. Thus, Lincoln’s election as president in 1860, along with the election of a Republican majority in the House, was sufficient to convince the Deep South states that they ought immediately to secede from the Union.

Secession, which Lincoln called “the essence of anarchy,” amounted to precisely the strike against the Constitution that was anathema to him and other anti-slavery non-abolitionists. And so Lincoln, during his first two years as president, repeatedly told his abolitionist critics that he was fighting to save the Union and not to “put down slavery” or “upset slavery”--that is, to abolish slavery in the rebel states where it already existed. But this did not mean that Lincoln (as Frederick Douglass and other abolitionists suspected) had suddenly abandoned his belief that the work on dismantling slavery ought to begin. It meant that he wanted to restore the Union as it existed in 1861--with a democratically elected federal government that was determined to commence the process of emancipation by banning slavery’s expansion. When, by the spring of 1862, it became clear to Lincoln that such a restoration was no longer viable, he began looking into emancipation using his powers as commander-in-chief.

So it is impossible to understand the seriousness of Lincoln’s anti-slavery politics before 1862 without paying close attention to his ideas, and to the ideas of others, about the Constitution. Yet Gates virtually ignores the Constitution, or he dismisses concerns about its integrity as underhanded evasions. This ahistorical judgment leads Gates to complain, a little obtusely, that Lincoln only occasionally and obliquely recognized slavery as the basic cause of the Civil War until he delivered his forceful Second Inaugural Address in 1865. In fact, between 1854 and 1865, virtually every speech Lincoln delivered, and every political letter that he wrote (including those that Gates reprints), made it clear, at some level, that slavery and its expansion lay at the heart of the sectional divide.

When Lincoln spoke in 1858 about a house divided against itself not being able to stand, he was not talking about divisions over state rights, or internal improvements, or the tariff. Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address in 1861--in passages that Gates actually cites in his introduction and includes in his edited documents--not only defined the difference between North and South as a conflict over slavery’s expansion; it also described the difference as an essentially moral struggle in which “one section of our country believes slavery is right ... while the other believes it is wrong.” Was there any doubt that Dixie’s secession, which triggered the war, did not chiefly concern slavery, and southern fears for slavery’s future under Lincoln and the Republicans? One had only to read the official address that justified South Carolina’s secession, which referred directly to “an increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding states to the institution of slavery.”

Lincoln did not, to be sure, go on, in his First Inaugural Address, to describe why he thought human bondage was cruel and intolerable, as he would in brief but powerful detail under the vastly different political circumstances of his second inauguration after four years of war. For sound political and constitutional reasons, Lincoln kept the suppression of the secessionist rebellion front and center throughout the fighting; and he framed the struggle in those terms, at least through 1862. But even before the first shot was fired, Lincoln certainly recognized that slavery was, as Gates puts it, “the origin of the war.”

In effect, Gates--and he is not alone--holds that the radical abolitionist view of slavery and its immediate and total eradication is the only one worthy of respect, let alone serious consideration. He denigrates not just Lincoln but the core of the Republican Party’s platform of 1860--that the containment of slavery would begin slavery’s destruction--when he writes, more than a little contemptuously, that Lincoln “could live with slavery if he had to.” This may express a noble morality, but it is bad history: it fundamentally distorts what Lincoln and the anti-slavery political movement actually believed, and how Lincoln and that movement--which eventually sparked secession and freed the slaves--actually evolved.


Ironically, this neglect of the political and constitutional context leads Gates, the trained literary scholar, to misunderstand how the political leader, Lincoln, used words. Lincoln’s secretaries John G. Nicolay and John Hay once observed that “to measure right [Lincoln’s] utterance as a whole” the surrounding “conditions ... must continually be kept in mind,” but Gates does not heed the warning. Consider a conspicuous example. In the late summer of 1862, amid a pressure campaign by the radicals, the eccentric but influential left-wing Republican editor Horace Greeley criticized Lincoln for not pursuing emancipation more aggressively. Lincoln was happy to reply that he was determined to save the Union whether it would mean freeing all the slaves or freeing none of the slaves. Standing up to the importuning left wing of the Republican Party was a surefire way for Lincoln to shore up his support among moderate and conservative northerners--parsing his words carefully in order to sound cautious and responsible without in any way contradicting the constitutionalist anti-slavery views that he had proclaimed when running for president.

It was all the better--indeed, it was imperative--to do so because, unbeknownst to Greeley and his allies, Lincoln had begun drafting the Emancipation Proclamation more than a month earlier. He would sign and release to the public the preliminary version of the document only a few weeks later, when he thought the time was ripe--undercutting the radicals completely, while inevitably stirring up trouble among northern moderates and conservatives. Lincoln’s reply to Greeley was not, as Gates says it was, a white moderate’s declaration of his cautious and even callous determination to ignore the slavery issue in order to advance the Union cause. It was an example of Lincoln shrewdly and successfully manipulating Greeley to suit his immediate political end, which was to calm conservative fears prior to issuing the Emancipation Proclamation. Gates’s headnote covering Lincoln’s reply to Greeley does appreciate better the president’s deeper political strategy--but also sneers at it as “a transparent attempt to disarm conservative political rivals” which heightened black leaders’ distrust of Lincoln. Once again, the realities of politics--and the political realities that Lincoln faced--are trumped by an abstract moralism.


This brings us again to the “two Lincolns” story. Gates’s confusion about words and politics also lies behind his own variation of this myth. Lincoln, he writes, experienced a “great sea change” in his thinking about the war during the summer of 1862. Until then, supposedly, Lincoln refused to acknowledge that slavery had caused the war, and was adamant about not recruiting blacks into the army. Only after the war went badly for the Union in 1861 and 1862, Gates claims, did Lincoln conclude, in despair, that the emancipation of the slaves in the rebel states and the recruitment of black troops were acute military necessities. Yet even as he prepared to sign the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation in September 1862, Gates observes, Lincoln told a delegation of two anti-slavery ministers from Chicago not only that an edict of emancipation would be useless “as we are now situated,” but also that he feared black soldiers lacked competence and would be overrun by the rebel forces.

Why, then, did Lincoln change his mind about recruiting blacks, including ex-slaves? Gates, the literary critic and rare-book lover, finds the key to the riddle in a literary text. Specifically, Gates proclaims that Lincoln came to his senses after reading a brief book called An Historical Research Respecting the Opinions of the Founders of the Republic on Negroes as Slaves, as Citizens and Soldiers, written by one George Livermore--a Cambridge, Massachusetts abolitionist, merchant, bibliophile, and collector of Americana--about the Founding Fathers’ admiration of black soldiers during the American Revolution. One of the headnotes in Gates’s book is more emphatic, stating that Livermore’s writing had “persuaded” Lincoln by the late summer of 1862 about the Founding Fathers’ views--a chronological impossibility at the very least, since Livermore’s book was not even published until October 1862, and Lincoln did not receive a copy of it until November. Anyway, that book turns out to have been influenced by an earlier volume written by the black abolitionist William C. Nell. It was, Gates writes, “quite cleverly” presented to President Lincoln--in what Gates calls “an important, and little noted, subtle coup”--by Senator Charles Sumner, the Massachusetts radical Republican, and a friend of Livermore. In Gates’s telling, the scales then fell from the president’s eyes, and Lincoln changed his policies. Thereafter black soldiers fought so valiantly that Lincoln completely repudiated his earlier doubts, and became the black troops’ greatest champion--a change that eventually pushed the president into contemplating limited black suffrage once the war was over.

Gates’s account of Lincoln’s conversion experience makes greater allowance than some historians and critics do for the military exigencies of the war. But it also amounts to a variation of the old populist story: instead of arguing that runaway slaves prompted the Emancipation Proclamation, Gates says that Lincoln’s opposition to black recruitment changed with Sumner’s “coup” of giving the president a book influenced by a black abolitionist writer, and that thereafter the intrepid black troops began changing his mind about blacks in general. The problem is that most of what Gates says about the decision-making behind emancipation and black recruitment is either dubious or inaccurate, and much of it is preposterous, and some of it runs afoul of basic scholarly standards.

One weakness of Gates’s introduction is its almost complete neglect of Congress (apart from the Sumner-Livermore episode), and Congress’s major and continuing impact both on Lincoln and the entire process of emancipation. (Through the spring of 1862, Congress passed several pieces of important emancipation legislation which Lincoln duly approved, including the abolition of slavery in the nation’s territories and compensated emancipation in the District of Columbia.) Gates also misconstrues the chronology of Lincoln’s thinking about emancipation and the effects of the changing military situation--matters his own documents could have helped clarify. Although the project failed, Lincoln first proposed a plan for compensated emancipation in the state of Delaware by the end of 1861--well before the military defeats of the spring and summer of 1862.

