16 February, 2009Issue 8.4EuropeHistoryNorth America

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To Take this Sorry World Entire

John-Paul McCarthy

raceandslaveryHenry Louis Gates, Jr. (ed.)
Lincoln on Race and Slavery
Princeton University Press, 2009
408 pages
£16.95
ISBN 978-0691142340


bigenoughGeorge M. Frederickson
Big Enough to be Inconsistent: Abraham Lincoln Confronts
Slavery and Race

Harvard University Press, 2008
168 pages
£14.95
ISBN 978-0674027749


lincolnsvirtuesWilliam Lee Miller
Lincoln’s Virtues: An Ethical Biography
Vintage, 2003
544 pages
£11.02
ISBN 978-0375701733


redeemerprezAllen C. Guelzo
Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President
William B. Eerdmans, 2003
516 pages
£13.99
ISBN 978-0802838728


David Milch’s astonishing HBO series, Deadwood, chronicled the ambitions and insanities that propelled the great American gold craze in the Dakota Territories during the 1870s. One exchange between the characters lingers in the mind.

Al Swearengen, the magnetic pimp who pours a drink as expertly as he wields a Bowie, has just ejected a belligerent drunk from his tavern, and feels the need to explain this decision to one of his henchmen. “Remember this, Dan”, he says, “when you run your own joint”:

That type of guy hanging round gets people agitated—forces them to take a position, one side or another. And while that kind of agitation brings a slight bump up in whisky sales—[he pauses here to glare at his gaggle of idle whores]—sale of cunt on the other hand plummets. That’s why I sometimes wonder if I should take that […] portrait of Lincoln down.

Here the camera’s eye climbs to a spot above the bar and lingers for a moment on Alexander Gardner’s luminous portrait of the 16th president, taken a matter of weeks before Lincoln’s death on Good Friday 1865. While the figure in the portrait is weary in poise and gesture—the Dumbo ears and the dreamy smile melt against his skeletal features—the eyes attest to an odd radiance all the same. Lincoln looks like someone gazing down from the summit of Pisgah, his thoughts savouring the imminence of unconditional surrender and the 13th Amendment.

In this brilliant scene, at once malevolent and strangely reverent, Milch captures the polarised frisson of the Lincoln effect, and reminds us—much like the latest Lincoln scholarship—that there can be no proper resolution to the various incongruities of that unique career. Lincoln was a fanatical and pitiless war minister who incinerated Atlanta and loosed the deranged William Tecumseh Sherman on the civilians of the South. But, as George M. Frederickson and Henry Louis Gates Jr. both insist in their new books, he was also essentially conservative in instinct and practice, a relative latecomer to the national debate about slavery, one who refused to wheel out the stoutest moral guns until the slave power tried to expand westward into the federal territories.

Lincoln was the gentle husband to a broken wife, and the gentle father to a retarded son, yet he was also a man who measured the war’s outcome according to a chilling calculus that would not have disgraced Generals Hague or even Westmorland in another life: the Yankees had more sons than did Johnny Reb, and victory was a matter of coffins, no more, no less. Here, Lincoln occupied a position much like he did in Swearengen’s saloon, poised ethereally above the fray. He was the house god who smiled down upon the assorted madmen who paid him sanguinary tribute—the saint amidst the squalor.

A few years ago, William Lee Miller’s Lincoln’s Virtues made the case that the lure of Lincoln lay in his reticulate and nuanced moral register. Miller saw Lincoln as an ethical thinker who excelled at translating principle into practice. One sees in his major state papers an unending search for balance, and here he resembles nobody more closely than Edmund Burke’s ideal statesman, the one who understood that “political reason is computing principle: adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing morally, and not metaphysically or mathematically, true moral denominations.”

To spend time with Lincoln’s papers is to sense a mind slowly etching his principles in a series of facing columns, cast abidingly in stone. Not for him the mayhem of Harpers Ferry or the certitudes of Salmon Chase or William Seward. Like the cogs and weights of an exhausted watch, Lincoln longed for a kind of moral equipoise, and as the pieces of his moral mosaics slowly ambled into place in his mind, one can still hear their contented “click” almost two centuries later.

The luminous principles of the Declaration of Independence—against which the auction block, the iron chain and the overseer stood forever condemned in Lincoln’s eyes—were balanced against the melancholy realisation that principles must be given temporal form, however pinched and tattered. These abstract propositions found their imperfect rendition in the text of the Constitution—itself emphatically a slave dealer’s charter, as Akhil Reed Amar recently reminded us in his recent “biography” of the US Constitution.

Lincoln was an old-school Websterite Whig in his formative years; his political ambitions revolved around national improvements and the enrichment of the labouring class. Lincoln’s yearning for something finer than the bucolic idyll sat awkwardly with his parallel idealisation of the American Founders, those “old time men” whose constitutional craftsmanship he was so loathed to upend. Here, this Whiggish fortissimo sat cheek by hostile jowl with a kind of ethical necromancy, a creed which taught that nobody could really improve on the compromises sealed at the founding. At a time when the millenarian war-mongers of Harvard battled the new-age pharaohs of the Carolinas for the control of the ship of state, Lincoln softly argued that only Adams, Madison and Washington really knew the way home.

To recall Lincoln’s almost fanatical conservatism when he talked of the original intent of the Founders is, of course, to be reminded of the fact that for so many of his contemporaries his career was an essay in disappointment. For his harriers amidst the Republican Senate during the war, he had about as bad a case of the “slows” as he himself once diagnosed in his operatically insubordinate general, George Brinton McClellan.

