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Disputations: The Lost Lincoln

A response to Sean Wilentz's 'Who Lincoln Was'

Click here to read responses by Michael Kazin, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Fred Kaplan. Click here to read Sean Wilentz's response to his critics.

In "Who Lincoln Was" (July 15, 2009), Sean Wilentz accuses me and other scholars of ignorance about Civil War era politics, bemoans the “literary turn” in Lincoln scholarship, and worries that historians now give undue attention to Frederick Douglass and other outsiders rather than the politicians who actually changed society. In defending realpolitik, especially the kind practiced by the Clintons, his political heroes, he distorts the arguments of the books under review.

For Wilentz, scholars today “prefer a fantasy Lincoln who … somehow transcended politics for a realm more pure.” This yearning for political purity is part of a larger trend, reflected in the enthusiasm among intellectuals for Barack Obama, who seems Lincolnian in his ability to transcend “politics as usual.” It’s an intriguing thesis, but it’s wrong. Every book under review emphasizes that Lincoln was always a politician, but a politician who understood the power of ideas.

Wilentz is beholden to his own form of political purity. He is a cultural segregationist, treating politics as a discrete realm, distinct from rhetoric, religion, morality, aesthetics, and other cultural forms. In a sense, he resembles the New Critics of 60 years ago, whose treatment of literature as an autonomous text, independent of context, furthered their nostalgic fantasy of a white, agrarian nation.

For Wilentz, mixing politics with other aspects of culture pollutes one’s understanding of politics. He accuses the writers under review of being “literary determinists,” who overstate the role of words and rhetoric, while he himself focuses on politicians’ ability to stage-manage events for their own ends, and dismisses Lincoln’s own acknowledgment that “events have controlled me.” He thus downplays the larger cultural forces politicians must act within: emotions, ideology, religious values, and pressure groups, among other things. In Wilentz’s vision of society, the lines of influence are one way rather than a dialectic: Lincoln “manipulated” the radicals, not the other way around.

Wilentz’s method is thoroughly undemocratic. He brooks no dissent, tolerates no difference of opinion or perspective. It’s as though he treats scholarship as a zero-sum game of power politics rather than a shared and diverse community in pursuit of knowledge. His smearing of Barack Obama in the 2008 campaign is of a piece with his denigration of Henry Louis Gates, who (unlike Wilentz) refuses to explain away Jefferson’s racism. In a carefully constructed argument, Gates notes that the Founder did not have blacks in mind when he wrote “All men are created equal.”

As a result of his top-down approach, Wilentz cannot fathom Lincoln having been influenced by blacks or religion. He goes to great lengths to dismiss the idea that George Livermore’s book about black soldiers in the Revolution shaped Lincoln’s policies. And he writes off Frederick Douglass, the most famous black man in the world, as a political pawn at best. Douglass’s only “direct contribution of consequence” to emancipation was his attempt to persuade Lincoln not to send a letter qualifying his position on abolition, says Wilentz, adding that Lincoln may have already made up his mind “before he met with Douglass, and was simply trying to make the radical feel important.” Moreover, he disregards Douglass’s immense influence as a speaker and writer. And he says it is “sheer fantasy” that religion shaped Lincoln’s views of emancipation---ignoring the covenant with God Lincoln made a month before issuing the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, a covenant that explicitly concerned emancipation.

As if to dramatize the dangers of mixing politics with other cultural forms, Wilentz gives me a spanking for being a “professor with an agenda” (and deviating from his views). In the process, he mangles my treatment of Lincoln. Indeed, after reading Wilentz’s review, one would reasonably conclude that much of my book concerns homoeroticism, that Lincoln discarded the constitution for higher law, and that my central focus is not self-making but Douglass’s brilliance at exposing Lincoln’s limitations as a champion of freedom. Nothing could be further from the truth. I devote a total of six (of 400) pages to sexuality, in the context of friendship and self-making; and suggest merely the possibility of carnal relations between Lincoln and Speed---in contrast to Wilentz and others, who flatly deny (without evidence) such intimacy. My main point about the Dred Scott decision is that it created a constitutional crisis, which numerous political and legal scholars have acknowledged. And one would be amazed to find, given Wilentz’s attack, that I summarize Lincoln’s presidency by praising his moderation and pragmatism, emphasizing his extraordinary capacity for growth, and noting that he had “steered the nation through a revolution,” in which blacks became “part of the national family.”

As it turns out, Wilentz is the professor with an agenda. In calling for scholars to accept “ordinary, grimy, unelevating politics,” he ostensibly wants to recover the historical Lincoln. The recent literary turn has produced a mythic past--“a politics constructed out of words, just words.” Revealingly, Wilentz used the same language during the 2008 election to counteract Obama’s eloquence: They were “just words,” as opposed to Clinton’s rich experience. His agenda has little to do with recovering the historical Lincoln; rather, it furthers his presentist defense of Clintonian politics. It’s as though he hasn’t yet recovered from Clinton’s loss. One thing he should have learned from it is that words do matter--quite a lot. In a democracy, they are the primary means by which political leaders inspire, persuade, and respond to their constituents and colleagues. The elections of Lincoln and Obama stemmed in part from their “democratic eloquence.”

Given his presentist perspective, it’s ironic that Wilentz worries so much about scholarly trendiness. He expresses alarm that “many if not most” historians treat Douglass, not Lincoln, as the Civil War era’s “true hero.” Perhaps this is Wilentz’s fear, but it’s a long way from the truth. Virtually every recent synthesis or survey of nineteenth-century American history casts Lincoln as the hero.

In defending realpolitik, Wilentz poses as history’s gatekeeper. Only one of the authors under review has a history department appointment, and Wilentz seems to suggest that one needs to be a “pure” historian to write good history, much as one needs to segregate politics from culture to understand politics. During the campaign, Wilentz attacked Obama’s “misuse of history.” Obama’s crime? He had the audacity to compare his lack of experience with that of Lincoln. For Wilentz, “good” history will preserve “good”--i.e. Clintonian--politics.

John Stauffer is chair of History of American Civilization and professor of English and African and African American Studies at Harvard.

Click here to read responses by Michael Kazin, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Fred Kaplan. Click here to read Sean Wilentz's response to his critics.