The summer of 1862 had barely begun when Lincoln read his initial draft of the Emancipation Proclamation to Secretary of State Seward and Secretary of the Navy Welles; and less than ten days later he discussed his draft at a meeting of the full cabinet. Certainly the Union reversals in the Seven Days’ Battles during the last week of June had some bearing on Lincoln’s decision to move ahead--but not, as Gates suggests, the continuing Union defeats that culminated in the second battle of Bull Run, which was not fought until the end of August. More important, Lincoln’s thinking had more to do with the Union’s securing greater political and military control in Kentucky beginning in the winter of 1861-1862. Lincoln had long feared that any premature move toward emancipation would cause Kentucky and other border states to secede, greatly complicating the Union’s titanic military challenge. And even though Kentucky, like Delaware, rejected Lincoln’s proposal--delivered in March 1862, and included in Gates’s documents--for a general and gradual emancipation plan for the border states, a great constraint on Lincoln had been alleviated. Opportunities opened by Union military success, and not simply (as Gates reports) the harsh lessons of failure, affected the politics that led to the Emancipation Proclamation.

As for black military service, Gates’s neglect of Congress once again hurts his analysis. The Militia Act of 1862, approved by Lincoln in July, was a major advance, as many abolitionists recognized at the time. Lincoln’s shifts on black recruitment, meanwhile, were part of a prolonged and deeply political process--not some imaginary sea change. As early as September 1861, Lincoln approved Secretary Welles’s authorization to recruit black sailors--a minor and uncontroversial step at the time, but an indication that Lincoln did not think that blacks were incompetent in combat. Then, in April and May 1862, when Congress began debating the legislation that moved toward enlisting blacks in the army, Secretary of War Stanton (who was quicker than Lincoln to favor recruiting black soldiers, and then more vehement about it) quietly encouraged the Union military in South Carolina to start arming blacks--a move that was inconceivable without Lincoln’s approval.

The general in command in South Carolina was David Hunter (whom Lincoln had long known and liked, dating back to Hunter’s service in Kansas before the war, which had begun during the “Bleeding Kansas” struggles of 1856). Hunter raised the black troops and also issued an order, without formal authorization from his civilian superiors, emancipating the slaves on the Sea Islands of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. Lincoln may well have tacitly supported or even quietly initiated Hunter’s emancipation order, as a ploy to see how far emancipation could now be pushed. (Lincoln had curtly ended the freelance emancipation effort by General John C. Fremont in Missouri in 1861, which he thought had reached the point of insubordination and political recklessness.) Hunter apparently did not believe that he was violating the administration’s wishes. (“I believe he rejoiced in my action,” Hunter said of Lincoln, though politics barred the president from openly admitting as much.) But Hunter also seized slaves from captured plantations and dragooned them into military service; and he unnecessarily offended white soldiers, as well as two Kentucky congressmen. One Union officer who later commanded black troops said that Hunter’s recruiting tactics were “valuable as an example of how not to do it.”

When the northern press reacted with immediate and nearly universal hostility to Hunter’s emancipation order, Lincoln denied that he had any foreknowledge of it and publicly rescinded it--but he did not rebuke Hunter, privately or publicly, and he did not disband his black troops, let alone relieve him of his command, as he had done with Fremont. Hard at work formulating the Emancipation Proclamation and concerned about its prospects, Lincoln then staged his own tactical--that is to say, political--retreat during the summer of 1862 by refusing to use the full authority granted him by Congress’s Second Confiscation Act, which liberated the slaves of rebels, and by stating repeatedly that he would not approve a general order to arm blacks “unless some new and more pressing emergency arises.” On August 10, after Stanton refused to recognize and to pay his black troops, a disheartened General Hunter reported to the Secretary of War that he was disbanding all but one company of his black volunteers.

What happened next required no “subtle coup” by Charles Sumner, the abolitionists, George Livermore, or anyone else. At the end of August, Stanton authorized Brigadier General Rufus Saxton, an abolitionist in Beaufort, South Carolina, to pick up where Hunter had left off and recruit up to five thousand black volunteers. Lieutenant Charles Francis Adams Jr.--the grandson of John Quincy Adams and the son of the anti-slavery stalwart Charles Francis Adams--reflected on the affair: “Why could not fanatics be silent and let Providence work for awhile?” That is, Adams believed that had Hunter displayed more political sense, he might not have lost the confidence of Stanton and Lincoln. But whether Hunter had truly lost the administration’s confidence or was simply a pawn in a game that Lincoln was playing soon became a moot point. On September 13, 1862, Lincoln met the black ministers from Chicago and, in line with the public impression he had been giving since the summer, remarked that he had grave doubts about enlisting black soldiers as well as about ordering emancipation. Yet, before the month was over, blacks were being recruited into the Union Army, albeit on a limited basis, under General Saxton--by direct order of the War Department, and with no objection from President Lincoln.

In Louisiana and in Kansas, other Union generals began enlisting black troops in August--efforts that Lincoln did not explicitly authorize, but also did nothing to stop. The esteemed historian Benjamin Quarles called them “trial balloons.” In late October, Lincoln met with Colonel Daniel Ullmann, an erstwhile New York lawyer and politician, who proposed that Lincoln enlist black troops. Lincoln asked Ullmann whether he was willing to command black soldiers. The New Yorker replied that he was, and he went on to gain authorization to organize a brigade of black soldiers; and he led two black regiments which fought in the Union’s initial defeat at Port Hudson. But by then Ullmann was acting under the provisions of the Emancipation Proclamation which, in its final version, included (almost in passing) a stipulation about black recruitment omitted in the preliminary draft. Various pressures, not least Stanton’s insistence and the successes, in South Carolina and elsewhere, in raising credible black units, made possible the adoption of a policy that Lincoln had been gently experimenting with well before he issued his preliminary edict of emancipation.

Gates simply fails to understand what historians have long known was transpiring beneath Lincoln’s political artifice. He takes Lincoln’s words at face value when it suits his own arguments--such as his remarks to the Chicago ministers in September 1862 about black military incompetence--but he is unable to see Lincoln for what his finest biographers have shown he was: a shrewd leader who could give misleading and even false impressions when he wanted to do so, and made no public commitments until the moment was ripe. So it was with the Emancipation Proclamation, which (on the advice of Seward) Lincoln delayed releasing until after the outcome of the battle of Antietam on September 17, which gave the Union cause more credibility.

And so it was with recruitment of blacks, a policy that Congress advanced and that Lincoln encouraged with stealth and indirection as early as the spring of 1862--always keeping himself immune from political blame in case of failure, waiting until the “trial balloons” had proved successful and public opinion had matured before enunciating the policy in public. He then announced the change in the least conspicuous way imaginable, stating near the close of the legalistic Emancipation Proclamation that “such persons of suitable condition, will be received into the armed service of the United States to garrison forts, positions, stations, and other places....” This is how politics actually works in Washington, and always has worked. Gates does not comprehend it. This failure yields even stranger results when Gates offers his own account of why Lincoln reversed course on black recruitment--results so strange, and even potentially damaging, that they demand closer examination.


Gates’s story of the great Abraham Lincoln and the unknown George Livermore--a story that, in Gates’s telling, has been long neglected by an indifferent posterity--is interesting for several reasons. If true, it is a striking revisionist explanation of one of Lincoln’s most fateful wartime decisions. It is one of the bolder claims ever made on behalf of the dubious “two Lincolns” conversion story. It feeds the deep yearning of scholars (and not just scholars) to establish at every turn the agency of ordinary, neglected Americans in shaping momentous events--influence from the bottom up that decades and even centuries of elite, great-man history have supposedly suppressed. And this particular story, or rather the continuing story about the story, also shows how a prominent professor’s outlandish claims may quickly attain the semblance of truth.

In an admiring notice of Lincoln on Race & Slavery in The New York Review of Books, Garry Wills relates the most fallacious version of the story, which he picked up in part from the book’s headnotes, as if it were commonly accepted knowledge among American historians. “Lincoln changed his mind on the usefulness of blacks in the army,” Wills writes confidently, “when he was given [in August 1862] a book by George Livermore that established that Washington had usefully employed black troops during the Revolution.” Since Wills has been authorized as a distinguished expert on Abraham Lincoln, and since his remarks appear in an authoritative place, a bogus account of crucial historical events thus gains authority of its own. It may only be a matter of time before popular histories start telling the stirring tale of how an abolitionist’s little book, inspired by a black writer, changed Lincoln’s mind about recruiting black soldiers, which in turn transformed Lincoln’s views about blacks in general. George Livermore may become one of American history’s unjustly unsung heroes. The only trouble, of course, is that the story is a counterfeit.

