Don’t Know Nothin’ ‘Bout History

A couple of days ago I linked to “What Bush Could Learn from Lincoln” by Robert Kuttner in the Boston Globe. Today some rightie blogger found it and objected to the comparison of Dear Leader to the Great Emancipator. Kuttner’s column is based largely on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s recent book on Lincoln and his Cabinet, Team of Rivals. I have not read the Goodwin book and the rightie doesn’t refer to it (too cowardly to take on Goodwin, he implies, dishonestly, that Kuttner was just making shit up) so I take it he hasn’t, either. However, Civil War history is a particular interest of mine, and I know quite a lot about it. The rightie, apparantly, does not.

Kuttner wrote,

Lincoln’s priority, always, was to preserve the Union and to reduce the sectional and ideological bitterness. As Goodwin brilliantly shows, he did so by the force of his personality and the generosity of his spirit. Lincoln had an unerring sense of when public opinion was ready for partial, then full abolition of slavery, and he would not move until he felt he had the people behind him. He governed by listening and persuading.

The rightie says,

Let us leave aside Kuttner’s questionable historical readings. I do not think, for example, that the weight of serious contemporary scholarship would accept that Lincoln was waiting for the moment in public opinion when he could press for partial and then full emancipation, at least not in the way in which Kuttner means it for purposes of chastising Bush. Emancipation was forced as a public policy upon the president, irrespective of his personal views. Charitably, Kuttner is out of his intellectual depth.

The story of how Lincoln waited until after a Union victory to announce the Emancipation Proclamation is basic stuff; Civil War 101. As soon as the war began abolitionists pressured Lincoln to end slavery. He hesitated to do so for several reasons, but prominent among these reasons was the concern that such a move would inflame secessionist sentiments in the border states, especially Kentucky, and also would not sit well with pro-Union Democrats, hurting the war effort. “…[F]orcible abolition of slavery” must not be contemplated, General George McClellan advised Lincoln. “A declaration of radical views, especially upon slavery, will rapidly disintegrate our present armies.” This was a commonly held view. (McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom, p. 502)

So Lincoln waited, and his policies toward slavery were calculated to be conciliatory toward pro-slavery but anti-secessionist factions. For example, in August 1861 John C. Fremont, commander of the Western Department, issued a proclamation emancipating the slaves of Confederate activists in Missouri. Lincoln countermanded the proclamation. This act would “alarm our Southern Union friends and turn them against us,” he wrote Fremont, “perhaps ruin our rather fair prospect for Kentucky.” (McPherson, pp. 352-353)

But in July 1862 Lincoln began to see that emancipation would aid the war effort. It would swing British public opinion against the Confederacy, for example, and discourage the British government from sending military aid to the secessionists. It would also allow for recruiting former slaves to serve in the Union Army. So the Proclamation, which would abolish slavery in the Confederate states only (Lincoln was still cautious about pissing off those border state slaveowners), was written and announced to the Cabinet, but was not announced to the public until after Antietam in September — a Union victory to sweeten the bitter pill.

As Kuttner said, although Lincoln was opposed to slavery, his purpose in the war was saving the Union. The Emancipation Proclamation was issued on behalf of the war effort, not primarily toward the end of ending slavery. Radical Republicans in the Senate wrote the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery while Lincoln was still alive, I believe, but I don’t believe Lincoln himself was involved with it. The war needed to be won first.

Again, this is Civil War 101. Anyone with even a rudimentary knowledge of CW history should know that Lincoln did, in fact, wait until public opinion was softened up a bit before he issued the Proclamation. But the rightie crashes ahead with some egregious examples of viewing the 19th-century world through a 21st-century prism. Here’s the worst:

As for religion, Kuttner et al. might be thought to resemble most closely the anti-war Democratic newspapers of the day – along with many of the sophisticated newspapers of Europe – who were appalled by the religiousity of the Second Inaugural Address and accused its author of offering “puritanical” theology in place of public policy, and who believed that Lincoln was invoking the mantle of the Almighty in order to shield his own policies from criticism – Lincoln was guilty, in their eyes, of being at once a believer and a hypocrite, which is not that different, so far as I can tell, from how Kuttner sees Bush.