In Big Enough to Be Inconsistent, Frederickson reminds us that Sumner and Wade and Chandler winced when Lincoln offered perpetual constitutional protection for slavery in his First Inaugural Address, and they winced again when he stalled on black enlistment and military emancipation orders. Most contemporary scholars and biographers still grimace like Frederick Douglass when some intrepid graduate student unearths another Lincoln speech outlining his plans to send all emancipated slaves off to Cow Island, near Haiti, or another platform squib like the one Gates found where Lincoln compares “niggers” to crocodiles. Every schoolchild now learns to compare the Emancipation Proclamation to a bill of lading, and knows to chortle when reminding the merely credulous that it specifically precluded emancipation in areas that were actually occupied by federal troops.

But by the very end of his life, his body drained to its very atoms by the casualty lists of Bull Run, Shiloh, and by the massacres at Fredericksburg and the Wilderness, Lincoln reached his meridian. In his Second Inaugural Address, delivered weeks before his murder and days before the end of the war, Lincoln produced what still must rank as the most extraordinary state paper ever composed by a war minister declaiming from the cusp of victory.

As Guelzo argues in Redeemer President, the finest intellectual biography of Lincoln written in our lifetime, Lincoln returned in his Second Inaugural Address to the dark, abject religious themes of his Calvinist childhood—themes that taught all men, whether victors or vanquished, to fear the wrath of a deity who had visited the great republic with such fantastic destruction over five short years. Lincoln argued that the war was neither vindication nor accident, but penance for a shared national sin, namely chattel slavery as contemplated by the original constitution, and so gleefully advanced by one section of the population.

Even a century and a half later, it remains difficult to imagine that there was once a chief magistrate who, at the end of a war, stood amidst a crowd of war-wearied citizens and fighters and told them that all were sinners alike, and that, as such, all would be the same at the end. Here we can see how so many of Lincoln’s initial enemies, be it the heaving Stanton, the impish Seward or the regal Douglass, would come to see the pilgrim soul in the Kentucky-bred scarecrow. Douglass was transfixed by Lincoln’s “sacred effort” to denunce slavery as America’s all-encompassing national sin, and by the 16th president’s characterisation of the war as a direct result of this national apostasy, something he denied until very late in 1863.

Guelzo’s pioneering research into the religious dimension of Lincoln’s life suggests that Lincoln was at his most authentic that day, on 4 March 1865, sporting the frock coat in which he still sleeps, and peering meekly over the heads of a distracted audience. Instead of hoisting victory’s garlands at the final spasm of the Brothers’ War, Lincoln groped for a larger hope, and finding nothing but a vengeful judge at the eye of the storm, he turned his palms upwards, and preached tolerance in a world marred by the finality of our shared ruin.

Guelzo’s Lincoln remains by far the most compelling scholarly evocation of that haggard man and will continue to hold the field at a time when many other commentators seem to be experiencing a kind of collective nervous breakdown. The contemporary scene is not a pretty one. Some scholars still insist Lincoln was gay. Some, like Gates and Frederickson, fret about his intermittent racism, as if this was not a deformity that was both obvious and inevitable given his background. Others are busy turning the bare knuckled brawls of his presidency into the stuff of fairy-tale and self-help manual, as in Doris Kearns Goodwin’s latest ramble, Team of Rivals. At the centre of this current delirium, of course, sits the coolest customer of them all, a 48-year old academic lawyer, the “skinny kid with a funny name”.

President Barack Obama’s seemingly sincere admiration for Lincoln is arguably the most eloquent testimony we have of Obama’s own innate moderation and constitutional conservativism. Before swearing in on Lincoln’s bible on 20 January 2009, Obama professed repeated admiration for the 16th president who sternly defended the legitimacy of the fugitive slave law, and who maintained the gravest of doubts until the end about wholescale racial integration. Obama seems, however, to share not just Lincoln’s legato fluidity on the open page or his steady-as-she-goes helmsmanship. Both share a profoundly pathological fixation with the doings and saying of the Founders, a fact that marks Obama for the conservative that he is, and which emphatically distinguishes him from other powerful black American politicians, such as Thurgood Marshall, who almost never quoted Lincoln in his acidulated dissents.

Despite the current mania for comparisons, there is very little of Lincoln in Obama, or of Obama in Lincoln. The past, as the philosopher Michael Oakeshott once wrote, is a dead dream, and only a kind of ghoulish vanity can convince us that they were once as we are now. There will, however, be one searing commonality to tether these two detached lawyers together in time, and that is the recognition common to both that sometimes moderates have to kill in defence of moderation. Both were given to saying that to compromise is not always simply to muddle through, and that to take our sorry world entire is neither a disgrace nor abdication, but simply the first, fateful step in recasting ethical insight into reasoned action. Whether in Lincoln’s belief that the north was equally shamed by slavery, or in the new president’s insistence that to distinguish Red from Blue is only to call brethren of the same principles by different names, both men call us to our station not in some perfect world that never was, but in this, the flawed world which is our only workshop.

Abraham Lincoln would die on a bed in a workingman’s doss house only marginally more comfortable than the shack that served as his cradle some 50-odd years previously. Amidst the mustard plasters and the wailing of officialdom aghast, Dr Charles Leale, the army surgeon who cradled Lincoln’s broken head just moments after John Wilkes Booth fired, sat calmly next to the president as he died. It had been Leale’s experience that sometimes gunshot victims enjoyed brief flashes of lucidity before their surrender. He wrote in a diary that he held Lincoln’s right hand throughout the night “so that in his darkness he would know he had a friend”. At 7:22 am the following morning, Leale let go, as the father of us all went once again unvexed towards the sea.

John-Paul McCarthy is a DPhil student working on W.E. Gladstone’s intellectual life at Exeter College, Oxford.