Gates does not disclose what sources he has consulted about Livermore, but as near as I can tell the story originated in some passing remarks that appeared in Livermore’s obituary, written by Sumner, in the Boston Daily Advertiser on September 2, 1865. None of the major modern scholarly biographers of Lincoln, from Benjamin Thomas to David Herbert Donald, relate the story, or even mention Livermore. (Burlingame’s massive biography makes one trivial reference to Livermore and his book.) A version of the story does appear in a study of Lincoln, published in 2004, by Geoffrey Perrett, a prolific writer of historical biography. Like Gates, Perrett offers no supporting evidence.

And yet one of the headnotes in Gates’s book reports categorically that Livermore’s writing “persuaded” Lincoln “by the late summer of 1862” about the views of the all-important Founding Fathers concerning black troops--again an impossibility, given that Charles Sumner only sent Livermore’s recently published book to Lincoln on November 8. (This misdated account is the one that Garry Wills repeats.) Sumner did, to be sure, write to his friend and constituent Livermore, in late December 1862, to assure him that his study “interested President Lincoln much,” and he added the claim that Lincoln had consulted it while composing the final Emancipation Proclamation. Sumner also claimed that he had sent Lincoln a second gift of the book on Christmas morning after the president told him he had mislaid his copy. (The letters may be viewed online in the Library of Congress’s collection of Lincoln’s manuscript correspondence.)

But there is nothing whatever in these letters to show that Livermore’s writing had any decisive effect on Lincoln’s thinking. Lincoln’s thoughts turned quietly to the possibility of black recruitment long before Sumner sent Livermore’s book to the White House; and by the time Lincoln received the book, the Union had been enlisting black soldiers on a limited basis for months. Nor have I ever read of a single instance when Sumner--whom Lincoln liked, probably best among the radical Republicans, but whom he also regarded as an ally who required careful handling--outfoxed the president on anything. The idea that Sumner pulled off a clever “coup” on so grave and sensitive matter as black enlistment in the Union Army, and that he did so without the knowledge, let alone the involvement, of Secretary of War Stanton, with whom Lincoln was in constant contact, is something between implausible and ludicrous. In any event, there is no evidence for it either in the Sumner-Livermore correspondence that appears in the Lincoln papers at the Library of Congress, or in any of the other Lincoln primary sources on the subject. I seriously doubt that convincing sources are buried away elsewhere. If they are, Gates needs to bring them forward, as he should have in his book.

Another part of the story that Gates tells does appear to be true, or at least half-true. Just how important, in Gates’s view, was Livermore’s book? “Lincoln supposedly even gave Livermore the pen that he used to sign the Emancipation Proclamation,” Gates records in support of his story, as if Lincoln made a special effort to recognize Livermore’s contribution--though Gates then concedes that “the list of claimants to that singular honor is no doubt a long one.” (Once more, the later headnote, curiously, is more emphatic, stating flatly that “Lincoln felt so indebted to Livermore that he gave him the pen he had used to sign the Emancipation Proclamation.”) In fact, the journalist Benjamin Perley Poore (who was present at the event and reported on it for the Boston Evening Journal) wrote that Lincoln “carefully” put away the pen--”a steel pen with a wooden handle, the end of which had been gnawed by Mr. Lincoln--a habit that he had when composing anything that required thought”--so that Lincoln could give it to Sumner, “who had promised it to his friend George Livermore, of Cambridge, the author of an interesting work on slavery.”

Benjamin Quarles, in his classic work, Lincoln and the Negro, which was published in 1962 and which Gates does not cite, confirmed that Livermore actually did end up with the pen (which now resides across the Charles River from Harvard in the collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society). But Quarles’s account about how it all happened demolishes what is left of the “little known” story that Gates thinks is so “important,” as well as the claim in Gates’s book that Lincoln felt “indebted” to Livermore and acknowledged that debt. Quarles recreates the scene immediately after the proclamation’s signing:

Seward reached for the document to take it to the State Department for the great seal. Lincoln let nobody take the pen; he had promised to save it for George Livermore of Boston, a friend of Charles Sumner. For several weeks Sumner had plagued Lincoln about the pen. Sumner had been bedeviled in turn by Livermore: “I do so much desire to have that freeing instrument come to Massachusetts,” he wrote on Christmas Day, “that I would do almost anything to get it.”

Sumner hardly needed vigorous prodding. He remembered, as he informed Livermore two days later, that shortly after the District of Columbia Emancipation Act had been signed, he had gone to the White House and asked for the pen Lincoln had used. Lincoln had reached to his desk and taken up a handful of pens, saying, “It was one of these. Which will you take? You are welcome to all.”

This time Sumner was not to be denied. Lincoln signed the Proclamation on a Thursday afternoon; that Saturday’s newspapers announced that Sumner had the pen. Two days later, on Monday, January 5, Livermore received it in the mails. Wrote he to Sumner before the sun had set: “No trophy from a battlefield, no sword red with blood, no service of plate with an inscription ... would ever have been to me half as acceptable as this instrument.”

Quarles did not tell quite the whole story, for Livermore wanted as many mementos as he could lay his hands on. (“What becomes of the manuscript of the Proclamation? Is that preserved?” he wrote to Sumner. “That would be still better than the pen--if it could be had after the printer had published it.”) And when Sumner forwarded Livermore’s request for the pen to Lincoln, he did mention that Livermore was “the author of the Historic Research on slavery in the early days of our Government.” But Quarles’s account conforms with everything else that we know about Lincoln and Sumner, about their personal as well as political relations.

It is entirely possible that Lincoln found Livermore’s book appealing, and even useful. But there is nothing in the historical record to show that what Perley Poore called Livermore’s “interesting work on slavery” in any way “persuaded” Lincoln about black enlistment. And, until and unless Gates provides solid documentation overturning Quarles’s account, there is nothing at all behind the claim that Lincoln felt “indebted to Livermore.” There is instead, by Quarles’s telling, the faintly comical story of an enthusiastic abolitionist souvenir-hunter, a proud son of the Bay State, bedeviling his friend Senator Sumner; and of Sumner continuing the constituent service that he had begun with the gift to the president of a copy of Livermore’s pamphlet, by plaguing Lincoln about the pen. Finally the president, who appears to have been indifferent about which pen signed what, handed over the prize.

Gates’s credulity about historical sources also mars his treatment of Lincoln and colonization. The Emancipation Proclamation in effect stated that a Union victory would mean the immediate end of slavery nationwide--although only the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment by Congress (for which Lincoln pushed before his murder) and its ratification by the states extirpated the Constitution’s toleration of slavery once and for all. But as soon as the war for the Union became a war to eliminate bondage, Lincoln had to face up squarely to the question that he had long tried to dodge: What would a post-slavery America look like? Almost instinctively, he clung to the idea of voluntary colonization as ineluctable. In the same message to Congress on December 1, 1862, in which he announced the Emancipation Proclamation, he reasserted his firm support for colonization, and called for a constitutional amendment that, among other things, would permit Congress to fund directly the voluntary colonization of free blacks.

Never again would Lincoln publicly advocate colonization. He did, as Gates writes, approve a contract with a private citizen, at the very end of 1862, to transport a few hundred blacks to an island off the coast of Haiti. (The only colonization project actually undertaken by the Lincoln administration, the venture proved a fiasco.) Lincoln also met with some pro-colonizationists in the spring of 1863. But by the end of 1863, at the very latest, colonization was off the administration’s agenda. Indeed, even in his message to Congress in 1862, as Gates’s headnotes observe, he began to back off from the scheme, assuring white wage-earners that even if blacks did not emigrate their own wages would not fall, and chastising those who favored colonization out of racial hatred. And yet there have always been writers as well as historians among those who dislike Lincoln--including that great Civil War expert Gore Vidal--who insist that Lincoln never really abandoned his desire for colonization. Since Lincoln never explicitly renounced colonization, these critics say, there is no justification for believing that he ever really did so.

Gates is mindful of Frederick Douglass’s excoriating comments, delivered in 1876, that, owing in part to his pro-colonization views, Lincoln was “preeminently the white man’s President, entirely devoted to the welfare of white men.” (Following Lincoln’s assassination in 1865, Douglass had called Lincoln “emphatically the black man’s president: the first to show any respect for their rights as men,” but Gates, who quotes the speech as one of his epigraphs, elides this contradiction.) Gates thus gives Lincoln’s critics their due, batting back and forth two primary sources that, he claims, might lend their case credence. In 1886 and again in 1892, General Benjamin Butler asserted that, in two meetings with Lincoln in 1865, he received a commission from the president to investigate the practicality of colonization. Earlier, beginning in 1868, Gideon Welles published a series of articles that stated Lincoln always linked emancipation and colonization. Ominously calling the sources deeply “troubling” if “problematic,” Gates runs at length through the pro and cons.

