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Disputations: The Lost Lincoln

Click here to read letters by Fred Kaplan, Michael Kazin, John Stauffer, and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. The following is Sean Wilentz's response to their letters.

I wrote a 25,000 word essay about Abraham Lincoln, not Barack Obama. My aim was to review some of the most prominent scholarly books interpreting Lincoln on the occasion of his bicentennial, and to offer a different view of Lincoln as, first and foremost, a democratic politician. The essay took some of the books severely to task and pointed out repeated abuses of historical evidence and reasoning, including important factual errors, manipulation of documents, and specious logic. More generally, it pointed out the damage to historical understanding that results when writers slight or misread Lincoln’s political skills, or disparage his political maneuvering as insufficiently idealistic and beautiful.

I hoped that my essay would stir up an interesting debate over Lincoln; and I expected that some of the authors would attempt to rebut what I wrote. Yet apart from a few feeble feints, these letters do not muster a single substantive reply to my charges about shoddy scholarship: nolo contendere. Although Lincoln gets discussed, the letters are at least as interested, if not more so, in Thomas Jefferson, Bill and Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama. Instead of arguing seriously and decently over history, three of these writers attack me for carrying on a supposed grudge left over from last year’s primaries, and then trying to disguise my bitterness as nineteenth-century history. Expert debaters know that there is only one course of action when one is caught in a mistake or infraction but does not wish acknowledge it: admit nothing, change the subject, and impugn the other person’s motives and character.

Fred Kaplan’s book, as I said in my essay, makes some useful points about Lincoln’s literary mind, but overdoes them. To recapitulate, briefly: Because Kaplan slights the political context, he attributes great Shakespearian echoes to passages in Lincoln’s prose that Lincoln demonstrably adapted from Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, and Daniel Webster. Because Kaplan sets such great store by Lincoln as a literary man, he cannot see clearly enough the limits, and the uses, of eloquence in politics and government. Because he becomes so invested in his idea of Lincoln as a literary man, he comes up with groundless formulations about how, at one point or another “the only weapon [Lincoln] had at his command was language.” To say, as I do, that this sort of contention has become an English Department conceit should hardly be controversial. Neither is it an attack on literary criticism, or on literary critics who analyze the writing of political figures or anyone else they choose. It is chiefly a criticism of Kaplan’s analysis of Lincoln, and on its sloppy and over-reaching thinking about language, rhetoric, and politics, which abounds in the academy these days, and of which Kaplan’s assertions are symptomatic.

My essay did not at all dispute, as Kaplan charges, that “the literary Lincoln and the political Lincoln are inseparable.” That, in a way, was my very point. My complaint was that Kaplan and others either demote or ignore or misunderstand the political Lincoln, and the place of politics in Lincoln’s identity. My essay did not imply that David Herbert Donald should not have written his distinguished biography of Thomas Wolfe, any more than it implied that Perry Miller should not have written about Cotton Mather. I suggest that Kaplan re-read my praise of how another author under review, the biographer and historian of theology, Ronald C. White, interprets Lincoln’s reading and writing. There is a difference between doing a thing and doing it well, and all I say is that Kaplan’s book often does the thing poorly. To point out this difference is what critics do: historical critics, literary critics, or any other kind of critic. To evade the evidence of his failures, Kaplan wraps himself in the mantle of his betters and treats my criticism of his work as an indictment of any effort to write about the literary side of a political figure.

Kaplan is one of the writers who claim that my essay has a devious political agenda. In fact, I spent all but about 1,500 of my many thousands of words on detailed discussions of Lincoln in his various phases and aspects. As it happens, I did not include Kaplan’s book in my discussion of the Lincolnization of Obama and what it tells us about the larger intellectual climate. I had no idea whom he supported for the presidency last year. I don’t care. It has nothing to do with my criticisms of his book.