In fact, the mid-19th century was steeped in religiosity, and in this paragraph the rightie demonstrates he hasn’t spent much time with the period. Americans of the time could not so much as brush their teeth without invoking the mantle of the Almighty; I suspect this was true of many Europeans also. But as Gary Wills wrote (Under God, p. 69) the Second Inaugural expresses an “awareness of national guilt,” and called for reconciliation and forgiveness. Some people were not ready for that. Even though I’m sure if you dig hard enough you can find a few negative opinions, however, in general the Second Inaugural was well received.

Kuttner wrote:

Bush, despite today’s ubiquity of media, doesn’t read newspapers, much less the Internet, and he settles for carefully filtered briefings. Lincoln was a voracious reader; he haunted the War Department’s telegraph office to get firsthand reports from the battlefield.

The rightie argues:

As for the belief that Lincoln acquainted himself with a wide range of opinion through his wide reading, whereas Bush lives apart from newspapers and criticism – well, ironically, both elite Radical New England opinion and elite New York Democratic anti-war opinion believed that the ill-educated Lincoln lived in a world shaped by Western frontier prejudices and that he was simply outside the mainstream of what American and European elites “knew” to be the real world, not so different from what Kuttner et al. in the “reality-based community” like to think of themselves and President Bush.

It’s true that much of the eastern intelligentsia looked down its collective nose at Lincoln, who was self-educated, clumsy, and had an outrageous backwoods accent. But, in fact, Lincoln was a voracious reader, and he did haunt the War Department’s telegraph office to get firsthand reports from the battlefield. I think Lincoln’s biggest flaw was a tendency to micromanage, in fact. This year I read Geoffrey Perret’s new book, Lincoln’s War: The Untold Story of America’s Great President as Commander in Chief, and was surprised at the amount of time Lincoln spent on small details, even to test new models of rifles and carbines by shooting them himself. Bush, on the other hand, can’t be bothered about the details even of his own policies — Social Security “reform” and No Child Left Behind come to mind. And it took an intervention to get him to pay attention to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Finally, the rightie says, it’s not fair to compare Lincoln to anybody.

Because Lincoln belongs to the ages – because we have accepted that he belongs to the ages – he is, and in the hands of intellects wiser than Kuttner’s, above the fray. You invoke him in support of your petty quarrels and interpretations and minor vendettas at the risk of weakening your own position or, worse, weakening Lincoln’s. And this is what Kuttner has done. Lincoln cannot, should not, be invoked ever in a partisan way in the moral discourse of the United States, because the whole point is that he belongs to all of us.

Oh, jeez, what crap. The Lincoln of “popular” history may be an icon, but he was a man, and the better historians (like Perret or Goodwin) have no problem humanizing him, warts and all. Lincoln could be crude. By our standards he was a racist. But as Kuttner wrote of Godwin’s book,

Goodwin’s unusual title, ”Team of Rivals,” refers to the fact that Lincoln deliberately included in his Cabinet the prominent leaders of different factions of his party who had opposed him for the 1860 nomination. Some, like his treasury secretary, Salmon Chase, a fierce abolitionist, wanted Lincoln to proceed much more aggressively. Others feared that Lincoln was moving too fast and alienating border states like Maryland and Kentucky that permitted slavery but had voted not to leave the Union.

Goodwin, improbably finding something wholly new to illuminate this most heavily researched of historic figures, relies partly on the diaries of his contemporaries to reveal Lincoln’s sheer genius at winning the trust and affection of rivals.

Can you imagine Bush including in his inner Cabinet such Republicans as John McCain, who opposes Bush on torture of prisoners, or Chuck Hagel, who challenges the Iraq war, or Lincoln Chafee, who resists stacking the courts with ultra-right-wingers? Not to mention Democrats, a group Lincoln also included among his top appointees.

Sure, most of our president fall a bit short when compared to Lincoln. But only a few were as far off the mark as our Dubya. Dear Leader is challenging the likes of Buchanan, Pierce, and Andrew Johnson for last place.

8 thoughts on “Don’t Know Nothin’ ‘Bout History

  1. In response to your friend Betsy’s Saturday, I wrote: “A small group of men take advantage of lax airport security, hijack four airplanes and manage to fly three of the planes into large buildings causing great loss of life and property. These men prove to be of a group perhaps consisting of as many as ten thousand. From this event we bombed a dirt poor nation into dust with some $20 – 40 billion worth of bombs. Too soon running out of targets and war, we illegally invaded a nation based not on intelligence but rather on lies because Geo. Bush wanted to. Great. We are now at war, a global war on terror no less, that isn’t a war on terror at all but is rather a quagmire. Saddam Hussein is on trial for killing villagers some twenty years ago following an attempt to assassinate him. This year, US forces destroyed Faluga and killed hundreds and hundreds of Falugans after four civilian contractors employed by an invading, an occupying force, were killed there. Not since WWII has a world leader caused as much turmoil and chaos. Never has a president brought so much disgrace to America. How dare you compare this piece of shit to Lincoln?”