Gates’s inquiry quickly begins to look like a wild goose chase. Butler’s claims are flawed by inaccuracies and logical inconsistencies. Almost any scholar in the field could have told Gates (as, he reports, David Herbert Donald actually did try to tell him) that Butler was, in Donald’s words, “a thoroughly untrustworthy witness.” More important, Butler’s own account states that it was he, Butler, who initially raised the possibility of a colonization scheme in Panama. As usual, Lincoln said nothing too committal either way. He listened politely, and his visitor went away convinced that the president agreed with him. Finally Gates himself is forced to conclude that Butler either misremembered events or purposely tried “to press Lincoln into service for [his] own personal and political cause.”

As for Welles, Gates merely infers his claim that Lincoln held fast to his pro-colonization views after 1862. Welles’s actual articles are at best ambiguous about the concluding years of the war. Yet none of this rattles Gates, who concludes with the self-assured pronouncement that “I find it perfectly reasonable that a war-weary Abraham Lincoln” wondered about “the feasibility of colonizing the bulk of the former slaves” in 1865.

Even if Gates’s assertion was based on facts and not on speculation, it would not be particularly important. After all, Lincoln took no public steps toward advancing colonization from January 1, 1863, until the day he died. The actual sources, meanwhile, do little to undermine John Hay’s diary entry of July 1, 1864: “I am happy that the President has sloughed off that idea of colonization.” (Gates attaches significance to a letter that Lincoln wrote in late November 1864, which in fact did nothing to revive colonization or to indicate Lincoln had the least interest in doing so.) What becomes clearer, although Gates does not explore the matter, is that in 1865 Lincoln had yet to arrive at a coherent vision of what to do after the war was won--that he was feeling his way as he always did, adapting principles to circumstances, figuring out the most feasible way to move the country ahead, but with less clarity than ever about what path to follow, now that slavery was doomed.

It is fitting that it is Frederick Douglass’s criticisms of Lincoln that instigate Gates’s strained discussion of colonization, for Douglass looms large throughout this book, and especially in Gates’s final evaluation of Lincoln, which ends with a direct quotation from Douglass. More than fifty years ago, the easily caricatured but politically gifted Senator Everett Dirksen, Republican of Illinois (then still a member of the House), observed that the first task of any politician is “to get right with ... Lincoln.” Today it sometimes appears that the first task of any American historian of the nineteenth century is to get right with Frederick Douglass. As an escaped slave turned abolitionist agitator, a scintillating orator, a fearless editor, a race man, an integrationist, a feminist (at least at Seneca Falls in 1848), and more, the admirable Douglass embodied, better than any American of his time, everything that today’s academy feels is worthy of supreme honor. In scholarly writings, Douglass invariably gets cited positively. His words cast an aura of nobility that can shut down any dispute. Some historians still sanctify Abraham Lincoln, but for many, if not most, Frederick Douglass is now the era’s true hero.

Douglass had an ambivalent view of Lincoln, which Gates discusses in some detail. Although he often praised Lincoln as “the greatest statesman that ever presided over the destinies of this Republic,” Douglass also denounced his failure to embrace emancipation in 1861 (arguing that the Union would have swiftly crushed the South) as well as his efforts to encourage voluntary colonization. Gates observes that Douglass, in his ambivalence, contained what Gates calls “the duality in assessment that continues to manifest itself among black politicians and scholars,” from the worshipful Booker T. Washington to the excoriating Malcolm X and Lerone Bennett Jr. “to the more nuanced yet strongly favorable assessment of Barack Obama.”

Gates’s own assessment, in line with what he takes to have been Douglass’s analysis, tries to embrace all of these views and add some touches of his own, criticizing Lincoln beyond what the historical evidence discloses, but also praising him. Yet even in his praise of Lincoln, Gates oddly scuttles politics. He cites an essay written in 1922 by W.E.B. Du Bois, who decried Lincoln’s “shifty political methods,” which called Lincoln a monumental historical figure because “he was big enough to be inconsistent--cruel, merciful; peace-loving, a fighter; despising Negroes and letting them fight and vote; protecting slavery and freeing slaves.” To Gates, this translates into prizing Lincoln because “he wrestled with his often contradictory feelings,” and “faced and confronted his own prejudices, and, to a remarkable extent, overcame them.” (What a fine guest on Oprah Lincoln would have been!) By combining different African American perspectives on Lincoln, no matter how mutually exclusive; by quoting friends and putative authorities, black and white, all the way from Harvard to The New Yorker; and by ending on a positive bicentennial note, Gates does his best to get right with Douglass. He is ready for his gig on PBS. Nobody’s wrong if everybody’s right.

There is one pro-Lincoln passage from Douglass’s speech of 1876, though, that gives Gates a little trouble, because it defends the political side of Lincoln that Gates thoroughly condemns. “Had [Lincoln] put the abolition of slavery before the salvation of the Union,” Douglass conceded, “he would have inevitably driven from him a powerful class of the American people and rendered resistance to rebellion impossible. 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.” However much, during the war, Douglass may have quietly appreciated Lincoln’s statesmanship--by which he meant Lincoln’s political skill--he came to appreciate it more years later. It is this crucial core of Lincoln, the political leader, that Gates, the literary critic, cannot fathom.


Another book by another literary historian is all about Lincoln and Douglass. Even before its publication, John Stauffer’s Giants began to exert its influence, as Gates relied on Stauffer’s interpretations of Lincoln at various points in his own book. Stauffer’s stated objective is to juxtapose the lives of two “giants,” two great men who “stood at the forefront of a major shift in cultural history”--the shift that extended freedom and equality to blacks as well as whites. Yet even though he intends the book as in part a monument to Lincoln, he winds up maligning as well as misunderstanding Lincoln’s anti-slavery politics. Somehow Lincoln keeps eluding his admirers.

Stauffer writes about the Civil War era in ways that are at once up-to-the-minute and old-fashioned. In accord with the latest trends in the field of American Studies, he fixes on the emotional content of politics, with particular interest in friendships between black men and white men. His first book, The Black Hearts of Men, which served as a springboard for Giants, examined the connections and the activities of four uncompromising abolitionists, including Frederick Douglass and John Brown, who were brought together in the tiny and short-lived Radical Abolition Party in 1855. Stauffer was fascinated by their empathetic radicalism about race, which led one of the four, Gerrit Smith, who was also one of the richest men in the country, to declare that he would “make myself a colored man.”

A century before Norman Mailer’s “white negro,” there arose at the radical fringes of the anti-slavery movement, as Stauffer discovered, a highly racialized sense of righteousness in the name of eliminating racial hierarchy. (Stauffer summarized his quartet’s central belief, again in keeping with current humanistic usage, as the constructed “performative” self of an outsider: “The true spiritual heart was a black heart that shared a humanity with all people and lacked the airs of superiority of a white heart.”) One member of Stauffer’s group, the physician and literary critic James McCune Smith, who was the most highly educated black man in the country, called their sacred pursuits a form of “Bible Politics,” which Stauffer describes as the belief that “the government of God and earthly states should be one and the same.” The Radical Abolitionists, in short, undertook a millennial flight from politics. This is completely recognizable to anyone familiar with the radical fringes of the late-1960s New Left, with its renunciation of “white skin privilege.” Stauffer prefers to see it as a kind of failed transcendence.

Not surprisingly, the effort ended badly--in violence and in insanity. Gerrit Smith, the party’s mainstay, temporarily lost his mind after authorities identified him as one of the chief conspirators supporting his fellow “colored man” John Brown, after Brown’s suicidal raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859. Once he had partially recovered, Smith decided that blacks truly were inferior to whites, and he endorsed colonization. One might easily conclude that Smith was drawn to extreme doctrines, noble and ignoble. Stauffer prefers psychology, speculating that Smith’s racist turn was his way “to exorcise his feelings of guilt” over the deaths of innocents at Harpers Ferry--and that thereby, tragically, Smith “lost his black heart.”

Stauffer’s sympathy for performative cross-racial self-fashioning as a strategy to destroy slavery and racial injustice is in tune with what is known as “whiteness studies” among cultural historians and critics. This approach construes race as the primary identity of consequence in American politics, and it construes “whiteness” as something tantamount to original sin. It also conflates politics with culture and psychology, which is yet another way to sound deeply political while evading politics and political history. More traditional, though, are Stauffer’s sympathies for the purity and the boldness of the radicals, in contrast to the moral flaccidity and the corruption of the world around them, including mainstream party politics. Those sympathies reappear in Giants and dominate its interpretations of Douglass and Lincoln.