Michael Kazin, who does not have a book in this affray, opens his letter with a highly flattering sentence about my previous work. He then observes, regarding Lincoln, that my “general thesis should be beyond dispute.” The trouble is that it is not beyond dispute amid the proliferation of cultural studies and the like, which is why I wrote my essay. In line with his view that my argument was not only offensive but also obvious--a neat trick--Kazin proceeds to observe condescendingly that my observations on Lincoln and race are unoriginal--that they are merely an echo of a review Eric Arnesen wrote seven years ago for The New Republic, about so-called “whiteness studies” and American labor history. It is true that I briefly bring up whiteness studies in my discussion of one of the seven books under review; and it is true that I have found myself in almost complete agreement over the years with Arnesen. He and I have been allies in the labor history wars for a long time. And he will surely understand that my long discussion of Lincoln and race was not an homage to his book review. For Kazin to reduce all my historiographical criticisms on this vast and subtle subject to my objections about whiteness studies is--as our students might say--sketch.

According to Kazin, my Lincoln essay is really a sneaky effort to extend what he imagines is my hostility toward Barack Obama. He cites my criticisms of Obama published more than a year ago during the primaries, when I supported Hillary Clinton, and some friendly criticisms of his campaign after he secured the nomination, when I publicly supported him--although Kazin’s letter makes me wonder if he can allow that there is such a thing as friendly criticism of Obama. Passing cursorily over what I had to say about Lincoln, Kazin has an idee fixe about my view of about Obama--as if my view was fixed. He disqualifies my remarks, at the essay’s conclusion, about the intellectuals’ love affair with Obama as Lincolnian and above partisanship, because he did not see signs of that love affair during his own grassroots campaign work. Quite apart from its solipsism, this is odd. My essay never said that all of Obama’s supporters, or even most of them, were swept up by the romance; it said only that many liberal intellectuals were so entranced, as well as members of the political press corps. Is this really controversial?

Kazin accuses me of attacking Obama “for possessing just those qualities [I] believe naive liberals ignore when they write about Lincoln.” In fact, far from attacking Obama, I laud him for his political shrewdness, which I say is his truest Lincolnian trait. The essay--which is, I swear, about Abraham Lincoln, no matter what Kazin imagines--does contest the view that there were somehow two Lincolns, a party hack who then experienced some sort of mystical conversion (thanks to the goading of slaves and radicals) and went on to become a great statesman. And it attacks the kind of latter-day Mugwump liberalism--far more prevalent in the academic intelligentsia than in the electorate at large--that equates political virtue with political purity. Kazin clearly thinks that he and his political associates are not so na?ve. But does he mean to propose, with a straight face, that this political strain does not exist, and that its supporters are not legion, and that the Obama campaign failed to batten upon their idealism?

Kazin accuses me of not truly wishing the current administration well. This, of course, is the heart of his grievance. All I can say is that the accusation exemplifies an all-or-nothing view of political loyalty, a view that runs counter to liberal politics. If we must, for the moment, make Obama the center of this discussion: Why is it not enough to support him? Why must one also revere him? I certainly have supported him, beginning last June. Must my old criticisms be rehashed and recycled as if they had a larger and more sinister significance more than a year later? Kazin is a sore winner. There is a slightly poisonous quality to his dissatisfaction with me, which suggests that my writings have failed some sort of loyalty test.

Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s letter, to its credit, is civil, and does not mention Obama. In context of these letters, I truly appreciate it. But although Gates is not interested in Obama, he is interested in having a debate with me about … Jefferson! He thereby evades my many criticisms of his book. When he does bring up Lincoln, it is to rehearse a botched analysis of one of Lincoln’s major wartime decisions. .

In the long introduction to his book, Gates claims that Jefferson “never stated … in his writings” that blacks were members of the human race. My review quotes a letter from Jefferson to the French abolitionist cleric Henri Gregoire, saying that blacks are members of the human race (or, as Jefferson put it, “the human family”). So Gates’s claim is false. His response is to launch into a rehearsal of some of the most racist passages from Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia; and then he quotes selectively from a letter that Jefferson wrote to Joel Barlow, and says that it shows that Jefferson didn’t really mean what he wrote to Gregoire. His point, I suppose, is to justify his claim that Jefferson did not include blacks as men when he wrote in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal”--a claim that scholars have been debating courteously, as Gates does now, for some time. As my review says, there is a strong case to be made for this claim, but there is also room for measured skepticism.

