Monday, November 07, 2005

Contra Doris Kearns Goodwin: "The Real Lincoln"

During lunch with Mark and Abe on Saturday, our conversation turned to the new Lincoln hagiography from Doris Kearns Goodwin, "Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln." Goodwin has been aggressively pimping her book of late, having appeared on forums as varied as NPR and "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart." The subject has even captured the hearts and minds of Hollywood, for Steven Spielberg is directing the film adaptation of Kearns Goodwin's book (Kearns Goodwin herself is writing the screenplay and Liam Neeson is slated to play Lincoln).

I post this neither to recommend nor to much disparage Goodwin or her book. Instead, I'd like to balance the other side of the story against the whitewashing of history that permeates these rock star treatments of "Honest Abe": if you read this book, please give equal time to Thomas DiLorenzo's "The Real Lincoln." From the book's dustjacket:

Through extensive research and meticulous documentation, DiLorenzo portrays the sixteenth president as a man who devoted his political career to revolutionizing the American form of government from one that was very limited in scope and highly decentralized -- as the Founding Fathers intended -- to a highly centralized, activist state. Standing in his way, however, was the South, with its independent states, its resistance to the national government, and its reliance on unfettered free trade. To accomplish his goals, Lincoln subverted the Constitution, trampled states' rights, and launched a devastating Civil War, whose wounds haunt us still. According to this provocative book, 600,000 American soldiers did not die for the honorable cause of ending slavery but for the dubious agenda of sacrificing the independence of the states to the supremacy of the federal government. Lincoln's aggressive agenda triggered an uncontrollable swelling of big government, which has been tightening its vise grip on our republic to this very day.

Exaggerations are bound to appear in both books, but before brushing aside Dr. DiLorenzo's interpretation, ask yourself why Lincoln has been deified by both sides of the political establishment.


w00master said...

Defiled but also praised by both sides of the political spectrum.

Honestly, many of his arguments (hate to say it) sounds much like an unapologetic Confederacy supporter. His claim that Lincoln "launched a devastating Civil War" is dubious at best.

Yes, Lincoln is an American icon, but he's also a human being. In my book, he's done far more for humanity than he has done wrong. Just remember that revisionist history happens on both sides liberal AND conservative.

J Ballot said...

Abe-uh --

Not "defiled," -- "deified" -- as in, "elevated to God-like status!" Which is precisely my point about Lincoln and how members of the political establishment fall all over themselves to praise him (regardless of left-right, Dem-Repub loyalties).

And you're right in that DiLorenzo is an unapologetic defender of the Confederacy, but not because he supports slavery. DiLorenzo maintains slavery could have been ended peacefully, through compensated emancipation, much like it was in most of the civilized world. DiLorenzo doesn't believe the war was fought over slavery or even to "preserve the union" -- his stance is that the war was fought over economic and philosophical differences between the North and South. He sees the Confederacy as victims of aggression from an overbearing federal government, with Lincoln as its leader.

I'm a little puzzled by your saying the claim that Lincoln "launched a devastating Civil War" is a dubious one -- even court historians seldom quibble over that particular detail. They just believe that his actions were noble or justified under the circumstances.

You don't have to agree -- many historians certainly take issue with DiLorenzo -- but it's not the facts they dispute, it's the interpretation.

And this issue transcends liberal/conservative divisions. If you love liberty and freedom as I do, then you'd have to view Lincoln as a tyrant who inflicted far more damage on the republic (and the voluntary nature of the compact between the states) than good.

I have the book if you'd ever like to borrow it. It's a provocative read even if you disagree with it.



w00master said...

Ahhh, it'd be nice if I could actually read. ;)

Yeah, Lincoln has been "elevated to God-like status." No doubt about that, but coming from the perspective that he did "save the union" I can understand why.

Since I haven't read his book, I cannot comment on a lot of his claims. However, I cannot justify any claim that "Lincoln instigated the Civil War." The Civil War pretty much began the moment Lincoln was elected President with many of the Southern states just waiting to secede. Perhaps this is an interpretation, but with all the claims coming from the South to secede as early as during the debates between Lincoln and Douglas, it's not hard for me to make that conclusion. Also the claim that there was to be any "peaceful resolution" to slavery, I just find very hard to swallow.

Was the Civil War about slavery? No. It was about re-unifying the union. Did it become a symbol of the end of slavery in the US? Yes, it did. Did Lincoln emancipate the slaves out of the goodness of his heart? Nope, but he wasn't in favor of slavery either. Read the Lincoln-Douglas debates.

Ultimately, I'd love to read the book. The little I've read, just strikes me that this is more of an extremist book rather than an "accurate portrayal" of a historical figure.

J Ballot said...

This exchange is about to become as epic as the Lincoln-Douglas debates (in length and detail if not in quality or historic importance). Just want to responsively address some of your comments:

>>However, I cannot justify any claim that "Lincoln instigated the Civil War."

It's debatable as to whether Lincoln provoked the South into firing the first shots at Fort Sumter. There's ample evidence to suggest Lincoln did in fact orchestrate a confrontation. But that's neither here nor there. Even if he didn't, I'm not suggesting Lincoln "instigated" the Civil War -- what I'm saying is, he made the choice to engage the South in battle after the Confederacy had elected to peacefully (and democratically) withdraw from the Union -- a right never believed to be denied to any of the states at that time, BTW (DiLorenzo even cites numerous examples of Northern newspaper editorials conceding the South's right to secede). Lincoln's opposition to Southern secession was especially hypocritcal given the American secession from Great Britain some 80+ years earlier. So Lincoln started the war in the sense that he chose, through force of arms, to drag the Confederacy back kicking and screaming into the "union" despite their wanting no part of the U.S. government.

>>Did Lincoln emancipate the slaves out of the goodness of his heart? Nope, but he wasn't in favor of slavery either. Read the Lincoln-Douglas debates.

Here's the problem with the Lincoln cult and mythology -- many folks have selectively cherry-picked Lincoln's most favorable quotes (e.g., the debates with Douglas) as prima facie evidence of his contempt for slavery. The problem is there are many, many Lincoln quotes that reveal his virulently racist side. DiLorenzo documents (in great detail) Lincoln's preference for deporting the slaves back to Africa -- not out of concern for sending them "home" but because he didn't want free blacks populating the U.S. This isn't revisionist history; it's uncomfortable fact that's been whitewashed from the popular version of history.

>>Also the claim that there was to be any "peaceful resolution" to slavery, I just find very hard to swallow.

It's pretty well documented in the book. The author lays out a very compelling case through numerous examples throughout the world.

>>Was the Civil War about slavery? No. It was about re-unifying the union.

There are a lot of problems with this interpretation, as are also laid out in the book. Think of it this way: it's like a marriage where one partner wants a divorce but the other doesn't. There are irreconcilable differences with regards to finances and the power imbalances in the relationship. But the more physically powerful partner basically threatens, beats, and intimidates the one who wants to leave into staying. After all, it's about "preserving the union." The questions of compensated emancipation, peaceful secession, and the legitimacy of Lincoln's tariffs and mercantilist policies weren't settled by history or experience -- they were settled by force of arms, might makes right. Is that how most questions should be resolved?

The next time we see one another, I'm bringing "The Real Lincoln" for you to read. Honestly, I'm not trying to change any minds -- but it's important to explore the many sides of history. There's always another side to the story.