The idea of pairing the two men has been much in the air over the last few years. The thesis of Lincoln and Douglass: How a Revolutionary Black Leader and a Reluctant Liberator Struggled to End Slavery and Save the Union, by the writers and amateur historians Paul Kendrick and Stephen Kendrick, which appeared in 2007, is pretty much summed up by its unwieldy subtitle. Lincoln, the white supremacist who hated slavery, began the Civil War aiming simply to save the Union, whereas Douglass, one of the only blacks Lincoln respected, held fast to his uncompromising abolitionism. Yet the two formed a mutual understanding between 1863 and 1865, as Douglass’s fiery speeches and writings helped to persuade Lincoln that the war could not be won without emancipation and the enlistment of black soldiers.

With far greater subtlety and historical understanding, James Oakes’s The Radical and the Republican, which also appeared in 2007, traces how two very different men, following fundamentally different sets of political imperatives, eventually converged. One of the finest current scholars of the Civil War era, Oakes understands perfectly well that, however Lincoln viewed blacks, he had long hated slavery--with as much conviction, Oakes claims, as the radical ex-slave Douglass. Their differences had to do with their respective political positions. Douglass, the radical reformer, had no formal power, and could agitate as he pleased to proclaim his principles and persuade others. Lincoln had enormous power and enjoyed its possession, and accepted the mottled responsibilities of the presidency. Those duties, in his understanding, necessitated pragmatic compromise and negotiation in step with public opinion, as well as adherence to his official oath to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution. “It is important to democracy that reformers like Frederick Douglass could say what needed to be said,” Oakes wisely observes, “but it is indispensible to democracy that politicians like Abraham Lincoln could do only what the law and the people allowed them to do.” And, he might have added, it was indispensible for the nation, and above all the slaves, that Lincoln performed as president as well as he did.

Stauffer approaches Douglass and Lincoln, and defines his task, very differently. The ex-slave and the politician, he asserts, were oddly similar, despite the racial difference. Both were self-made men in the nineteenth-century American mold. Douglass escaped the vicious world of bondage and rose, through self-education and hard work, to become one of the greatest American orators and intellectuals of his time or any other. Lincoln escaped the vicious world of white rural poverty and rose, through selfeducation and hard work, to become one of the greatest American orators and intellectuals of his time or any other. As young men, they read many of the same books. Both turned to humor to overcome despair.

To be sure, Stauffer claims, Douglass “brilliantly exposed Lincoln’s limitations as a champion of freedom.” And this is really the book’s central argument: that once the sectional crisis began, Douglass, the fearless and uncompromising social revolutionary, by turns denounced and encouraged the anti-slavery conservative Republican Lincoln--and Lincoln finally saw the light. Stauffer also notes that the two men were able to put aside their political differences and become friends who “genuinely liked and admired each other.” Douglass and Lincoln only met on three occasions, the last time fleetingly at a crowded East Room reception at the White House after Lincoln’s second inauguration. There is abundant evidence, from 1863 through 1865, that they truly held each other in high mutual esteem; and Lincoln, during their second meeting as well as in the East Room, referred to Douglass as “my friend.” This is enough to persuade Stauffer that he has located another rare but singularly important interracial friendship in antebellum America.

But casting that friendship in terms of the parallel lives of two “self-made” men is highly problematic. Stauffer gets a little puzzling about his definition of the term when at one point he calls Lincoln “the first self-made president”--raising questions about how he thinks the young Andrew Jackson, Martin Van Buren, and Millard Fillmore made their way in the world. More important, self-made men, and men who considered themselves self-made, were ubiquitous in antebellum America. Millions of Americans shared Douglass’s and Lincoln’s belief in hard work and education as the keys to self-improvement. Frederick Douglass, by contrast, was one of only a handful of slaves who successfully escaped to freedom to become a self-made man. This distinction vitiates the superficial similarities between his life and Lincoln’s--and that of any other white American. Stauffer nevertheless devotes the first part of his book to an examination of what he makes of the parallels. He departs most vigorously from the standard accounts by pushing hard what evidence he can muster about Douglass’s and Lincoln’s sexual lives and proclivities, and especially about what he imagines were their homoerotic tendencies.

Douglass lived through an unsatisfying marriage with another ex-slave, established prolonged extra-marital liaisons with at least two white women, and finally found connubial bliss late in life with a much younger woman, a former secretary, who also was white. He evinced no sexual desires at all for other men. But Stauffer, the eager student of transgressive self-fashioning and all the rest, is on the lookout, and he brings up an incident in 1838 that fleetingly appears promising. Recently escaped from slavery, standing near the Tombs prison in New York City, and disguised in what looked like a sailors’ outfit, Douglass was approached by a sailor named Stuart. The two struck up a conversation, in what Stauffer says “seemed almost like a pickup.” In the end, though, Stauffer admits, “the pickup stemmed more from sympathy than any desire for sex,” and he drops the story.

Lincoln is another matter. Since Carl Sandburg wrote of the “streak of lavender” that he detected in Lincoln, there has been speculation about Lincoln’s affection for men, and Stauffer is determined to give it one more whirl. He notes an intellectual debt to C.A. Tripp’s The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln, a discredited hodgepodge of supposition and deception, which appeared in 2003, though he does not endorse Tripp’s sensational claim that Lincoln was “predominantly homosexual.” Stauffer favors the more diffuse argument, adapted from Foucault and now generally accepted in the academy, that until the words “homosexuality” and “heterosexuality” were invented (some say in 1868, others in 1886 or 1892), sexual love between men was a repertory of acts and not a trait of personality. In America, so the argument goes, sexuality was much more polymorphous before the Civil War than after. Yet if Stauffer sees the antebellum sexual universe as, in his words, “very blurry indeed,” he is adamant about one thing: “Lincoln’s soul mate and the love of his life was a man named Joshua Speed.”

Stauffer’s rehearsal of the old Speed story illustrates the difference between a historian and a professor with an agenda. Joshua Speed was a young storeowner and the son of a wealthy Kentucky planter. Between 1837 and 1841, he roomed with Lincoln above Speed’s store in Springfield. As was then the custom, they shared a bed (“a very large double-bed,” Speed later recalled); and they became, according to numerous accounts, intimate friends, confessing to each other their hopes, fears, and ambitions, while musing aloud and gossiping about politics and (especially) literature. Stauffer works hard to suggest that what he calls this “romantic friendship” included loving sexual contact. As evidence, he presents a mish-mash of strained analogies and literary references (including, inevitably, Ishmael and Queequeg) as somehow telling. He notes that “male-male sex was also common in the military.” He dismisses as “rhetorical gymnastics” David Herbert Donald’s detailed denial of homoeroticism in Lincoln’s and Speed’s friendship. And so he concludes that “there is no reason to suppose that [Lincoln] didn’t also have carnal relations with Joshua Speed.”

The trouble is there is no reason to suppose that they did. Speed’s letters to Lincoln during the years in question, Stauffer records, “have sadly been lost”; but Lincoln’s letters to Speed betray no signs of any passion or romance, let alone a sexual bond, apart from some pledges of undying friendship. (Lincoln did, as Stauffer notes, close one letter to Speed “Yours forever”--but Donald pointed out that Lincoln used the same phrase in letters to his law partner and an Illinois congressman.) As Stauffer does not bring Lincoln’s sexuality to bear either on his relations to Douglass or on any other later aspect of his life, including his marriage, it is difficult to see why the Speed story arises at all, especially given how fragmentary the evidence is. It is also difficult to understand why Stauffer would devote so much time and space to the imputation of a profound homoeroticism that, by his own admission, cannot be proved, at least with the available documentation.

The remainder of Giants amounts to a variation on the familiar left-populist arguments about Lincoln--whom Stauffer repeatedly derides as a conservative, deeply reluctant about undertaking emancipation--and how circumstances repeatedly forced him into the kind of greatness that Douglass exemplified. Stauffer’s account, though, is almost completely devoid of politics, except in trying to make Douglass and the radicals look brilliant, and Lincoln either begrudging or benighted. This approach flattens crucial complexities, and badly misrepresents Lincoln’s politics and his ideas. The confusion is particularly severe when Stauffer considers constitutional issues, beginning with the Supreme Court’s pro-slavery ruling in the Dred Scott case in 1857.