Why Gates thinks that the racist material from Notes clinches his case is perplexing, because my essay pointed to precisely these passages and called them “hair-raising.” But let us be careful, please. The passages, while ugly, never state that Jefferson thought blacks were less than “men,” only that they were inferior to whites. Morally speaking, that is not an edifying distinction; but for scholarship it must matter. My review also quotes a later passage in the Notes in which Jefferson appears to say that, no matter how inferior, blacks are, indeed, human--again not an especially uplifting passage, but one that makes Jefferson’s views appear more complex, and, possibly closer to Lincoln’s, than Gates allows. Gates ignored that passage in his book, and he ignores it in his letter as well.

As for Jefferson’s letter to Barlow, this unfortunately requires a detailed examination in order to understand how Gates mishandles historical evidence. Readers, bear with me; the truth is in the details. Gates’s rendition of the letter makes it appear as if Jefferson confessed that he had only been humoring the French abolitionist Gregoire in his “very soft answer”; and Gates creates an impression of Jefferson and Barlow as two white racists, cackling over how they had handled a fool by telling him what he wanted to hear about racial equality. In fact, Barlow, an ally of Jefferson’s as well as his friend, was a staunch and outspoken abolitionist--and also a friend of Gregoire’s, whom he met in Paris. In 1809, he and Gregoire fell into a controversy when Gregoire denounced one of Barlow’s poems as atheist. In his letter to Barlow, Jefferson commiserates with his friend and congratulates him on his “sugary” conciliatory reply to Gregoire--about alleged atheism and the separation of church and state, not race.

Jefferson also reports receiving a book from Gregoire. That book took Jefferson to task for his views on race in Notes on the State of Virginia. Yet, though Jefferson calls Gregoire “a good man” even as he cites his “credulity,” the letter does not at all confess that Jefferson’s “soft reply” to the Frenchman contained anything he didn’t believe--including his assertions that he hoped his original observations about black inferiority were disproven, and his assertion that nothing justified the enslavement of blacks.

Jefferson was practiced, from long and hard experience, in the art of putting things in as politic a way as he could in his letters, but never telling outright falsehoods about what he believed; after all, as president of the United States, he knew very well that any letter he sent to anyone might easily see print in the newspapers, and that he would have to answer for it. In any event, Jefferson was irritated at Gregoire chiefly for seizing upon Notes as if they expressed his own complete, firm, and indelible opinion. “It was impossible for doubt to have been more tenderly or hesitatingly expressed than that was in the Notes of Virginia,” Jefferson said to Barlow, “and nothing was or is farther from my intentions, than to enlist myself as the champion of a fixed opinion, where I have only expressed a doubt.” Now, none of this makes Jefferson a racial egalitarian. None of it proves anything, either way, about Gates’s claims concerning Jefferson’s exclusion of blacks from his formulation that “all men are created equal.” But neither does it disprove one bit of what my essay said about Jefferson’s letter to Gregoire.

Gates is just as erratic when he gets to Abraham Lincoln. It is always important to check the facts, all the more so if the matter at stake is something as important as when Abraham Lincoln decided to reverse himself and authorize recruitment of blacks to the Union army. The recruitment of blacks, Gates writes, “was not, pace Wilentz, part of the Preliminary Emancipation that [Lincoln] prepared over the summer and shared with his cabinet on September 22, 1862.” Here is the relevant passage from my review: “…[T]he Emancipation Proclamation which, in its final version, included (almost in passing) a stipulation about black recruitment omitted in the preliminary draft.” The rest of the paragraph explains that the preliminary draft in question is the one that Lincoln prepared over the summer of 1862--although he did not just “share it with his cabinet” on September 22, 1862, he also issued it publicly as an official document.

What is the point of all this? It is about my objections to Gates’s story about the role of one George Livermore and his book in Lincoln’s decision to reverse his policy against recruitment of blacks. Gates’s book states flatly that Livermore’s writings persuaded Lincoln, by the late summer of 1862, about the Founding Fathers’ high opinions of blacks who fought for the patriot side during the American Revolution, and that this was somehow decisive in getting Lincoln to reverse his policy. Gates’s book also states that Lincoln changed his mind as the result of a “subtle coup” by Senator Charles Sumner who at some point after October 29 gave Lincoln a copy of Livermore’s book about black soldiers and the Founding Fathers. Obviously, one of these statements is false: Either Livermore’s work had persuaded Lincoln by the late summer, or Sumner pulled off his “subtle coup” in late autumn.

