I urge anyone interested in American history to read the lengthy review essay of recent works on Abraham Lincoln by Sean Willentz in a recent issue of the New Republic. (For those of you who don’t read the New Republic regularly—and I don’t know anybody who does—the article can be read on the Arts and Letters Daily.) Willentz looks at some recent books on Lincoln very critically, and saves as the main target of his barbs an anthology on Lincoln and race edited by Henry Louis Gates (yes, that Henry Louis Gates) and a collective biography of Lincoln and Frederick Douglass by Harvard professor John Stauffer. Willentz’s main point is that the recent curve of Lincoln scholarship hypothesizes two Lincolns, the moderate racist whose biggest problem with racism was that it interfered with the rights of white men, which was the dominant Lincoln until about 1862, when, under the influence of white and black abolitionists, especially Frederick Douglass, Lincoln underwent a conversion (with some regrettable backslidings) to a true belief in racial equality, and this basically misconceives Lincoln. Lincoln was always first and foremost a politician, not a writer (Willentz has an animus against studies that emphasize Lincoln as a literary stylist), not a theorist of American democracy, not an agitator for radical change, but a canny politician, whose main focus was, in keeping with his deep anti-slavery convictions, the art of the politically possible. To give Douglass and others the agency in “converting” Lincoln is to fail to understand what made Lincoln tick, and how politics works.
If Willentz and his critics to some extent, as generally is the case in such debates, talk past each other, I am broadly sympathetic to his position; the change in Lincoln c. 1862 is probably best explained by the exigencies of the war and his ability to work towards creative solutions to his problems, rather than a sea change in his basic views on race, and if people like Douglass played a role in this, the main point is that the war simply narrowed the gap between anti-slavery free soilers and radical abolitionists, and no one was more responsible for the war and the way it was being fought than Abraham Lincoln.
Well I’ll let the civil war warriors thrash out the details of whose right and wrong in this dispute. Willentz is certainly acerbic in his criticisms, and several of his critics respond in kind, but what is most interesting about the debate is that much of it concerns Barack Obama, and Willentz’s very public defense of Hillary (and occasional blasts against Obama) during the primaries last year, and several historians treat Willentz’s views on Lincoln as a stalking horse for his views on Clinton-Obama, and that his basic point is to refight the primaries, with his opponents as naïve Obamaphiles, with Willentz positing a wise and temperate Hillarified Lincoln. Willentz says these sort of criticisms are besides the point, and he is no doubt right, but there certainly is, as with all historical debates, a contemporary angle.
If Lincoln is our greatest president, it is because of what he achieved and how he achieved it. He rose to the apex of political power in this country, and did so the only way to accomplish this; slowly and deliberately, making friends, making deals, with his two feet firmly planted on the political coalition that brought him into office. And yet, by early 1865, there was simply no gap between what he had achieved, and what the most radical of abolitionists, Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison had for so long fought for; the immediate, unconditional, uncompensated end of slavery, the institution that had shackled the American republic since its founding. The political pragmatist, without ceding his pragmatism, had become the true radical.
I don’t know what Wilentz thinks of Obama; and he says that since Hillary bowed out last June, he has been an Obama supporter, and I have no reason to doubt him. And what Obama has showed himself to be, above all, is a political pragmatist and a possibilist, a Fabian reformer. And the issue of our time is health care, and it has bedeviled our country almost as long as the time between the constitutional convention and the outbreak of the Civil War. It has hobbled our politics and well-being for over a half century, despite various Wilmot Provisos, Missouri Compromises and other half measures to change things. And Obama was elected, in part, to address it. If he is finding it difficult, it is because it is difficult, and there are vested interests galore to challenge and overcome. And, to paraphrase Lyndon Johnson, he will overcome, or at least he better. And since announcing his candidacy in Springfield, Illinois, Obama has compared himself implicitly, and been compared by others explicitly, to Lincoln. And we will see if he has the talent, the ability, and the fortune of being presented with the right set of circumstances, to see if he can use his genius for pragmatism and garnering a wide current of political support to the utterly radical ends the current situation demands.