According to Stauffer, Lincoln, prior to Dred Scott, believed in the absolute supremacy of the court as the final arbiter of all constitutional issues. (He supports this assertion with an ambiguous quotation from a campaign speech by Lincoln in 1856, as well as extraneous quotations that turn out to be not from Lincoln at all but from Tocqueville and John Marshall.) But Chief Justice Taney’s ruling in Dred Scott, Stauffer claims, changed everything. By opposing the decision, Stauffer writes, Lincoln “rejected the Court as the nation’s supreme authority,” redoubled his support for the nonextension of slavery which flew in the face of that decision, and suddenly began to rely “on a natural (or ‘higher’ law) and follow the path that Frederick Douglass had long ago taken.” Lincoln the lawyer now “repudiated the Constitution and legal precedent and defined the Declaration [of Independence] to be the centerpiece of government.” Not for the first time, and not for the last, in Stauffer’s telling, Lincoln belatedly approached Douglass’s principled position.

This is nonsense. Of course Lincoln believed and had long insisted that the federal courts must be obeyed. Yet when, in 1856, he asserted that the Supreme Court was the proper body to decide constitutional issues, and that he would abide by the court’s decisions, he did not say that all its decisions were absolutely settled law (let alone what he called “wellsettled” law), or that abiding by those decisions ruled out seeking their undoing. The Dred Scott decision certainly moved Lincoln to clarify his thinking about the legitimacy of Supreme Court decisions, to himself as well as to the public--but contrary to Stauffer, Lincoln rejected the Dred Scott ruling not because he thought it violated a “higher law,” but because he thought it was erroneous and unconstitutional (as well as unjust), and he called for constitutional and democratic action to overturn it. “We know the court that made it has often over-ruled its own decisions,” Lincoln declared, “and we shall do what we can to have it over-rule this.”

Lincoln hardly “repudiated” the Constitution. (Stauffer shamelessly constructs this contention by quoting, out of context, bits of Lincoln’s writings from well before the Dred Scott ruling, dating back as far as 1854.) Lincoln repudiated the Taney Court’s interpretation of the Constitution as flagrantly unsound. The best way to remedy the situation, he believed, would be to hold fast to the anti-slavery principles that Chief Justice Taney had wrongly declared unconstitutional, and elect officials (including a president and a Senate majority) who would uphold accurate constitutional interpretation. Once in office, those men would legislate and execute accordingly, and start to change the composition of the court, and finally succeed in overturning Dred Scott.

This was the democratic political path that Lincoln took (which eventually led him to the presidency), at the very moment when Douglass and the “black hearts” of the erstwhile Radical Abolition Party were pondering illegal violence in the name of a “higher law,” including violence directed against the federal government. The difference between them was not small, nor was Lincoln’s constitutional reasoning abstruse. The great mass of American citizens understood the difference (even if southern pro-slavery extremists tried to equate Lincoln’s views with the radicals’). But Stauffer does not take the time to understand elementary historical and political distinctions.

Stauffer’s readings of other basic constitutional and political facts repeatedly diminish Lincoln by turning him into a craven compromiser and worse. This is precisely the caricature of him that was cultivated by radical Republicans and abolitionists. Stauffer endorses Douglass’s denunciation of Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address as “double-tongued”; and he likewise endorses what he calls Douglass’s view that, by appealing to the South for reconciliation, Lincoln cruelly “ignored the cries of blacks in chains.” Stauffer might have paused to remember that, on March 4, 1861, when Lincoln was inaugurated, the war had not yet begun. Lincoln’s bid for reconciliation was a politically crafted way of giving the South a chance to renounce secession and recognize the legitimacy of his own election--and the legitimacy of a national government now dominated by a duly elected anti-slavery Republican Party. It is understandable that the radical abolitionist Douglass reacted to Lincoln’s speech with a harsh polemic. But for a scholar to say that Lincoln callously “sacrificed the humanity of blacks” is a purposeful distortion of his political circumstances and intentions.

Lincoln’s address did give tepid, provisional backing to a constitutional amendment that had passed Congress and that would have prohibited any future amendment banning slavery in the states where it existed. At first, the incoming president opposed the idea as needless conciliation. But as Lincoln believed, like most Americans, that Congress already lacked the power to ban slavery in the states, he also construed the amendment as an unthreatening effort to make explicit a provision which was, he said, “now implied constitutional law.” In any event, he believed, quite soundly, that the amendment did nothing to interfere with his bedrock conviction about Congress’s power to halt the spread of slavery, and thereby to commence its elimination. But Stauffer, horrified, misdescribes the proposal flatly as “an unamendable amendment guaranteeing slavery in the states forever,” and falsely charges that Lincoln’s “intellectually and morally dishonest” stance “negated his belief in the ‘ultimate extinction of slavery.’” He then paraphrases, in apparent agreement, Douglass’s wild charge that as soon as Lincoln made this concession the “nickname ‘Honest Abe’ sank into the sewers of Washington.”

Stauffer, like Gates, does allow that President Lincoln eventually enlarged his anti-slavery convictions. Yet also like Gates--and in line with the rest of the “two Lincolns” literature--he sometimes explains that development in terms of some sort of individual apotheosis or emotional awakening, once again devoid of politics. Concerning Lincoln’s eventual decision to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, Stauffer offers the far-fetched assertion that Lincoln “experienced the equivalent of a conversion” that may have started with Willie’s death in February 1862. “Perhaps Willie’s death fueled Lincoln’s sympathies for parents throughout the North who had lost a son.... The need to emancipate the slaves in order to save the Union weighed upon Lincoln, a heavy burden.” No historian doubts that Lincoln was haunted by death and deeply moved by the war’s carnage, or that he underwent what he called “a process of crystallization,” in his thinking about religion between 1862 and 1865 (although there is no evidence that he ever became a believing Christian). But the idea that sentimental or religious feelings motivated Lincoln’s evolving views about so crucial and hazardous an issue as emancipation is sheer fantasy.

On the black recruitment issue, Stauffer rehearses Lincoln’s revocation of General Hunter’s emancipation order without mentioning the encouragement that the administration gave Hunter to enlist black troops. Nor does he go into detail about the administration’s later orders to General Saxton to pick up where Hunter had left off (an episode he does at least mention, albeit in an entirely different context, in the book’s prologue). Instead, Stauffer says that the conservative and overcautious Lincoln stifled Hunter’s emancipation decree in order to preserve stability, insisting as ever on “gradual change” even when much of the Republican party press had come to favor “social revolution.” According to Stauffer, the Hunter episode--indeed, the entire story of the politics that led to the Emancipation Proclamation, including its black recruitment provision--offers yet another example of Lincoln finally catching up to the wisdom of Frederick Douglass and the radicals. But the fact is that there is only one slight example of Douglass directly affecting any of Lincoln’s decisions about conducting the war, and even that example is debatable. It occurred in 1864, late in the war, during the second of their three meetings. 


Lincoln and Douglass first met in August 1863, when Douglass came to the White House to register various complaints about the mistreatment of black soldiers. The president quickly impressed the radical by making a fuss over him (which, given the racial implications, meant a great deal to Douglass) and by otherwise handling the situation like a master politician. Instead of expressing anger or affecting condescension over Douglass’s attacks on him, Lincoln calmly listened to Douglass’s concerns about the administration’s tardiness, explained his own position about the need sometimes to go slowly, and forthrightly insisted that he had never vacillated on emancipation or any other important decision. (Lincoln also endorsed, with his own signature, an official pass through Union lines issued to Douglass earlier in the day by Secretary of War Stanton. The pass came with a promise from Stanton, which delighted Douglass, of a formal commission to aid in the raising of black troops in Mississippi.)

Having come to Washington full of grievances, Douglass departed smitten by Lincoln, writing that the “wise, great, and eloquent” president would “go down to posterity, if the nation is saved, as Honest Abraham.” Even when Douglass’s promised Mississippi commission never actually materialized, the disappointed Douglass refused to blame the president. Having met the man, he was now persuaded that his anxieties about what he regarded as Lincoln’s equivocations about slavery and freedom had been misplaced. But Lincoln had conceded nothing.

A year later Lincoln was in deep political trouble, and he invited Douglass, whose enthusiasm for the president had waned, to confer with him at the White House--their second meeting. Earlier in the year, radical Republicans, seeking a candidate committed to their agenda concerning possible postwar reconstruction plans, tried to deny Lincoln re-nomination and replace him with John C. Fremont. Douglass, returning to his earlier criticisms of the president, backed Fremont and his radical program, which Stauffer, recalling his earlier book, likens to the Radical Abolition Party platform of 1855. It was, Stauffer observes favorably, a firm rebuke of what he derides as Lincoln’s “misguided policies.”