  2. Maha,

    Very interesting – I think you should understand though that you cannot argue with some conservatives on these points, because they are not really conservatives, but are what I term Opcons.

    Opcons believe everyone on an oil painting or an old photo, for that matter, is basically a Reaganite.

    So even though Jefferson and Adams were not Christian and Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton are Christian, the Opcon will argue the reverse because it makes for a convienient contemporary operating premise.

    Opcon – is short for oil painting conservative, But I guess you can be ‘liberal’ and include deguerritypes, etc.

    Here is our take on the Bush – Lincoln comparison:

    Click on the url – provided above for my blog and it will take you directly to our post.

    I imagine you would agree with much of what is said. We shall see. Would be interested to know your thoughts.

    Anyway very interesting Maha.

  3. Putting Bush in the same sentence that mentions Lincoln requires the sort of hubristic lunacy that drives Neocon “intellectuals” and of course that turd blossom, Karl Rove. I can hardly wait to see this talking point appear on Meet the Press.

    But patience, pilgrim. In a few months the shit is going to hit the fan. Karl will be indicted for obstruction of justice and perjury. That will be the beginning of a collapse of the Republican empire that will rival Rome’s.

    An interesting historical sidelight. The beginning of Rome’s fall was when Constantine converted, and made Christianity the official religion. Bible thumpers beware. The end is NEAR.

  4. Pingback: The Mahablog » Don’t Know Nothin’ ‘Bout History II

  5. And furthermore, when Lincoln did announce the Emancipation Proclamation, he exempted areas — I believe down to the county level, but I’m no expert — that held slaves, but which were not advocating secession. He was driven purely by pragmatism and his desire to save the Union.

    As for the notion that Bush critics commit some sacrilege by invoking Lincoln, because “he belongs to all of us,” this Bush voter says “gag me with a spoon.”

  6. I’m not sure why conservatives are so in love with Lincoln. He had little interest in ending slavery – his only interest was in preserving the union, i.e. centralizing power. As he said, and his actions backed up, he favored a national bank, internal improvements (pork barrel politics), and a high protective tariff. In other words he favored the mercantilism of Henry Clay, his hero, and the British system. Before 1854, Lincoln barely mentioned slavery at all in his speeches. Later, he spoke for preserving the slave system and occasionally he spoke against it. But it was his firm belief that “negroes” were inferior and should be re-colonized in Africa. Don’t get me started on what, and his great Republican Party, did to the Native Americans. It’s just ridiculous to lionize a man like this. If we’re going to lionize someone, it should be William Loyd Garrison, the courageous abolititionist.

  7. tsukamama — yours is a highly revised and twisted version of history. Lincoln was strongly opposed to slavery and, as president, fulfilled a promise to get slavery banned in the territories. Yes, after his election in 1860 he did offer to protect slavery in the slave states, but this was an attempt to head off the succession crisis. He believed the federal government did not have the authority to abolish slavery in slave states, but he was keenly interested in keeping it from spreading into the territories.

    Yes, he was a racist, but so was William Lloyd Garrison. (You’d be hard put to find a 19th century white who was not a racist; Lincoln was less racist than most.) Garrison famously feuded with Frederick Douglass, mostly because Douglass was a black man who was not properly deferential to Garrison. Garrison also lost all interest in the welfare of African Americans once slavery had ended and stood silently by while blacks were terrorized and slaughtered by white mobs during Reconstrction.

    Regarding what the Republican Party did to the Native Americans — as president, Ulysses Grant (who sent troops to the South to destroy the Ku Klus Klan, btw) appointed an Indian (Ely Parker) to be head of the Indian bureau, which shocked the socks off of “proper” people of the day. He also attempted an Indian policy that would have been compassionate had it been carried out. But whites, including many of Grant’s subordinates, weren’t ready for it and undermined it. So, yes, it failed.

    Back to Reconstruction — the Radical Republicans in Congress actually attempted to obtain full civil rights for the freedmen, supported their voting rights, and supported their election to public office. The Democratic party of the time was utterly opposed equal rights for blacks, including voting. So I’m not sure why you are picking on Republicans here.

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