Puzzled, I checked the relevant manuscript sources. I learned that Livermore’s book was not published until late October, and that Sumner forwarded a copy to Lincoln on November 8. Sumner’s cover letter makes clear that he had no reason to believe that Lincoln had as yet heard of his friend and constituent Livermore or about Livermore’s writings. The story about a late summer “persuasion” is therefore impossible. And so is Gates’s claim, as the sources show, that Livermore’s book had a decisive effect on Lincoln’s thinking. And so is Gates’s claim that Lincoln acknowledged his debt to Livermore by agreeing to give him the pen used to sign the Emancipation Proclamation.

How does Gates respond in his letter to the mess he has made of this evidence? He advances the following weird chain of logic. First, George Livermore was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and also the recipient of an honorary degree from Harvard. Second, Livermore read the paper that became his book on black soldiers in the Revolution to the Massachusetts Historical Society on August 14, 1862 and received great acclaim. So what? Perhaps this is supposed to suggest that Lincoln actually did know the details of Livermore’s paper in August, even before Sumner’s “coup.” If so, it is hard to imagine how it happened. There is no evidence that Lincoln either read about the talk or even heard about it until more than two months later. But all that while, Lincoln’s administration, with his knowledge and acquiescence, was following up on congressional legislation Lincoln had signed back in July and continuing to recruit black troops on a limited basis, which had required no input from Livermore, Sumner, or any of their friends.

Gates notes, with great solemnity, that Lincoln did read Livermore’s book before he signed the final Emancipation Proclamation--as if the mere fact that Lincoln read the book means it had a significant impact on his policy decisions. And Gates bids us to give the testimony of Senator Sumner its due--specifically, a letter he wrote to Livermore telling him that his book “interested” Lincoln, and that Lincoln had told him he wanted to consult the book as he was preparing the Emancipation Proclamation.

My point is that historical research of integrity does not claim that what might have happened actually did happen. The task of historians is to tell the truth. The absence of sufficient evidence is not an invitation to fill in the blanks. Nor does it give historians license to ignore evidence that does exist. But Gates conveniently omits the rest of the evidence in the Sumner-Livermore correspondence--rehearsed in detail in my essay as well as in the historian Benjamin Quarles’s book, Lincoln and the Negro--which militates strongly against the conclusion that Livermore had any influence whatsoever on Lincoln’s decision making. Lincoln might well have told Sumner that he found the book interesting and even that he wanted to consult it. But this is a flimsy association, not a chain of historical causation. So I thank Gates for a civil reply, but it is also poorly reasoned.

John Stauffer also chooses to defend himself by changing the subject and impugning my motives. He, too, has the campaign of 2008 on his mind. My essay is not really an historical essay at all; it is a political piece that advances an “agenda,” which “has little to do with recovering the historical Lincoln; rather, it furthers [Wilentz’s] presentist defense of Clintonian policies.” This is doctrinaire political hermeneutics. But Stauffer is only getting warmed up. Opting for code words for racism, he calls me “a cultural segregationist,” whose work resembles that of an older generation of literary critics with “their nostalgic fantasy of a white agrarian nation.” Of all the mudslinging in these letters, this is the worst.

My essay makes numerous criticisms of Stauffer’s command of elementary political and constitutional history, from the sectional divisions of the 1850s to Reconstruction and after. All call into question Stauffer’s reliability and basic competence. Yet in a letter of more than a thousand words, Stauffer addresses only two matters of historical substance. On Lincoln’s response to the Dred Scott decision--a turning point in Lincoln’s career--Stauffer claims that I “mangle” his analysis by writing that his book argues “that Lincoln discarded the Constitution for higher law.” He now asserts that he said nothing of the sort, and that his “main point about the Dred Scott decision is that it created a constitutional crisis, which numerous political and legal scholars have acknowledged.” True enough. Dred Scott created a constitutional crisis. But this not a “main point.” It would be like a historian of World War II writing: “My main point about the German invasion of Poland is that it caused an international political crisis, which numerous political and diplomatic scholars have acknowledged.” 