Lincoln handily fended off the radicals and won re-nomination in early July. The main threat now came from the Democrats, who, along with some skittish moderate Republicans, were calling for a negotiated peace with the Confederacy. Lincoln released a public letter stating that he could no longer consider restoring the Union unless the slaves were emancipated, which pleased some of the radicals but further riled the opposition. Lincoln next considered issuing a second letter in order to clarify his position and openly recognize that public opinion prevented him from ever fighting the war purely in order to achieve abolition. He began the second meeting with Douglass by asking him if he should release this second letter. Douglass, not surprisingly, said no. Lincoln laid the letter aside for good, which may have been Douglass’s most direct contribution of consequence in the war--although it is also possible that Lincoln had made his decision before he met with Douglass, and was simply trying to make the radical feel important.

Lincoln wanted more out of the meeting. He told Douglass that the slaves were not flocking to Union lines as quickly as he had hoped, and he asked Douglass to undertake a new assignment: devising some means to spread the word of emancipation to the slaves on the plantations. Douglass was stunned that Lincoln would approve of what looked to him like inciting a slave uprising--a move that he deemed similar to John Brown’s outrageous plot a few years earlier. Douglass eagerly agreed to come up with a proposal, and quickly went to work on drafting specifics.

In fact, apart from its ultimate goal of liberating slaves, Lincoln’s proposal was exactly the opposite of John Brown’s crusade. Brown, mistrustful of mainstream politics and politicians, aimed to overthrow slavery by first seizing the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, which was a mission doomed from the start. Lincoln, a wily politician and the president of the very government that Brown had attacked, was using his full force as commander-in-chief to impose emancipation on southern rebels, which was a mission with a reasonable chance of some success. Still, it made no difference to Lincoln that Douglass was deluding himself into thinking that he was re-enacting Brown’s revolution--just so long the radical worked with him on emancipation and remained loyal to him in a dismal political season.

General Sherman’s victory at Atlanta several weeks later dramatically changed the political as well as the military situation, helping lift Lincoln to re-election while rendering it unnecessary to take special measures to encourage the slaves to flee to Union lines. Once again, an administration offer to enlist Douglass came to nothing. But Douglass was greatly relieved, persuaded now more than ever that Lincoln was not just a personal friend but a true friend to his people. Only weeks before, Douglass had ridiculed the president as an unprincipled politician who had to be forced by circumstances to do the right thing. Now he considered Lincoln’s re-election imperative, having seen in him “a deeper moral conviction against slavery than I had ever seen before in anything spoken or written by him.” Here is the conversion story: the conversion of Frederick Douglass into a believer in Abraham Lincoln. It had required no divine intervention, only Lincoln’s sincerity and political skill.

Less than seven months later, Douglass and Lincoln met for the last time. Approaching the White House reception following Lincoln’s second inauguration, Douglass found his entrance barred by guards who claimed that they had been told “to admit no persons of color.” But after Lincoln was alerted, Douglass gained admission. “Here comes my friend Douglass,” exclaimed Lincoln, who took him by the hand and asked him what he had thought of his speech earlier in the day, insisting (or so Douglass proudly recounted) that “there is no man in the country whose opinion I value more than yours.” Douglass replied that he thought it had been “a sacred effort,” and Lincoln said he was glad to hear it. Douglass then returned to his home in Rochester, New York deeply honored--just as anyone, he later wrote, “would regard himself honored by such expressions, from such a man.” Six weeks later Lincoln was dead. To the grief-stricken Douglass, as for countless others, Lincoln had become something like America’s Christ, whose martyrdom, he said, “will be the salvation of our country,” by uniting blacks and whites in reconciliation. It was not to be.

Douglass outlived Lincoln by thirty years, which leaves Stauffer with a good deal of ground to cover without his gimmick of parallel lives. Interestingly, though, Stauffer finds a parallel, although he may not have realized that he has done so. Many historians have offered an exaggerated “two Lincolns” interpretation of the president, but now Stauffer, who presents his own version of the “two Lincolns” story, comes up with what might be called a “two Douglasses” interpretation. The chief difference is that although the historians (and Stauffer) claim that Lincoln changed from bad to good, Stauffer argues that Douglass changed from good to bad.

According to Stauffer, the years of Reconstruction after 1865, and Reconstruction’s eventual failure, coincided with Douglass’s increasing quietude. “Like most other black and white abolitionists,” he remarks, “Douglass saw the end of the war as the endpoint of an era and of his life’s work.” The intrepid radical became a Republican Party loyalist. (For black Americans, Douglass would say, there was a simple rule in electoral politics: “The Republican Party is the ship, all else is the sea.”) But Douglass, in Stauffer’s account, also became fixed in the past, once Congress had beaten back the reactionary presidency of Andrew Johnson. Having “declared victory,” Stauffer writes, President Ulysses S. Grant and other Republican leaders turned “a blind eye” to the murder and terror by former Confederates that eventually destroyed Reconstruction. “So too did Douglass,” Stauffer argues, noting Douglass’s increasingly comfortable economic circumstances, his appointment to party patronage positions--and, not least, his failure to recognize “the new outrages [being] perpetrated against blacks” in his famous speech about Lincoln in 1876.

Stauffer concludes his book with an anecdote about Douglass in 1895, just before his death. A young black student asked the old eminence for advice about what Negroes just starting out ought to be thinking about doing: “Agitate! Agitate! Agitate!” Douglass proclaimed, with all the might he had left in him. Yet Stauffer also leaves the impression that Douglass was for the most part a burned-out case for the last thirty years of his life, a black bourgeois Republican blind to the poverty of the mass of blacks--like “a retired athlete or political leader ... unable to reenter the fray with the same passion and in the same way.” In this way, Stauffer remarks, Douglass’s politics came ironically to resemble Lincoln’s in their “gradual and comparatively conservative approach to reform.” The former radical giant had shriveled: “Not once in the postwar period did Douglass endorse extralegal means to end oppression.”

Stauffer’s blanket condemnation of Republicans such as Grant for turning their backs on southern blacks is, at the very least, unfair. As Stauffer himself notes, Grant, as president, crushed the Ku Klux Klan in 1871. He might also have mentioned Grant’s support for the successful ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870, and for the full range of the enforcement acts that he signed in 1870 and 1871, and for the Civil Rights Act of 1875--taken together, the strongest civil rights record of any president between Abraham Lincoln and Lyndon B. Johnson. Even after the economic panic of 1873 and a Democratic resurgence in the midterm elections of 1874 sharply reduced his options, Grant remained committed to enforcing the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, and doing what he could to protect Unionists and freedmen in the South.

Stauffer’s portrait of Douglass after the war is perverse. Even as the Republican Party’s support for Reconstruction receded in the mid-1870s, Douglass remained firmly committed to using the ballot box as the central instrument for advancing southern black interests. When, in the 1880s and 1890s, black disenfranchisement spread throughout the former Confederacy, Douglass raised his voice in fierce indignation, denouncing the “suppression of the legal vote in the south” as a “national problem,” “as much a problem for Maine and Massachusetts as it is for the Carolinas and Georgia.” He went so far as to declare, in 1888, that the emancipation intended by Lincoln had not actually come to pass--and that the Negro in the South was “worse off, in many ways, than when he was a slave.”

Douglass in his later years did indeed become more like Lincoln--not because he turned “conservative,” but because he came to recognize, as Lincoln did almost instinctively, the difference between the role of a radical reformer and the role of a politician. He arrived at a moral and historical appreciation of politics. James Oakes puts it well: “[Douglass] did not claim that the abolitionist perspective was invalid, only that it was partial and therefore inadequate. Lincoln was an elected official, a politician, not a reformer; he was responsible to a broad public that no abolitionist crusader had to worry about.” Douglass, that is, had grown wiser, and had come to see politics as more complex than he had before the war. It is a kind of wisdom lost on political moralists of all generations, for whom radical reform is the ship, and virtually everything else is a corrupting bog of compromise.

Without an appreciation of this complexity, it becomes easy to view Douglass as a backslider, just as it is easy to see Lincoln as a hopelessly cautious politician--or, as Stauffer puts it, a “conservative”--who only began to transcend politics in 1862 or 1863. In fact, it was Lincoln’s pragmatic, at times cynical, but always practical insistence on not transcending politics that enabled him, as Douglass put it in 1876 (in the passage that Gates finds puzzling), to restore the Union and “free his country from the great crime of slavery.” Achieving either of those great ends, as Douglass finally understood, required the sympathy and the cooperation of Lincoln’s “loyal fellow-countrymen. “ Putting “the abolition of slavery before the salvation of the Union,” Douglass observed, would have “rendered resistance to rebellion impossible.” Had Lincoln truly been the radical that Stauffer would have preferred, the slaveholders likely would have won the Civil War.


