Getting right with Lincoln

According to Don E. Fehrenbacher

This dark vision of Lincoln, which seems to qualify Anderson (and Forgie, too, perhaps) for membership in the anti-Lincoln tradition, is probably not so much a product of historical research as it is a by-product of recent history and a reflection of the gnawing uneasiness with which Americans currently view themselves and their past. More often than not, the great events and major trends of our own era have tended to make Lincoln less satisfactory as a national hero. The civil rights revolution underscored the poverty of his thought about the problem of race and the inadequacy of his plans for the aftermath of emancipation. The Viet Nam War and the Watergate affair dramatized the growth and menace of the so-called imperial presidency, which could be traced directly to his extraordinary use of executive power. The modern drift toward social pluralism, with its emphasis upon minority rights and its sanction of organized protest, bears little relation to the coercive majoritarianism with which he met the threat of secession. And the apocalyptic meaning of total war in our time casts a shadow of doubt across his willingness to accept war and wage it totally as an alternative to acquiescence in disunion. Furthermore, Lincoln’s reputation has become more vulnerable as a result of what C. Vann Woodward calls “the fall of the American Adam” — that is, the substitution of a sense of guilt about the nation’s past for an earlier sense of virtue and pride. Lincoln is still widely regarded as the representative American of his time and perhaps of all time, but the America that he represents is now often portrayed as a dark, odious country, stained with cruelty, injustice, racism, and imperialist greed.
      Yet, in spite of all adverse influences, Lincoln retains the admiration of most Americans and his place of pre-eminence in the national pantheon. Perhaps a kind of historical inertia holds him there now; perhaps the twenty-first century will view him much differently. But in the polls he still ranks first. One recent presidential poll merits special attention. Of 41 historians, 39 labeled him “great,” one called him a “near great,” none classified him as “average” or “below average,” but one branded him a “failure.” Thus the anti-Lincoln tradition persists in lonely splendor, and the study of that tradition does tell us something, though far from everything, about Lincoln’s unique hold upon the memory and imagination of his countrymen. In a word, he matters. He has never settled quietly into his historical niche. For anyone trying to understand America’s past or shape its future, he is a force to be reckoned with — an ineluctable presence. In the words of an Englishwoman, Barbara Ward, “he is one of the very few of the world’s leaders who stay alive.”

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