But, of course, this was not at all Stauffer’s “main point” about Dred Scott, and Lincoln’s reaction. Here is exactly what Stauffer wrote; I have put in boldface the most pertinent passages:

In March 1857, the Court announced its decision in Dred Scott, which effectively      declared the Republican Party platform unconstitutional. It was as though Lincoln and the Republicans thumbed their noses at the Court, for they clamored even more to exclude slavery from the territories.

Now Lincoln demanded that an unconstitutional act become law. To him, the Court did not properly understand that slavery was an evil that needed to be contained. It did not properly understand the natural law that said “all men are created equal.” The founders meant what they said. Lincoln firmly believed that God considered slavery wrong: “our good Father in Heaven” made the evil of slavery “so plain” that “all feel and understand it, even down to the brutes and creeping insects.” But the Court echoed Judge Douglas in ignoring the immorality of slavery and calling the ideals of the Declaration “self-evident lies.” And so Lincoln rejected the Court as the Nation’s supreme authority.

Suddenly he began to rely on natural (or “higher”) law and follow the path that Frederick Douglass had taken long ago. It was a stunning reversal from his plea twenty years earlier, in the Young Men’s Lyceum address, when he had urged people to uphold the Constitution and revere the laws. He had always thought like a lawyer, had always shown enormous respect for the law and legal precedent, and been horrified at the thought of ignoring the law and resisting the highest tribunal in the land. But now he repudiated the Constitution and legal precedent and defined the Declaration to be the centerpiece of government. He appropriately borrowed from scripture to clarify his newfound faith in natural law: the Declaration was “the apple of gold: within the Constitution’s “picture of silver,” he wrote. “The picture was made for the apple--not the apple for the picture.”

It’s not surprising that Stauffer now wants to have no part of any of the above, and to claim that his main point was simply that the Dred Scott decision caused a crisis. The reason is that much of it is nonsense, as I explain in my essay. But, no matter what he says in his letter, Stauffer certainly wrote those words. My essay mangled nothing.

The other matter of substance raised by Stauffer concerns his assertion about Lincoln’s profound homoeroticism. Stauffer asserts that I exaggerate the importance his book attaches to the matter. In fact, my essay questions why Stauffer bothered to get into the question at all, given that he does not bring it to bear on Lincoln’s relations to Frederick Douglass (his book’s main theme), or on anything else in Lincoln’s life after the 1830s. My criticism is that Stauffer goes out of his way to sustain old stories about Lincoln’s homoeroticism based on virtually no evidence but another string of associations and conjectures.

Lincoln’s biography is subject to proof. As even Stauffer admits, there is insufficient documentation to prove that “the love of his life was a man named Joshua Speed.” Yet according to Stauffer, the burden of proof rests with those who are unconvinced. Must we really now prove that Lincoln was not gay? Stauffer seems to assume that anyone, like myself, who remains unconvinced is repelled by the possibility, and an enemy of such “intimacy.” I feel the need to point out, and I resent it, that the insistence upon historical evidence is not motivated by bigotry.

Stauffer mocks me as “history’s gatekeeper.” That is truly a slur in our digital age, when the gates have been thrown open and gatekeepers are the most evil villains. I must confess that I find it a little rich for the chair of the History of American Civilization and professor of English and Afro-American Studies at Harvard University to knock gatekeepers. What exactly does Stauffer think he is doing when he grades student work, and writes letters of recommendation, and evaluates colleagues for hiring and promotion, and attends a professional meeting, and comments on scholarly papers, and reviews books? And he is a gatekeeper also when he writes his own books--for then, as in all these other instances, he is compelled to make judgments about what is good work and what is bad, what persuades and what fails to persuade, what is right and what is wrong, what should get by and what should not. I merely disagree with some of Stauffer’s judgments, and there is nothing “undemocratic” about that, not least because I provided my evidence and my logic. That is, in fact, the essence of democratic scholarship, so long as everyone with something to say is allowed to say it.

I have no malice toward the literary analysis of historical material, except when it is not historically competent. It will be a sad day when history writing is left only to the professional historians. Our past belongs to all of us. More precisely, all of our past belongs to all of us. And all of Abraham Lincoln, too. I was responding to the exclusion of some of him--a large portion of him, in fact--from his bicentennial celebration.

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