The adage that understanding history requires understanding the historian also applies to literary critics trying to write history. Despite their differences in methods and conclusions, much of the new wave of books on Lincoln reflects a common mood among a portion of the liberal intelligentsia, one that cannot be ascribed simply to Lincoln’s bicentennial. The mood might seem political, but this is imprecise: it cares about politics only so as to demote it and repudiate it and transcend it. The mood to which I refer is in truth profoundly anti-political. It runs deeper than conventional election loyalties, touching what has become a ganglion of contemporary liberal hopes and dreams about America, about its past, its present, and its future.

One would have to be blind not to see all the connections that bind this mood and the new Lincoln boom to the rise of Barack Obama. President Obama hardly created the mood. Although he wrote admiringly about Lincoln before he ran for the presidency, all these new books on Lincoln were in the works long before Obama’s presidential prospects were very plausible. Along the way, though, the idealizations of Obama and Lincoln became tightly entwined, in support of an almost cultish enthusiasm--humorously, but unironically, illustrated by the ubiquitous Photoshop image that blended portraits of the two men into a single Abe-bama. The excitement of the campaign certainly had something to do with the linkage, as did pointed references by Obama to Lincoln on the stump--but liberal intellectuals eagerly validated it. And some of the books written to coincide with Lincoln’s bicentennial went to press just in time to lend the linkage additional credibility.

The Lincoln Anthology concludes with a long excerpt from Obama’s announcement of his candidacy in 2007 in Springfield, and suggests that the speech marks the fulfillment of Lincoln’s aspirations and achievements. Stauffer’s book, which was published on Election Day last year, carries as its epigraph a passage from The Audacity of Hope, in which Obama praises Lincoln for his combination of humility and activism, and cites Douglass to the effect that power concedes nothing without a fight. Gates’s introduction, which reached the printers just after the election, mentions Obama three times, ending with an evocation of the president as the black man who, nearly a century and a half after the Emancipation Proclamation, fulfilled Lincoln’s legacy.

Like any group of able politicians, Obama and his strategists exploited the mood by hyping their Lincoln connections, real and imagined--right down to agreeing to have the new president sit down to a celebratory postinaugural lunch consisting of dishes that President Lincoln himself enjoyed. This is not a mystic chord of memory. It is branding. But the mood is bigger than the man, and Obama can be no more blamed for succumbing to it, or for trying to turn its symbolism to his own advantage, than Lincoln can be faulted for his own political maneuvering. Our president is hardly the innocent that he tries to appear to be, but it is precisely his intensely political character, the political cunning that lies behind all his “transcendence” of politics, that makes him Lincolnian; and it comes as a great relief from the un-Lincolnian sanctimony that surrounds his image.

Historically considered, the Obama phenomenon battened on the high-minded Mugwump disdain for “politics as usual” that has become such a central feature of contemporary left-liberalism--and which, in a twisted way, has become associated with the iconic Lincoln. Two of the major objects of enmity in this current of reformism are the political parties (with their dark hidden forces, the professional politicians) and the money-drenched system of campaigning (with its dark hidden forces, the corporate donors). If only the hammerlock of the two major parties--or, alternatively, that of the bosses within each party--can be broken, the true will of the rank and file, and ultimately of the people, will be unleashed, and principled government will be restored. And if the intrinsically corrupting (or so it is claimed) contributions of big money are ended, and something approximating public financing of elections installed in its place, then something closer to Lincolnian government of the people, by the people, and for the people will emerge. Right?

The Obama campaign, with its talk of repudiating politics as usual and creating a new post-partisan era in Washington, and with its liturgical incantations of “change” and “hope,” aroused liberal anti-politics to a fever pitch. The above-politics talk also appears to have played a major role in winning Obama favor with the political press and the intellectuals, as well as with many more Americans (including not a few libertarian Republicans) for whom “politics” means “dirty politics.” Some obvious ironies, though, have gone undiscussed. Obama ran up his early lead in the pledged delegate count during the primaries chiefly because of his victories in state party caucuses, a system of selection that is seriously skewed against working people and older voters, and that, with its viva voce voting and arcane rules, is singularly vulnerable to blatant manipulation. Obama then secured the nomination in June 2008 when he won over the party’s so-called “super-delegates.”

In the general election, Obama, although pledged to accept public campaign financing, changed his mind, having gained an enormous war chest by gathering small donations through the Internet, but also through more old-fashioned methods of big-money political fundraising. (About half his funds were accumulated in the old unimpeccable way.) All of this, including his maneuvering through the primaries, was fair and square--and, from the viewpoint of any professional politician, very impressive. But there was also something, well, rich about the candidate beloved by the good-government reformers relying on the party insiders to get nominated and rejecting public financing in order to get elected.

The intellectuals’ rapture over Obama, their eagerness to align him with their beatified Lincoln, has grown out of a deep hunger for a liberal savior, the likes of which the nation has not seen since the death of Robert Kennedy in 1968. The eight years of George W. Bush’s presidency only deepened the hunger; and last year it overtook a new generation of voters as well who, though born long after 1968, yearned for smart, articulate, principled liberal leadership. Along came Obama who, despite his inexperience--or, perhaps, because of it: he seemed so uncontaminated by the arts that he practiced--fit the bill, his African heritage doing more to help him by galvanizing white liberals and African Americans. Although Obama’s supporters at times likened him to the two Kennedys, and at times to FDR, the comparisons always came back to Lincoln--with the tall, skinny, well-spoken Great Emancipator from Illinois serving as the spiritual forebear of the tall, skinny, well-spoken great liberal hope from Illinois.

The danger with the comparison does not have too much to do with the real Barack Obama, whose reputation will stand or fall on whether he succeeds or fails in the White House. The danger is with how we understand our politics, and our political history, and Abraham Lincoln. That the election of an African American to the presidency brings Lincoln to mind is only natural. But the hunger pangs of some liberals have caused them to hallucinate. Obama’s legendary announcement in Springfield was the purest political stagecraft, but it was happily regarded as a kind of message from history. One hears that Obama, like Lincoln, is a self-made man--but Lincoln, unlike Obama, started out in life dirt poor, and lacked any opportunity to attend an elite private high school and then earn degrees at Columbia College and Harvard Law School. One hears that the rhetoric that carried Obama to the White House is Lincolnesque, which it most certainly is not, either in its imagery or its prosody. One hears even that Obama is not just an extremely talented and promising new president but, as Henry Louis Gates Jr. writes, that he is “destined”--destined!--”to be thought of as Lincoln’s direct heir.”

Who does not wish Obama well? But such hallucinations make it difficult for historians to keep the intricacies of political history front and center, or to acknowledge Lincoln’s peculiar gifts as a political leader and a political president. It would appear that those intricacies and those gifts need to be salvaged from the mythologizing and aestheticizing glorifications, from populist fantasies born of forty years of liberal frustration. Lincoln himself might have understood the problem, given his familiarity, inside the Whig Party of the 1830s and 1840s, with powerful anti-party and anti-political sentiments that foreshadowed the Mugwump mentality of the Gilded Age.

As a state legislator in 1837, Lincoln rose to object to a Democratic resolution on the Illinois State Bank--and, it seemed at first, to attack the very profession of politics. “Mr. Chairman,” he said, “this movement is exclusively the work of politicians; a set of men who have interests aside from the interests of the people, and who, to say the most of them are, taken as a mass, at least one long step removed from being honest men.” But then he threw in his kicker: “I say this with greater freedom because, being a politician myself, none can regard it as personal.

The candor of Lincoln’s language, the ease with which he accurately describes his real vocation, is refreshing. He saw no shame in the practice of politics, and experienced no priggish discomfort about what it takes to get great things done. He was never too good for politics. Quite the contrary: for him, politics--ordinary, grimy, unelevating politics--was itself a good, and an instrument for good. Lincoln knew who he was. He knew that his colleagues knew who he was. He would never renounce who he was. It would take the earnest liberal writers of a later age to do that for him--or, taking him at his word, to slight his eventual achievements while vaunting their own radical heroes. In misunderstanding Abraham Lincoln, these writers misunderstand American democratic politics, in Lincoln’s day as well as in our own.

Sean Wilentz is a contributing editor at The New Republic, and the author of The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln (Norton).

*Correction: Due to an editor’s error, a sentence in Sean Wilentz’s essay “Who Lincoln Was” stated incorrectly that Lincoln’s “House Divided” speech echoed Andrew Jackson and Thomas Jefferson. Wilentz was referring to Lincoln’s first inaugural address. TNR regrets the error.

Click here to read responses by Michael KazinHenry Louis Gates, Jr.John Stauffer, and Fred Kaplan. Click here to read Sean Wilentz’s respo